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Nobel Prize in Physics, 2017: Detectors of ripples in space-time

Swedish Academy makes amends for 2016 ‘miss’, recognises Laureates’ ‘decisive contributions to Ligo detector and the observation of gravitational waves’ — a vindication of Einstein’s prediction, and the biggest thing in physics since the discovery of Higgs boson.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: October 4, 2017 9:24 am
2017 nobel prize, nobel prize for physics, gravitational waves, albert einstein, Rainer weiss, Barry C Barish, Kip S Thorne, theory of relativity, barry barish, kip thorne, rainer weiss, ligo detector, gravitational wave detection, ligo gravitational waves, ligo applications, gravity, gravitational waves, Indian express explained, ieExplaind California Institute of Technology physicists Kip S. Thorne (R) and Barry C. Barish attend a news conference after winning the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics, which they share with MIT’s Rainer Weiss, in Pasadena, California, U.S. October 3, 2017. (Reuters Photo)

When Stockholm called Michael Rosbash on Monday to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for discovering the physical basis of the biological clock, he responded: “You’re kidding me.” Perhaps he was astonished because the award was asynchronous — his crucial work was done ages ago. Last year, too, the Nobel Foundation had shown that it was out of phase with the world by honouring theoretical work in the topology of matter, ignoring the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo), which had detected gravitational waves 12 months before the ceremony. Vindicating a prediction made by Einstein a century ago, following from the theory of general relativity, it was the biggest thing in physics since the discovery of the Higgs boson. To general disgust and the delight of the bookies, Ligo didn’t get the prize.

In 2017, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has made amends by honouring the Ligo leadership — Rainer Weiss, who designed the most sensitive instrument ever made by the human race, Kip S Thorne, who narrowed down the signals and frequencies it was designed to seek, and Barry C Barish, who built the project hands-on.

What exactly did Ligo see — or hear, to be precise, since the signature of the first gravity wave detected on September 15, 2015, was translated into a sound that was between a chirp and a ping?

2017 nobel prize, nobel prize for physics, gravitational waves, albert einstein, Rainer weiss, Barry C Barish, Kip S Thorne, theory of relativity, barry barish, kip thorne, rainer weiss, ligo detector, gravitational wave detection, ligo gravitational waves, ligo applications, gravity, gravitational waves, Indian express explained, ieExplaind The LIGO laboratories in Hanford, Washington (Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory)

It heard the collision of two massive black holes that had spun around each other at maniacal velocities and then collided 1.3 billion years ago, when life on earth had barely begun. The cosmic incident was not visible, since light cannot escape the event horizon of a black hole, but it can be inferred by radiation in the vicinity of the maelstrom of matter and energy. It also spread gravitational waves, ripples propagating at the speed of light across the fabric of space-time. When the first Homo sapiens walked the plains of Africa millennia ago, the waves were sweeping through the Magellanic Cloud, and they reached Earth in September 2015, producing tiny disturbances at Ligo’s laser interferometers in Louisiana and Washington state, apart from the Virgo instrument in Italy. It produced a tiny chirp that shook the world of quantum physics.

Also read | Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine, 2017: What makes us tick

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For years until the discovery of the Higgs boson, there was a crisis in physics. The method of science consists of developing theory and then confirming it in the laboratory. Without the second step, theory remains unverified. The Higgs boson was the last element of the standard model of physics which remained unobserved in the wild. So theory was being built on theory for years on end, and the laboratory was left far behind. Maybe it was all being built on sand?

2017 nobel prize, nobel prize for physics, gravitational waves, albert einstein, Rainer weiss, Barry C Barish, Kip S Thorne, theory of relativity, barry barish, kip thorne, rainer weiss, ligo detector, gravitational wave detection, ligo gravitational waves, ligo applications, gravity, gravitational waves, Indian express explained, ieExplaind

With the discovery of the Higgs boson, the laboratory caught up and theory was vindicated. However, the century-old prediction of gravitational waves remained untested — actually, it dates back to Henri Poincare’s postulate of 1905. Now, Ligo has provided yet another assurance of the patency of the standard model. Gravitational waves were inferred earlier, and Russel A Hulse and Joseph H Taylor Jr won a Nobel for it in 1993. But Ligo made the first direct observation of a gravitational wave, producing a twitch in an instrument.

Looking ahead, gravitational wave astronomy will give humanity access to parts of space and time which have remained invisible. Unlike electromagnetic radiation like light, which traverses space-time, they are ripples within the very fabric of space-time. They are not scattered by matter, and will allow instruments to peer impossibly far into the gulfs of space — and correspondingly far back in time. Parts of the universe which have remained dark to optical and radio telescopes will now become visible. Black holes and neutron stars — bodies so dense that a spoonful of their substance would weigh as much as the earth — will yield up secrets never seen before.

Anything with mass produces gravitational waves when it accelerates. You produce scads of gravitational waves every time you dance, but they are not strong enough to be picked up by instruments. But anything with a gigantic mass, like a black hole or a neutron star, would generate measurable waves, rendering hitherto hidden phenomena visible. In the past, telescopes have been sent into space to get a clearer view of the universe, unimpeded by the dust, clouds and background radiation of civilisation. The best-known is the Hubble telescope, and one of its peers even seeks gravitational waves — the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder. But since gravitational waves are not scattered, one could logically bury a detector in a coal mine, and it would still see the light of distant stars — in its own spectrum, not that of visible light. In the incredibly close future, this form of telescopy will open a new eye on space and time, and let us see the universe as it has never been seen before, in the myriad invisible colours of gravity’s rainbow.

