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 was presented to Karsten Danzmann on 7 September in the Great Festival Hall of Hamburg Town Hall.
Hearing the universe
More than a billion years ago, two merging black holes sent out a signal. In 2015, it was received on Earth. It was not electromagnetic waves, it was a gravity signal, i.e. gravitational waves. Although Albert Einstein had predicted this in his theory of relativity more than 100 years ago, he also maintained that they were so weak that it would never be possible to detect them. The fact that this interplay of cosmic forces and the human mind turned out well in the end is thanks to the astrophysicist Karsten Danzmann. He is persistent, as he himself says. This was a prerequisite for not losing heart over years of listening to the universe. In the end, science was successful with the key technologies that he invented. In 2015, gravitational waves were not only successfully detected in America, but they could even be made audible within the cosmic noise.
"Yet gravitational waves are anything but harmless chirping," said Hamburg's Mayor Olaf Scholz, setting straight Danzmann's achievement in Hamburg City Hall. "Your detection has opened a new channel with which to penetrate into the great darkness of the universe, which no previously known radiation has reached." For that which now appears to be possible, Danzmann has been awarded the Körber European Science Prize in 2017: Not only to gain insight into the origins of black holes, but perhaps even to unravel the origins of the world itself one day. The mayor's praise for the far-sightedness of the Körber Prize committees was not long in coming:"The Körber European Science Prize has gained an excellent reputation internationally. The selection of the prize winners is exceptional. This year once again, we are honouring a scientist whose research has the potential for a Nobel Prize."
Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation, therefore also spoke of a "shining hour in science". But he did not linger for long on this light metaphor, as he feels that too many dark clouds are currently appearing on the scientific horizon. At the Hamburg meeting of university presidents from all over the world, it had recently become clear "that academic freedom is losing its importance in many places or even being deliberately curtailed. Unlike a few years ago, this disheartening development is no longer confined to states with authoritarian regimes somewhere around the world. We can also find examples in our immediate European neighbourhood."
In Turkey, dissenting scientists have been dismissed en masse and the higher education system has been restructured for reasons of state. And in Hungary, the Central European University is threatened with closure because it does not fit in with the ideas of head of state Orban. The United Kingdom is also considering whether government funding should be provided only to research projects that have direct financial and economic benefits. Such a departure from basic research would make breakthroughs like those of Karsten Danzmann difficult, or even impossible. According to Dittmer, anti-scientific sentiment emerges wherever ignorance and power enter into an unholy alliance.
Even in Germany, science is not free of political or economic instrumentalisation, Dittmer stressed. Elaborate fraudulent technical manoeuvres by the automotive industry have damaged Germany's reputation as a business location and as a haven for quality-conscious inventors and problem-solvers. Yet science and education are Germany's only raw materials and the basis for economic success. This makes it all the more incomprehensible that the issues of education and science were not even mentioned in the TV election debate between the chancellor and her challenger: "Zero questions and therefore also zero minutes of speaking time."
On the other hand, Dittmer is pleased that Hamburg, the "Gateway to the World", is increasingly opening up to science with various research institutions:"With the Körber Prize, we ourselves are beneficiaries of this development. At the beginning of the year, the Bürgerschaft, Hamburg's city parliament, passed a petition that acknowledges the significance of the prize for the city and calls for it to be employed even more strongly in order to support the reputation of Hamburg as a science location." Dittmer therefore took this opportunity to thank the Mayor for 33 years of sustained hospitality in Hamburg's City Hall.
Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society, also emphasized in a subsequent conversation with the journalist Ranga Yogeshwar that everyone who bears responsibility in politics must deal with scientific facts. At the moment, he said, one can see how the relevance of science is being talked down, yet science is the very precondition in order for people to understand their living environment. Feeding the world's population in the future will not be possible without the application of science. In the final analysis, it will ensure survival of the human race. In addition, he added, scientific work must be afforded time and patience, in addition to trust. If science is given sufficient freedom, something could come out of it that will ultimately change the world.
Photos: David Ausserhofer
The following photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the given credit.
Artists' impressions of the planned space mission LISA
Photo: Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics/Milde Marketing/exozet
Photos of the presentation of the Koerber European Science Prize 2017 to Karsten Danzmann on September 7, Hamburg Town Hall.
These photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit David Ausserhofer.
Dr. Lothar Dittmer, Chairman of the Executive Board of the Körber Foundation (right), and Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society (left), presenting the 2017 Körber European Science Prize to Karsten Danzmann
Körber prize winner Karsten Danzmann in conversation with science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar
Science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar next to a graphic illustrating the merger of two black holes
The following photos are free to use in the context of news coverage with the credit Körber-Stiftung/Friedrun Reinhold.