“Gravitational Waves” Win a Nobel Prize

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three scientists who detected gravitational waves for the first time in history.

Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago.  These “ripples” in spacetime would result from massive gravitational events in outer space.  Einstein himself was convinced it would never be possible to measure them.

But in September 2015, after four decades of research, scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory observed the phenomenon for the first time, detecting waves that were 1.3 billion years old.  They used a pair of gigantic laser interferometers (4 kilometers long) to measure a change thousands of times smaller than the nucleus of a single atom.

In awarding the prize to LIGO’s Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said that “gravitational waves are an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge.” (Nobel)

“This year’s prize is about a discovery that shook the world,” says Nobel’s Göran K. Hansson. (WaPo)

I have blogged about gravitational waves here, here and here.  (Can you tell I am fascinated by the subject?)  LIGO used Agilent ion pumps to create a near-perfect vacuum, with pressure one trillion times smaller than normal air pressure.  This vacuum was necessary to detect a measurement change equal to one part in a thousand billion billion (1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the invention of the ion pump, as well as the 50th anniversary of Agilent’s Vacuum Products Division site in Torino, Italy.  Congratulations, everyone!


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