2017 nobel prize, nobel prize for physics, gravitational waves, albert einstein, Rainer weiss, Barry C Barish, Kip S Thorne, theory of relativity, barry barish, kip thorne, rainer weiss, ligo detector, gravitational wave detection, ligo gravitational waves, ligo applications, gravity, gravitational waves, Indian express explained, ieExplaind The LIGO laboratories in Livingston, Louisiana. The three Nobel Laureates in Physics, 2017 are described by LIGO as its “founders” and its “longest-standing and greatest champions”. (Courtesy Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory)

2016 WINNERS: In the 1970s, MICHAEL KOSTERLITZ & DAVID THOULESS overturned then current theory that superconductivity or suprafluidity could not occur in thin layers. They demonstrated that superconductivity could occur at low temperatures and also explained the mechanism, phase transition, that makes superconductivity disappear at higher temperatures. In the 80s, DUNCAN HALDANE discovered how topological concepts can explain the properties of chains of small magnets found in some materials.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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  1. P
    Prof. K.K. Garg
    Oct 4, 2017 at 8:27 pm
    India must also be careful that the Jewish lobby is placing uneducated Indians on top and suppressing brilliant Indians so as to push their agenda into India.
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      Prof. K.K. Garg
      Oct 4, 2017 at 8:25 pm
      This Prize is only for the consumption of the simple-headed people. There is a Jewish control on this Prize. Many outstanding Indians have been above this Prize but never got it. Thus do not go by this Prize alone, though a few Prize winners are truly great. Still India must move ahead and make the country of thinkers not technicians which multinationals are making of the people. We also need educated people to lead us so that we take a genuine path for development. Also the university rankings are fixed and India must not go by these. The Universities pay agencies to get up-ranked. Also Russian Universities (some of whom are excellent) are never placed on the top. If you go to Nobelprize you will note so fat the University of California has won the maximum Nobel Prizes and it a public and not a private system. Also lot of fake lists are circulating on the internet.
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        Aditya
        Oct 4, 2017 at 11:51 pm
        Actually - Einstein was denied Nobel Prize for relativity theory even when it was proved even when he was alive. There were scientists who got more than one Nobel prize but Einstein was only given one noble prize even when multiple number of people got noble prize based on the items predicted by him and he is considered the biggest scientist of the mankind both General Relativity and Quantum theory indirectly started by his research on law of the photons and quanta, He was a Jew
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      2. Employ Ment
        Oct 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm
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        1. I
          Ivan
          Oct 4, 2017 at 11:28 am
          How can there be a ripple in space-time when such an en y is only a mathematical construct? I understand the business about three dimensional space, but can the time axis be converted to space and vice-versa in reality? The space-time 'fabric' is a mathematical convenience, similar to the imaginary number i. Just as the imaginary number is interpreted in operational terms as a rotation when multiplied, the space-time matrix is mathematically a kind of rotation, which is very interesting to analyze. But where is the physical as opposed to a mathematical effect, to come from when the space-time itself has only a mathematical reality? Undoubtedly the LIGO detectors are very impressive and deserve some kind of recognition, but the interpretation of a two-second spectrum, allegedly caused by black holes eating each other, is not the only possible explanation. Awards for physical effects supposedly based on general relativity, are suspect both from the point of ontology and the observation
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            Ivan
            Oct 4, 2017 at 11:29 am
            e n t i t y - no relation to the female protuberances.
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              Dileep V. Sathe
              Oct 4, 2017 at 5:21 pm
              I agree with Ivan's starting question. In fact, there is no answer to it as yet. This situation prevented Henri Poicare from developing any mathematical formalism. The same problem came up between a leader of gravitation and a common man in a conference in Mumbai, MH, India in January 2005. I hope this problems will be taken by professionals as well as public in near future.
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                Ivan
                Oct 4, 2017 at 6:50 pm
                I understand that Poincare, the most eminent mathematician of his time did not believe in space-time as interpreted by Einstein. In Einstein's world such things as 'length contraction' and 'time dilation' were real occurrences, Poincare and the older scientists such as Lorentz and Larmor, the Lorentz-Fitzgerald length contraction was merely, the calculational device to transform from one inertial frame to another inertial frame. We do this all the time in mathematics, as for example when we use the Fourier transform we operate in the frequency as opposed to the time domain, but there is no significance beyond calculational convenience and of course clearer physical insight when we do this. That is, no new physical effect is involved in transforming from one domain to another.
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                  Ivan
                  Oct 4, 2017 at 6:54 pm
                  I mean the Lorentz-Fitzgerald 'space-time' invariant, and not the 'length' invariant.
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              2. Reid Barnes
                Oct 4, 2017 at 2:28 am
                Can this be possible when at the same time the le of the Facebook Note, "Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity Is Based on Self-contradicting Non-Euclidean Geometry," is a true statement? Just check it out, at the link: s: facebook /notes/reid-barnes/einsteins-general-theory-of-relativity-is-based-on-self-contradicting-non-euclid/1676238042428763/
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