'They would be my choice': UO researchers react to news of colleagues winning Nobel Prize

The 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Physics, displayed on a computer screen and are from left, Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barrish and Kip S. Thorne, seen at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm Tuesday Oct. 3, 2017. (Jessica Gow /TT via AP)

EUGENE, Ore. - Scientists at the University of Oregon who took part in the international effort to detect gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago applauded awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physics to three of their colleagues who pioneered and championed the research for decades.

The prize was awarded Tuesday to Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bary Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institue of Technology.

"The three recipients are truly deserving and all of us in LIGO-land are feeling very proud today," said Raymond Frey, professor of physics at the University of Oregon.

"I am very happy that the Nobel Committee has chosen these three leaders, Weiss, Barish and Thorne, for this year’s prize," James Brau, Philip H. Knight Professor of Natural Science and Center for High Energy Physics at the University of Oregon, said Tuesday by email.

"They would be my choice," Brau continued. "Barish also has a broad record of scientific contributions on a number of important projects. Weiss had the seminal contribution to how this remarkable measurement could be achieved. Thorne is an expert on the sources and their strength of signal. They each played essential roles in the path to discovery."

"I am very lucky to have worked on LIGO with Rai, I learned so much from him," wrote Robert Schofield, the UO researcher who left the detectors running the night the breakthrough observation was made. Schofield's work helped rule out interference from a source on Earth He worked long hours.

"I remember working with him for stretches as long as 20 hrs straight. Leaving LIGO at 5AM and coming back in at 9 or 10 AM," Schofield said. "This was after he had a heart attack and was eating a whole cabbage and nothing else for lunch. He knew there was a lot of work we had to do before we saw anything, and he wanted to be around for that. I had been working on LIGO for only about 18 years before we made a detection. And that seemed like forever to wait (and risk a career). But Rai and Kip have been working on LIGO since the 70's."

Some of the Oregon connections are personal.

"I have been a good friend of Kip Thorne and his wife Carollee for some 30 years. Indeed, he was at my farm in Brownsville the day before the eclipse," wrote Jim Isenberg, a professor in the Oregon math department. "We together started the annual Pacific Coast Gravity Meeting, which meets either in California or in Oregon every year. Because of this meeting I have been able to watch LIGO grow from the early prototypes in Pasadena back in the 80’s to its present form."

Brau, who wrote the grant that launched Oregon's participation in LIGO, recalled early encounters with Weiss at MIT.

"During my graduate school days at MIT in the 1970’s I had learned from Rai Weiss of his interest in using laser interferometry to search for gravitational waves. He gave a fascinating seminar to my research group at one of our Monday night group meetings," Brau recalled.

"After leaving MIT I hadn’t followed that effort during the 80’s and early 90’s but became reacquainted through Barish in 1996. I was invited for visits to MIT and Caltech to meet the key figures in the effort and to explore how my group at Oregon might get involved with some specific areas of responsibility," Brau said.

"We identified an important aspect of the effort, monitoring the environment and characterizing its interference with the sensitivity of the interferometer, as an area where we could assume some responsibilities and make valuable contributions. Barish planned a meeting at LSU to form the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and I was invited there to make a proposal on how we could contribute. The LSC was formed and we became one of the founding institutions.

"I then prepared a proposal to NSF for a grant to support the Oregon effort and it was funded; the funding for our work has been renewed continuously since then.

"Back then, we realized there would be a long path to realizing the sensitivity that would result in detection. In fact, we were expecting our first signals would come from the coalescence of binary neutron star systems, which were known to exist from the Nobel prize winning work of Taylor and Hulse on the binary pulsar. As it turned out, two decades later the first signals have come from massive binary black hole systems. Quite a surprise and very interesting."

Or as Schofield put it:

"I find it amazing that a momentary event happening in a galaxy that is 1000 galaxies away (according to the average distance between galaxies), can move things on earth enough that we can see it," he wrote. "It's quite a long distance connection."