Rainer Weiss

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Rainer Weiss
Rainer Weiss after a conference in Almeria.jpg
Weiss in June 2018
Born (1932-09-29) September 29, 1932 (age 87)
Education Massachusetts Institute of Technology (BS, MS, PhD)
Known forPioneering laser interferometric gravitational wave observation
Awards Einstein Prize (2007)
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016)
Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2016)
Shaw Prize (2016)
Kavli Prize (2016)
Harvey Prize (2016)
Princess of Asturias Award (2017)
Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Laser physics
Experimental gravitation
Cosmic background measurements
Institutions Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Thesis Stark Effect and Hyperfine Structure of Hydrogen Fluoride  (1962)
Doctoral advisor Jerrold R. Zacharias
Doctoral students Nergis Mavalvala
Other notable students Bruce Allen
Sarah Veatch
Influences Robert H. Dicke
Rainer Weiss during Nobel Prize press conference in Stockholm, December 2017 Rainer Weiss EM1B8841 (24027015857).jpg
Rainer Weiss during Nobel Prize press conference in Stockholm, December 2017

Rainer "Rai" Weiss ( /ws/ ; German: [vaɪs] ; born September 29, 1932) is an American physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. He is a professor of physics emeritus at MIT and an adjunct professor at LSU. He is best known for inventing the laser interferometric technique which is the basic operation of LIGO. He was Chair of the COBE Science Working Group. [1] [2] [3]


He is a member of Fermilab Holometer experiment, which uses a 40m laser interferometer to measure properties of space and time at quantum scale and provide Planck-precision tests of quantum holographic fluctuation. [4] [5]

In 2017, Weiss was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves". [6] [7] [8] [9]

Early life and education

Rainer Weiss was born in Berlin, Germany, the son of Gertrude Loesner and Frederick A. Weiss. [10] [11] His father, a physician, neurologist, and psychoanalyst, was forced out of Germany by Nazis because he was Jewish and an active member of the Communist Party. His mother, a Christian, was an actress. [12] His aunt was the sociologist, Hilda Weiss. The family fled first to Prague, but Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia after the 1938 Munich Agreement caused them to flee; the philanthropic Stix family of St. Louis enabled them to obtain visas to enter the United States. [13] Weiss spent his youth in New York City, where he attended Columbia Grammar School. He studied at MIT and after dropping out in his junior year [14] returned to receive his S.B. degree in 1955 and Ph.D. degree in 1962 from Jerrold Zacharias. [15]

He taught at Tufts University from 1960 to 1962, was a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University from 1962 to 1964, and then joined the faculty at MIT in 1964. [10]


Weiss brought two fields of fundamental physics research from birth to maturity: characterization of the cosmic background radiation, [3] and interferometric gravitational wave observation.

He made pioneering measurements of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation, with a balloon experiment that made the definitive measurement showing that the microwave background exhibited the thermal spectrum characteristic of the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. [14] He later became co-founder and science advisor of the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, [1] which made detailed mapping of the radiation.

Weiss also pioneered the concept of using lasers for an interferometric gravitational wave detector, suggesting that the path length required for such a detector would necessitate kilometer-scale arms. He built a prototype in the 1970s, following earlier work by Robert L. Forward. [16] [17] He co-founded the NSF LIGO (gravitational-wave detection) project, [18] which was based on his report "A study of a long Baseline Gravitational Wave Antenna System". [19]

Both of these efforts couple challenges in instrument science with physics important to the understanding of the Universe. [20]

In February 2016, he was one of the four scientists of LIGO/Virgo collaboration presenting at the press conference for the announcement that the first direct gravitational wave observation had been made in September 2015. [21] [22] [23] [24] [lower-alpha 1]

Honors and awards

Rainer Weiss has been recognized by numerous awards including:

Selected publications


  1. Other physicists presenting were Gabriela González, David Reitze, Kip Thorne, and France A. Córdova from the NSF.

Related Research Articles

Cosmic microwave background Electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe in Big Bang cosmology

