Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


Rainer Weiss: The Tinkerer

Rainer Weiss

2017 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves

  • Rai Weiss, born September 1932, is an American physicist known for his contributions to gravitational physics and astrophysics.
  • He's a professor emeritus at MIT and one of the leaders of the LIGO experiment for which he received a share of the 2017 Nobel prize in physics.
    • LIGO is the large-scale physics experiment using detectors on opposite sides of the country to monitor the cosmos for the gravitational waves, a phenomenon that general relativity tells us should be emanating from catastrophic astrophysical events.
  • When Rai was younger he didn't have much interest in the Nobel prize.
  • But even when he won he had mixed feelings.
    • His work at LIGO involved 50 or so people from Caltech and MIT plus another thousand people working in collaboration toward a single goal.
      • "This was a great big group of people and it's sort of awkward for you to be pulled out of that group and given something which is actually a group effort." - Rai Weiss
  • The only way that Rai could reconcile his feelings on winning the Nobel was to consider himself a symbol for the others.
    • "Here is something that society thinks is something that they relish and think is good. And they have given it [the Nobel prize] as a thing, as a symbol to science as something which society badly wants and loves. And that piece of it is the part that we all share." - Rai Weiss
  • Has Rai ever suffered from imposter syndrome?
    • Absolutely!
    • Rai recounts the experience of receiving the Nobel prize.
      • "As I was walking away from him, I said 'This is ridiculous. I mean, how do I fit in the same group as Heisenberg or Fermi, or you name it? I mean, this is complete nonsense. And so that's where the imposter thing comes in. - Rai Weiss
  • What is Rai's take on the difference in the prestige of a theoretical scientist versus an experimental scientist?
    • Rai admits it's a complicated question.
    • Many of the Nobel prizes awarded before the revolution of quantum mechanics involved things we now consider pedestrian.
    • But he also pinpoints a difference in the European and American scientific epochs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
      • "[In Europe], it was the experimenters that were considered the people who did everything. In other words, theorists were considered something which was more mathematical. They were not really the scientists." - Rai Weiss
      • But the dynamic between theorists and experimenters was different in America.
        • Isidor Isaac Rabi was a central figure in American experimental physics during the 1930s.
          • Rabi realized that the physics work in the U.S. was well divided between theory and experiment.
          • A lot of his work on molecular beam resonance imaging could not have been done without theorists like Julian Schwinger, who helped Rabi and others understand the complexities of quantum mechanics and the mathematics involved in their applications.
        • "[The experimenters] needed theorists. And so instead of being the handmaiden of the of the experimenters, they became individuals on their own." - Rai Weiss
    • The ability for children and adults to learn by tinkering has declined in recent decades.
      • Once upon a time, you could buy chemistry sets with ferric and hydrochloric acid, but now you only get vinegar, baking soda, and some chalk.
        • Rai attributes this shift is to lawyers and the increased litigiousness in our country 
      • Many experimental physicists from his time tinkered and built things independently.
        • "When high school kids say to me 'What should I do to be able to do physics?' I say go rent yourself off to a guy and learn a trade." - Rai Weiss
          • This experience teaches tacit problem-solving skills that are difficult, if not impossible, to learn otherwise.
      • Rai spent a lot of his childhood in NYC building what he calls "street electronics" - a collection of half-assed experiments where some things were right and some were wrong.
      • He considers his experiences with "street electronics" an instrument of luck in three parts.
        • First was the availability of surplus electronics generated by the war efforts during WWII.
          • Rai recalls the "good junk" that was found along Cortlandt Street in Manhattan.
        • Second was a movie theater in Brooklyn that suffered a fire behind its screen.
          • Rai was able to salvage some Altec Lansing loudspeakers by unscrewing them from the back of the screen.
        • Third was the commercialization of FM radio.
          • Rai recalls being able to listen to the New York Philharmonic on the radio and it sounding like he was right in the pit.
      • These experiences intervened later in his life after he flunked out of MIT during his junior year.
