News reporter's notebook

Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss on the important things in life

It’s love, not grades

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Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus at MIT, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves" Oct. 3.
Mahi Shafiullah–The Tech

“You don’t have to be a raving genius to win a Nobel,” newly-minted Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss told a crowd of proud faculty and awed students during his celebratory lunch last Tuesday. Not that winning a Nobel should be everyone’s goal in life, Weiss was quick to add: one should always do what’s most important to them. And Weiss SB ’55, PhD ’62, a professor of physics emeritus, has certainly practiced what he preached.

Weiss accidentally flunked out of MIT as an undergraduate after missing a month of lectures in order to be with a musician at Northwestern he had fallen in love with. He eventually returned to MIT, first as a lab tech, then as a grad student in the same lab.

For Weiss, “flunking out wasn’t a failure, it was a path.” A different one from the rut many students feel pressured to follow: get A’s in school, go to prestigious universities, get tenured or advance through the ranks of a company. But in a scientific profession, Weiss says, there isn't a standard path. (In fact, Weiss didn’t want to go to a college as a child, and “never got good grades” because he never cared about them.)

In the end, what made him “successful,” for some definition thereof, was having something he could enjoy working on 24 hours of the day and having someone who believed in his capabilities, regardless of his record. For Weiss, this person was Jerrold Zacharias, the MIT professor who hired him as a lab tech and who later advised his PhD thesis.  

Weiss also took what he considers to be real failures — research failures — in his stride. The key to learning from them, he says, is to understand what went wrong. To accomplish this for one failed attempt during his graduate studies to demonstrate gravitational redshift, Weiss built a vacuum that extended through the height of the old World War II-era Building 20 (“a wonderful, junky building”) — cutting through the ceilings to do so.

“Many physicists, they’d say ‘Oh my god, you didn’t get a paper out of this — you didn’t get a thing on your CV — you’ve wasted two years of your life not building up your credential?’” Weiss says of the experience. “That’s crap.”

All this was decades ago. Last Tuesday, Weiss shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which has been responsible for detecting four gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime emitted by colliding black holes, since 2016. Weiss had proposed a prototype for the detection instruments in 1967.

The project stalled for decades after its inception, undergoing repeated funding issues, technical concerns, and organizational overhauls. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the funding agency has invested $1.1 billion in LIGO over the years.

That’s $1.1 billion of taxpayer money spent to confirm a phenomenon that Einstein predicted in 1916. How can researchers justify investment in basic science on this scale to laymen, when even fellow scientists question its utility?

“Pure curiosity-driven research is very often difficult to justify,” Weiss acknowledges. But he thinks that society can get behind it, if only we — scientists and engineers, present and those still to come — could build a new paradigm of public interaction.

One problem? Alienation. “We start a language that is our own,” Weiss says. “Sometimes when I listen to a biologist I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Not understanding is frustrating, but understanding is very satisfying, whether it’s the physics of rainbows or the physics of gravitational waves; if a researcher could make the average person in society interested in their work, Weiss thinks that it would be a “tremendous step forward.”

And while it’s not the reason why basic research is carried out, a lot of practical applications can result from chasing curiosity. Weiss doesn’t think we’ll be using gravitational waves directly for communication, but through constructing LIGO, researchers have developed technology that consumers can reap the benefits of; examples Weiss gives include better lasers for fiber optics communication and vibration-isolation systems for semiconductor manufacturing.

Weiss has the public on his mind in other areas as well. As a result of the last election, Weiss donated to the ACLU and joined the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nobel laureates are not strangers to using their hard-earned podium to influence policy makers, and Weiss is ready to do the same — or at least to make the attempt. He has a list of senators, he says, who he knows are the ones to convince in order to “block craziness.” A potential catastrophe of particular magnitude and urgency for Weiss: nuclear warfare.

Weiss has no personal use for his award money (except to set aside a small amount to send his grandson to college), he says, and has donated much of the approximately one and a half million dollars of award money he’s accumulated in the recent years to the MIT physics department in the form of the Barish Weiss Fellowship. The fellowship, partially named after his co-laureate and LIGO collaborator, Caltech professor Barry Barish, will be granted to MIT graduate students intending to pursue experimental physics research.

Weiss spends more time talking about his research with high school students and women’s clubs than with his colleagues, he says. Perhaps it’s his inheritance from his mentor, Jerrold Zacharias, who chaired the 1956 Physical Science Study Committee that would overhaul physics education for American high schools during the height of the Cold War.

For a busy man who’s likely to become much busier in the ensuing weeks, Weiss certainly sets aside a lot of time for students. At the lunch celebrating his win, he entertained numerous selfie requests, and stayed long after the food and crowds had disappeared to speak with the students who waited in line to speak with the laureate, giving all his undivided attention — including this star-struck Tech reporter who asked him whether he’d go to the White House if invited, and then proceeded to request an interview.