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NCSA congratulates Nobel Prize in Physics laureates

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Consortium, congratulates the three scientists who were honored for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves” with the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Rainer Weiss, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received one-half of the award and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, both at the California Institute of Technology, share half.

“All of us at NCSA congratulate the laureates on the recognition of their vision and leadership that led to the historic first gravitational wave detection,” says William “Bill” Gropp, director of NCSA. “It’s exciting to see this recognition of a brilliant experiment that has given us a new way to observe the universe, an experiment that was supported by high-performance computing. NCSA is proud to be a member of the LIGO consortium.”

LIGO is a collaborative project with over one thousand researchers from more than 20 countries. Weiss and Thorne originally proposed LIGO as a means of detecting gravitational waves in the 1980s. Barish is recognized for bringing the project to completion.

The historic first gravitational wave detection

On Sept. 14, 2015, at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (9:51 UTC) scientists observed for the first-time ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

The gravitational waves were detected by both of the twin LIGO detectors, located in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation, and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The discovery, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.

Eliu Huerta, a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration since 2011 and current leader of the relativity group at NCSA, is a co-author of that paper. “Today’s award is a recognition to a generation of physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists that have promoted gravitational waves as a new observational tool that has revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. Major scientific discoveries are yet to come,” he says.

NCSA has a long history as a leader in applying supercomputers to black hole and gravitational wave problems and continues to support the most complex problems in numerical relativity and relativistic astrophysics, including working with several groups to simulate gravitational wave sources seen by LIGO in the discovery.

“While most Nobel prizes are awarded for a discovery that happened in the past, this one recognizes the dawn of a new era in physics that will continue for generations of discoveries, says former NCSA Director Ed Seidel, who is also Founder Professor of Physics and professor of astronomy at Illinois. “Our entire community celebrates the achievements of our leaders, friends, and now Nobel laureates Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish, as well as the entire LIGO Scientific Collaboration, who all worked for decades to make this happen.”

Gabrielle Allen, professor of astronomy at Illinois and senior researcher at NCSA, says, “Because of the leadership of the new laureates, today we are seeing multiple gravitational wave events with the 4-km LIGO and VIRGO interferometers.”

Congratulations Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne on your Nobel Prize!

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