Albert Einstein would be pleased — but flabbergasted — to hear the details of humanity's first direct detection of gravitational waves, according to one of three scientists who just won the Nobel Prize for the discovery.
The detection earned the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) emeritus physicist Rainer Weiss and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) physicists Barry Barish and Kip Thorne.
During a press conference this morning, Weiss, who got the Nobel call early this morning (Oct. 3) along with Barish and Thorne, reflected on Einstein's perspective on gravitational waves. Einstein thought these waves in space-time caused by massive bodies' gravitational pull would be an incredible challenge to measure, Weiss said. "He even said that this new thing that he had just invented, or gotten out of his equations, will never play a role in science," he added. "That's what he says, very explicitly."
"One of the things I sort of dreamt about awhile ago is that if Einstein were still alive, it would be absolutely wonderful to go to him and tell him about the discovery, and he would have been very pleased, I'm sure of that," Weiss added. "But then [if] we told him what the discovery was, that it was a black hole, he would have been absolutely flabbergasted because he didn't believe in them either," thinking the objects predicted by his theory of relativity wouldn't be found in the real universe. [Gravitational Waves: What Their Discovery Means for Science and Humanity]
Decades of research on gravitational waves — those vibrations in space-time caused by the interactions of black holes, or other massive bodies disrupting space-time — culminated in the waves' first direct detection, in 2016 by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Just last week, the Virgo gravitational wave detector measured another instance of such waves simultaneously with LIGO, allowing researchers to pinpoint the location of two massive black holes merging.
"The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO's noisy data and extracted the waves' information," Thorne said in a statement from Caltech. "It is unfortunate that, due to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize has to go to no more than three people, when our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand."
"I am humbled and honored to receive this award," Barish added in the statement. "The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics. Over several decades, our teams at Caltech and MIT developed LIGO into the incredibly sensitive device that made the discovery. When the signal reached LIGO from a collision of two stellar black holes that occurred 1.3 billion years ago, the 1,000-scientist-strong LIGO Scientific Collaboration was able to both identify the candidate event within minutes and perform the detailed analysis that convincingly demonstrated that gravitational waves exist."
The detections "have opened up this new field of a way of looking at the universe," Weiss said during the conference. "The fact that this radiation is so penetrating — nothing stops it — makes it so you can look for things that you have never seen before, and you can look at things you know in a way that's new. That is really the big step forward."
Weiss said that when he got the call in today's early hours, his wife, who couldn't sleep, answered the phone, and "We were all quite nude." He added that he'd been surprised; he and his wife had estimated about a 20 percent chance of a Nobel win this year.
"But now it's a fact, and it's wonderful; and it's wonderful for not [just] me, but for everybody who has worked on this," Weiss said.
He described the many other strategies researchers are taking to make the incredibly sensitive measurements needed to detect gravitational waves — LIGO needed to measure a change in instrument length of less than 1/1,000th the size of a proton, and other wavelengths would require even more precise readings, he said.
Someday, the ground- and space-based gravitational wave detectors currently in development could serve as humankind's eyes into the inner workings of the universe's most massive bodies, he said. This could teach researchers about ultradense neutron stars, show how pulsarssquish and distort, and even reveal bumps in the universe's expansion, Weiss said.
He emphasized that for 40 years, the development of the tools to detect gravitational waves was speculative and took a great deal of work without immediate payoff. Such work is crucial to scientific development, he said.
"This prize, and others that are given to scientists, is an affirmation by our society of gaining information about the world around us from reasoned understanding of evidence," Weiss said, "a process that is currently in some jeopardy."
"The thing that's a marvel here is not just the technology," he added later in the conference. "With those 40 years that we did all this development, we were comfortably supported, sustaining support, from the American taxpayer, through Congress, by the National Science Foundation. … It's a triumph to see that something as speculative as this thing that you've been hearing about was carried through from first this harebrained idea to this execution. And it was done all in that agency."