The Prime Minister's Prize for Science - Australia's recognition for outstanding scientific achievements - this year goes to a team of physicists who worked in the first direct observation of gravitational waves in 2015.
Awardees include emeritus professor David Blair, professors Susan Scott, David McClellan, and Peter Veitch - all from OzGrav, or the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery. The team worked as members of the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and were instrumental in the 2015 breakthrough.
A Hundred-Year Effort Involving Hundreds of Scientists
Gravitational waves, distortions in the curvature of spacetime generated by accelerated masses propagating as waves from the source, at the speed of light. The proposal about their existence was first made by the French polymath Jules Poincare in 1905, as a phenomenon required by his Lorentz transformations. These were subsequently predicted by Albert Einstein nine years later, in 1916, shortly after publishing the general theory of relativity.
By 1997, the Australian team of Blair, McClelland, Scott, and Veitch - then members of the newly-established Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational-wave Astronomy - joined the international US-based LIGO Collaboration. In an article published by ABC Science Australia, Professor Scott cited the technical challenges along their way.
"Everything had to be about a thousand times better, including the shapes of the mirrors, the frequency of the lasers, the acoustic wringing of the mirrors and the vibration isolation," Scott said. She shared that the discovery of the elusive wave was a "story that is 100 years in the making."
The first observation of gravitational waves came from a signal detected by the LIGO Collaboration in September 14, 2015, when two black holes 29 and 36 times massive compared to our own Sun merged at a distance of about 1.3 billion light-years.
The Prime Minister's Prizes
The annual Australian awards are given for achievements in science, innovation, research, and teaching. The Prime Minister's Prizes for Science have been awarded since 2000, replacing the former Australia Prize for science.
Other awardees in this year's Prime Minister's Prize include Thomas Maschmeyer, a chemistry professor at the University of Sydney. He won the Prize for Innovation for his contributions in advancing Australia's sustainability capabilities. As a catalytic chemist, his works included an efficient way of converting renewable and plastic-waste inputs into chemical materials reusable as a solar-energy battery.
The Prize for Life Scientist of the Year was awarded to professor Mark Dawson from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre for his works in the field of epigenetics - the inquiry of environmental effects in the evolution of human genetics, and its subsequent effects in health and diseases. Among Dawson's efforts include revolutionizing blood cancer treatments.
Other recipients include Xiaojing Hao, associate professor from the University of New South Wales, awarded with the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for the Physical Scientist of the Year for her studies on using sulphide kesterite as a solar cell material. For the Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching, Sarah Fletcher won for the Primary Schools division while Darren Hamley won for Secondary Schools - both advancing STEM education in their respective institutions.
For the New Innovators Prize, Flinders University Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology associate professor Justin Chalker bagged the honor for inventing a class of polymers that revolutionized access to clean air and water.
Check out more news and information on Gravitational Waves in Science Times.