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Dethroning the Nobel Prize

3 Oct 2016, 13:47 UTC
Dethroning the Nobel Prize
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One arm of the LIGO detector near Livingston, Louisiana. [Credit: moi]This week, science news is going to be dominated by the annual announcements of the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious awards given out in medical research, physics, and chemistry. This year’s prize in medicine was announced this morning, to Yoshinori Ohsumi for work on “cellular autophagy”: how cells eat parts of themselves to recycle the chemicals. Tomorrow’s physics prize is already the subject of speculation, with many people betting (metaphorically at least) that it will go to Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss for their work on LIGO.
You might think I’m in favor of this. After all, I wrote a big feature story for The Atlantic on the occasion of the direct observation of gravitational waves using LIGO, titled “The Dawn of a New Era in Science”. I’m even teaching a class on LIGO and gravitational waves, which you can take. LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) is a pair of long L-shaped buildings containing extremely sensitive instruments to detect the slight nudges of gravitational disturbances created by colliding black holes or other astronomical catastrophes. Despite the energy involved, gravitational waves are very weak, moving LIGO’s detectors by ...

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