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LIGO's unsung heroes

Nature highlights just a few of the people who played a crucial part in the discovery of gravitational waves — but didn’t win the Nobel Prize.


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  LIGO hunts gravitational waves with the help of two laser interferometers — and hundreds of people.

Every October, the announcements of the Nobel Prizes bring with them some controversy. This year’s physics prize — in recognition of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States — was less debated than most. The three winners — Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, and Rainer Weiss at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge — had attracted near-universal praise for their roles in the project’s success.

But the award has still put into stark relief the difficulty of singling out just a few individuals from the large collaborations of today’s 'Big Science'. The LIGO collaboration uses two giant laser interferometers to listen for deformations in space-time caused by some of the Universe’s most cataclysmic events. Physicists detected their first gravitational waves — interpreted as being produced by the collision of two black holes more than a billion years ago — in September 2015. The resulting paper, published in February 20161, has a mind-boggling 1,004 authors.

Some of those are members of the LIGO Laboratory, the Caltech–MIT consortium that manages LIGO’s two interferometers in Louisiana and Washington State. But the list also includes the larger LIGO Scientific Collaboration: researchers from 18 countries, some of which — such as Germany and the United Kingdom — have made crucial contributions to the detectors.

Yet more authors are from LIGO’s sister Virgo Collaboration, led by France and Italy, which built the Virgo interferometer near Pisa, Italy. The two experiments pool their data and analyse them together. Countless other people not named on the paper have also been involved in LIGO’s design, development, construction and operation since Weiss first detailed how to build a laser interferometer in 1972.

To honour the many unsung heroes of gravitational waves, Nature collected testimonials about just a few of them. Like the Nobel Prize, this list is inevitably very incomplete.

1. The pioneer: Joseph Weber

Researchers using two detectors in the United States shook the world when they announced their discovery of gravitational waves. The year was 1969, and the detectors were not LIGO but tonne-sized cylinders of aluminium built by Joseph Weber, a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park. His claim was later found to be invalid, but many physicists still credit Weber for having founded the field. “Joe Weber indeed started thinking about how to detect gravitational waves in about 1957,” Virginia Trimble, an astrophysicist and Weber’s widow, told Nature in an e-mail. At that time, many researchers were not even sure that gravitational waves existed. In the 1960s, Weber was also one of the first researchers to consider the possibility of using interferometers to detect them.

2. The German connection: Heinz Billing

The founder of Germany’s side of LIGO, Heinz Billing, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics near Munich, first heard of Weiss’s pioneering interferometer designs in 1975, when he was asked to review Weiss’s request to the National Science Foundation to fund a prototype at MIT. Billing and his team liked it so much that they started building one themselves. “The Munich group quickly invented some of the most important ingredients that made the detectors possible,” says Karsten Danzmann, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hanover, Germany. Billing, in particular, came up with an idea to stabilize the laser that was later used in the UK–German GEO600 interferometer based near Hanover — and in LIGO itself. GEO600 is still a crucial testing and development centre for technologies introduced in the successive rounds of LIGO upgrades. “There is an awful lot of GEO in LIGO,” says Danzmann. Billing, who died on 4 January at the age of 102, was also a pioneer in magnetic data storage.

3. The laser expert: Alain Brillet

The 1980s were years of intense research and development for gravitational-wave detectors. Alain Brillet, an optical physicist with extensive experience in interferometers, then at the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, saw an opportunity to contribute. “I decided to start with the optical part, the lasers and optics, because that was my specialty,” he says. Brillet went on to co-found Virgo. But many of his ideas — in particular, the type of laser that would give the most stable signal — were implemented in LIGO and other interferometers as well, says MIT physicist David Shoemaker, who studied with Brillet in Orsay and is now LIGO’s spokesperson.

