Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 'marks completely new way of listening to the universe'

3 October 2017

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 has been awarded on 3 October to Rainer Weiss (one half) and to Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne (who share the other half), all three members of the LIGO-Virgo collaboration, for 'their decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the detection of gravitational waves'.

Physicists at Nikhef have made important contributions to the instrumentation and data analysis for this research. Jo van den Brand (Nikhef and VU Amsterdam) is spokesperson for the Virgo Collaboration: 'I am very pleased and proud that the Nobel Prize this year has been awarded to our research into gravitational waves.'

Nikhef director Stan Bentvelsen also places the Nobel Prize in a broader perspective. 'This Nobel Prize emphasises the enormous scientific potential of gravitational wave research. The first direct detection of gravitational waves marked the starting point of a completely new way of listening to the universe. This required the vision of these laureates, together with the enormous dedication of a large group of experimental scientists, engineers and technicians.'

In the 1980s, Rainer Weiss (emeritus professor of physics at MIT) and Kip Thorne (emeritus Richard P. Feynman professor of theoretical physics at Caltech) proposed the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory LIGO in the United States as a way of detecting gravitational waves. Weiss and Thorne, together with Barish (emeritus Linde professor of physics at Caltech), played a leading role in devising the technology, setting up LIGO and completing the project so that gravitational waves could be detected.

On 14 September 2015, both LIGO detectors (in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington in the United States) for the first time observed direct ripples in space-time, also called gravitational waves. Scientists from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration – Virgo Collaboration (LVC) announced their groundbreaking discovery on 11 February 2016. This first measurement of gravitational waves was a milestone in both physics and astronomy. It confirmed an important prediction of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity from 1915 and opened up a new window on the cosmos.

Since then, a three more gravitational waves from colliding black holes have been detected. The most recent of these detections, on 14 August 2017, was the first performed with all three detectors at once, namely the two LIGO detectors and the upgraded Advanced Virgo, which has been connected to the LIGO detectors since 1 August 2017.

nobelprize2017-phyImage: nobelprize2017-phy

Dutch contributions to gravitational wave research

A large number of Dutch scientists were closely involved in the spectacular discoveries and are also playing an important role into the further research on gravitational waves. As members of the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration, they provide crucial contributions to both instrumentation and data analysis, and they are also helping with the astrophysical interpretation of the data.

'Nikhef researchers were the initiators of the joint LIGO-Virgo workgroup that can now subject Einstein's general theory of relativity to the ultimate tests', says Chris Van Den Broeck (Nikhef and University of Groningen) who chairs this group. 'In addition, we were pioneers in the development of analysis methods to understand the structure of neutron stars from their collisions, and in the use of merging neutron stars and black holes to mark cosmic distances, and with this to gain a better understanding of the evolution of the universe.'

Gijs Nelemans (Radboud University and Nikhef) is closely involved in the astrophysical interpretation of the gravitational waves measured. He states that the awarding of the Nobel Prize to gravitational wave research is entirely justified. 'A recognition for ingenuity, and perseverance in particular. It shows that sometimes top scientists need to demonstrate considerable patience. The prize is also a genuine recognition for the large group of technicians, engineers, physicists and astronomers who are collaborating on this research.'

For the upgraded Advanced Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy, which became operational on 1 August 2017 as an expansion of the LVC network and detected the first gravitational waves on 14 August, Nikhef is responsible for the seismic isolation and for the optical sensors that must guarantee the stable working of the instrument. Nikhef also plays an important role within the Einstein Telescope project, a future observatory for gravitational waves.

Astronomers at Radboud University are focusing on the astrophysical interpretation and on combining gravitational wave information with data from traditional telescopes. One of the projects they are undertaking in this regard is the development of the BlackGEM telescope in collaboration with the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA) and other partners.

A lot of computing power is necessary for gravitational wave research. The LIGO-Virgo Collaboration therefore makes use of facilities such as the Dutch National e-Infrastructure that is coordinated by SURF and is partly located at Nikhef.

Further information:

You can find photo material and background information at (only available in Dutch)

Nobel Prize press release

Previous press releases:

Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein's prediction 11 February 2016

Gravitational waves detected from second pair of colliding black holes 15 June 2016

Results confirm new population of black holes 1 June 2017

The LIGO-Virgo global network of interferometers opens a new era for gravitational wave science

27 September 2017

You can contact:

Science communications department Nikhef, Vanessa Mexner
email – Tel +31 20 592 5075 / +31 20 592 2075

Prof. Stan Bentvelsen (director Nikhef)
email Tel +31 20 5925001 / +31 6 5111 1284

Prof. Jo van den Brand (Virgo spokesperson, researcher at Nikhef and professor at VU Amsterdam)
email Tel +31 20 592 2015 / +31 6 2053 9484

Prof. Gijs Nelemans (professor of astronomy, Radboud University and KU Leuven and researcher at Nikhef)
email Tel+31 24 365 2983 / +31 6 4512 0189

Prof. Chris Van Den Broeck (Senior researcher in the gravitational physics group at Nikhef and professor by special appointment at University of Groningen)
email Tel +31 20 592 2053 / +31 6 2513 3968

About LIGO and Virgo:

LIGO is funded by the American National Science Foundation(NSF) and is run by Caltech and MIT, who designed and realised the project. More than 1000 scientists from throughout the world take part in the project via the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (including the GEO Collaboration).
Other partners are stated at:

The Virgo Collaboration consists of more than 280 physicists and technicians in 20 different European research groups: six at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight at the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with the National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef); the MTA Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland; Spain with the Universitat de València; and the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), the laboratory where the Virgo detector is housed near Pisa in Italy.

About Nikhef:

The Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef) carries out research in the area of particle physics and astroparticle physics. Nikhef is a collaboration between the Institutes Organisation of NWO (NWO-I) and five universities: Radboud University, the University of Groningen, the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University and VU Amsterdam. Nikhef is located at the Amsterdam Science Park.

Radboud University is also an independent member of Virgo.

Gravitational Waves group Nikhef

All current employees of the Gravitational Waves group at Nikhef.


Source: National Institute for Subatomic Physics Nikhef