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Forward 50 2017

Rainer Weiss

He Fled The Nazis, Then Proved Einstein’s Theory

Rainer Weiss fled Nazi Germany with his family when he was 6 years old. Nearly 80 years later, he won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Weiss took to building hi-fi radio sets out of junk parts, prefiguring the scrappiness and inventiveness that would define his career.

Weiss enrolled as an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but flunked out by his junior year. He had fallen in love, and decided to follow his new girlfriend to Illinois. Though he made it back to MIT, where he still works six days a week at age 85, the decision nearly ruined his hopes for tenure.

The idea that morphed into Weiss’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery began as a simple teaching aid: He asked his students to imagine an antenna so sensitive, it could measure infinitesimal vibrations in space-time from the other side of the universe. He spent the next 50 years building that antenna.

With help from other pioneering physicists — including Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, also recipients of this year’s prize — Weiss designed and built the antenna, with arms 2.5 miles long. In 2015, that antenna picked up “the chirp heard across the universe”: definitive proof of Albert Einstein’s theories about black holes that had gone unsubstantiated for over 100 years.

“One of the dreams I would have, had Einstein been still alive, is to tell him about this,” Weiss told PRI in 2016. “You look at the remarkable things we could do, and Einstein would have been tickled pink by them.”

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