        • "I walked all around an old building at MIT called building 20, which is where the radar was developed. And I found a lab which looked to me like they could use an electronics technician. And it turned out they could. And I became a union member. I dropped out of school completely and became a card-carrying union member and became an electronics technician for a couple of years." - Rai Weiss
      • Rai credits Jerrold R. Zacharias for saving him "in every way possible."
        • Zacharias was working on atomic clocks.
          • He recruited Rai to help him with his experiments in testing his atomic clocks.
  • When do you know to give up on an experiment?
    • Rai recounts how it was Zacharias who gave up on the atomic clock.
      • He had much bigger fish to fry.
        • Zacharias was convinced that America's primary and secondary education in science and mathematics was severely lacking.
        • So in 1956, he quit the atomic clock experiment to pursue educational reforms.
    • Rai only wanted to find out why the clock didn't work.
      • It only took a few months to find out what was wrong.
        • Zacharias attempted to implement an atomic fountain using a thermal beam of atoms, under the assumption that the atoms at the low-velocity end of the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution would be of sufficiently low energy to execute a reasonably sized parabolic trajectory.
        • However, the attempt was not successful because fast atoms in a thermal beam struck the low-velocity atoms and scattered them.
    • Rai says that you give up on experiments when you know what went wrong and there's something to be learned, or if you find yourself bottlenecked by technology.
      • "And then you find out somewhere later in your life 'Oh my God, here's this piece of technology that solves that problem that I worked on that didn't work before.' And sometimes that was very useful. And by the way, that's remarkably what happened in LIGO." - Rai Weiss
  • Did Rai doubt there would ever be a detection of gravitational waves?
    • Here we enter the realm of science history.
    • The story begins in 1916 when Einstein writes a paper on perturbation theories.
    • Einstein does everything right: he gets the kinematics right and takes a big guess that they travel at the velocity of light, which we now know to an exquisite precision.
    • His work ultimately says a thing that is spherically symmetric that expands uniformly and that contracts uniformly will radiate.
      • "That is a no-no." - Rai Weiss
    • At the very end of the paper, Einstein starts doing a little dimensional analysis.
      • The orders of magnitudes of the strains, the metric terms, are correct.
      • But, it turns out it's for the wrong motions.
      • Einstein makes one simple statement at the end:
        • “This thing we have just been talking about in this paper will never have any influence in physics. It is much too small to even be contemplated.”
    • Then in 1918, he wrote another paper, solely about gravitational waves, but he does not say anything about the believability of seeing them.
    • This is a paper he writes with Nathan Rosen and submits to the Physical Review.
      • They solved to see if there is a solution to the Einstein equations which is purely radiative and proved that it can’t be done.
    • Physical Review receives the paper and a guy named Howard Robertson, who was at Princeton, is set to review it, but it takes a while for the review to take place.
      • When Robertson's review is finally completed, Einstein sees what he did, is unhappy, and submits it to the Franklin Institute Journal instead.
    • The final mistake is the disaster associated with Joseph Weber.
      • Weber developed the first gravitational wave detectors (Weber bars) in the 1960s and began publishing papers with evidence that he had detected these waves.
        • In 1972, he sent a gravitational wave detection apparatus to the moon (the "Lunar Surface Gravimeter", part of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package) on the Apollo 17 lunar mission.
        • In the 1970s, the results of these gravitational wave experiments were largely discredited, although Weber continued to argue that he had detected gravitational waves.
        • To test Weber's results, IBM Physicist Richard Garwin built a detector that was similar to Joseph Weber's.
        • In six months, it detected only one pulse, which was most likely noise.
        •  David Douglass, another physicist, had discovered an error in Weber's computer program that, he claimed, produced the daily gravitational wave signals that Weber claimed to have detected.
          • Because of the error, a signal seemed to appear out of noise.
    • "The sad part is that when it came to defending what he (Weber) had, this measurement, he did not do it in a way that most scientists would do. He just said, “You did not do it my way.” He did not discuss how he measured this sensitivity. Eventually, all of that was done, but he did not actually talk about, “Let’s compare the notes. How did you do it? How did I do it?” He just said, “You did not do it my way.” - Rai Weiss
