The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizing scientists and engineers contributing to the momentous detection of gravitational waves – a detection announced on February 11, 2016.
The Special Breakthrough Prize can be conferred at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement. The $3 million award will be shared between two groups of laureates: the three founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), who will each equally share $1 million; and 1012 contributors to the experiment, who will each equally share $2 million.
The founders are Ronald W. P. Drever, Caltech, professor of physics, emeritus; Kip S. Thorne, Caltech, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus; and Rainer Weiss, MIT, professor of physics, emeritus.
The contributors sharing the prize include 1005 authors of the paper describing the discovery of gravitational waves from the numerous institutions involved in LIGO and its sister experiment, the Virgo Collaboration. Also sharing the prize are seven scientists who made important contributions to the success of LIGO. The names of the contributors are listed below.
The laureates will be recognized at the 2017 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in the fall of 2016, where the annual Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (distinct from the special prize) will also be presented, along with the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and Mathematics. Nominations for these prizes are open until May 31, 2016 and can be made online at breakthroughprize.org.
Stephen Hawking, who won the Special Breakthrough Prize in 2013, said, “This discovery has huge significance: firstly, as evidence for general relativity and its predictions of black hole interactions, and secondly as the beginning of a new astronomy that will reveal the universe through a different medium. The LIGO team richly deserves the Special Breakthrough Prize.”
Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes, said, “The creative powers of a unique genius, many great scientists, and the universe itself, have come together to make a perfect science story.”
Edward Witten, the chair of the Selection Committee, commented, “This amazing achievement lets us observe for the first time some of the remarkable workings of Einstein’s theory. Theoretical ideas about black holes which were close to being science fiction when I was a student are now reality.”
LIGO’s gravitational wave detectors were conceived and R&D was initiated in the 1960s. LIGO was built between 1994 and 2002 by Caltech and MIT in partnership with the National Science Foundation of the United States, with the aim of observing the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. After a major upgrade from 2010–2015, it almost immediately observed a gravitational wave distorting the structure of spacetime as it passed through the Earth. The detected distortion was less than a billionth of a billionth of a meter in size at LIGO’s two 4km observatories in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. The wave emanated from two black holes with masses about 30 times that of the sun, spiraling into each other 1.3 billion light years away. The discovery inaugurates a new era of gravitational wave astronomy which will open a window onto some of the most dramatic and violent phenomena in nature as well as the mysteries of the early universe.
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics
A Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics can be awarded by the Selection Committee at any time, in addition to the Breakthrough Prize conferred through the ordinary annual nomination process. Previous winners of the special prize include seven leaders of the Large Hadron Collider teams that discovered the Higgs Boson.
The Selection Committee for the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics included: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Lyn Evans, Michael B. Green, Alan Guth, Stephen Hawking, Joseph Incandela, Takaaki Kajita, Alexei Kitaev, Maxim Kontsevich, Andrei Linde, Arthur McDonald, Juan Maldacena, Saul Perlmutter, Alexander Polyakov, Adam Riess, John H. Schwarz, Nathan Seiberg, Ashoke Sen, Yifang Wang, and Edward Witten.
Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics
The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizes individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge. It is open to all physicists – theoretical, mathematical and experimental – working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe. The prize can be shared among any number of scientists.
The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics are funded by a grant from the Milner Global Foundation.
For the fifth year, the Breakthrough Prizes will recognize the world’s top scientists. Each prize is $3 million and presented in the fields of Life Sciences (up to five per year), Fundamental Physics (up to one per year) and Mathematics (up to one per year). In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics and up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes are given out to junior researchers each year. Laureates attend a televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions. The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner. Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the winners.