"Astronomy has gained a new eye"

 The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017: laureates Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip T

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017: laureates Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne (left to right). (Photographs: MIT/Wikimedia Commons

The observation of gravitational waves last year captivated professionals in the field. Experts, including at ETH Zurich, expected that this discovery would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

‘The detection of gravitational waves last year began a new era in astronomy. Astronomy has gained a new eye: gravitational waves offer a new way of looking at the sky,’ says Kevin Schawinski, Professor at the Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics at ETH Zurich.

‘Until now, space has mainly been observed by means of electromagnetic waves, including visible light, X-rays and radio waves, and by cosmic radiation,’ adds ETH Professor Günther Dissertori. ‘Gravitational waves are something completely different; they enable a new perspective on the universe.’

The physics discovery of the last year

The detection of gravitational waves was made by researchers at the LIGO project (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). In February 2016, the consortium announced that it had recorded the relevant signals. Three of the project’s lead scientists, Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017, as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced today. Weiss and Thorne originally initiated the LIGO project; Barish successfully continued it.

The fact that this year’s Nobel Prize was awarded for the detection of gravitational waves did not come as a surprise to experts: it was the biggest physics discovery of last year. ‘We were all thrilled when we heard that LIGO had recorded gravitational waves,’ says ETH professor Schawinski. ‘We knew immediately that a Nobel prize would be awarded for the achievement.’

The new Nobel laureate Kip Thorne has a link to ETH Zurich: in 2011, ETH invited him to give the Pauli Lecture.

While the LIGO project succeeded in detecting gravitational waves using measuring stations on the earth’s surface, the European Space Agency plans to measure gravitational waves in space: the large-scale project LISA’s satellites should be sent into space in around 2034. ETH Zurich played a significant role in the Lisa Pathfinder preparation mission for the development and testing of measuring instruments ( report by ETH News).