Science
    Next Score View the next score

    MIT professor named Nobel laureate in physics

    MIT professor Rainer Weiss, one of three recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics, stopped by his office before his press conference Tuesday.
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
    MIT professor Rainer Weiss, one of three recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics, stopped by his office before his press conference Tuesday.

    An MIT professor emeritus was one of three recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for discovering a way to detect gravitational waves in space, a breakthrough that the academy said launched a “revolution in our knowledge of the universe.”

    Rainer Weiss, a Newton resident, was telephoned from Sweden early Tuesday. “It’s kind of exciting to be called from Sweden, I must say,’’ Weiss said in a telephone interview with the Globe. “Even though you don’t have all your wits about you at that time of the morning.”

    Weiss and the MIT community had anticipated a new avenue in basic science might earn Weiss and his co-winners, Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish, the Nobel for physics this year. Weiss said he slept soundly, but his wife, Rebecca Weiss, said she woke up every hour hoping to hear the phone ring, she said.

    Advertisement

    The three men were selected for their varying roles in creating the LIGO, or Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which proved Albert Einstein’s gravitational theories for the first time on Sept. 14, 2015, a finding that was publicly announced on Feb. 11, 2016.

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Weiss said he was the experimenter, Thorne the theoretician, and Barish the person who stitched together a complex organization of some 1,000 people around the world and oversaw the development of the machinery that made theories a reality.

    “It’s not going to make you rich, or improve the productivity of the United States,’’ Weiss said of the fundamental scientific discovery he helped achieve. “But it is going to change the way you look at the way you fit into the universe. It makes you understand what’s going on all around us in the vastness of the universe.”

    Weiss said he and others were not the first to search for a way to confirm the existence of gravitational waves, but he and his co-winners were the first to match technology with theory and detect movements in space so “tiny, tiny” they are expressed mathematically as 10 minutes 21 meters.

    “Most people realize that the universe has these black holes, and they are scary when you read about them in comic books,’’ Weiss said. “They collide with each other. . . . We are going to learn a great deal about the universe, what is all around us, by looking at gravitational waves. . . . I think it captures the imagination of young people.”

    Advertisement

    Weiss graduated from MIT in 1955, earned his doctorate there in 1962, and has been a professor at Tufts University, Princeton University, and at MIT. He is the 88th winner of the Nobel associated with MIT as a faculty, researcher, or staff member.

    MIT president L. Rafael Reif and Weiss will hold a press conference at MIT this morning.

    “The creativity and rigor of the LIGO experiment constitute a scientific triumph; we are profoundly inspired by the decades of ingenuity, optimism, and perseverance that made it possible,” Reif said in a statement. “It is especially sweet that Rai Weiss not only served on the MIT faculty for 37 years, but is also an MIT graduate.”

    Weiss is being awarded half of the Nobel Prize money, while Thorne and Barish split the other 50 percent. Barish and Thorne both were associated with the California Institute of Technology at the time of their Nobel-winning research.

    LIGO research is overseen by Caltech and MIT, while the detectors themselves are located 3,002 miles apart in Hanaford, Wash., and Livingston, La., according to the LIGO website. The two facilities operate as one when detection efforts are underway.

    Advertisement

    “I’m positively delighted that the Nobel Committee has recognized the LIGO discovery and its profound impact on the way we view the cosmos,” David Reitze, executive director of LIGO, said in a statement. “This prize rewards not just Kip, Rai, and Barry but also the large number of very smart and dedicated scientists and engineers who worked tirelessly over the past decades to make LIGO a reality.”

    This story will be updated as more details become available.

    Rainer Weiss (right) spoke on the phone with the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, shortly after learning he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for his Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) work as his wife Rebecca (left) looks on in their home in Newton
    SCOTT BRAUER/MIT via EPA
    Rainer Weiss (right) spoke on the phone with the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, shortly after learning he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for his LIGO work as his wife, Rebecca (left), looked on in their home in Newton.

    The 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Physics Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barrish, and Kip S. Thorne (on screen left to right) were presented on a screen while being announced the Nobel Prize laureates in Stockholm, Sweden.
    JESSICA GOW/European PressPhoto Agency
    The 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Physics Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barrish, and Kip S. Thorne (on screen left to right) were presented on a screen while being announced the Nobel Prize laureates in Stockholm, Sweden.

    Sean Smyth can be reached at sean.smyth@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @smythsays.John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.