The University of Southampton

Southampton congratulates US Nobel Prize winners

3 October 2017
Credit: Sonoma State University
Artist’s illustration of a pair of spinning black holes. Credit: Sonoma State University

Mathematical Sciences at the University of Southampton is celebrating the award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics to three US scientists for their leading role in the development of gravitational wave theory and experimentation.

The honour, presented to professors Rainer Weiss (MIT), Barry Barish (Caltech) and Kip Thorne (Caltech), follows the first ever detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The experiment involved mathematicians at Southampton, working as part of a 1,000 strong international team.  The University hosts one of the world’s leading theory groups specialising in gravitational-wave physics.

Southampton mathematician Dr Ian Jones, a member of the international LIGO team, says: “I would like to extend my congratulations to the new laureates. Great scientific achievements require great leadership – something Rai, Barry and Kip have provided over many years.  The award is a recognition of this, and of the importance of the newly opened field of gravitational-wave astronomy.”

Members of the Gravity group at the University of Southampton have, over several decades, made significant contributions to our understanding of the astrophysics of black holes and neutron stars. Group leader Professor Nils Andersson adds: “We are entering an exciting era in astronomy, where our work on neutron stars and black holes will be tested by precise observations. We are looking forward to contributing to new discoveries in the gravitational wave sky, for years to come. It would be very exciting to catch the signal from neutron stars crashing together, hugely powerful events which are linked to the enigmatic gamma-ray bursts.”

The existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago and efforts to detect them have been ongoing since the 1960s. In February 2016, amid much publicity, scientists on the LIGO project announced the observation of a gravitational wave emanating from two black holes with masses about 30 times that of the sun – spiralling into each other 1.3 billion light years away. The observation was made possible by the LIGO detectors, highly sensitive four kilometre long scientific instruments built between 1994 and 2002 by Caltech and MIT in partnership with the National Science Foundation of the United States.  An upgrade between 2010 and 2015 almost immediately led to the discovery.

The LIGO experiment has just concluded its second observing run, with the European Virgo detector joining the last month of data taking.  So far, the detection of a total of four binary black hole mergers have been announced.  The data is still being analysed, and more data will be taken in the future.  This could lead to more detections, possibly including the first detection of colliding neutron stars and perhaps an electromagnetic counterpart. The searches may also detect signals from rotating pulsars, an area of particular Southampton expertise, or stars exploding in supernovae. 

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