Metro

MIT professor named Nobel laureate in physics

Professor Rainer Weiss is the 32nd Nobel laureate from the physics department at MIT.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Professor Rainer Weiss is the 32nd Nobel laureate from the physics department at MIT.

CAMBRIDGE — Sixty-five years after he failed out of MIT — finding his way back as a lab technician with a soldering iron and a union card — Rainer Weiss got the call from Sweden.

For a moment, he thought the 5:15 a.m. phone call Tuesday might be a spoof. But as he blinked awake in Newton, Weiss decided the “subtle Swedish-English accent” on the line was too good to be phony. He, along with two other scientists, had indeed won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, recognizing his decades of determination to detect the gravitational waves first imagined by Albert Einstein.

A no-fuss emeritus professor who curses freely and still works six days a week at 85, Weiss may have been the only one harboring doubts. The global collaboration and massive observatories (known as LIGO) that Weiss conceived and helped will to fruition had already won a raft of prizes for their initial 2016 findings. That breakthrough opened the gates to a new field called gravitational-wave astronomy and made the rare crossover to popular culture, inspiring cellphone ringtones and landing on late-night TV. Many believed it was not a question of if Weiss would win but when.

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Weiss’s colleagues were so convinced that three dozen had already gathered around a Cambridge conference table laden with coffee and pastries to watch the predawn stream from Stockholm. When they heard “Rainer Weiss” amid the Swedish, they erupted, throwing up their arms and hooting as if Weiss had just dived past the pylons to win the Super Bowl.

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By midmorning, Weiss had donned a rare necktie and seldom-worn flannel suit and reached campus, drawing one ovation as he came down a hallway to a waiting crowd, and a second after he waded through them for a press conference in the physics department’s Pappalardo Community Room, amid still more hugs, plus shrugs and banter from Weiss (“Wow, they got the whole gang here . . . Crazy morning”).

MIT president L. Rafael Reif approached the lectern first, beneath a banner for the department of physics, which had just produced its 32nd Nobel laureate. Few, however, have been associated with MIT as long as Weiss (who arrived as a freshman in 1950) or followed a more unlikely trajectory to campus hero.

Calling the experiments “a scientific triumph,” Reif said: “We are profoundly inspired by the brilliant leadership and decades of ingenuity, optimism, and perseverance that brought it to life. Today’s announcement reminds us on a grand scale of the value, importance, and thrill — thrill — of basic scientific research, and why it deserves society’s collective support.”

Many in the room already knew Weiss’s story, a failed undergraduate who worked his way back as an hourly lab tech and won over noted physicist Jerrold Zacharias.

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But even after earning a faculty post, Weiss barely obtained tenure. Colleagues considered him a starry-eyed flake, committed to trying to detect and measure otherwise imperceptible space-time ripples using a massive version of a tabletop device known as an interferometer, which splits and times beams of light.

Some in Cambridge doubted the existence of gravitational waves, which Einstein said were thrown off by any accelerating object, from a waving hand to a massive body moving in a distant part of the universe. Others thought they were too faint to bother. Even Einstein died in 1955 doubting anything would ever be sensitive enough to perceive them.

But Weiss was convinced it would be possible to build interferometers big enough, powerful enough, and sensitive enough — using miles-long vacuum tubes, huge lasers, and near-flawless mirrors — not just to measure minute changes in a laser-beam path caused by the jostling of the mirrors, but to know when that jostling was caused by gravitational waves and not a falling tree or the rumbling of the earth.

Weiss acknowledged the applause of his colleagues.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Weiss acknowledged the applause of his colleagues.

Weiss hit on that idea during his sole semester teaching relativity and later refined it in a 1972 paper. But it gained momentum only after he won over noted young theorist Kip Thorne, who lent the weight of a more nimble institution, Caltech. Their interest ultimately helped the work win sustained support from the National Science Foundation and Congress, yielding the first two in a series of L-shaped observatories worldwide inspired by Weiss.

Upon reaching the lectern, Weiss immediately asked his dozens of LIGO colleagues in the room to stand for their own ovation. “It’s not on my shoulders, the whole thing,” he said, describing the “crucial work” of so many, especially Thorne, advancing the theories of what they might detect and algorithms to parse the data, and Caltech physicist Barry Barish, who knit a coalition together and rode herd on the vagaries of funding. The Nobel committee awarded Weiss half of the $1.1 million prize and Thorne and Barish each a quarter.

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Weiss devoted most of his 20 minutes of remarks to enthusiastic talk of physics — waving his arms as he compressed and stretched the air before him to demonstrate how gravitational waves work.

He scarcely spoke of himself until the requisite Q and A, except to clarify that he and his colleagues had not seen their work as an all-or-nothing quest that might never succeed, but as an invigorating series of challenges, perpetually improving their laser-mirror-vacuum configurations to achieve new sensitivity.

“That’s still going on, and it will go on forever,” said Weiss, who continues to ponder the challenges on site visits to the Louisiana and Washington observatories. “That’s my real pleasure.”

The gravitational-wave detectors have now recorded four distinct signals from massive collisions more than 1 billion light-years away, including a first detection on Sept. 14, 2015, that was so clear — and so soon after finally getting the observatories up and running — that Weiss and others wondered initially if it might be a fake to test the system or the work of a rogue.

But it held up to scrutiny, as did subsequent detections, all of colliding black holes. An exuberant Weiss Tuesday suggested they had recently detected a different cosmic occurrence, alluding to a “whoop-dee-doo” announcement planned later this month, before buttoning up.

He finally allowed himself to be led away to a still-larger celebration across campus, where hundreds waited to hail him in a jammed hall lined with platters of sandwiches and fresh fruit.

On the way, up and down stairs, through one labyrinthine corridor after another, he waved off offers to help with his overstuffed laptop bag, and he stopped suddenly to examine a poster in the department of aeronautics and astronautics (“Sensitivity Analysis of Chaotic Fluid Dynamics Similarities”) — an 85-year-old Nobel winner, late to his own party, energized as ever by the thrill of scientific discovery.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.