How “You’re Out of Your Mind!” Won a Nobel Prize  

By Shlomo Maital


      Cultivate wild ideas!   This is a proven path for changing the world, and, perhaps, for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

       Profs. Weiss, Barish and Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel for Physics. They won it for empirically demonstrating the existence of “gravity waves”, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. According to The New York Times:

    These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Ron Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors.

In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington. Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.   The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”

   The breakthrough research combined a wild idea (empirically measuring gravity waves) with a feet-on-the-ground project to measure them.  The most advanced version of LIGO Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.

   Barish knew how to manage Big Science projects, like LIGO; Weiss and Thorne had the wild idea of measuring tiny tiny waves, an “out of your mind” idea.  And the National Science Foundation provided the needed resources. Presto – Nobel.

   Weiss and Thorne are MIT professors; Barish is from Caltech.