4. The facilitator: Richard Isaacson

Gravitational theorist Richard Isaacson went to Washington DC to work at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1973 for what he thought would be a brief stint as one of the programme directors. During the handover, his predecessor advised him to pay attention to an “interesting guy” called Rainer Weiss. Isaacson secured Weiss a small grant for his 1975 prototype, and later became LIGO’s chief advocate inside government. He was instrumental in the project's winning hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, despite the uncertain prospect of success. It was the first time that the NSF had managed a large project: US facilities such as particle accelerators were traditionally the remit of the Department of Energy, which had field offices staffed with dozens of experts. Isaacson did it by himself for more than ten years, and by the early 1990s he had paid a high personal cost. “Eventually, my health broke and my marriage went bad,” says Isaacson. By the time he retired in 2001, the construction of LIGO had been completed.

5. The first director: Rochus ‘Robbie’ Vogt

Before Barry Barish took the reins of LIGO, another director had left his mark on the collaboration: Rochus Vogt. The Caltech physicist, a veteran of the NASA Voyager mission, was put in charge in 1987. Until then, the project had been led by the ‘troika’ of visionary founders — Thorne, Weiss, and the physicist Ronald Drever, who started UK research on gravitational waves at the University of Glasgow before moving to Caltech — but managing large organizations was not their strength. “Thank God that was done,” Weiss recalled in a talk at NSF headquarters last year. “You don't manage it with three guys who are sort of a little bit flaky.” Vogt, who was once described as a taller and leaner Henry Kissinger, had a booming voice and forceful style that did not please everyone. But he was able to put together the first major request for NSF funding and, Thorne recalled in a 5 October press conference, “laid the foundations for moving LIGO forward to our construction”.

6. The theorist: Alessandra Buonanno

As Thorne realized early on, in the future field of gravitational-wave astronomy, it would not be enough to collect data; researchers would also need to know what signals to look for. But it is notoriously difficult to extract quantitative predictions from the equations of Einstein’s general relativity. Theoretical physicist Alessandra Buonanno had devised formulae for calculating the approximate orbits of spiralling objects and the gravitational waves they would generate in work she had done, in part with Thibault Damour at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies near Paris. The LIGO and Virgo collaborations use a database of hundreds of thousands of these waveforms for spotting gravitational waves in their data in real time. Buonanno is now a director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and a senior member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Journal name:
  • Additional reporting by Elizabeth Gibney.



An earlier version of this story stated, incorrectly, that Thibault Damour was Alessandra Buonanno's PhD adviser.


