Einstein’s dream just turned into a Nobel Prize, and here’s how it happened
The winning scientists of 2017 tell us what it was like to be the first to detect and observe gravitational waves.
Rainer Weiss was looking in horror at a radio covered in knobs and antennae. It had been designed to measure radiation. And it was, at the moment, picking up on a ton of radiation.
Oh my god, thought Weiss. All this stuff is floating all over the place.
Weiss, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist, was in Louisiana. His radio was picking up on radiation well, radiating from all the electronics inside a two-mile-long, L-shaped tube in the Louisiana wilderness. A lot of people were depending on this tube. It took the California Institute of Technology and MIT $1 billion, more than 1,000 scientists and 25 years to build it.
It should not be radiating stuff all over the place.
This tube, along with another one in Washington, was part of a project called LIGO that was looking for a kind of mythical physics creature growing out of Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity: gravitational waves. Scientists started building the tubes decades ago, but they’d never detected the waves. In fact, the tubes hadn't been looking for awhile – the scientists had spent the last five years making tweaks, and the researchers were finally ready to start running the experiment.
Weiss had come to Louisiana to make sure everything was good to go, but he found that the place was lousy with radio buzzing that could mess with wave detection. It would take at least a week to fix the problem. But the timing was bad: the upcoming test was an important one, and it was in only a few days. People had flown in for it. Everyone was ready, everything paid for. So the scientists launched anyway and hoped they weren't making a terrible mistake.
LIGO, a machine that detects gravitational waves, in Livingston, Louisiana. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Two black holes circle around each other like dance partners. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, madly spinning into the drain of their own whirling energy. Until finally, they smash together, making a crash. In that moment, they released more energy than the rest of the universe combined.
Energy flew out into the cosmos in gravitational waves, a kind of wave that warps space the way a bowling ball would warp the surface of a trampoline. The waves sailed for more than a billion years. Finally, three years ago, they hit a small blue and green planet in the Milky Way Galaxy.
You probably didn’t notice when they hit. Gravitational waves are weak. “Maybe you would have heard a weird click in your ear,” said Weiss. “But I doubt it.”
Chances are, no human ear picked up on the waves. But something else did.
A young postdoc in Germany was the first to see the signal.
“There was a lot of jumping up and down by young people in Germany,” said Barry Barish, a Caltech physicist and one of the leading figures in LIGO.
Only two days after it launched, the machine noticed the gravitational waves coming from the colliding black holes. It was the first time anyone had ever seen gravitational waves like that. It also happened to be the first time anyone saw black holes hit each other.
“Holy mackerel,” Weiss told From The Grapevine. “They were moving like a bat out of hell.”
Only a small percentage of the universe sends out the kinds of waves we’re used to noticing, like light and sound waves. But almost everything’s affected by gravity. So seeing the ripples gravity creates in space is a big deal.
“It’s like opening a totally new window on the universe itself,” Barish explained to us. If scientists can see these delicate gravitational waves, then they can see things that, until now, have been invisible to us. Things like the beginning of the universe.
But when Barish saw the waves, he did not jump up and down. Instead, he panicked.
The waves looked perfect. Too perfect. They looked like the kind of things a professor explaining gravitational waves would draw on a chalkboard.
How are we fooling ourselves? wondered Barish.
He’d seen this before. He knew a professor who thought he found a magnet with only one pole, a kind of 200-year-old white whale of physics. He published, but he turned out to be wrong.
Then Barish had another thought. How are we being fooled?
They could have been hacked. Perhaps a group of malicious grad students or ex employees was trying to “make us all dance around and look like a bunch of jerks,” said Weiss. After all, what were the odds their newly updated machine would find what it was looking for after only running for a couple days? And that it would find something that practically looked like a cartoon?
The scientists spent weeks running tests, tracing the signals back through their instruments like breadcrumbs. Their machines weren’t connected to the Internet, so the hackers would have to be on site in Louisiana and Washington. And even then, they’d have to be exactly coordinated … Or could they be interfering with the computer taking in the two signals? No, that didn’t make sense…
Eventually, the scientists decided that the odds of hackers being this flawless were even lower than the odds of a gravitational wave looking so flawless. The evidence was solid. It was time to write a paper. So the researchers went through the “silliness of getting 1,000 authors to agree on the adjectives,” said Barish. One thousand people had to keep the paper secret. “My biggest fear was that someone would leave a key graph on a Xerox machine," Barish added.
