New Zealand scientists have congratulated the winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics - and paid tribute to the influential Kiwi mathematician who helped build the body of science their landmark discovery was based on.

Overnight, the coveted honour was awarded to Professor Barry Barish and Professor Kip Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology, and Professor Rainer Weiss, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for their ground-breaking work to detect gravitational waves for the first time.

Gravitational waves are ripples, comparable to sound, that travel through space at the speed of light.

Before Barish, Thorne, Weiss and their colleagues at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last year confirmed their existence, they had only been theorised, having been predicted a century before by Albert Einstein.


Now, scientists could see how the universe works in an entirely new way, just as we could observe the surface of a pond stirred by ripples.

Because waves were neither scattered nor absorbed by the material they pass through, scientists could peer right into the heart of some of the most extreme environments in the universe, like black holes and neutron star.

Effectively, humans could now conduct fundamental physics experiments under conditions that can never be copied in a lab on Earth.

University of Auckland head of physics Professor Richard Easther said LIGO's detection of the waves, formed by the violent merging of two black holes in deep space, was a "huge discovery".

"That's because it confirms the prediction that was made by Albert Einstein about the ways that black holes interact with each other," he said.

"And on the other hand, it involved probably the most sensitive experimental effort that's ever been undertaken, in any science anywhere, in order to actually measure the gravitational waves as they pass the Earth."

A New Zealand member of LIGO, Cardiff University gravitational wave astronomer Professor Mark Hannam, said the LIGO detectors were the most sensitive measuring devices ever built by human beings.

"And they were able to measure one of the tiniest and strangest effects ever - the wobbling of space and time that Einstein predicted 100 years ago," Hannam said.

"Gravitational waves from black holes colliding is amazing science, but the most incredible achievement was just getting these instruments built, and that's what Rai, Kip and Barry did."

University of Auckland astrophysicist Dr JJ Eldridge said that, with each detection of gravitational waves, scientists could push their models further and widen our understanding of the universe.

"As a scientist, it's one of those things that makes you go, oh wow."

Hannam said the Nobel win was "incredibly exciting" - although his colleagues at LIGO had been half expecting it.

"We were ready with the champagne."

Another Kiwi scientist involved with LIGO, Dr Karl Wette, of the Australian National University, also noted the win didn't come as a surprise.

"Gravitational waves have been the standout discovery in physics in the last few years, so you'd have been hard pressed to bet against gravitational waves taking out the Nobel," he said.

"But it's still an incredible honour to have our field recognised with such a prestigious honour."

Hannam also noted the contribution of fellow New Zealander Emeritus Professor Roy Kerr.

Much of the work under-pinning the discovery of the waves could be traced back to his seminal theoretical work more than 50 years ago.

The first gravitational-wave detection was from two black holes colliding, and merging into one spinning black hole.

Kerr, last year honoured with the $1 million Crafoord Prize by the King of Sweden, discovered the spinning black hole solution to Einstein's equations, which was the most difficult and most important solution yet found.

"And now we've measured the waves coming off one of those black hole," Hannam said.

"In a few years we hope to see a signal strong enough to know for sure that black holes in nature perfectly match Kerr's calculation."

While the three Nobel winners had played a long and leading part in the discovery, Easther pointed out there was a cast of thousands of physicists that should also be acknowledged.

"In keeping with tradition for the physics Nobel, the Nobel committee has honoured three of the founding scientists of LIGO, and deservedly so for the vision they have showed in getting LIGO built and funded," Wette added.

"That said, to get to where we are now has required the effort of thousands of scientists, from all over the world and from many different backgrounds - even a few from little old New Zealand.

"At a time where so many political issues seek to divide us, it's worth being reminded of what can be achieved when we put aside our differences and work towards a common goal."

Easther also noted how, in its 116-year history, only two women - Professor Marie Curie and Professor Maria Goeppert Mayer - had ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

"It has a shameful record of overlooking worthy candidates in that regard."