Autobiography of Rainer Weiss
I was born in Berlin, Germany on September 29, 1932. My father was a neurologist who had rebelled against his family of well-off intellectual German jews with connections to the Rathenau family. He had become an idealistic communist. My mother was a Protestant who had rebelled against her family by becoming an actress. In 1932 the family emigrated to Prague, Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis. In 1937 my sister Sybille was born. In September of 1938, after Chamberlain effectively gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler, we emigrated to the United States with the help of the Stix family of St Louis, arriving in New York in January 1939.
I received a scholarship to the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York graduating in 1950. After the end of WW II, with the ready availability of surplus electronics components I began to construct and service radios, ultimately designing, constructing and selling hi-fidelity music systems to people interested in classical music.
I started at MIT in Electrical Engineering then switched to physics. After a life-changing love affair which started me on learning the piano, I lost the girl and flunked out of MIT in 1953. I became an electronics technician in Professor Jerrold Zacharias’s Atomic and Molecular beam laboratory which had developed the first practical atomic clock based on the hyperfine structure of Cesium. I worked with Zacharias to develop a new clock based on an atomic fountain with the intent of significantly greater precision to enable a terrestrial test of the Einstein Red Shift. The new clock didn’t work but the idea of measuring the red shift got me into experimental gravitation and relativity. In 1957 I married Rebecca Young, a plant physiologist who later became a children’s librarian.
In 1962, with our new daughter Sarah, we moved to Princeton for me to be a Post-Doctoral scientist with Robert Dicke who was bringing research in gravitation and General Relativity back from mathematics into physics. I learned critical experimental techniques from him: the idea of using feedback in mechanical experiments to damp and linearize, and the technique of modulating the effect to be measured to eliminate 1/f noise. The experiment I did was to search for scalar gravitational waves with a gravimeter to detect excitation of the monopole vibrational mode of the Earth at a 20.4 minute period.
In 1964 I returned to MIT on the Physics faculty and started a new group dedicated to Cosmology and Gravitation, working initially on the absolute frequency stabilization of lasers and a laser interferometer experiment to establish a limit on a tired photon hypothesis for the cosmological red shift. The interferometer operated at the quantum limit.
In 1967 I was asked to teach a General Relativity course. Not being very knowledgeable on the subject, I was at best one day ahead of the students; when we came to gravitational waves, I did not understand the interaction between the Weber bar and gravitational waves. I presented an alternate gedanken experiment: timing light between two free masses each carrying a clock travelling on adjacent geodesics. The gravitational waves change the travel time of light between the masses. My son Benjamin was born during this course. It was also the time when we began to study the spectrum and spatial isotropy of the cosmic background radiation from balloon platforms which ultimately led to COBE.
In 1972 I went back to the gedanken experiment to see if it could be converted into a real experiment. By using optical interferometry with powerful lasers between free masses, and with some tricks such as km scale multipass arms and modulation techniques on the light, it seemed possible to achieve astrophysically interesting sensitivity. I wrote a report on the idea and began to build a prototype system at MIT. Groups that had been working on Weber type detectors in Germany and Scotland began working on interferometric detectors as well.
In 1975 I was asked to chair a committee to determine the role of the space programme in cosmology and gravitation. Kip Thorne gave testimony to the committee. While together we discussed his interest in starting a new experimental group to complement the outstanding theoretical group he had started at Caltech. One of the areas we discussed was the detection of gravitational waves by interferometric techniques. After further consultation, he invited Drever from Scotland to start such a group. It was during this time that Kip and I began to think of collaboration between Caltech and MIT groups.
From 1980 through 1983 the MIT group, with help from Stan Whitcomb of Caltech, did a study with industry to establish the feasibility of constructing a long baseline interferometric gravitational wave detector system. The conclusion was that the technology was available to make a detector system that could reach interesting sensitivities. Caltech and MIT groups presented the results to an NSF committee which considered LIGO a risky but possibly high payoff project appropriate for a national programme. Even so, the NSF had difficulty getting approval to begin LIGO. In 1986 a special committee composed of scientists not directly involved with the programme made a positive recommendation to go forward. The committee also urged a single director to run the project. Rochus Vogt became the first Director and in 1994 Barry Barish, the second Director, successfully made the transition from a tabletop research programme to LIGO as big science.
My children also made significant transitions. Sarah became an ethnomusicologist and is now faculty at Yale-National University of Singapore while Benjamin became an art historian and is now Head of the Collection at the Fine Arts Museum in Boston. Sister Sybille had started as an actress and has become a successful playwright. Sam, the one grandchild, has an interest in physics.
27 September 2016 Hong Kong