University of Oregon played key role in Nobel Prize-winning work on gravitational waves

This aerial view shows the 2.5 mile arms of the gravitational wave detector and the facility located in the desert outside Richland, Washington. (Photo: LIGO Laboratory)

EUGENE, Ore. - Scientists from the University of Oregon and an observatory in Washington state played key roles in research awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday.

The Nobel Prize went to "pioneers" Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bary Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology ""for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Tuesday in a statement.

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The research was a global effort involving a 1,000 scientists in 20 countries - with some key contributions from scientists and facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

"On 14 September 2015, the universe's gravitational waves were observed for the very first time," the Nobel committee explained. "The waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, came from a collision between two black holes. It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive at the LIGO detector in the USA."

Less than an hour before that hallmark 2015 observation, Robert Schofield had called it a night - but left the detectors running.

The University of Oregon scientist was at "LIGO's site in Livingston, Louisiana, working with Anamaria Effler, a scientist based there," according to Jim Barlow with UO. "They’d put in a long day injecting noises from Earth-bound environmental sources to analyze their effects on the sensitive detectors. Rather than shut down the detectors to begin another test, Schofield and Effler chose to leave them operating and get some sleep."

“The signal came in about 45 minutes after Anamaria and I left,” Schofield told Barlow in an article published on the University website in February 2016. “If I had been in the control room, I wouldn’t have seen it. It lasted one-tenth of a second. Had I been in the control room an alarm would have sounded, and I could have seen it by looking back at the data. But I was at my motel.”

The wave also registered at LIGO's twin site in Hanford, Washington, where UO grad students were working.

“It wasn’t long, though, when I think everybody realized, at the same time, that this is real, this is amazing, and we had our jaws on the ground for a while. This is the first time to see gravitational waves directly," said Raymond Frey, the head of the UO Physics department and Oregon's team on the LIGO project. "This is a confirmation of a huge piece of Einstein's theory."

The consortium spent the next several months verifying that some sort of event on Earth - like a massive lightning storm - hadn't interfered with the detectors.

"Robert Schofield is LIGO’s go-to guy on the subject,” Frey said.

"Schofield's final report found no signal interference from anywhere on Earth, helping LIGO scientists to confirm Einstein's theory and open an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos," Barlow wrote.

And that discovery led to a Nobel Prize.

"Gravitational waves are direct testimony to disruptions in spacetime itself," according to the announcement of the Nobel Prize. "This is something completely new and different, opening up unseen worlds. A wealth of discoveries awaits those who succeed in capturing the waves and interpreting their message.