Photo of Rainier Weiss by Bryce Vickmark
Image: Bryce Vickmark

You’ve perhaps read about him already: Rainer Weiss, the man who dedicated his life to an enormous experiment that, against all odds, proved Einstein right. You’ve likely heard his name if you follow astrophysics news, or science news, or even just The News—so noteworthy was the announcement this past February of humanity’s first detection of gravitational waves, caused by the unfathomably distant collision of two black holes.

Now, an extensive profile in the Boston Globe narrates the backstory of the man colleagues describe as the intellectual father and chief mechanic of that discovery.

These days, Rainer Weiss ’55, PhD ’62 is a revered professor emeritus of physics at MIT. Along with a large team of collaborators, he has just received both the $500,000 Gruber Cosmology Prize and the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. But the Globe goes back in time to relate how the young Rai, the German-born son of an actor and a neurologist, took a nearly permanent detour from MIT to woo a young woman he met on a ferry (“I flunked the girl. I flunked out… Every way possible, I flunked”); how an MIT professor recruited him from a ramshackle lab to help build the world’s first commercial atomic clock (which is now on view in the Smithsonian); and how pinch-hitting as an instructor for a course on relativity led Weiss to formulate the experiment that became LIGO. Weiss’s brainchild, formally known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, involved the efforts of a thousand colleagues—and numerous technical and funding obstacles—on its way to making this winter’s headlines about “the chirp heard ’round the universe.”

For science-trivia lovers, the Globe article also reveals how a hotel-booking glitch led to a fateful conversation about theoretical physics, and what Weiss exclaimed when he saw the telltale signal in LIGO’s overnight logs.

Read the full story in the Globe.

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