Two years ago, physicists detected for the first time the infinitesimal ripples in space itself set off when two black holes whirled into each other. The observation of such gravitational waves fulfilled a century-old prediction from Albert Einstein and opened up a whole new way to explore the heavens. Today, three leaders of the massive experiment that made the discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Rainer Weiss, 85, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Kip Thorne, 77, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena hatched plans for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in 1984. Barry Barish, 81, a Caltech particle physicist, later guided the construction of the twin LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. Weiss will receive one half of the $1.1 million prize, and Thorne and Barish the other half. LIGO's third founder, Ronald Drever, died in Edinburgh on 7 March at age 85. (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.)
Other physicists rate the discovery of gravitational waves among the most important ever in physics. “It's revolutionary,” says Abraham Loeb, a theorist at Harvard University. It's very rare that we open a completely new window on the universe.”