Then Barish flew to Switzerland to give a seminar at CERN, the kind of famous laboratory you go to when you’re a physicist who just made a discovery that could change the world. Barish intentionally gave his seminar an incredibly boring title.
“I called it ‘Recent results from LIGO’ or something,” remembered Barish. But word must have gotten around because the auditorium was packed 45 minutes before the seminar started. Hundreds of people filled the seats. Others crowded into doorways and squeezed into the aisles.
Barish explained what they’d seen, what it meant. At the end, he braced himself for a roomful of critical scientists asking anything to bring the discovery down as scientists are wont to do. But the audience members just started clapping. Then standing.
"You don't see that. I've never gone to a professional seminar in my life where there was a standing ovation," Barish told me.
It took Einstein decades for scientists to accept his theories, but the scientific community accepted the LIGO findings immediately. Organizations threw prizes at the scientists and invited them to talks. One day, Charles Peck, the chair of Physics, Math and Astronomy at Caltech, called Barish and Kip Thorne, a Caltech physicist who also worked on LIGO, into his office.
Barish was uncomfortable. Half a dozen PR people he didn’t know were there. Peck told the scientists that the Nobel Prize would be announced the next day and they had a shot at winning. The Nobel Prize committee would announce the 2017 winners on their website at 2:43 a.m. California time, which is a reasonable human hour in Sweden, where the Nobel Prize is given out. That meant the scientists needed to be ready for a press conference only a few hours after the announcement.
Peck introduced Barish to Robert Perkins, a young man who worked in communications. Peck told Barish that Perkins would stay at a motel near Barish’s house that night, to help him in case he won.
“I thought this was absolute total nonsense,” said Barish. “But I didn’t say anything.”
Barish knew his odds. The Nobel Prize is so rare that scientists don't even aspire to win it, he said.
“It’s off the scale somewhere where you don’t even think about it,” said Barish.
Granted, this discovery certainly put him in the leagues. But prizes are typically given years after discoveries are made. The committee wouldn’t want to give someone a prize for something that was later disproven, after all.
Still, when Barish went to bed, he set his alarm for 2:40 a.m. Just in case.
When his alarm rang that night, Barish groggily got out of bed. No one had called; he hadn't won. He and that young man lurking nearby had wasted a night.
“Someone else must have won,” he mumbled to his wife. He staggered into another room to check his computer and find out who.
“Hey, your cell phone’s ringing,” his wife called from the bedroom.
He picked up. It was the chairman of the board of the Nobel Foundation.
“I’ve got good news,” said the chairman.
Rainer Weiss, an MIT physicist, after he heard he won the Nobel Prize. (Photo: Ryan McBride)
Barish, Weiss and Thorne had won. The announcement was just running late. Barish, in a bit of shock, put the phone down, but it rang again. This time, a reporter from Brazil wanted his reaction.
“I thought ‘Oh god, this is terrible,’ and hung up on her,” he remembered. He was still absorbing everything; talking to reporters was just about the last thing he felt like doing. The phone rang again, immediately, this time from Sweden news. It kept ringing and ringing.
Perkins showed up. He took Barish's phone, his wife’s phone, the house phone and two other cells phones and fielded calls all night.
“He was a total saving grace,” Barish admitted. “It would have been impossible for me to handle it.”
When night rolled into morning, photographers showed up to take photos of, by that point, a pretty exhausted-looking Barish on his front porch. Then the scientists gave their “spontaneous” press conference at Caltech.
The scientists went to Sweden to accept the prize. “I had to wear tails and a white bow tie,” he told From The Grapevine incredulously. But he had to admit, the Nobel Prize folks knew how to throw a party. They kept him busy for eight days with ceremonies, dinners at the royal palace and balls with princesses and kings.
But the moment that stood out to him was a quiet one. It came after the pomp, when he was sitting in an old office building in Stockholm, filling out paperwork to get the actual prize money. At one point, he had to sign a little, leatherbound book, one that every physics Nobel Prize winner signs. He flipped back through the pages until he reached a signature that caught his eye.
What the hell am I doing in the same book as him? he wondered, staring in awe at the name of the man who’d really started this project, the man whose ponderings led Barish and a thousand others to build a machine that could hear the softest music of the spheres: Albert Einstein.
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