Karsten Danzmann – Prizewinner 2017

The German physicist and his team have developed the key technologies, including high-precision lasers, with which detectors in America were able to provide direct evidence of gravitational waves for the first time in 2015. Astronomers have thus literally opened a new window to the cosmos, as they were previously able to explore the universe only by means of electromagnetic waves – light, radio waves, X-rays or gamma rays. "Now gravity has practically sent us its own messengers, the gravitational waves," says Danzmann. "They mark the beginning of the era of gravitational wave astronomy, which promises new discoveries, as 99 percent of the universe is dark." With the funds of the Körber Prize, Danzmann intends, amongst other things, to further refine laser technology for earth-based detectors.

In the autumn of 2015, a worldwide team of physicists achieved a sensation: The American LIGO detectors were able to provide direct evidence of gravitational waves for the first time. Albert Einstein had theoretically predicted the existence of gravitational waves as early as 1916. According to his theory of relativity, gravity results from the fact that a mass bends four-dimensional space-time. This can be envisaged as a tightly stretched rubber mat. If a heavy ball is placed on it, it buckles downwards – space-time bends. If a smaller ball then passes nearby, its path is deflected by the dent of the heavy ball. This path deviation is the effect of gravity in space-time.

The enormous measurement precision of the LIGO lasers is the main achievement of the Danzmann team. In Hannover, the researchers operate the GEO600 detector, whose arms are 600 metres long. In work lasting decades, the physicists have trimmed the lasers and measuring instruments in the detector to the highest precision. For example, the optical systems are suspended as pendulums in order to absorb vibrations. Both the laser beam and the measured signals are recycled in the system for amplification. This has further increased the measuring sensitivity tenfold. These technologies, which were initially developed for basic research, are now widely used for practical purposes in many fields, for example in geodesy satellites and in data communication.

Karsten Danzmann, 62, is Director of the MPI for Gravitational Physics. Parallel to this, he has taught at the Leibniz University of Hannover since 1993, where he is Head of the Institute of Gravitational Physics. The Körber European Science Prize 2017 will be presented to Karsten Danzmann on 7 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg Town Hall.

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Artists' impressions of the planned space mission LISA
Photo: Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics/Milde Marketing/exozet
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Simulation of the first merging black holes observed by LIGO
Photo: MPI for Gravitational Physics, Hanover
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Panorama view of the 10-metre prototype interferometer
Photo: H. Lück/ Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics
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