Penn State scientists share in Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Penn State scientists are members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team that has been recognized with a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This special award, which can be given at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement, recognizes the team's detection of gravitational waves 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence.

The award, which recognizes major insights into the deepest questions of the universe, includes a $3 million prize that will be shared between two groups of laureates: the three founders of LIGO will equally share $1 million, and 1012 contributors to the experiment will equally share $2 million.

Penn State members of the LIGO team being recognized include: Chad Hanna, assistant professor of physics; Lee Samuel Finn, professor of physics and of astrophysics and astronomy; postdoctoral researchers Sydney Chamberlin and Duncan Meacher; and graduate students Ryan Everett, Ashik Idrisy and Cody Messick.

LIGO scientists observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime, called gravitational waves, arriving at Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This observation confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1916, and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos. Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more-massive, spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

Hanna is co-chair of the LIGO compact binary coalescence group and is affiliated with Penn State's Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos, which has had an important role in developing gravitational-wave science for two decades.

Hanna's role on the LIGO team has been praised by Rainer Weiss, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the founders of LIGO. "Chad Hanna and his group have made a major advance in LIGO's ability to detect compact binary coalescences in the data by template fitting to waveforms derived from theoretical models. The recent discovery of a binary black hole in spiral and merger to create a new black hole benefited from his new algorithms," said Weiss. "The significant innovations he has made are to use new fast approximation methods to estimate the theoretical waveforms and to apply parallel processing to the cross correlation of the templates to the data. The new methods have reduced the time for data analysis from days to minutes. The reduction in latency makes it possible to provide triggers from LIGO to astronomical observers at telescopes around the world in minutes after the observation of a gravitational wave event and thereby improve the chance that electromagnetic counterparts to the gravitational wave events can be identified. These identifications will enhance the science by placing the gravitational wave source in its astronomical setting."

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The prizes aim to celebrate scientists and to generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career. Breakthrough Prizes are funded by a grant from Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki's foundation; The Brin Wojcicki Foundation; a grant from Mark Zuckerberg’s fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; a grant from the Jack Ma Foundation; and a grant from the Milner Foundation. Prize winners are chosen by a selection committee comprised of prior recipients of the prize.

Media Contacts: 

Chad Hanna

Work Phone: 
Cell Phone: 
Last Updated May 26, 2016