Making Waves: Physicists Win Nobel Prize for GPU-Powered Gravity Wave Detection

by Jamie Beckett

Thanks to an experiment powered in part by GPUs, three American physicists — Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne — have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

The award cites the contributions the three physicists made to Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or “LIGO,” a breakthrough experiment that detected gravitational waves for the first time, a phenomenon Albert Einstein predicted more than a century ago.

The waves — ripples in the fabric of space and time — are caused by events such as colliding black holes, making the ability to detect gravity waves key to better understanding our universe.

The Big Bang

GPUs played an important role in crunching the data collected by the twin LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, making the detection of the first gravitational waves in 2015 possible.

Researchers had just started up the most advanced version of LIGO when the vibrations from a massive pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second. The waves from that violent collision took about 1.3 billion years to reach the LIGO detectors.

In addition to confirming a core element of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the discovery pioneered a new form of astronomy based on the study of gravitational waves.

In announcing the award in Stockholm, a Nobel Committee representative called it “a discovery that shook the world.”

Since 2015, LIGO has detected three other gravitational waves, all generated by colliding black holes.

Scientists’ Contributions

MIT’s Rainer Weiss came up with the initial design for LIGO nearly 50 years ago. Weiss, the California Institute of Technology’s Kip Thorne and the late Scottish physicist Ronald Drever spent decades trying to develop an instrument sensitive enough to detect a gravitational wave. Barry C. Barish, also of Caltech, brought the project to completion.

Today, LIGO contains the world’s largest precision optical instruments and the world’s second-largest vacuum systems. The two observatories were built with funding from the National Science Foundation and are operated by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The large image of two black holes colliding is a simulation, courtesy of the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project and LIGO Caltech.