Science

Researchers behind gravitational waves breakthrough win prestigious $1M science prize

The 2016 Kavli Prize winners for astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience took home $1 million for breakthroughs in gravitational wave detection, brain research and an atomic-force microscope.

Innovative brain research and atomic-force microscope developers also take top Kavli prizes

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted would be produced by massive phenomena such as black holes colliding. Scientists had been working to prove Einstein's theory for 100 years. (NASA)

Scientists who proved the existence of gravitational waves — which had been theorized by Albert Einstein 100 years ago — were awarded a prestigious $1 million US (about $1.3 million Cdn) Kavli Prize today.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo on Thursday announced the winners of the Kavli Prizes, which are bestowed once every two years.

The scientists Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won in the astrophysics category.

The same team won another prestigious prize last month for their work: the $3 million Breakthrough Prize.

Their discovery of the waves, tiny ripples that spread through the universe, sent shockwaves of excitement through the science world when they announced the discovery in February.

The find has been called one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past 50 years by Cornell University physicist Saul Teukolsky.

But what exactly are they?

As Bob McDonald, CBC's science program Quirks and Quarks, wrote, the waves are produced when two black holes collide. Their detection opens the door for scientists to be able to better research mysterious parts of the cosmos, like black holes, neutron stars, and supernovae.

McDonald says it proves that time is a flexible continuum that can be warped and shaped by gravity, "like the surface of a trampoline with kids jumping on it."

Brain research, super precise microscope also win

Two other groups of scientists also took home $1 million US each for winning in their categories of nanoscience and neuroscience.

The neuroscience prize is shared by Eve Marder of Brandeis University, Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco, and Carla Shatz of Stanford University.

They were honoured for discoveries in showing how the brain changes during learning and development, even as it keeps some basic stability over time.

They found that the brain doesn't stop developing when humans reach adulthood — that "experience can alter both the architecture and the functioning of nerve circuits throughout life, given the right stimulus and context," according to the Kavli Prize site.

The find could lead to new forms of treatment for people with neurological conditions.

The prize for nanoscience — the study of structures smaller than bacteria, for example — goes to Gerd Binnig of the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, Christoph Gerber of the University of Basel and Calvin Quate of Stanford.

They were honoured for atomic-force microscopy, a technique they began developing in the 1980s that is now widely used. The technology can reveal the arrangement of individual atoms on a surface and remove, add or rearrange them. 

First awarded in 2008, the prizes are named after their founder, businessman and philanthropist Fred Kavli, a native of Norway who lived in the U.S. He died in 2013.

With files from CBC News

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