Nobel Week 2017: Physics—Three Guesses Who

It’s here, ladies and gentlemen! The biggest week of the year for the recognition of “boons to mankind”—the annual announcement of the Nobel prizes—kicked off today with the awarding of the medal for physiology/medicine.

This morning’s prize went to the team that discovered the molecular processes responsible for regulating our sleep wake cycle, or circadian rhythm. Unlike the Oscars or the Emmys, though, the Nobels in their various categories aren’t announced and awarded all at once—the announcements are made over the course of a week at the beginning of October, and then the presentation happens in Stockholm in December, on the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Tomorrow is the announcement of the physics Nobel prize winner, and we’re in a tizzy here at PhysicsCentral getting ready—though of course we don’t know any better than the next guy what the results will be. That said, “the next guy” has a pretty solid idea; we’d frankly be shocked if the award went to anyone but the people spearheading LIGO—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory that’s repeatedly stunned the physics community since it went online in September of 2015.

A still from the Simulating Extreme Spacetimes project, depicting the aftermath of a black hole merger and its effects on the spacetime around it.
Image Credit: Caltech-MIT-LIGO Laboratory, produced by SXS project (CC BY-SA 4.0)

We’ve been wrong before, however—LIGO was at the top of our short list last year, followed by dark matter discoverer Vera Rubin—but the committee surprised everyone by awarding the prize to a relatively unknown trio of physicists for their work on topological insulators. Rubin is now disqualified, unfortunately—the Nobel committee has a firm rule against awarding the prize to the deceased, likely to avoid the difficulty of having to consider every famous healer or peacemaker from history in a year where nobody living has made a standout contribution.

Our best guess as to why the prize didn’t go to LIGO last year has to do mostly with timing; the detection was made in September of 2015, right after the detector went online, but wasn’t announced until the middle of February, shortly after the nomination deadline for 2016’s Nobels. This year, though, with multiple noteworthy contributions already on the books and more rumored to be on the way, everyone seems confident that LIGO has it in the bag. There are still questions to be answered, though, and bets to be made—like who within the project will be the actual named recipients of the prize.

The LIGO collaboration is the work of thousands of scientists. Between constructing and monitoring the equipment, writing the noise-cancelling software, refining and analyzing the signal, and countless other tasks, there were close to a thousand authors on the paper that announced the collaboration’s first gravitational wave detection in February of last year. Despite this, the Nobel committee’s rules specify that the physics prize is shared among, at most, three people.

Our shoo-in pick for this year is Barry Barish, who created the LIGO collaboration and oversaw the Advanced LIGO detector upgrade which brought it to the extraordinary level of sensitivity that let it pick up the signal that rocked the physics community last year. He’s got more awards and recognitions than you can shake a stick at, and if the prize goes to any one person on the LIGO collaboration, he’s likely to be the one.

That’s the face of someone who knows he’s going to Stockholm sometime soon.
Also on the list is Rainer Weiss, a co-founder of the LIGO project and the developer of the interferometric gravitational wave detector that’s made this whole thing possible. Without his inventions, (reportedly developed as a teaching exercise!) we’d still be trying to find these signals with hanging aluminum bars, like the severely under-recognized Dr. Joseph Weber, who claimed to have seen a gravitational wave as far back as the 1970s. If anyone had to be described as “the brains” of an operation that consists almost entirely of brains, it’d be Weiss.

The kind of person who, in the process of making up an example to answer a student’s question, devises a revolutionary new measurement apparatus.
Image Credit: Bryce Vickmark, via MIT News
Kip Thorne is our guess for slot #3, seen below in a photo that somehow makes us absolutely sure he isn’t lying about having been friends with Carl Sagan back in the day.

What we wouldn’t give to have sat in on their red-eyed late-night astrophysics discussions.
Image Credit: A.T. Service (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If LIGO were MI6, the fictional spy agency from the James Bond universe, Thorne would be Q—the “gadgets guy” that makes all of Bond’s thrilling escapades possible. His engineering designs are integral to the function of the detector; when you make a device capable of picking up the motion of bodies in another galaxy, you’re going to pick up a lot of background noise from things here on Earth. As an example: Heat makes things expand and, if not accounted for, the kind of expansion that comes from day/night cycles at the miles-long detector arms would be enough to make LIGO useless. Thorne’s practical ingenuity to compensate for such problems has made the LIGO project possible, and his theoretical contributions—algorithms that help pick the “chirp” of merging black holes out of a mess of noise—are likely to get him a share of the million-dollar prize presented this December.

The Swedes don’t yield to the pressure to do things on an American timetable, so unlike many international affairs the physics prize will likely be announced tomorrow at 5:45 AM EST. By the time most of our readers wake up, we’ll hopefully have confirmation that these scientists are getting their due credit for their role in giving us an entirely new way to sense the universe. Otherwise, we’ll be scrambling frantically to put together new explainers on the discoveries of whoever the committee has, in their infinite wisdom, decided deserves the award—but either way, tune back in tomorrow for the latest.

—Stephen Skolnick

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