This year’s Shaw Prize in Astronomy, worth $1.2 million, has been awarded to the trio of researchers who founded LIGO: Caltech’s Ronald W. P. Drever, professor of physics, emeritus, and Kip S. Thorne (BS ’62), the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus; and MIT’s Rainer Weiss, professor of physics, emeritus.
According to the prize announcement, the LIGO founders are being honored “for conceiving and designing the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), whose recent direct detection of gravitational waves opens a new window in astronomy, with the first remarkable discovery being the merger of a pair of stellar mass black holes.”
The existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, but it was not until the 1960s that technological and theoretical advances made detection even possible to consider. In the 1970s, Thorne founded a research group at Caltech to study the theory of gravitational waves. Weiss had developed a design for a gravitational wave detector; he and Thorne recruited Drever, one of the leading creators of gravitational-wave interferometer prototypes, to lead what would become LIGO. On September 14, 2015, during the first observations with the newly upgraded Advanced LIGO interferometers, LIGO detected the first signal of gravitational waves—the result of the collision of two black holes to form a single, more massive black hole. The detection was announced on February 11, 2016.
Drever, Thorne and Weiss have also jointly received the 2016 Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize and the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their contributions to LIGO.
The Shaw Prize, established in 2004, is awarded annually in three categories: Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences. It “honors individuals, regardless of race, nationality, gender and religious belief, who have achieved significant breakthroughs in academic and scientific research or applications and whose work has resulted in a positive and profound impact on mankind,” according to the Prize website.
The Shaw Prize is an international award managed and administered by The Shaw Prize Foundation based in Hong Kong. Mr. Shaw has also founded The Sir Run Run Shaw Charitable Trust and The Shaw Foundation Hong Kong, both dedicated to the promotion of education, scientific and technological research, medical and welfare services, and culture and the arts.