Gravitational Waves: A New Era of Astronomy Begins


Part of "The Big, the Small and the Complex," a special World Science Festival series dedicated to the fields of the Kavli Prizes.

MODERATOR: Brian Greene
PARTICIPANTS: Barry Barish, Nergis Mavalvala, Frans Pretorius, David Shoemaker, Rainer Weiss

Brian GreeneWant to learn more about gravitational waves and this panel discussion? Read a special interview with physicist, panel moderator and World Science Festival co-founder Brian Greene.

On September 14th, 2015, a ripple in the fabric of space, created by the violent collision of two distant black holes over a billion years ago, washed across the Earth. As it did, two laser-based detectors, 50 years in the making – one in Louisiana and the other in Washington State – momentarily twitched, confirming a century-old prediction by Albert Einstein and marking the opening of a new era in astronomy. Join moderator Brian Greene as he has a discussion with some of the very scientists responsible for this most anticipated discovery of our age and see how gravitational waves will be used to explore the universe like never before.


Barry Barish is an American experimental physicist. He is a Linde Professor of Physics, emeritus at Caltech. He became the Principal Investigator of LIGO in 1994 and was LIGO Director from 1997-2005. Barish led the effort through the approval of funding by the NSF National Science Board in 1994, the construction and commissioning of the LIGO interferometers in Livingston, LA and Hanford, WA in 1997. He created the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which now numbers more than 1,000 collaborators worldwide to carry out the science. The Advanced LIGO proposal was developed while Barish was director and he has continued to play a leading role in LIGO and Advanced LIGO. He was president of the APS, the American Physical Society in 2011.

Nergis Mavalvala is a physicist whose research links the world of quantum mechanics, usually apparent only at the atomic scale, with some of the most powerful, yet elusive, forces in the cosmos. She has been working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) since 1991, and was a member of the team that announced LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves in 2016. She received a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist at the California Institute of Technology. Since 2002, she has been on the Physics faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she is now the Marble Professor of Physics and recipient of a 2010 MacArthur “genius” award.

Frans Pretorius is a Professor of Physics at Princeton University. His primary field of research is general relativity, specializing in numerical solution of the Einstein equations. His work has included studies of gravitational collapse, black hole mergers, cosmic singularities, higher dimensional gravity, models of black hole evaporation, and using gravitational wave observations to test the dynamical, strong-field regime of general relativity. Pretorius also designs algorithms to efficiently solve the Einstein equations on large computer clusters, and software to analyze and visualize the simulation results.

David Shoemaker is the Director of the MIT LIGO Lab and the Leader of the Advanced LIGO Project to build the detectors used in the discovery of gravitational waves. Shoemaker started out as a lab technician at MIT in the mid-70s, but after joining Rai Weiss’s lab he worked on the first definitive measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background spectrum. Shoemaker then turned to the field of gravitational-wave detection, helping to advance the measurement technology. After working in Garching, Germany at the Max Planck Institut Quantenoptik, and in Orsay, France at the Université de Paris, he returned to MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and worked on the Initial LIGO detectors before taking on the effort to realize the second generation of detectors. Shoemaker is now working to enable 3rd-generation approaches to yet better sensitivity, and supporting efforts to put gravitational-wave detectors in space.

Rainer Weiss (NAS) is a Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Previously, Dr. Weiss served as an assistant physics professor at Tufts University and has been an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University since 2001. Dr. Weiss is known for his pioneering measurements of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation, his inventions of the monolithic silicon bolometer and the laser interferometer gravitational wave detector and his roles as a co-founder and an intellectual leader of both the COBE (microwave background) Project and the LIGO (gravitational-wave detection) Project. He has received numerous scientific and group achievement awards from NASA, an MIT Excellence in Teaching Award, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the National Space Club Science Award, the Medaille de lADION Observatoire de Nice, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, and the Einstein Prize of the American Physical Society. Dr. Weiss is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and he is a member of the American Astronomical Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, and Sigma Xi. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. in physics from MIT. Dr. Weiss is a member of the NAS and has served on nine NRC committees from 1986 to 2007 including the Committee on NASA Astrophysics Performance Assessment; the Panel on Particle, Nuclear, and Gravitational-wave Astrophysics; and the Task Group on Space Astronomy and Astrophysics.


Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, and is recognized for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in his field of superstring theory. His books, The Elegant UniverseThe Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality, have collectively spent 65 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, and were the basis of two award-winning NOVA mini-series, which he hosted. Professor Greene co-founded the World Science Festival in 2008 and serves as Chairman of the Board.