  1. Abbott, B. P. et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 (2016).

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  1. Avatar for Xinhang Shen
    Xinhang Shen
    Davide Castelvecchi, please be aware that the theory LIGO uses to make its calculations is completely wrong! Einstein's relativity theory has already been disproved both logically and experimentally (see "Challenge to the special theory of relativity", March 1, 2016 on Physics Essays and a press release "Special Theory of Relativity Has Been Disproved Theoretically" on Eurekalert website: ). The problem of Einstein's relativity is that it has redefined time and space through Lorentz Transformation. The newly defined time is no longer the physical time measured with physical clocks, which can be easily demonstrated by the following thought experiment of candle clocks: There are a series of vertically standing candles with the same burning rate and moving at different constant horizontal velocities in an inertial reference frame of (x, y, z, t) where x, y, z, t are relativistic positions and time. At any moment t of relativistic time, all candles have the same height H in the reference frame of (x, y, z, t) and the height has been calibrated to physical time as physical clocks. Therefore, we have the simultaneous events of the observation measured in both relativistic time and physical time in the frame of (x, y, z, t): (Candle1, x1, y1, H, t), (candle2, x2, y2, H, t), …, (CandleN, xN, yN, H, t). When these events are observed on anther horizontally moving inertial reference frame (x', y', z', t'), according to special relativity, these events in the reference frame of (x', y', z', t') can be obtained through Lorentz Transformation: (Candle1, x'1, y'1, H, t'1), (Candle2, x'2, y'2, H, t'2), … , (CandleN, x'N, y'N, H, t'N) where t'1, t'2, …, and t'N are relativistic times of the events in the frame of (x', y', z', t'). It is seen that these events have different relativistic times after Lorentz Transformation in the frame of (x', y', z', t'), i.e., they are no longer simultaneous measured with relativistic time in the frame of (x', y', z', t'), but the heights of the candles remain the same because the vertical heights here do not experience any Lorentz contraction. Since the heights of the candles are the measures of the physical time, we can see these events still have the same physical time, i.e., they are still simultaneous measured with the physical time. Therefore, the physical time is invariant of inertial reference frames, which is different from relativistic time. As relativistic time is no longer the physical time we measure with physical devices, the description of special relativity is irrelevant to the physical world. Now let's have a look at the symmetric twin paradox. Two twins made separate space travels in the same velocity and acceleration relative to the earth all the time during their entire trips but in opposite directions. According to special relativity, each twin should find the other twin’s clock ticking more slowly than his own clock during the entire trip due to the relative velocity between them because acceleration did not have any effect on kinematic time dilation in special relativity. But when they came back to the earth, they found their clocks had exact the same time because of symmetry. Thus, there is a contradiction which has disproved special relativity. This thought experiment demonstrates that relativistic time is not our physical time and can never be materialized on physical clocks. Now let's look at clocks on the GPS satellites which is thought as one of the strong evidences of Einstein's relativity. Many physicists claim that clocks on the GPS satellites are corrected according to both special relativity and general relativity. This is not true because the corrections of the atomic clocks on the GPS satellites are absolute changes of the clocks (i.e. the same observed in all reference frames), none of which is relative to a specific observer as claimed by special relativity. After all corrections, the clocks are synchronized not only relative to the ground clocks but also relative to each other, i.e., time is absolute and special relativity is wrong. This is a fact as shown on Wikipedia. But some people still argue that the clocks on the GPS satellites are only synchronized in the earth centered inertial reference frame, and are not synchronized in the reference frames of the GPS satellites. If it were true, then the time difference between a clock on a GPS satellite and a clock on the ground observed in the satellite reference frame would monotonically grow due to their relative velocity while the same clocks observed on the earth centered reference frame were still synchronized. If you corrected the clock on the satellite when the difference became significant, the correction would break the synchronization of the clocks observed in the earth centered frame. That is, there is no way to make such a correction without breaking the synchronization of the clocks observed in the earth centered frame. Therefore, it is wrong to think that the clocks are not synchronized in the satellite frame. Hefele-Keating experiment is also considered as another evidence of relativistic effects. It is clear that all the differences of the clocks after flights in Hefele-Keating experiment were absolute (i.e., they were the same no matter whether you observe them on the earth, on the moon or on the space station). But according to relativity, if the clocks were observed on the earth, the two clocks after flights had experienced the equivalent paths of same velocity and same distance in same elevation, and