Rainer Weiss & The Team That Changed The World

Rainer Weiss & The Team That Changed The World

Frankie Solinsky Duryea

Writers Workshop E

In the year 1916, Albert Einstein made what is now considered one of his greatest scientific discoveries of all time: using math he made the prediction that objects with large mass send waves throughout the fabric of space and time that disrupt other objects. This theory was mathematically proven in 1974, but no one had ever ‘felt’ the gravitational waves or proven that they had passed by Earth. That is, no one had until 2015. This detection of the waves was made in September 14, 2015, at LIGO (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) but because of the required amount of tests used to check its legitimacy, this proof wasn’t released to the public until February 11, 2016. Although thousands of people were working on the project, the main contributors were physicists Kip Thorne and Barry Barish from Cal, and Rainer Weiss of MIT. For their contributions, they all won Nobel Prizes in Physics. The man who arguably  made the largest impact of these was none other than the famed physicist Rainer Weiss. He has changed the world by proving the existence of gravitational waves and showing that through hard work, anything can be achieved.

Rainer Weiss was born on September 29, 1932 in Berlin, Germany to his mother, Gertrude Loesner and his father, Frederick A. Weiss. In a family of wealthy German-Jews, he and his parents were forced to emigrate to Czechoslovakia. When that area was invaded by the Germans in 1939, his family moved to New York. After going to New York public schools for a while, he received a scholarship to the Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, which lasted from middle school to the end of high school. It was during his time in high school when he became interested in electronics. He started making his money by fixing old radios, and soon had a thriving business. By the time he was a senior, he had found a problem that he could not fix. Wanting to understand more about electronics, he applied to different colleges. He was eventually accepted into the prestigious university MIT.

At MIT, Rainer started with a major in Electrical Engineering where they were learning about basic circuits and motors, but he wanted to learn about filters, which were an advanced class that he would have to wait for. Because of this rigid and forced structure, he decided to major in physics, which had a more loose format during his second year. It was during this summer that he met Rebecca Young, a music major from Northwestern University. She introduced him to music and he soon fell in love. After the summer she was forced to move back to Illinois while Rainer stayed in Massachusetts for schooling. Seeing that the relationship was failing, he went to Illinois to salvage their love, not caring that he still had classes. After saving the relationship, he returned to MIT, where he was told that he had flunked out of his course. He received a job at MIT in the summer of 1953, and continued work there. He changed his major late into his time and college and let his heart lead him. He showed there is always time to save the path of your life, and for that is a changemaker.

It wasn’t until 1967 when he got interested in general relativity after getting asked to teach a course about it. He continued work with gravitational waves and even developed a hypothesis for an experiment that could detect their existence. It was in 1975 when he met two of the major figures in gravitational waves, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever. They would often talk about their search for gravitational waves, and in 1983 they decided Caltech and MIT should team up and started putting it to action.

The group that these men made, called LIGO, started as a congregation of independent scientists and on the recommendation of Richard Garwin, changed into more of an organized group in 1986. The first LIGO director, Rochus Vogt, with the help of Rainer and others, developed the plans for the first two gravitational detection sites, which were called the Livingston and Hanford sites. These sites were planned to be far apart, and able to feel the smallest vibrations possible. It is said that the detectors know when a car drives nearby. The next program director, Barry Barish, oversaw the construction of these two sites. It was at this time that Rainer worked as the spokesperson for the LIGO corporation. During the lifetime of LIGO, he has also been known as the physicist best connected to the engineering side of the program, and was the commissioner of the Livingston detector. LIGO waited patiently for many years, until finally in September of 2015, their sites felt the gravitational waves caused by the collision of two black holes 1.5 billion years ago. Yes, that’s right: 1.5 billion years ago. The ripples had become so small that there would have been no way of knowing that they had passed Earth without LIGO’s advanced technology. With this monumental discovery, we now are certain of the existence of gravitational waves and have a higher understanding of our universe, and we have Rainer Weiss to thank for that.

With such a tough life, you wouldn’t have expected him to be so successful. He has proved his brilliance and perseverance time and time again. He was incredible in electrical engineering, but got bored and started studying physics. He let his heart lead him in life, and through hard work has received recognition in the scientific world. Using his smarts and his skills, he became a Nobel Prize winner, and has been a major contributor in the discovery of gravitational waves. With his accomplishments, he should be recognized as a household name. He has changed the world forever with his work with LIGO and is a role model because of his hard work.


“What are Gravitational Waves?” LIGO Caltech. Caltech. 1/ 17/ 2018. <https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/what-are-gw>

Cofield, Calla. “Gravitational Waves: Ripples in Spacetime.” Space.com. 10/15/2017. Purch.com. 1/17/2018. <https://www.space.com/25088-gravitational-waves.html>

Chen, Sophia. “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Missing Matter: Physics Prepares For The Next Breakthrough.” Wired, Conde Nast, 30 Dec. 2017, <www.wired.com/story/physics-found-gravitational-waves-now-come-the-existential-questions/.>

Gritz, Jennie Rothenberg. “Meet the Team of Scientists Who Discovered Gravitational Waves.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Dec. 2016, <www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/wave-catchers-ligo-team-winner-smithsonian-ingenuity-awards-2016-physical-sciences-180961124/.>

Twilley, Nicola. “How The First Gravitational Waves Were Found.” The New Yorker. 2/11/2016. The New Yorker. 1/17/2018. <https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/gravitational-waves-exist-heres-how-scientists-finally-found-them>

Chu, Jennifer. “MIT Physicist Shares Nobel Prize in Physics.” MIT News, 3 Oct. 2017, <news.mit.edu/2017/mit-physicist-rainer-weiss-shares-nobel-prize-physics-1003.>

Weiss, Rainer. “Rainer Weiss Autobiography.” Kavli Prize. <http://www.kavliprize.org/sites/default/files/Rainer%20Weiss%20autobiography.pdf> (Main Source)

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