The international collaboration of scientists behind the recent breakthrough discovery of gravitational waves, of which HWS Associate Professor of Physics Steven Penn is a member, has been awarded two prestigious science awards for its landmark research: the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the 2016 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.
The $3 million Breakthrough Prize will be shared between the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) founders, Ronald W. P. Drever, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss, and the more than 1,000 contributors to the discovery, including Penn, who will equally share $2 million of the prize.
Drever, Thorne and Weiss were recently awarded the Kavli Prize, which includes a $1 million award.
“The recognition by our community is the greatest compliment,” says Penn, an MIT-trained physicist and co-author on the Physical Review Letters article demonstrating the historic discovery.
Using the LIGO detectors, scientists from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) for the first time in September 2015 directly observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime, or gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. Physicists concluded that the gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago, producing a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
Penn played a major role in the mirror substrate and coating design for the LIGO Research Project. The project’s discovery confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos. On June 15, the collaboration announced that they had detected gravitational waves for the second time.
Penn joined the LSC in 1998 while a postdoctoral fellow at Syracuse University. Hobart and William Smith became one of the first small colleges to join the LSC when Penn moved here in 2002. Penn’s original LSC research was on the mirror design for Advanced LIGO. He discovered how to significantly reduce the thermal noise in the material fused silica, which led to the selection of fused silica for the Advanced LIGO mirror substrates and suspensions.
Coinciding with the national announcement of the detection, Penn hosted a public presentation at HWS in February 2016 as part of the gravitational waves announcement. The on-campus event was held in conjunction with a live press conference by the National Science Foundation (NSF) at the National Press Club that brought together scientists from Caltech, MIT and the LSC.
A recording of the HWS press conference is available online. A video of the national press conference is available on the NSF YouTube channel. The presentation begins at 26 minutes, 30 seconds. Penn was also interviewed by WXXI.