UK technology breakthrough helps gravitational waves team win Nobel Prize for Physics 2017

3 October 2017

Astronaut in full suit floating out in space

Black hole simulation
(Credit: Christian Reisswig, Luciano Rezzolla, Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut/AEI)/ Michael Koppitz, Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut/AEI)/Zuse-Institut Berlin) © AEI/ITP/ZIB)

More than 100 years since they were first theorised by Albert Einstein – and two years since they were first detected here on Earth – the study of gravitational waves has been awarded a Nobel Prize.

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to Professors Kip Thorne, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss, key figures in detecting the long-theorised ripples in space-time, for ‘for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves’.

The detection was a truly international effort, with the UK playing a leading role, and captured headlines across the world ushering in an entirely new era of astronomy research. Key technological and computing advances were made in the UK which enabled the historic first detection.

UK Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “The detection of gravitational waves has been made possible by technology designed and built in the UK, and the expertise of our leading researchers and engineers. The acknowledgement of this contribution in today’s Nobel Prize announcement is recognition of our place as a world leader in science and research.”

Key early contributions to the LIGO project came from the late Scottish physicist Professor Ron Drever. Professor Drever, who passed away earlier this year, co-founded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) with Professor Kip Thorne at Caltech and Professor Rainer Weiss at MIT in the US over the period from 1984 to 1994.

LIGO is operated by Caltech and MIT with funding from the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF), and supported by vital input from more than 1,000 researchers around the world – including the Universities of Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham amongst others in the UK.

Scientists from the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research led on the conception, development, construction and installation of the sensitive mirror suspensions in the heart of the LIGO detectors and Professor Sheila Rowan, Director of the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research, and one of the UK leads on LIGO said: “We’re thrilled to hear that the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 has gone to gravitational wave detection.

“The discovery of the existence of gravitational waves, just over two years ago, has opened up a whole new way to understand the Universe.

“Some of the first steps on the road to this new field of gravitational wave astronomy were taken here in Glasgow by Professor Ron Drever and Professor Jim Hough and we're proud of having built on that work to evolve into the Institute as we are today. We’re looking forward to continuing our work with LIGO and our partners in the UK at the University of Birmingham, Cardiff University, the University of Strathclyde, and the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory amongst others.”

The first detection in 2015 was made possible by a technical upgrade to Advanced LIGO (aLIGO), relying heavily on initial UK capital funding and on technical and manufacturing expertise from UK universities – especially the advanced mirror-suspension systems.

Professor B S Sathyaprakash, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “It took 100 years to confirm the existence of gravitational waves but our observations over the past two years have already raised questions about the formation and evolution of black holes and allowed us to test Einstein's gravity to incredibly greater precision than was possible before.

“We are beginning to understand if nature's black holes are truly space-time warpage as predicted by general relativity and if the nature of gravitational waves is as predicted by Einstein. The LIGO-Virgo detector network has truly begun a new chapter in astronomy.

“This year's prize is a befitting reward to this new endeavour, which promises to provide deeper insights into how the Universe works.”

In the UK alone major contributions to the project have come from very many researchers and engineers based at 11 research institutions, including Glasgow, Cardiff and Birmingham as well as the STFC Technology division.

Several hundred people are working on the LIGO project in the USA with additional support and contributions from teams in the UK, Germany, Australia and around the globe. They are studying new phenomena in our Universe for the very first time, whilst honing novel technology to allow gravitational wave detectors to probe even further out into our cosmos.

A major upgrade to LIGO by the US and its current international partners including the UK, in the period between 2010 and 2015, allowed for the detection of gravitational waves in September 2015.

Professor James Hough, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy, added: “Back in the 1970s, working with Ron Drever, we built one of the world’s first gravitational wave detectors, instrumented with piezoelectric transducers, before moving on to designing increasingly sophisticated technology.

“I’m proud to have played a leading role in the conception and expansion of gravitational research at the University of Glasgow, and that the efforts of Glasgow researchers over the decades paid off both with the development of LIGO’s mirror-suspension technology, and now exciting roles in delivering the astrophysical results from the brand new field.”

Dr Brian Bowsher, Chief Executive of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, said: "The award of the Nobel today is a celebration of the genius of a vast team of people, including many UK-based scientists and engineers, and it is something everyone in the UK can share in. The discovery in 2015 confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 General Theory of Relativity, and was partly made possible by British advances in technology. It is exciting to contemplate what the LIGO and Virgo teams will learn next about the Universe as they continue to detect further gravitational waves."

A team from STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory were responsible for the design, technological development and production of the suspensions that provide the stability required to separate out the effects of tiny strains in space time from the much larger effects of seismic vibration. This work represents a major technological advance in the field and has made a substantial contribution on increasing the sensitivity of the instrument, and its ability to detect gravitational waves.

UK scientists continue to contribute to the design and development of future generations of gravitational wave detectors.


Jake Gilmore, STFC Media Manager
Tel: 07970994586

For quotes from leading UK researchers please contact the following media contacts:

University of Glasgow

Ross Barker, Senior Communications Officer
Tel: 0141 330 8593 / 07816 984686

University of Cardiff

Mike Bishop, Senior Communications Officer Communications & Marketing
Tel: 02920 874499 / 07809 895604

University of Birmingham

Luke Harrison, External relations
Tel: 07792 051739

Notes to editors

Gravitational waves are ripples in space caused by massive cosmic events such as the collision of black holes or the explosion of supernovae. They are not electromagnetic radiation, and as a result have been undetectable until the technological breakthroughs at LIGO enabled by UK technology. The waves carry unique information about the origins of our Universe and studying them is expected to provide important insights into the evolution of stars, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, neutron stars and black holes. However, they interact very weakly with particles and require incredibly sensitive equipment to detect.

More information on Gravitational Waves:

STFC - Gravitational waves: everything you need to know

More about the UK’s involvement in gravitational wave research:

STFC - Working together to ride the gravitational waves

The University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR)
Supported by STFC funding, is focused on the development of detector hardware and software for sensing gravitational waves from astrophysical sources.

The Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy at Birmingham
Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by massive accelerating objects, such as black holes. The Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy at Birmingham brings together expertise from a wide spectrum of disciplines to open a new window on the Universe.

Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University
For the past decade, the Gravitational Physics Group at Cardiff University have laid the foundations for how we go about detecting gravitational waves and have developed novel algorithms and software that have now become standard search tools for detecting the elusive signals.

The Group also includes world-leading experts in the collision of black holes, who have produced large-scale computer simulations to imitate these violent cosmic events and predict how gravitational waves are emitted as a consequence. These calculations were instrumental in decoding all four of the observed gravitational-wave signals to date and to measure the properties of the black holes that were detected.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000