The cosmic microwave background, in Big Bang cosmology, is electromagnetic radiation as a remnant from an early stage of the universe, also known as "relic radiation". The CMB is faint cosmic background radiation filling all space. It is an important source of data on the early universe because it is the oldest electromagnetic radiation in the universe, dating to the epoch of recombination. With a traditional optical telescope, the space between stars and galaxies is completely dark. However, a sufficiently sensitive radio telescope shows a faint background noise, or glow, almost isotropic, that is not associated with any star, galaxy, or other object. This glow is strongest in the microwave region of the radio spectrum. The accidental discovery of the CMB in 1964 by American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson was the culmination of work initiated in the 1940s, and earned the discoverers the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

LIGO gravitational-wave detector

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a large-scale physics experiment and observatory to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool. Two large observatories were built in the United States with the aim of detecting gravitational waves by laser interferometry. These can detect a change in the 4 km mirror spacing of less than a ten-thousandth the charge diameter of a proton.

Livingston, Louisiana Town in Louisiana, United States

Livingston is the parish seat of Livingston Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 1,769 at the 2010 census.

Kip Thorne American physicist

Kip Stephen Thorne is an American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. A longtime friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, he was the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) until 2009 and is one of the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity. He continues to do scientific research and scientific consulting, most notably for the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.

Robert H. Dicke American astronomer

Robert Henry Dicke was an American astronomer and physicist who made important contributions to the fields of astrophysics, atomic physics, cosmology and gravity. He was the Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton University.

GEO600 gravitational wave detector in Germany

GEO600 is a gravitational wave detector located near Sarstedt in the South of Hanover, Germany. It is designed and operated by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics and the Leibniz Universität Hannover, along with University of Glasgow, University of Birmingham and Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, and is funded by the Max Planck Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). GEO600 is part of a worldwide network of gravitational wave detectors. This instrument, and its sister interferometric detectors, when operational, are some of the most sensitive gravitational wave detectors ever designed. They are designed to detect relative changes in distance of the order of 10−21, about the size of a single atom compared to the distance from the Sun to the Earth. GEO600 is capable of detecting gravitational waves in the frequency range 50 Hz to 1.5 kHz. Construction on the project began in 1995.

Ronald Drever British physicist

Ronald William Prest Drever was a Scottish experimental physicist. He was a professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, co-founded the LIGO project, and was a co-inventor of the Pound–Drever–Hall technique for laser stabilisation, as well as the Hughes–Drever experiment. This work was instrumental in the first detection of gravitational waves in September 2015.

Gravitational wave background

The gravitational wave background is a random gravitational-wave signal potentially detectable by gravitational wave detection experiments. Since the background is supposed to be random it is completely determined by its statistical properties such as mean, variance etc.

A Weber bar is a device used in the detection of gravitational waves first devised and constructed by physicist Joseph Weber at the University of Maryland. The device consisted of multiple aluminium cylinders, 2 meters in length and 1 meter in diameter, antennae for detecting gravitational waves.

Gravitational wave Propagating spacetime ripple

Gravitational waves are disturbances in the curvature of spacetime, generated by accelerated masses, that propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. They were proposed by Henri Poincaré in 1905 and subsequently predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein on the basis of his general theory of relativity. Gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation. Newton's law of universal gravitation, part of classical mechanics, does not provide for their existence, since that law is predicated on the assumption that physical interactions propagate instantaneously – showing one of the ways the methods of classical physics are unable to explain phenomena associated with relativity.

