Winning the Nobel Prize would cap most physicists’ careers. For 2017 winner Rainer Weiss, the prize might not even have been the biggest moment of his year.
The 85-year-old professor emeritus at MIT shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for conceiving and shepherding a set of observatories that allowed scientists to prove Einstein’s assertion about gravitational waves: accelerating objects send ripples cascading through the universe at light speed. The invisible waves are so faint that even the most powerful distort space-time by less than the width of a human hair over trillions of miles. Einstein himself wondered later if they really existed, and doubted they could be detected.
But in 2015, observatories Weiss had proposed 50 years earlier, and assiduously helped create, actually discerned billion-year-old gravitational waves flying by Earth from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away. That finding, published in 2016, grabbed headlines around the world and led to Weiss and two longtime collaborators receiving the nod from the Nobel committee.
If that seemed like the end of a half-century quest, it was merely prelude. Black holes emit no light. But last summer, these new observatories “heard” a different signal — gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars — and coordinated with telescopes on Earth and in space to see the collision’s immediate aftermath, a burst of cosmic fireworks known as a kilonova. That rich display also provided a feast of data about the mysteries of the cosmos and opened a new era of “eyes and ears” astronomy that scientists have likened to the moment movies added sound.
Weiss, allergic to praise and addicted to lab work still, insists he’s just one cog amid thousands in a feat of Big Science. Peers say otherwise, comparing Weiss to Galileo, who pointed a spyglass at the sky and invented modern astronomy.