    • What is important, however, is that Weber invented many technologies that we now use for detecting gravitational waves.
      • But it was not an overall collaborative endeavor.
      • According to Rai, collaboration issues have less to do with rivalry and more to do with incompatible working styles.
  • When Rai started at MIT, they wanted no part of his work on detecting gravitational waves and he could not set graduate students on the prototype.
    • Why?
      • Because it was engineering.
      • There was not going to be any science coming out of it.
      • MIT wasn't going to risk a graduate student's life on something which did not look to them like it would be worth the trouble.
  • Phil Morrison was dead set against it as well.
  • He invented the most uncommon, most incredible schemes to make it so you did not have to invoke a black hole for what the X-ray astronomers were seeing.
    • Consequently, there was no sympathy for black holes at MIT at all.
    • They felt that the technology was too hard and also there were no sources anyway.
  • Rai found himself in a very complicated situation.
    • "What came of it is that I felt the only way I could stay in business at MIT and in this business is to immediately start pushing for a LIGO." - Rai Weiss
  • Raid had proof you could not detect gravitational waves with a small device.
    • "Even though not everything was working yet, I said, “Look, if I am going to work on this thing, it has got to be on a scale. It has to be scaled up and then we are going to have new problems when we do that.” We got to find out what those problems are." - Rai Weiss
  • When gravitational wave detection was first suspected, Rai admits that they didn't know what they had.
    • "The very first thing we did was put blind injections into the data. That is a famous story. Everybody went sniffing around. The people who were going to make the blind injections had not even written the software yet, okay? So that was out, but it took a day to find that out. That did not end it. That was easy." - Rai Weiss
  • The next question was, how do they know they weren't hacked?
    • "The hacker hypothesis took us almost four or five weeks to get rid of it and we had a very good man within the LIGO, Matt Evans who is now an associate professor at MIT, who took it on. Did a hacker get into the software? Did a hacker get into the tapes that recorded the data? Did hackers get into the hardware? Did hackers get into the photo detectors? Did they get into the laser?" - Rai Weiss
      Ultimately they could not prove there wasn't a hacker, but the hackers would have needed such specific knowledge and access that the theory became implausible.
    • It was easier to say nature did it.
  • How do you choose which projects and experiments to work on?
    • "The first question I ask myself is: is it interesting? Am I going to do something which is an interesting thing to me or even anybody else? The other one, which is much more pedestrian: is it fun? I found both those things kind of fun and important and they started in my lab at about the same time." - Rai Weiss
  • Can an experiment get so big that it loses that interest and fun factor that made LIGO appeal to you so much?
    • "There is a difference between LIGO and high-energy physics. There were still so many things that used your imagination and made you feel that yes, you had a job to do and if it succeeded, you would have another interesting thing to work on. So you still felt within a constraint that you could not take crazy things on anymore, but that you were functioning in something which was very important and what you were working on was fun." - Rai Weiss
  • What kind of wisdom would you leave to future generations that you have accumulated?
    • "It is the advice that I give everybody, but I give it to myself also: 'If it isn’t fun, get out of it.'" - Rai Weiss
  • If you had your billion-year time capsule, what would you put on it?
    • "Well, that is a hard one. Boy, I have not thought about that. I think the most important thing is look around and see if you can draw conclusions. That would be my, I mean, I do not think I can tell you anything better than that." - Rai Weiss
  • What advice would Rai give to his 20-year old self?
    • "You just do not make anything up that is of very much value until you have been around to think a little bit about it. That is one of the things. But the thing I would say is make sure that you keep looking at the fresh ideas that occur to you because some of them might actually be interesting. Do not just say it is too hard. If you think there is something there, it is worth your time. I can say this with what happened to me over and over again." - Rai Weiss

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