Gravitational-wave observatory

A gravitational-wave observatory is any device designed to measure gravitational waves, tiny distortions of spacetime that were first predicted by Einstein in 1916. Gravitational waves are perturbations in the theoretical curvature of spacetime caused by accelerated masses. The existence of gravitational radiation is a specific prediction of general relativity, but is a feature of all theories of gravity that obey special relativity. Since the 1960s, gravitational-wave detectors have been built and constantly improved. The present-day generation of resonant mass antennas and laser interferometers has reached the necessary sensitivity to detect gravitational waves from sources in the Milky Way. Gravitational-wave observatories are the primary tool of gravitational-wave astronomy.

Gravitational-wave astronomy type of astronomy involving observation of gravitational waves

Gravitational-wave astronomy is an emerging branch of observational astronomy which aims to use gravitational waves to collect observational data about objects such as neutron stars and black holes, events such as supernovae, and processes including those of the early universe shortly after the Big Bang.

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) is a scientific collaboration of international physics institutes and research groups dedicated to the search for gravitational waves.

Primordial black holes are a hypothetical type of black hole that formed soon after the Big Bang. In the early universe, high densities and heterogeneous conditions could have led sufficiently dense regions to undergo gravitational collapse, forming black holes. Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich and Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov in 1966 first proposed the existence of such black holes. The theory behind their origins was first studied in depth by Stephen Hawking in 1971. Since primordial black holes did not form from stellar gravitational collapse, their masses can be far below stellar mass (c. 2×1030 kg). Hawking calculated that primordial black holes could weigh as little as 10−8 kg.

Heinz Billing German physicists

Heinz Billing was a German physicist and computer scientist, widely considered a pioneer in the construction of computer systems and computer data storage, who built a prototype laser interferometric gravitational wave detector.

Gabriela González Argentinian physicist

Gabriela González, is a professor of physics and astronomy at the Louisiana State University and was the spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration from March 2011 until March 2017. She has published several papers on Brownian motion as a limit to the sensitivity of gravitational-wave detectors, and has an interest in data analysis for gravitational-wave astronomy.

First observation of gravitational waves Gravitational wave event

The first direct observation of gravitational waves was made on 14 September 2015 and was announced by the LIGO and Virgo collaborations on 11 February 2016. Previously, gravitational waves had only been inferred indirectly, via their effect on the timing of pulsars in binary star systems. The waveform, detected by both LIGO observatories, matched the predictions of general relativity for a gravitational wave emanating from the inward spiral and merger of a pair of black holes of around 36 and 29 solar masses and the subsequent "ringdown" of the single resulting black hole. The signal was named GW150914. It was also the first observation of a binary black hole merger, demonstrating both the existence of binary stellar-mass black hole systems and the fact that such mergers could occur within the current age of the universe.

GW170817 gravitational wave signal detected by the LIGO observatory on 17 August 2017

GW 170817 was a gravitational wave (GW) signal observed by the LIGO and Virgo detectors on 17 August 2017, originating from the shell elliptical galaxy NGC 4993. The GW was produced by the last minutes of two neutron stars spiralling closer to each other and finally merging, and is the first GW observation which has been confirmed by non-gravitational means. Unlike the five previous GW detections, which were of merging black holes not expected to produce a detectable electromagnetic signal, the aftermath of this merger was also seen by 70 observatories on 7 continents and in space, across the electromagnetic spectrum, marking a significant breakthrough for multi-messenger astronomy. The discovery and subsequent observations of GW 170817 were given the Breakthrough of the Year award for 2017 by the journal Science.

Michel Davier is a French physicist.


