Physicists Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish received the 2017 Nobel prize in physics for their work detecting ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein over 100 years ago.

Why it matters: Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that massive objects — like black holes — distort space-time. We feel that as gravity. Because space-time can't be directly seen or measured, scientists instead study it indirectly, for example by searching for gravitational waves that Einstein predicted would be emitted when two massive objects collide. So far, observations by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory have confirmed Einstein's theory.

Since 2015, LIGO detectors — one in Washington and another in Louisiana — have observed gravitational waves from black hole collisions four times, most recently in August. These gravitational waves contain enough energy to bend space-time itself in measurable ways and are a window into understanding the fundamental nature of gravity.

"[G]ravitational waves are direct testimony to disruptions in spacetime itself. 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." -- The Nobel committee

How it works: Each observatory is essentially a 2.5-mile-long, L-shaped antenna with beams of laser light bouncing back and forth between mirrors at either end. When a gravitational wave passes through Earth, the distance between those mirrors should change ever so slightly as space-time contracts and expands, if Einstein's general theory of relativity holds.

It takes hugely energetic events — like the collision of black holes or neutron stars — to generate a measurable perturbation. Even then, the waves, which travel billions of light years before they pass Earth, move the mirrors just a fraction of the diameter of a proton. (LIGO can detect a change as small as 1/10,000 the width of a proton.)

Who they are: Weiss is an emeritus professor of physics at MIT (where he flunked out as an undergraduate) who — along with Ronald Drever, who died earlier this year — led the design and construction of the LIGO detectors. Barish, a professor emertius at Caltech, was LIGO's director and managed the team as well as making technical contributions. Thorne is a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech who figured out what exactly the detectors should be looking for.

Some history: Joseph Taylor Jr. and Russell Hulse received the 1993 Nobel prize in physics for their discovery of a pulsar-neutron star pair capable of producing gravitational waves. In the 1960s, Weiss came up with the idea for detecting these waves, which was realized as LIGO when Weiss and Drever began working together in the mid-1980s. More than 1,000 people around the world now work on the international collaboration.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 a.m. ET: 30,804,120 — Total deaths: 957,348— Total recoveries: 21,062,785Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 7 a.m. ET: 6,766,631 — Total deaths: 199,268 — Total recoveries: 2,577,446 — Total tests: 94,211,463Map.
  3. Education: What we overlooked in the switch to remote learning
  4. Politics: In reversal, CDC again recommends coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people.
  5. Health: The dwindling chances of eliminating COVID-19.
  6. World: Guatemalan president tests positive for COVID-19 — The countries painting their pandemic recoveries green.

What we overlooked in the switch to remote learning

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

America’s rapid and urgent transition to online school has come with a host of unforeseen consequences that are only getting worse as it continues into the fall.

The big picture: The issues range from data privacy to plagiarism, and schools are ill-equipped to deal with them, experts say.

The positions of key GOP senators on replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks to reporters on Capitol Hill last Thursday. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With President Trump planning to nominate his third Supreme Court justice nominee by next week, key Republican senators are indicating their stance on replacing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just over six weeks out from Election Day.

The big picture: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has vowed that "Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate." But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) told Alaska Public Media, "I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. We are 50 some days away from an election."