Quirks & Quarks

How a Nobel prize winner almost messed up his award-winning experiment

Dr. Rainer Weiss from MIT shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on gravitational wave detection.
Dr. Rainer Weiss shares the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the detection of gravitational waves (M. Scott Brauer)

The prize 

Dr. Rainer Weiss from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with colleagues Dr. Kip Thorne and Dr. Barry Barish, both from the California Institute of Technology, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the first observations of gravitational waves. These waves were first detected in 2015 by the LIGO, the Laser Interferometery Gravitational-wave Observatory, which all three worked on from the project's inception.  

The long path to discovery

Dr. Weiss is a pioneer in developing laser interferometery, which allows the measurement of the size of space on the scale of fractions of a proton.  In the early '70s he developed this idea as a way to potentially observe gravitational waves, which are created when enormous disturbances of mass — like the collision of two black holes — actually stretch and compress space itself by tiny amounts. 

Eventually Dr. Weiss's table-top experiments were scaled up to the enormous twin LIGO detectors in Washington State and Louisiana, which he continued to help develop.  In fact, on the day of the famous first detection of gravitational waves, he almost started tinkering with the detectors, and had he done so, that first detection might not have happened. The LIGO project has now detected serveral gravitational wave events — all due to the collisions and mergers of enormously distant black holes.

The LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites, one near Hanford in eastern Washington, and another near Livingston, Louisiana. This photo shows the Hanford detector site. (LIGO)

The future

The detection of gravitational waves was a triumph, but only the start. LIGO, and other gravitational wave detectors, are meant ultimately to act as observatories — telescopes that see the universe in gravity the way optical telescopes see the universe with light waves. So Dr. Weiss's work should give us a new way to see the cosmos.