THE WAY THE Nobel Committee tells it, the story of this year’s physics prize begins like a certain 1970s space opera.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two massive black holes engaged in a deadly dance,” said physicist and Nobel committee member Olga Botner at today’s prize announcement. The pair spiraled toward each other, colliding to form an even bigger black hole with a mass 62 times that of Earth’s sun. The impact shook the universe, generating ripples known as gravitational waves that warped the fabric of spacetime as they pulsed through.
By the time the collision’s reverberations reached Earth, they had quieted to a quiver. Some 1.3 billion years after that ferocious black hole do-si-do, physicists at two observatories in the US simultaneously detected a ripple as a tiny compression and expansion in length in their machines. This first detection of a gravitational wave took four decades of calculations, simulations, and engineering—and more than a billion dollars of US taxpayer money. Today, physicists Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the pioneering work that led to this discovery. They’ll split 9 million Swedish krona in prize money, or 1.1 million dollars; Weiss will receive half the prize while Barish and Thorne will split the other half.