Flush with a new Nobel, the LIGO team parties at Caltech

In some ways, it was a typical Southern California scene.

Late Tuesday morning two men made their way across Caltech’s lush campus surrounded by an entourage of friends, family and publicists and preceded by a gaggle of photographers running backward, with cameras clicking at a furious pace.

Students whispered to each other as the procession passed them by. Some pulled out cellphones to capture pictures of their own.

But the older gentlemen at the center of the fray — Kip Thorne and Barry Barish — aren’t your typical L.A. celebrities. Instead, they are scientists who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

“These guys are like gods to me,” said Deepan Kishore Kumar, a fourth-year doctoral student at the university who woke up at 3:45 a.m. so he could watch the announcement of the winners from Stockholm livestreamed on his computer. “They opened up our eyes to a new way to look at the universe,” he said.

Thorne and Barish, along with Rainer Weiss from MIT, received the Nobel for their work on a project called LIGO, which stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

It is one of the most high-tech machines ever built by mankind. And there are two — one in Louisiana and one in Washington.

LIGO is designed to measure incredibly small ripples in the fabric of space and time known as gravitational waves that are caused by cataclysmic events in the distant universe.

Its instruments are so sensitive that they can detect movements as small as 1/10,000 the diameter of an atomic nucleus, said Stanley Whitcomb, chief scientist for the project.

“LIGO is one of the most complex experiments ever conceived,” said David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, which comprises about 180 scientists working at Caltech and MIT. “When I first heard about it in 1995 I thought to myself, ‘This is crazy. It’s never going to work.’”

But it did. On Sept. 17, 2015, LIGO’s instruments made the first direct observation of a gravitational wave that was caused by two black holes smashing into each other and merging 1.3 billion years ago.

The two observatories have subsequently detectedthree more gravitational waves, all caused by merging pairs of black holes.

After a news conference in Caltech’s ornate faculty lounge, Thorne and Barish attended a champagne and cake party with members of the LIGO team and the Caltech physics, math and astronomy department just up the hill from the university’s famous turtle pond.

One student hummed a wedding processional as the two men appeared, which somehow seemed appropriate.

Thorne, dressed in a flashy gold jacket and blue jeans, noted that more than 1,000 scientists from around the world had worked on LIGO and that the award belonged to them as much as the three official recipients.

“I’d like to salute the members of LIGO and thank all the people whose thoughts we borrowed and utilized over the years,” he said.

Among the celebrants were Jameson Rollins, Gautman Venugopalan, Johannes Eichholz and Aidan Brooks, all members of the LIGO team.

They had risenat 3 a.m. to see if their project would win the award. (Venugopalan, the only grad student in the group, said he was up anyway — working.)

“I didn’t know if we were going to get it,” Brooks said. “I was watching it and it was like, ‘Swedish, Swedish, Swedish’ and then ‘Ray Weiss,’ and then I knew.”

Reitze, who had not been able to fall back to sleep after his wife gave him the news about 4 a.m., said that everyone in the LIGO group was thrilled that the experiment had won.

“We all did it,” he said. “And we are all very proud.”

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

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