This year, four members of the Caltech community, including two alumni, were honored with Nobel Prizes— bringing Caltech’s alumni and faculty total to 38.
2017 Nobel Prize
Physiology or Medicine
Michael Rosbash (BS ’65) of Brandeis University was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on October 2, sharing the prize with Brandeis colleague Jeffrey C. Hall—a former postdoctoral fellow at Caltech—and Michael W. Young from Rockefeller University. The three were honored for identifying the gene that controls circadian rhythms.
Rosbash earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Caltech in 1965 and a PhD in biophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971 before joining Brandeis in 1974. There, he and Hall—who had worked in the lab of Caltech’s Seymour Benzer, a pioneer in the field of modern genetics—began collaborating on circadian-rhythm research.
In 1984, Rosbash and Hall identified and sequenced the so-called period gene, the existence of which Benzer and colleagues had predicted years earlier; it was thought to control the length of sleep-wake cycles. Young, a competitor of Rosbash and Hall, also sequenced the gene around the same time. Rosbash and Hall later discovered just how the period works and how it interacts with two other genes, timeless and double-time, to create a self-sustaining feedback loop which ensures that an organism sleeps and is active at appropriate times.
Rosbash was named a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus in 2001.
“What identifying that gene did was open up an entire field. This was getting your hands on the physical components of the clock for the first time. Their work shows that there is a virtually universal biological mechanism for controlling circadian rhythms.”
—David Anderson, Caltech’s Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology, the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
2017 Nobel Prize
Kip S. Thorne (BS ’62), Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, was one of three key players in the development and ultimate
success of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), for which he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics on October 3. One half of the prize was awarded jointly to Thorne and Caltech’s Barry C. Barish, the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus; the other half was awarded to MIT’s Rainer Weiss, professor of physics, emeritus.
Thorne laid the foundation for LIGO in the late 1960s when he created a research group at Caltech to work on the theory of gravitational wave sources and interferometers, and he has been on the hunt to detect gravitational waves ever since.
On September 14, 2015, the National Science Foundation-funded LIGO made the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years earlier. Each of the twin LIGO observatories picked up the feeble signal of gravitational waves generated 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes spiraled together and collided. Since then, three additional detections of gravitational waves from merging black-hole pairs have been made.
The detections ushered in a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy. LIGO and Virgo provided astronomers with an entirely new set of tools with which to probe the cosmos. Previously, all astronomy observations have relied on light—which includes X-rays, radio waves, and other types of electromagnetic radiation emanating from objects in space—or on very-high-energy particles called neutrinos and cosmic rays. Now, astronomers can learn about cosmic objects through the quivers they make in space and time.
Thorne was named a Caltech Distinguished Alumnus in 2015.
“The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO’s noisy data and extracted the waves’ information. It is unfortunate that, due to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize has to go to no more than three people, when our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand.”
—Kip Thorne, at Caltech on October 3, 2017
2017 Nobel Prize Ceremony
Dec 10, 2017