The Nobel physics prize goes to the spotters of gravitational waves

WAITING for a Nobel prize can be time consuming. Since 1985, more than half of the prizes in physics have been awarded for work done more than two decades previously. This year’s prize, though, was different. It went to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, all of whom were involved in the first-ever detection, just two years ago, of gravitational waves.

Such waves are one of the many predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of relativity. As Einstein realised, gravity arises from the fact that mass distorts the space and time around itself. That distortion modifies the paths of objects moving nearby. Crunch the equations which describe the process, and they suggest that moving masses should create ripples which radiate out into the universe.

Several years ago, observations of the behaviour of pairs of dead stars called pulsars provided indirect evidence that such waves are real. But detecting them directly has proved harder, for gravitational…Continue reading

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