thus should generate the same kinematic time dilation and the same gravitational time dilation, directly contradicting the experimental result. Therefore, the differences of the clocks were nothing to do with the velocities relative to each other or relative to the earth as claimed by relativists, but were the result of the velocities relative to one medium which seems fully dragged by the earth on its surface but partially dragged on the altitude of the airplanes. It is wrong to interpret the differences of the displayed times of the clocks as the results of relativistic effects. Experiments show that electrons will emit photons when they are "moving", but “moving” is relative. All electrons on the earth can be considered "moving" when you observe them on a rocket. According to special relativity, you should see them emit photons. Why in a rocket frame don't you see the electrons emit photons? It is because special relativity is wrong. It is not the velocity relative to the observer which makes an electron emit photons, but it is the velocity relative to “something” makes an electron emit photons. This “something” is aether, the existence of which has been proved in the above paper. Photons are waves of aether which is a compressible viscous fluid filling up the entire visible part of the universe, though its viscosity is very very small. It is the velocity relative to aether makes an electron emit photons, just as a boat on a water generates waves only when it moves relative to the water. The increase of the lives of muons in particle accelerators or going through the atmosphere are the effects of aether caused by their velocities relative to aether, which are absolute changes and the same observed in all reference frames, nothing to do with relativity. All so-called proofs of relativistic effects are just misinterpretations of experiments and observations without exception, and all what relativity describes is irrelevant to physical phenomena, including the speed of light which in special relativity is constant in all inertial reference frames, but which in real physical world still follows Newton's velocity addition formula (see the paper). That is, time is absolute and space is 3D Euclidean. There is nothing called spacetime continuum in nature, not to mention the ripples of spacetime.
  2. Avatar for Pentcho Valev
    Pentcho Valev
    The "discovery" of gravitational waves is just one of those "major breakthroughs" imposed by science bureaucrats like Ms. Davis: "LEONARD: I have to say I'm a little nervous. Ms. DAVIS: You should be. LEONARD: Look, I know I screwed up, but it was only one interview. How much damage could it have caused? Ms. DAVIS: Would you like for me to read you the e-mails from donors asking why are they giving us money if physics is a dead end? LEONARD: I didn't say it was a dead end. I just said that I was worried it might be. Ms. DAVIS: So if I just said I was worried you might not have a job next week, how would you feel? LEONARD: Light-headed, and glad you asked me to sit down. Okay, just tell me what I can do. Ms. DAVIS: I'm gonna need you to make a statement saying that you misspoke, and that you're confident the physics community is close to a major breakthrough. LEONARD: You want me to lie. Ms. DAVIS: Look, Dr. Hofstadter, I'm counting on you. I think that you are the smartest physicist at this university. LEONARD: Really? Ms. DAVIS: See? Lies. They're not that hard." [END OF QUOTATION] Physicist Leonard Hofstadter tries to repent but in the end comes to the following conclusion: LEONARD: "I know I said physics is dead, but it is the opposite of dead. If anything, it is undead, like a zombie." "Physics is dead" is a commonplace knowledge - scientists express it in various ways: Peter Woit: "If, as seems increasingly all too possible, we're now at an endpoint of fundamental physics, with the field killed off by a pseudo-scientific argument..." Peter Woit: "I think the worst thing that has happened to theoretical physics over the past 25 years is this descent into ideology, something that has accelerated with the multiverse mania of the last 10-15 years." Correct, except for the number 25 - it should be replaced by 112: "This paper investigates an alternative possibility: that the critics were right and that the success of Einstein's theory in overcoming them was due to its strengths as an ideology rather than as a science. The clock paradox illustrates how relativity theory does indeed contain inconsistencies that make it scientifically problematic. These same inconsistencies, however, make the theory ideologically powerful. [...] The gatekeepers of professional physics in the universities and research institutes are disinclined to support or employ anyone who raises problems over the elementary inconsistencies of relativity. A winnowing out process has made it very difficult for critics of Einstein to achieve or maintain professional status. Relativists are then able to use the argument of authority to discredit these critics. Were relativists to admit that Einstein may have made a series of elementary logical errors, they would be faced with the embarrassing question of why this had not been noticed earlier. Under these circumstances the marginalisation of antirelativists, unjustified on scientific grounds, is eminently justifiable on grounds of realpolitik. Supporters of relativity theory have protected both the theory and their own reputations by shutting their opponents out of professional discourse. [...] The triumph of relativity theory represents the triumph of ideology not only in the profession of physics bur also in the philosophy of science." Peter