Two ANU physicists win Prime Minister’s science prize

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Prof Susan Scott and Prof David McClelland. “We worked tirelessly for a quarter of a century without results,” says Prof Scott. Photo: Jamie Kidston, ANU.

TWO physicists from the Australian National University have been awarded this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

The two ANU physicists are two of four people awarded for their ground-breaking work to detect ripples in space and time known as gravitational waves. The other two winners are from the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide.

Prof Susan Scott and Prof David McClelland from the ANU Research School of Physics, along with Emeritus Prof David Blair and Prof Peter Veitch received the prize for their work in the detection of gravitational waves in 2015, which ANU vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt says changed the course of physical science.

“[It’s] led to a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy, allowing scientists to unlock many age-old mysteries of the universe,” Mr Schmidt says.

Following a 100-year quest set by Albert Einstein, gravitational waves were detected on Earth on September 14, 2015, by the four scientists. The signal came from the collision of two massive black holes 1.3 billion years ago, more than 10,000 million, trillion kilometres from Earth – that’s almost a tenth of the way back to the beginning of the known Universe.

According to the ANU, the detection has ushered in a wave of new discoveries – including the mergers of two black holes, the collision of two neutron stars and possibly also a black hole eating a neutron star – which have helped to solve many mysteries of the Universe.

Prize-winner Prof Scott says many scientists, prior to the discovery, thought that gravitational waves did not exist or were too small to be detected.

“We worked tirelessly for a quarter of a century without results, and with no guaranteed prospect of a breakthrough,” says Prof Scott, who is the first woman to receive the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for an achievement in physics.

“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.”

Prof McClelland, deputy director of OzGrav, says the detection of gravitational waves has been a global effort involving 1000 scientists.

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