SCIENCE

Winning the Nobel Prize

Left to right, Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work detecting gravitational waves. They were the leaders of a much broader collaborative effort.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/GETTY IMAGES
Left to right, Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss shared the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work detecting gravitational waves. They were the leaders of a much broader collaborative effort.

Since the dawn of humanity, humans have noticed the nearly perfect tableau of the night sky — the planets, sun and moon moving through a fixed arrangement of stars. 

This unchanging background gave rise to the abstract notion of space. Absolute time was a way to measure the periodic movement. But in the 1910s, Albert Einstein proposed the radical idea that time and space were just two dimensions of a single deeper reality — that time and space were in some sense interchangeable, dependent on the observer’s frame of reference. Clocks and yardsticks would give different measurements; space and time could be stretched, contracted and exchanged in a very precise way.

This led to speculation that gravitational waves might exist, moving through the universe at the speed of light — ripples in spacetime. Could they be captured as minute changes in the fabric of space? Or as waves of advance and retard in the measurement of time?

On Feb. 11, 2016, the first gravitational waves were observed, the result of two black holes that merged about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth. The 50-year search to detect these faint events was a success.

The Nobel Foundation honored the discovery by awarding the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics to three scientists: Rainer Weiss of MIT and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of Caltech. Because Nobel rules allow only up to three individuals to share an award, the 2017 prize didn’t recognize the thousands of scientists who had worked on LIGO over the decades.

Indeed, when Thorne got the 2 a.m. call informing him about the Nobel, his initial response was disappointment. “I was really hoping they would give the prize to the entire LIGO team,” he says. “I thought it was inappropriate to give it to just three individuals, [because]regardless of how big our contributions were, they didn’t match the contributions of the entire team.”

The Nobel Prizes were chartered more than a century ago, at a time when science was a very individual pursuit. But many fields of science in the 21st century are collaborative, raising the question of whether it might be time to update the Nobel bylaws. Both Thorne and David Reitze, the LIGO Project’s executive director, believe a useful model might be the relatively new Breakthrough Prize, largely financed by Russian oligarch Yuri Milner, which honored the LIGO collaboration by dividing the prize money among more than 1,000 scientists. Then again, says Reitze, “Who am I to tell the Nobel committee what it should be doing?”