In an extensive interview published online this week, the winners of the 2016 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics discuss their 40-year effort to detect gravitational waves, the elusive ripples in the fabric of space-time that Albert Einstein so boldly predicted. The discussion, with physicists Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss, covers the challenges of eavesdropping on gravitational waves, why their discovery has captured the world's imagination, and what the future holds for astronomy.
"We really are opening up a whole new way of observing the universe, a way that is going to be central to the human race's exploration of the universe around us, not just for years or decades, but for centuries into the future," said Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Thorne, Weiss and Ronald Drever co-founded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, known as LIGO. Last year, for the first time, the LIGO experiment registered the signal generated by the collision of two black holes, confirming a central prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity. A second detection was announced this past June, ushering in a new era of astronomical exploration.
"The first thing [Einstein] would ask about is probably the technology..." said Rainer Weiss, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which operates the twin detectors. "Einstein would be interested in the rest of it, but mainly, 'How did you do it?'"