Hayes, The Ideology of Relativity: The Case of the Clock Paradox And when ideology replaces science, bureaucrats replace scientists of course: Mike Alder: "It is easy to see the consequences of the takeover by the bureaucrats. Bureaucrats favour uniformity, it simplifies their lives. They want rules to follow. They prefer the dead to the living. They have taken over religions, the universities and now they are taking over Science. And they are killing it in the process. The forms and rituals remain, but the spirit is dead. The cold frozen corpse is so much more appealing to the bureaucratic mind-set than the living spirit of the quest for insight. Bureaucracies put a premium on the old being in charge, which puts a stop to innovation. Something perhaps will remain, but it will no longer attract the best minds. This, essentially, is the Smolin position. He gives details and examples of the death of Physics, although he, being American, is optimistic that it can be reversed. I am not. [...] Developing ideas and applying them is done by a certain kind of temperament in a certain kind of setting, one where there is a good deal of personal freedom and a willingness to take risks. No doubt we still have the people. But the setting is gone and will not come back. Science is a product of the renaissance and an entrepreneurial spirit. It will not survive the triumph of bureacracy. Despite having the infrastructure, China never developed Science. And soon the West won't have it either." Pentcho Valev
  3. Avatar for Pentcho Valev
    Pentcho Valev
    Gravitational waves (ripples in spacetime) don't exist because spacetime doesn't exist: Nima Arkani-Hamed (06:09): "Almost all of us believe that space-time doesn't really exist, space-time is doomed and has to be replaced by some more primitive building blocks." Nobel Laureate David Gross observed, "Everyone in string theory is convinced...that spacetime is doomed. But we don't know what it's replaced by." What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Steve Giddings: "Spacetime. Physics has always been regarded as playing out on an underlying stage of space and time. Special relativity joined these into spacetime... [...] The apparent need to retire classical spacetime as a fundamental concept is profound..." And spacetime doesn't exist because the underlying premise, Einstein's constant-speed-of-light postulate, is false: "Special relativity is based on the observation that the speed of light is always the same, independently of who measures it, or how fast the source of the light is moving with respect to the observer. Einstein demonstrated that as an immediate consequence, space and time can no longer be independent, but should rather be considered a new joint entity called "spacetime." Is the speed of light "always the same, independently of who measures it"? Of course not - even Einstein knew that this is nonsense: John Stachel: "But this seems to be nonsense. How can it happen that the speed of light relative to an observer cannot be increased or decreased if that observer moves towards or away from a light beam? Einstein states that he wrestled with this problem over a lengthy period of time, to the point of despair." In the quotation below, the statement "four pulses are received in the time it takes the source to emit three pulses" means that the speed of light is VARIABLE - the speed of the pulses relative to the receiver (observer) is greater than their speed relative to the source, in violation of Einstein's relativity: Albert Einstein Institute: "The frequency of a wave-like signal - such as sound or light - depends on the movement of the sender and of the receiver. This is known as the Doppler effect. [...] Here is an animation of the receiver moving towards the source: Stationary receiver: Moving receiver: By observing the two indicator lights, you can see for yourself that, once more, there is a blue-shift - the pulse frequency measured at the receiver is somewhat higher than the frequency with which the pulses are sent out. This time, the distances between subsequent pulses are not affected, but still there is a frequency shift: As the receiver moves towards each pulse, the time until pulse and receiver meet up is shortened. In this particular animation, which has the receiver moving towards the source at one third the speed of the pulses themselves, four pulses are received in the time it takes the source to emit three pulses." [END OF QUOTATION] Pentcho Valev
  4. Avatar for Pentcho Valev
    Pentcho Valev
    "As Thorne realized early on, in the future field of gravitational-wave astronomy, it would not be enough to collect data; researchers would also need to know what signals to look for. But it is notoriously difficult to extract quantitative predictions from the equations of Einstein's general relativity. Theoretical physicist Alessandra Buonanno had devised formulae for calculating the approximate orbits of spiralling objects and the gravitational waves they would generate in work she had done, in part with her PhD adviser Thibault Damour, at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies near Paris. The LIGO and Virgo collaborations use a database of hundreds of thousands of these waveforms for spotting gravitational waves in their data in real time." Not true. Actually LIGO conspirators don't use theoretically calculated waveforms in detecting (more precisely, faking) gravitational wave signals: The Nobel Committee for Physics: "While these waveforms provide a reasonable match, further important improvements are obtained using numerical methods that are very computationally intensive [23]. The analytical methods are