5 mins read 28 Oct 2020

Gravitational-Wave Astronomy Features in Prime Minister’s Prize For Science

The Prime Minister's Prizes for Science have been awarded for 2020, with four physicists involved in gravitational-wave research being honoured for their achievements.

This year the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science will be handed out for the 21st time.

Since its humble beginnings in the year 2000, the Prime Ministers Prizes for Science, Australia’s most prestigious awards for outstanding achievements in scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in science teaching, have been awarded to our best and brightest. This year’s research prize for Science recognises the ground-breaking work that has been performed by physicists studying gravitational-waves and has been awarded to Professor Susan Scott, Professor David McClelland, Emeritus Professor David Blair, and Professor Peter Veitch.

Both Professors Scott and McClelland are from the Australian National University’s Research School of Physics, with Professor Blair from the University of Western Australia and Professor Veitch from the University of Adelaide. All four are Chief Investigators with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav), one of Australia’s premier science organisations.

The award comes with 2020 having been a landmark year in gravitational-wave research. Amongst the detections this year have been the formation of an elusive intermediate-mass black hole, and the discovery of an object in the so-called mass gap between neutron stars and black holes.

Just five years after the first confirmation of the ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, gravitational-wave astronomy has given scientists a new way to look at the universe, and tireless work by Australians has been an integral part of recent discoveries.

Local Recognition of Global Contributions

Aerial view of the LIGO Livingston Observatory in the US. Credit: LIGO

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has played a role in all direct gravitational-wave detections to date, and Australia is one of only a handful of partners to the US-based experiment. That partnership has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), and led by the ANU who have supplied equipment and techniques that are used in the detectors.

Professor Scott of the ANU is the first female physicist to receive a Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and has been involved in gravitational-wave astronomy since well before the first detections in 2015. “We worked tirelessly for a quarter of a century without results, and with no guaranteed prospect of a breakthrough,” said Professor Scott.

“My team at ANU contributed vital components to the LIGO Data Analysis System through which the detection signal was processed in 2015. To finally detect gravitational waves, and now to be recognised for this breakthrough with the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, is truly remarkable. The enormity of it all is still sinking in.”

Professor McClelland, whose roles include Deputy Director of OzGrav, said that the detection of gravitational waves has been a global effort involving a thousand scientists.

“The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is a fitting acknowledgement of the vital role played by Australian researchers in this landmark achievement in physics.”

Honouring Australian Scientists

The award ceremony for the recipients of the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science is normally a black-tie affair held at Parliament House in Canberra. While this year’s event was forced online due to COVID-19, Professor Alan Duffy, renowned astronomer and Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia, was back to host the ceremony.

The recipients each received a cash prize and award certificate, as well a medallion and lapel pin designed by international artist Wojciech Pietranik from the Royal Australian Mint.

To ensure that the prizes truly recognised the most worthy nominees, the selection committees were chosen to align with the diversity that is present in the science community, and guidelines for avoiding implicit biases were established. Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Finkel chaired one of the selection committees.

Congratulations to the prize recipients came from ANU Vice-Chancellor and 2011 Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt, whose remarkable accomplishments include being appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia.

“Big questions are hard to answer. When these scientists embarked on their quest to detect gravitational waves, success was not guaranteed in their lifetimes. Looking to the edge of a black hole to explore the darkest parts of the Universe with a new type of telescope was an intergenerational experiment,” Professor Schmidt said.

“The detection of gravitational waves in 2015 changed the course of physical science and has led to a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy, allowing scientists to unlock many age-old mysteries of the Universe.”

A Focus on Physics

A gravitational-wave observatory named NEMO has been proposed to be built in the Australian outback. Credit: Carl Knox/OzGrav

Recognition of these four scientists also places a spotlight over gravitational-wave astronomy. Despite all Australia has achieved to date, many scientists believe that our unique geography provides us with the opportunity to play an even more prominent role in the burgeoning field.

With our vast open spaces and sparse population, and being located in the southern hemisphere, OzGrav director Professor Matthew Bailes says that Australia would be a great location to build a next-generation gravitational wave observatory of its own. “There is no doubt in my mind that Australia is the best location for this,” he said.

That would be a mega-project on the scale of the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, and likely wouldn’t be operational until the mid-2030s. In the meantime though, the Australian government is considering a proposal for a smaller observatory known as NEMO (Neutron Star Extreme Matter Observatory) that could be constructed for a fraction of the cost and would be collecting data within the decade.

With gravitational-wave astronomy likely to change our understanding of the universe over the next few decades, this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are not only wonderful achievements personally for the recipients, but a timely acknowledgement of the field itself.