2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Physics: Indian Students Among the Co-Recipients

What is the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics?

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was founded in 2012 by Yuri Milner to recognize those individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge. It is open to all physicists — theoretical, mathematical, experimental — working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe. The Special Breakthrough Prize can be conferred at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement.

To whom was the prize bestowed upon, in 2016?

In May 2016 the Breakthrough prize announced a special collective prize to all the members of the LIGO project.

The three LIGO project leaders — physicists Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge — will share $1 million; the remaining $2 million will be distributed among the other 1,012 physicists who worked on the project.

The special award, which can be conferred at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement. The award ceremony took place at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California on the 12th December  2016 and was hosted by Seth MacFarlane.

How are you related to the detection & the Breakthrough Prize?

As part of the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI), Max Planck for Gravitational Physics, Leibniz Universität, Hannover, I am a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a co-recipient of the Special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental Physics along with a few other Indian Scientists.

We are collectively a group of over a 1000 scientists from 15 countries dedicated to building gravitational wave detectors both on ground (some even underground) and in space and of course analyzing the massive amounts of data that these detectors produce. I work mostly on simulating control schemes and investigating upgrades for future gravitational wave detectors and also the 10m prototype at AEI.

The ones in operation currently are called second generation detectors: advanced LIGO, advanced VIRGO, GEO600 (just outside Hannover). The Einstein Telescope is a third generation detector which is aimed to be 10 times more sensitive than advanced LIGO and in the light of the recent discovery the excitement around Einstein’s work has grown exponentially!

Certificate, medal, and pin bestowed upon the winners of the Special Breakthrough Prize

Information on Gravitational Waves

Over the past few decades, astronomers have amassed evidence that gravitational waves exist, chiefly by studying their effect on the motions of orbiting pairs of stars in our Galaxy. The results of these indirect studies agree extremely well with Einstein’s theory – with their orbits shrinking, as indirect predicted, due to the emission of gravitational wave energy. Nevertheless, the direct detection of gravitational waves as they reach the Earth has been hugely anticipated by the scientific community as this breakthrough would provide new and more stringent ways to test general relativity under the most extreme conditions and open up an entirely novel way to explore the Universe.

On September 14, 2015, our collaboration was buzzing with the news of a possible detection. The most difficult part of this whole process was the surety of the detection. It was weeks before we believed that it was a detection and not a spurious injected signal of some sort. Since the first detection, we’ve had two more BBH mergers and a few more triggers that are under investigation.

This momentous achievement was made possible by the LIGO interferometers located in the USA. In brief, the LIGO interferometers refer to two gravitational wave observatories collectively: LIGO Hanford Observatory (near Richland, Washington) and the LIGO Livingston Observatory (in Livingston, Louisiana).  Both of these sites house an L-Shaped interferometer in the world’s second-largest vacuum chambers in ultra high vacuum and laser light is bounced back by the mirrors at the end of each ‘L’. The mirrors are set to perfect positions such that the laser beam cancels out completely at the output port of the interferometer. If a gravitational wave were to pass by, the distance between the mirrors would change (owing to the property of gravitational waves to stretch-compress space-time) and this condition of what we call destructive interference is disturbed and some light can be detected at the output. This can then be used to understand the properties of the gravitational wave its source.

This is an incredibly simplified version of what LIGO does and how it works. For more details, here is a collection of some of my favorite blogs/videos/scientific papers.

  1. How LIGO works? (http://www.kavlifoundation.org/how-ligo-works)
  2. Papers on gravitational wave detection (https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/detection-companion-papers)
  3. LIGO discovers gravitational waves – and new era of astronomy (https://www.newscientist.com/round-up/ligodetection)
  4. Why gravitational waves truly are the “scientific breakthrough of the year” (http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/12/22/14053036/gravitational-waves-breakthrough-year-science)
  5. The Absurdity of Detecting Gravitational Waves(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iphcyNWFD10)

LIGO Hanford Observatory: http://www.ligo.org/multimedia/gallery/lho.php

The gravitational-wave event GW150914 observed by the LIGO Hanford (H1, left column panels) and Livingston (L1, right column panels) detectors. Times are shown relative to September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC. For visualization, all-time series are filtered with a 35–350 Hz bandpass filter to suppress large fluctuations outside the detectors’ most sensitive frequency band, and band-reject filters to remove the strong instrumental spectral lines seen in the Fig. 3 spectra. Top row, left: H1 strain. Top row, right: L1 strain. GW150914 arrived first at L1 and 6.9+0.5−0.4 ms later at H1; for a visual comparison, the H1 data are also shown, shifted in time by this amount and inverted (to account for the detectors’ relative orientations). Second row: Gravitational-wave strain projected onto each detector in the 35–350 Hz band. Solid lines show a numerical relativity waveform (excerpt from Abbot et. Al http://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102#fulltext)

Is India also involved in LIGO?

India is also set to host a similar facility and join the new era of gravitational wave astronomy under the name LIGO-India project and this has received an in-principle cabinet approval. For the current status of the same one can follow this web page: LIGO-India (http://gw-indigo.org/tiki-index.php?page=LIGO-India)

(Original article was written by Ms. Vaishali Adya, Doctoral candidate, Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Waves, Leibniz Universität Hannover (Germany). ISG has provided editorial inputs to the article.)