Case study

Delivering expertise in enterprise and innovation: new horizons in astronomy

23 Mar 2017

The University of the West of Scotland (UWS) is part of a collaboration which received the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics which was presented at an event last December in Mountain View, California.

This special prize was awarded to the scientists and engineers across the globe involved in the recent detection of gravitational waves, which opens up new horizons in astronomy and physics.

The Breakthrough Prize is a set of international awards bestowed in three categories by Breakthrough Prize Board in recognition of scientific advance. The Special Breakthrough Prize can be conferred at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement. The $3m award will be shared between two groups of laureates: the three founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), who will each equally share $1m; and 1012 contributors to the experiment – including UWS academics Professor Stuart Reid, and Dr Ross Birney and UWS PhD student, David Vine - who will each equally share $2m. 

The recent detection of ripples in the fabric of spacetime, known as Gravitational waves, confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity 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.

Professor Reid of the Institute of Thin Films, Sensors and Imaging at the UWS said: "This is tremendous news and is fantastic recognition for everyone involved in this project. The winning of this Special Breakthrough Prize only goes to further emphasise the significance of the discovery by Advanced LIGO. The detection of gravitational waves was the first direct observation of the final, and, the most elusive prediction from Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.  In addition it was the first ever direct observation of black holes, and of two black holes colliding.  This discovery has opened up a completely new way to observe the Universe, which will possibly change our entire understanding of the cosmos we live in. 

“UWS, which has been at the forefront of world-changing innovation for over 100 years, is immensely proud to be a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. This is just the start, as an entirely new area of astronomy is created, and UWS, along with colleagues from the University of Glasgow, are leading the international effort on developing future mirror coatings which will be essential for the planned upgrades to Advanced LIGO and beyond."

This prize follows recognition earlier in the year by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) of the historic first detection of gravitational waves. Professor Stuart Reid was awarded a President’s Medal by RSE for his significant contribution to the detection of gravitational waves. This award recognises the outstanding achievements of scientists working in Scotland. Professor Reid was one of sixteen scientists in Scotland honoured for this work.