To the gravitational wave pioneer Rainer Weiss on his 90th birthday

SRainer Weiss has had two passions since his youth: music and electronics. An interest in music – Weiss enjoys playing the piano and is good at it – is perhaps not surprising for the son of an actress and a Jewish Berlin doctor from a wealthy family. Shortly after their son was born in Berlin, the family had to flee from the Nazis, first to Prague and then to New York in 1939. Later, however, music almost cost him his career, even before it had even started: one day, as a physics student at MIT in Boston, he fell in love with a musician so badly that he followed her to Illinois and was expelled from the university because of it.

Ulf von Rauchhaupt

Editor in the “Science” section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper.

What saved him was the electronics. Even as a teenager, Rainer Weiss knew how to use a soldering iron and earned money by building hi-fi systems. Now this knowledge enabled him to remain at MIT, albeit initially only as a technician in the laboratory. There, physics professor Jarrold Zacharias recognized his talent and enabled him to continue his studies. After completing his doctorate, Weiss went to astrophysicist Robert Dicke at Princeton University and in 1964 back to MIT, where he made a name for himself with balloon detectors. His measurements confirmed that the cosmic background radiation followed the spectrum of a so-called black body, even at short wavelengths, and thus decisively supported the Big Bang theory. There are those who think that Rainer Weiss should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.

He then received the award in 2017 together with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the first detection of a gravitational wave with the Ligo detectors in the American states of Washington and Louisiana, which had been published just a year earlier and whose basic experimental physics idea was von Weiss originates. How he came up with it is a textbook example of how beneficial teaching commitments can be for researchers. As a young MIT professor, Weiss was scramble to give a lecture on Einstein’s theory of gravitation, a subject he understood so little at the time that he was rarely more than a week ahead of his students.

It therefore became quite an interactive lesson, in which one day Weiss was asked about the results of the physicist Joseph Webers from the University of Maryland. At the time, Weber believed he had detected the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory by recording vibrations in large aluminum cylinders. Weber’s measurements were controversial from the start and, in retrospect, his positive findings were actually a mistake. Weiss, however, brought the discussion to the idea of ​​an alternative method for detecting gravitational waves – using interfering laser beams. Such an experimental setup was first realized on a small scale by a group led by Heinz Billing at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich. Billing’s data showed that Weiss’ measuring principle worked and could be scaled up. Thanks to the Munich results, Rainer Weiss and his collaborating partners at Caltech finally got the money to realize the giant Ligo detectors. Almost a hundred gravitational-wave signals have now been detected with it. On September 29 Rainer Weiss will be celebrating his 90th birthday.


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