BOZEMAN – Neil Cornish woke up Tuesday Oct. 3 to messages popping on his cellphone that the Nobel Prize in physics had been awarded to three American scientists for the first detection of gravitational waves.
It was exciting news for Cornish, 49, a Montana State University astrophysicist. He is part of a team of more than 1,000 scientists and engineers worldwide who worked together on the project to prove the existence of gravitational waves, predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein but never before seen.
“This is probing into the fundamental foundations of the universe,” Cornish said, building tools to “learn about the universe and its wild side — parts of the universe that are hard to imagine — where objects much more massive than the sun are crashing into each other at near the speed of light.”
Proof of gravitational waves came on Sept. 14, 2015, when two giant, L-shaped, 2-mile-long laser instruments, one set up in a swamp in Louisiana and the other in Hanford, Washington, detected a tiny ripple in space, a “chirp” that reached Earth from the gigantic collision of two black holes a billion years ago.
Cornish and his students at MSU had created key computer algorithms that could detect signals from the ripple and interpret the data.
“It was the most exciting thing — apart from my kids getting born — the most exciting day of my professional career,” he said.
One of the Nobel winners, Rainer Weiss of MIT, 85, acknowledged the large group of collaborators in his phone call with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
“I view this more as a thing that recognizes the work of about 1,000 people, a really dedicated effort,” Weiss said.
The other Nobel winners are Kip Thorne, 77, and Barry Barish, 81, both of Caltech.
Cornish said it’s unfortunate that the Nobel Prize, created in an era of “lone genius” scientists, doesn’t recognize that today many scientific breakthroughs require large collaborations and great expense.
Over four decades, the American public has bet about a billion dollars on the LIGO project, which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Five LIGO observatories were set up around the world, based on faith that Einstein was right.
Weiss said when he first explained the experiment to the National Science Foundation, seeking funds, “everybody thought we were out of our minds,” the New York Times reported.
The biggest reward, Cornish said, is the science itself.
“We’re all very happy,” he said. “The people who were honored are very deserving.”
While the science seems esoteric, he said, it could well lead to technological breakthroughs, just as the quantum physics of the 1930s made possible the smartphones of today.
“We are explorers. This is a frontier of exploration,” Cornish said. “We are going to observe extremes of the universe. Pure exploration is valuable and speaks to the human spirit. And as a bonus, we get technological spinoffs.”
Cornish, who was a post-doctorate fellow under the legendary English physicist Stephen Hawking, is also director of the MSU eXtreme Gravity Institute. He has led MSU’s LIGO group since 2007, the university reported, and worked with current and past graduate students Paul Baker, Tyson Littenberg, Margaret Millhouse, Laura Sampson and Joey Shapiro Key. He said he has also worked with colleague Nico Yunes on testing Einstein’s theories.
The LIGO instruments are the most sensitive instruments human beings have ever made, Cornish said. Their second run of observations was completed in August and now they’re shut down so their lasers and equipment can be upgraded, to make them even more sensitive.
“There are probably some more announcements coming up,” Cornish said. And when the LIGO interferometers are turned back on a year from now, “We hope to be making detections every week.”
He’s also working with teams of scientists on other ways to detect gravitational waves, like the Pulsar Timing Array and space-based detectors, to go “hunting monster black holes.”
“This is just the beginning of gravitational wave astronomy,” Cornish said. “It’s like when Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens.
“We have lots of exciting stuff coming up.”
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