Rainer Weiss’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 2017.
Your Royal Highnesses, Excellences,
Dear Laureates, Ladies and gentlemen.
All three of us, Barry, Kip and I, represent about 1000 scientists, engineers, technicians, students and administrators who together made LIGO’s gravitational wave discoveries being celebrated here tonight. We also celebrate Ronald Drever, who died recently and dedicated most of his professional life to LIGO. He is represented here by his brother Ian and niece Anne. We are all enormously indebted to the National Science Foundation of the United States and the American public for steady support over close to 50 years.
What was done is measure directly, with exquisitely sensitive instruments , gravitational waves predicted about 100 years ago by Albert Einstein. These waves are a new way to study the universe and are expected to have significant impact on astronomy and astrophysics in the years ahead. The waves travel with the velocity of light and slightly squeeze and stretch space transverse to the direction of their motion. The first waves we measured came from the collision of two black holes each about 30 times the mass of our sun. Since then we have measured four more events the most recent not only with LIGO instruments but also with VIRGO, a French/Italian detector , which has helped in localizing the event on the sky. All the black hole events occurred around a billion years ago. Last August we measured the waves from the collision of a pair of neutron stars, these are stars with the mass of the sun but about the size of Stockholm – enormously dense objects. The event was seen by many other astronomical instruments and demonstrated the promise of multi-messenger astronomy and astrophysics.
For reasons probably related to the popular vision of Albert Einstein, and also the threat posed by black holes in comic books and science fiction, our gravitational wave discoveries have had an amazing public impact. Shortly after our initial announcements I saw this advertisement in the New York City subway. “Scientists found gravitational waves in outer space, if only it were that easy to find an apartment in NYC with a walk-in closet”. That same week a cartoon ran in the New Yorker magazine showing two birds sitting on a tree branch, one looks toward the other asking “Was that you I heard just now or was it two black holes colliding”.