crucial to producing the big library of template waveforms used by LIGO. While the waveforms produced in this way are necessary for determining the detailed properties of the objects involved, as well as identifying weak signals, they were not essential for the very first detection of GW150914. This was a model-independent detection of a gravitational-wave transient." According to Rana Adhikari, professor of Physics at Caltech and a member of the LIGO team, LIGO conspirators have no preliminary knowledge about the signals. Adhikari declares: "the only thing that we really know is what we measure. And that's the mantra of the true empirical person": Rana Adhikari: "You split it in two and you send it in two separate directions, and then when the waves come back, they interfere with each other. And you look at differences in that interference to tell you the difference in how long it took for one beam to go one way, and the other beam to go the other way. The way I said it was really careful there because there's a lot of confusion about the idea of, these are waves and space is bending, and everything is shrinking, and how come the light's not shrinking, and so on. We don't really know. There's no real difference between the ideas of space and time warping. It could be space warping or time warping but the only thing that we really know is what we measure. And that's the mantra of the true empirical person. We sent out the light and the light comes back and interferes, and the pattern changes. And that tells us something about effectively the delay that the light's on. And it could be that the space-time curved so that the light took longer to get there. But you could also imagine that there was a change in the time in one path as opposed to the other instead of the space but it's a mixture of space and time. So it sort of depends on your viewpoint." Pentcho Valev
  5. Avatar for Pentcho Valev
    Pentcho Valev
    Another sword of Damocles hanging over LIGO conspirators (and over the Nobel committee as well). They had no idea what they were measuring (faking) and produced signal correlation but also noise correlation that they are unable to explain: James Creswell, Sebastian von Hausegger, Andrew D. Jackson, Hao Liu, Pavel Naselsky, June 27, 2017: "As a member of the LIGO collaboration, Ian Harry states that he "tried to reproduce the results quoted in 'On the time lags of the LIGO signals'", but that he "[could] not reproduce the correlations claimed in section 3". Subsequent discussions with Ian Harry have revealed that this failure was due to several errors in his code. After necessary corrections were made, his script reproduces our results. His published version was subsequently updated. [...] It would appear that the 7 ms time delay associated with the GW150914 signal is also an intrinsic property of the noise. The purpose in having two independent detectors is precisely to ensure that, after sufficient cleaning, the only genuine correlations between them will be due to gravitational wave effects. The results presented here suggest this level of cleaning has not yet been obtained and that the identification of the GW events needs to be re-evaluated with a more careful consideration of noise properties." James Creswell, Sebastian von Hausegger, Andrew D. Jackson, Hao Liu, Pavel Naselsky, August 21, 2017: "In view of unsubstantiated claims of errors in our calculations, we appreciated the opportunity to go through our respective codes together - line by line when necessary - until agreement was reached. This check did not lead to revisions in the results of calculations reported in versions 1 and 2 of arXiv:1706.04191 or in the version of our paper published in JCAP. It did result in changes to the codes used by our visitors [LIGO conspirators]. [...] In light of the above, our view should be clear: We believe that LIGO has not yet attained acceptable standards of data cleaning. Since we regard proof of suitable cleaning as a mandatory prerequisite for any meaningful comparison with specific astrophysical models of GW events, we continue to regard LIGO's claims of GW discovery as interesting but premature." Here is Sabine Hossenfelder's article: Sabine Hossenfelder: "Was It All Just Noise? Independent Analysis Casts Doubt On LIGO's Detections. A team of five researchers - James Creswell, Sebastian von Hausegger, Andrew D. Jackson, Hao Liu, and Pavel Naselsky - from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, presented their own analysis of the openly available LIGO data. And, unlike the LIGO collaboration itself, they come to a disturbing conclusion: that these gravitational waves might not be signals at all, but rather patterns in the noise that have hoodwinked even the best scientists working on this puzzle. [...] A few weeks ago, Andrew Jackson presented his results in Munich. A member of the local physics faculty (who'd rather not be named) finds the results "quite disturbing" and hopes that the collaboration will take the criticism of the Danes to heart. "Until LIGO will provide clear scientific(!) explanation why these findings are wrong, I would say the result of the paper to some extent invalidates the reliability of the LIGO discovery." In a world different from our post-truth world thе disclosure of the noise correlation would mark the end of the LIGO project and the beginning of an interrogation. In the post-truth world the glory of the fraudsters can only increase - if the absurd noise correlation cannot topple them, nothing can! Immediate Nobel prize - should have been given to LIGO fraudsters a year ago! Pentcho Valev
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