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NSF-funded LIGO pioneers named 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics laureates

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Credit: Nobel Media. III. N. Elmehed

Three scientists who led the development of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work detecting gravitational waves — ripples in space and time created by the motion of massive objects in the universe.

The discovery was made using the sensitive instruments of LIGO, in which NSF invested $1.1 billion. The first detection occurred in September 2015, confirming one prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which he published more than 100 years ago, and led to the identification of large black hole binary systems.

"LIGO's discoveries have opened an unparalleled window into our universe and expanded the boundaries of science. The National Science Foundation has supported the goal of detecting gravitational waves for four decades," said NSF Director France Córdova. "Gravitational waves contain information about their explosive origins and the nature of gravity that cannot be obtained from other astronomical signals. These observations have created the new field of gravitational wave astronomy."

LIGO was originally proposed in the 1980s as a means for detecting gravitational waves. The project was led by Rainer Weiss, now professor emeritus of physics at MIT; Kip Thorne, now professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Caltech; and Ron Drever, who passed away in March. Barry Barish, now professor emeritus of physics at Caltech, joined the project in 1994 and later became the LIGO director. The Nobel Assembly has awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics jointly to Weiss, Thorne and Barish.

"We are eagerly anticipating what we will see and learn about next because of these researchers' vision," Córdova said. "Like the rest of the scientific world and beyond, we congratulate these researchers and the members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration for such a monumental scientific milestone."

LIGO is an example of risky but potentially revolutionary science funded by NSF, as it was one of the largest experiments NSF has ever funded. Funding supported construction and operational costs for the instrument, and research awards to individual scientists studying data obtained by LIGO. The facilities were designed, built and are operated by the many dedicated staff at Caltech and MIT as well as at the LIGO stations in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. The project has been supported since its inception by the National Science Board.

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