Glasgow University’s IGR celebrates as Nobel Prize awarded to gravitational wave pioneers


Credit: Adam Baker

Osama Abou-zeid

Physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have been announced as the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics, for their “decisive contributions to the LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory] detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

One half of the Prize will go to Weiss, while Barish and Thorne will jointly receive the other half. Altogether, the Prize is worth 9 million Swedish kroner (approximately £835,000).

Researchers from the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) have made significant contributions towards the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC)’s work on detecting gravitational waves, such as designing and constructing the LIGO’s suspension system which holds in place the ultra-still mirrors used in the US and Italian labs.

Gravitational waves were first hypothesised by Albert Einstein in 1916, and were initially discovered by the LIGO on 14 September 2015. These were generated by a collision between two black holes, and took 1.3 billion years to reach Earth. The official Nobel Prize press release describes gravitational waves as “an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge” and “direct testimony to disruptions in spacetime itself”.

It is considered likely that Scottish physicist Ronald Drever would have shared the Prize with Thorne and Weiss, were it not for his death on 7 March this year. Drever, a Glasgow University graduate, developed early laser systems at the University before moving to Caltech in California. Like Thorne and Weiss, he also helped co-found the LIGO detector.

In the past, Professors Thorne and Barish have both received honorary degrees from the University, the former in 2001 and the latter in 2013.

Professor Sheila Rowan, Director of the IGR, expressed her excitement at the Nobel Prize announcement, stating that “the first direct detection of gravitational waves two years ago were [sic] built on decades of work by thousands of scientists around the world, but I’m thrilled that the Nobel Committee has recognised Rai, Barry and Kip’s pioneering work. Their brilliance and ingenuity helped make an extremely ambitious project work and their Nobel prize is immensely well-deserved.”

Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said: “The world-leading expertise of our School of Physics and Astronomy and Institute for Gravitational Research owes a debt to the pioneering work of Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. My colleagues have thrived on this dynamic area of research and it’s exciting to witness Glasgow’s role in gravitational wave studies of our cosmos continuing to flourish and develop into the future.”