Nobel Prize in physics goes to three for discovering gravity waves

As several readers guessed two days ago, this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics went to Rainer Weiss of MIT, and to Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of CalTech, for detecting gravity waves. (Weiss gets half the dosh, the other two a quarter each.) That discovery happened only a year and a half ago, and that makes this award unusually soon. But the achievement was remarkable (the instrumentation alone defies belief) and the result is solid. These waves were predicted long ago by Einstein, but until now nobody had a way of finding them, as their effect is tiny. The New York Times has a good article on the achievement, and the Karolinska Institute’s citation is here.

And here’s the three winners, all over 80 or pushing that age. Congrats!

(from the NYT): From left: Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, the architects and leaders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. Credit Molly Riley/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tomorrow is the Chemistry prize, Thursday the Literature prize (always a hard one to guess), Friday’s the Peace prize, and Monday is the bogus Economics prize. Remember, there is a contest about this, and if you guessed one of these guys, or any of the biology winners (only one person needed to be named), you’re still in. If you haven’t guessed yet, you can do any combination of chemistry, literature, peace, and economics, guessing at least one person per subject (two subjects required). Guesses have to be made before the relevant prize is announced. The prize is two books.


  1. Johan Richter
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    The citation is not from Karolinska institutet. They only hand out the Medicine prize, the physics and chimstry prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.

  2. Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    There are also the Ignoble prizes that were awarded in September. The one in physics is intriguing: Marc-Antoine Fardin, for using fluid dynamics to probe the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”

  3. Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Half way to an autographed book. Come on CRISPR.

    • Posted October 3, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      I think CRISPR will be given in Medicine and Physiology, not chemistry, and my suspicion is that Sweden is waiting to see how the patent wars shake out before deciding who, if anyone, gets the prize for that.

      But of course I may be wrong.

      • Posted October 3, 2017 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        And I think you are right. Since the award has not yet been announced, and with your permission, I’d like to change my guess to John Bercaw (Caltech) for his contributions to C-H functionalisation.

        (I want that autographed book!)

      • RPGNo1
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        “The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017 was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”.”

  4. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Kip Thorne – I will be forever indebted to him for a book of his I read when I was first getting into science, and physics in particular. It was about special relativity, and it explained it in a fairly idiosyncratic way.
    If it wasn’t for this book of his, which was completely incomprehensible and made me feel like a chimp trying to work a coke machine, I wouldn’t have been spurred on and gone out and bought books on the same subject by Brian Greene and Sean Carroll, books which I managed to semi-understand.

    I’m not sure I approve of his beard though – he looks like the kind of person who turns out to run a church for humanists.

    • Posted October 3, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Michael Caine’s character in Interstellar is partly modelled on Thorne. The writing on the blackboard is his.

      He should probably die the beard though. It looks like he spilled his Guinness.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am | Permalink

        Michael Caine as one of the world’s pre-eminent theoretical physicists. Brave casting choice.

        “The second law of fermodynamics determines the arrow of time you fackin’ great tart” – that was my favourite line of his from the movie.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 3, 2017 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps one might ought to directly contact him and discuss the aesthetics of beards. Or maybe he will come across this thread and respond.

  5. KD33
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Yep, this was one of the easier years to predict the Physics Nobel.

    Why is the Econ prize “bogus”? Just that it’s squishy as “science”? Not contesting, I just don’t know. (I only followed a few previous ones, e.g., Krugman’s, which seemed interesting.)

    • Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      The Economics prize wasn’t part of Nobel’s original will. It was added later, and is not actually a “Nobel Prize”, it’s a prize “in honour of Nobel”.

      • Filippo
        Posted October 3, 2017 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        The media certainly do not go out of their way to make that distinction.

    • Posted October 3, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      It’s probably a bogus prize because it’s possible to win it the same year someone else wins it for disproving your theory.

  6. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Has the regressive left started complaining that the prize was once again awarded to a bunch of old white men?

    Recommended: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, by Janna Levin.

  7. Posted October 3, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Too bad Ron Drever did not live a little longer. He also deserves the honor.

  8. Posted October 3, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    The speed of the prize doesn’t surprise me. The discovery was front page news. Only the detection of the Higgs got as much press. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

  9. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I believe it’s unfair for death to disqualify one from the prize.

    I also think the categories, which reflect Alfred’s outdated Weltanschauung, are in need of revision:

    Chemistry is physics, so just have physics.

    Medicine is biology, so just have biology.

    An extra science category is open to suggestions. Is there anything worthy of a category other than physics and biology? Physicists might argue that biology is physics.

    Mathematics is taken with the Fields Medal. Don’t go there.

    Literature, peace, and to an extent economics are fraught with ideology and should be kept separate.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted October 3, 2017 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

      Literature, Peace, and Economics are purely products of biology too, so should all be physics. Just have one prize, eh?

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      I used to daydream about getting a Nobel when I was a kid. I’d still very much like one, so I think it’s unfair for ignorance and lack of any talent to disqualify one for the prize. After all, they’ve invented new categories since its inception – who’s to say they can’t invent a new category for people like me, people who aren’t necessarily talented in any way, but who really, really, really want a Nobel?
      Frankly, the whole Nobel thing almost seems a bit elitist.

    • Posted October 4, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Chemistry is *not* just physics: it is physics with (metaphorically speaking) frozen accident boundary conditions. (See, e.g., Bunge or Scerri)

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Chemistry is a subset of physics, as is everything else, according to the point of view that the universe is deterministic because physics.

  10. Liz
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I believe it’s gravitational waves instead of gravity waves. Just noticed. I was thinking of Drever also.

  11. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 3, 2017 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the unusual promptness with which the Prize was awarded, was prompted by the desire that the awardees should still be alive to receive it. 😉


    • eric
      Posted October 3, 2017 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes I was thinking the same thing. With all three over 80, the thought might have been ‘award them now or risk not awarding them at all.’

      • Filippo
        Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

        While I suppose highly unlikely, I wonder what if any major/significant accomplishments have missed being recognized with a Nobel prize due to the deaths of scientists/researchers. Would the Nobel deciders simply go down the research group “chain-of-command” until they found a yet-alive (minor?) group member/(former)grad student?

  12. Posted October 4, 2017 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    From the New York Times article:

    “The equations (of relativity) predicted, somewhat to (Einstein’s) displeasure, that the universe was expanding from what we now call the Big Bang.”

    I don’t think that’s true. I believe relativity predicted that the universe is either expanding or contracting. It was Edwin Hubble who discovered that it’s expanding.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 4, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      expanding… at a decreasing rate.

      Have they worked out yet whether it will keep expanding forever or slow down and reverse in the Big Crunch?

      (Probably decades ago, I’m way out of date with this stuff)


      • Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        It is expanding at an increasing rate. The 2011 Nobel prize in physics was awarded for the discovery.

  13. Posted October 4, 2017 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  14. Posted October 4, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Very exciting! On Youtube is a brand new lecture about gravity and black holes (from the Perimeter Institute in Ontario)- A New View on Gravity and the Dark Side of the Cosmos – by EriK Verlinde:

  15. Posted November 14, 2017 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Gravity waves open up a HUGE door for physicists to enter. This was a monumental discovery in terms of space science/exploration. Congrats to these 3 brains!!

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