Cornell astrophysicists earn share of $3M prize

By: Blaine Friedlander,  Cornell Chronicle
May 4, 2016

Cornell astrophysicists Saul Teukolsky and Lawrence Kidder have earned a share in the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics – a $3 million award – that recognizes those who helped create the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and its ability to find gravitational waves. The discovery announced in February provided strong confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Teukolsky, the Hans A. Bethe Professor of Physics and Astrophysics, and Kidder, senior research associate, played a vital role to validate the historic news of the first direct detection of gravitational waves, predicted a century ago by Einstein.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, winner of the 2013 Special Breakthrough Prize, noted of the LIGO team, “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.”

Announcing the award, the prize committee cited Teukolsky and Kidder for their achievement. The Special Breakthrough Prize is given when an extraordinary scientific achievement occurs.

The three founders of LIGO – Ronald W.P. Drever and Kip S. Thorne of the California Institute of Technology and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – will share $1 million of the award. The remaining $2 million will be shared among 1,012 contributors to the experiment.

Led by scientists from the LIGO collaboration at Caltech and the Virgo group collaboration, research published in February in Physical Review Letters reported detection of gravitational waves resulting from two black holes spiraling in toward one another and smashing together.

Until then, this scenario had only been predicted theoretically. Many astrophysicists doubted it would occur often enough ever to be detected. However, soon after LIGO detectors in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, were upgraded, in September scientists found two black holes – each about 35 times the mass of our sun – moving at more than half the speed of light, orbiting each other and creating waves. Researchers spent the autumn 2015 confirming results.

LIGO and Virgo researchers confirmed the waves came from a black hole merger by comparing their data with a theoretical model developed at Cornell. Teukolsky and the Cornell-founded Simulation of eXtreme Spacetimes collaboration group have been calculating and completing a full catalog of theoretical solutions since 2000, when supercomputers first became capable of the task.

Founder of the prize Yuri Milner said: “The creative powers of a unique genius, many great scientists, and the universe itself, have come together to make a perfect science story.”

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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