LIGO team wins $3 million prize for gravitational wave discovery

Meanwhile, Einstein gets nothing.

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AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The team of scientists and engineers who confirmed the existence of gravitational waves earlier this year have just nabbed a handsome $3 million reward as part of a special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

The prize will be divvied up between the three LIGO founders, Ronald W. P. Drever, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss, as well as the other 1,012 people who helped confirm a key part of Albert Einstein's 100-year-old general theory of relativity. In the prize's announcement, internet investor and Breakthrough Prize founder Yuri Milner said of the vast team of scientists: "The creative powers of a unique genius, many great scientists, and the universe itself, have come together to make a perfect science story."

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory was originally dreamed up in the 1960s, but construction of twin LIGO detectors in Louisiana and Washington State was done between 1994 and 2002. After some major upgrades from 2010-2015, the system "almost immediately observed a gravitational wave distorting the structure of spacetime." The gravity ripples detected by the observatories originated 1.3 billion years ago during the collision of two black holes — the first such phenomenon ever observed.

The discovery promises to fundamentally change the way we study the universe, as humans no longer have to rely solely on visible light or electromagnetic radiation to see into space. By studying gravitational waves, scientists can begin to see more violent cosmic events like supernovae and, eventually, echoes of the Big Bang.

The Breakthrough Prize is a five-year-old foundation that recognizes the world's top scientists in the fields of Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics, as well as New Horizons prizes for junior researchers. The foundation was founded and largely funded by Yuri and Julia Milner, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. In addition to the prize money, the foundation also funds research and exploration projects like Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Starshot.

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