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Joseph Weber and one of his gravitational wave detectors.

Joseph Weber and one of his gravitational wave detectors.

Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries

Remembering Joseph Weber, the controversial pioneer of gravitational waves

Yesterday, as dozens of journalists, scientists, and government officials crammed into a press conference in Washington, D.C., to hear the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory’s (LIGO’s) official announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves, organizers reserved a place in the front row of the audience for astronomer Virginia Trimble. Her husband, the late Joseph Weber, had been the first physicist to search for the gravitational waves that Albert Einstein originally predicted in 1916. In fact, Weber, who spent his career at the University of Maryland, College Park, claimed in 1969 to see them. And he stuck to that claim even after others failed to reproduce his result. For Trimble, strong emotions well up as the LIGO team announced a detection that, at least for the moment, physicists appear to agree on.

“Damn it, it’s devastating,” she says, “I’m sorry.” Trimble, who now works at the University of California, Irvine, notes that Weber worked on his gravitational wave detectors even after the National Science Foundation (NSF) cut off his funding in 1987 and shifted its focus to developing LIGO—the agency ultimately spent more than $1 billion on it. With almost no funding, Weber worked on his devices until he died in 2000 at the age of 81.

Gravitational waves are tiny ripples in space and time itself, set off by cosmic cataclysms such as the merger of two neutrons stars or black holes. Such waves stretch and compress space and in the 1950s Weber calculated that he could detect them using large cylinders of ultrapure aluminum, about 2 meters in length and 1 meter in diameter.  The stretching of space, he reasoned, would make the bars hum, vibrate, and ring with sound like jumbo tuning forks. The vibrations should measure about a 10-millionth of a nanometer—about the same amount the bar would vibrate with thermal energy—but Weber hoped to spot the waves by seeing multiple cylinders sing in concert. In 1969 and again in 1970 he claimed to see just such signals.

Unfortunately for Weber, others failed to reproduce his signals. What’s more, as Weber stuck to his guns, others argued that Weber had, unawares, manipulated the data in ways that could conjure up false signals. Still, the physicist continued to experiment with his “Weber bars” for decades, and researchers in Russia and elsewhere also pursued the technique. And many physicists credit Weber for kick-starting the search for gravitational waves. One of Weber’s bars now sits as a museum piece at the LIGO site in Hanford, Washington.

When asked whether she thinks her husband really saw gravitational waves, Trimble says, “I don’t know.” But she thinks that Weber’s loss of NSF support not only took a toll on him, but may have slowed development of the field he started. “I think if there had been two technologies going forward they would have pushed each other, as collaborators not at competitors,” she says, “and it might have led to an observation sooner.”

*See more of Science's coverage of gravitational waves