  1. 1 2 Lars Brink (June 2, 2014). Nobel Lectures in Physics (2006–2010). World Scientific. pp. 25–. ISBN   978-981-4612-70-8.
  2. 1 2 "NASA and COBE Scientists Win Top Cosmology Prize". NASA. 2006. Retrieved February 22, 2016.
  3. 1 2 Weiss, Rainer (1980). "Measurements of the Cosmic Background Radiation". Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 18: 489–535. Bibcode:1980ARA&A..18..489W. doi: 10.1146/annurev.aa.18.090180.002421 .
  4. Emily Tapp (October 6, 2017). "Why we built the Holometer". IOP, Classical and Quantum Gravity journal. Retrieved October 22, 2017.
  5. Aaron Chou; et al. (2017). "The Holometer: an instrument to probe Planckian quantum geometry". Class. Quantum Grav. 34 (6): 065005. arXiv: 1611.08265 . Bibcode:2017CQGra..34f5005C. doi:10.1088/1361-6382/aa5e5c.
  6. 1 2 "The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017". The Nobel Foundation. October 3, 2017. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  7. Rincon, Paul; Amos, Jonathan (October 3, 2017). "Einstein's waves win Nobel Prize". BBC News . Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  8. Overbye, Dennis (October 3, 2017). "2017 Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to LIGO Black Hole Researchers". The New York Times . Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  9. Kaiser, David (October 3, 2017). "Learning from Gravitational Waves". The New York Times . Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  10. 1 2 Weiss CV at mit.edu
  11. "MIT physicist Rainer Weiss shares Nobel Prize in physics". MIT News. October 3, 2017.
  12. "Rainer Weiss Biography" (PDF). kavliprize.org. Retrieved July 7, 2018.
  13. Shirley K. Cohen (May 10, 2000). "Interview with Rainer Weiss" (PDF). Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology. Retrieved October 22, 2017.
  14. 1 2 Cho, Adrian (August 4, 2016). "Meet the College Dropout who Invented the Gravitational Wave Detector", Science. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  15. Weiss, Rainer (1962). Stark effect and hyperfine structure of hydrogen fluoride (Ph.D.). Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OCLC   33374441 via ProQuest.
  16. Cho, Adrian (October 3, 2017). "Ripples in space: U.S. trio wins physics Nobel for discovery of gravitational waves," Science. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  17. Cervantes-Cota, Jorge L., Galindo-Uribarri, Salvador, and Smoot, George F. (2016). "A Brief History of Gravitational Waves," Universe, 2, no. 3, 22. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  18. Mervis, Jeffrey. "Got gravitational waves? Thank NSF's approach to building big facilities". Science Magazine. ISSN   1095-9203 . Retrieved November 14, 2017.
  19. Linsay, P., Saulson, P., and Weiss, R. (1983). "A Study of a Long Baseline Gravitational Wave Antenna System, NSF. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  20. David Shoemaker (2012). "The Evolution of Advanced LIGO" (PDF). LIGO Magazine (1).
  21. Twilley, Nicola. "Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them". The New Yorker. ISSN   0028-792X . Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  22. Abbott, B.P.; et al. (2016). "Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger". Phys. Rev. Lett. 116 (6): 061102. arXiv: 1602.03837 . Bibcode:2016PhRvL.116f1102A. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102. PMID   26918975.
  23. Naeye, Robert (February 11, 2016). "Gravitational Wave Detection Heralds New Era of Science". Sky and Telescope. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  24. Castelvecchi, Davide; Witze, Alexandra (February 11, 2016). "Einstein's gravitational waves found at last". Nature News. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19361 . Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  25. "Prize Recipient". aps.org.
  26. "Breakthrough Prize – Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Awarded For Detection of Gravitational Waves 100 Years After Albert Einstein Predicted Their Existence". breakthroughprize.org. San Francisco. May 2, 2016. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  27. "2016 Gruber Cosmology Prize Press Release". gruber.yale.edu. The Gruber Foundation. May 4, 2016. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  28. Shaw Prize 2016
  29. Kavli Prize 2016
  30. Harvey Prize 2016
  31. "Meet the Team of Scientists Who Discovered Gravitational Waves". Smithsonian Magazine.
  32. "The Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics" . Retrieved March 17, 2017.
  33. Princess of Asturias Award 2017
  34. "Group 2: Astronomy, Physics and Geophysics". Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Archived from the original on December 22, 2017. Retrieved December 22, 2017.
  35. "Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation". American Astronomical Society.

Further reading