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Making Waves

A city worker sprays insecticide to kill mosquitoes after class hours at a school in Cucuta, on Colombia’s border with Venezuela

A city worker sprays insecticide to kill mosquitoes after class hours at a school in Cucuta, on Colombia’s border with Venezuela

Prelude

In 1916 Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves: minuscule ripples in the fabric of spacetime generated by unfathomably powerful events. If such vibrations could somehow be recorded, we could observe our universe for the first time through sound: the hissing of the Big Bang, the whale-like tunes of collapsing stars, the low tones of merging galaxies, the drumbeat of two black holes collapsing into one.

100 years later a team of hundreds of scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) confirmed Einstein’s prediction. A billion-dollar experiment using the most sensitive scientific instrument ever made had detected a gravitational wave, confirming Einstein’s prediction. But LIGO’s scientists are not the first to have claimed to have heard the songs from outer space.

In 1969, Joe Weber announced that he had achieved an experimental feat widely believed to be impossible: he had detected evidence for gravitational waves. Imagine his pride, the pride to be the first, the gratification of discovery, the raw shameless pleasure of accomplishment. Practically single-handedly, through sheer determination, he conceives of the possibility. He fills multiple notebooks, hundreds of pages deep, with calculations and designs and ideas and then he makes the experimental apparatus real. He builds an ingenious machine, a resonant bar, a ‘Weber bar’, which vibrates in sympathy with a gravitational wave. As guitar strings go, a solid aluminium cylinder about two metres long, one metre in diameter, and in the range of 3,000 pounds isn’t easy to pluck. But it has one natural frequency at which a strong gravitational wave would ring the bar like a tuning fork.

Born in New Jersey in 1919 into a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant family, Joe Weber dropped out of Cooper Union college in New York to save his parents money, joined the Naval Academy, and became an officer, a radar expert, a navigator, and eventually a commander. He was on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington when it sank during his Second World War naval service and he eventually commanded a submarine chaser. He tells Kip Thorne [an expert in gravitational physics at Caltech and co-founder of LIGO] in an interview Kip recorded in 1982, “I was the one given the job of finding the right beach to land Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Junior and 1800 rangers in July of 1943. After the war I was head of the electronic countermeasures section … so I knew [the] electronic countermeasures of the entire navy.” Weber’s accent has that raw Americana I associate with men of his generation. His family called him ‘Yankee’ after a childhood accident – he was hit by a bus at the age of five and required speech rehabilitation that broke his Yiddish and scarred him with a broad American accent.

After his service, Weber was hired as a professor at the University of Maryland with ‘one of the highest imaginable salaries. The princely sum was $6,500 a year.’ He was 29. Oddly he had no PhD, although it was a condition of his employment that he procure one.

He mentions casually to Kip in the interview, and with no irony: ‘One of the reasons that I wanted to, ah, get into relativity research was that it didn’t seem to be a field with, ah, any particular controversy.’ How wrong he was…

In black and white photos Weber bends over the cylinder, hair dark and grey, brushed back and high, shirt white and short-sleeved, glasses black and square. He affixes quartz crystals to the middle of the bar, which when squeezed by the bar’s resonant vibrations produce an electrical voltage that sends currents through the electronics wired off the bar’s midsection to record the harmonics of the plucked string.

A city worker sprays insecticide to kill mosquitoes after class hours at a school in Cucuta, on Colombia

Weber had one bar at the University of Maryland, in an ordinary looking laboratory, occupying a sensible footprint in a little room managed easily by one person. He built and installed other bars about a mile from campus in a structure that could accurately be compared to a garage. Weber then stationed a bar at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, far from the Maryland bars to impart confidence to coincident events, to rule out neighbourhood mayhem, car crashes and storms. He has thought this through. He has been ingenious and tenacious and daring. The bars are cheap. And they work. Daily they ring in response to multiple signals from our galaxy.

He doesn’t presume to identify the sources. He’s agnostic about the sources. He leaves that to the theorists. He has discovered a new frontier for experimentalists to explore and theorists to explain. He has made one of the experimental discoveries of the century. It takes him and his small team a decade, a respectably extensive investment, yet less than the hundred years projected by sceptics for successful completion of a viable experiment.

In 1969, at a typically uneventful conference on general relativity – the kind of conference where the very existence of gravitational waves was still under debate – Joe Weber makes his announcement. He has detected ‘Evidence for Discovery of Gravitational Radiation’, as his paper was titled, maybe from colliding stars, or neutron stars, or pulsars, somewhere over there, around the centre of the galaxy. There is shock, then celebration. Applause even. He is heralded. He is on the cover of magazines. He is famous.

Kip remembers the announcement, and while he was surprised Weber presented results so soon, he thought to take them seriously. Excited by Weber’s reports, physicists tried to understand the sources capable of ringing his bars so consistently and so energetically. Theorists were also inspired to contemplate all manner of novel sources, not necessarily to explain his experimental data so much as to explore the full terrain of possibilities the universe might have to offer. The British physicist Roger Penrose considered crashing gravitational waves. Stephen Hawking threw imaginary black holes at each other.

Enthusiasm paled as calculations came in. Weber estimated that the energy output from our galaxy would correspond to the destruction of thousands of suns yearly to be consistent with his data. His agnosticism on the sources is appropriate for an experimentalist, who should remain impartial and unbiased. But to a theorist, that sounded like an implausible bounty of energy. Martin Rees, now Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, showed with his collaborators Dennis Sciama and George Field that the amount of energy Weber claimed to observe was simply too much energy for our galaxy to produce without disrupting entirely.

“He has discovered a new frontier for experimentalists to explore and theorists to explain. He has made one of the experimental discoveries of the century”

As fast as scientific momentum can change, it changed. Soon there were resonant Weber bar detectors under development at IBM, in Scotland, Japan, at Stanford, in Germany, at Bell Labs, in Louisiana, in Rochester, Italy, in Moscow, and California. All over the place. In 1972, NASA even put one of Weber’s instruments, the Lunar Surface Gravimeter, on the moon. There were new designs and refinements and analysis techniques. And no one, no one except Weber, detected a gravitational wave. It was dead quiet out there.

Ron Drever, [a Glasgow-based scientist who would later become the co-founder of LIGO], and his collaborators as well as other groups around the UK – from Harwell, Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow – devised their own bars with ingenious alterations and enhancements beyond the simple tuning fork. Drever began his investment in the bar technologies in the early 70s motivated by the belief that Weber could be right.

Drever requested to visit Weber at his Maryland laboratory some time in the 1970s, but Weber  replied flatly that Drever was not welcome. Drever arrived anyway and found the contempt undiluted. Weber’s greeting: ‘You can’t just walk in off the street and do gravitational wave experiments.’ Drever quite agreed but somehow Weber couldn’t discern his upbeat tones. Unfazed by Weber’s reception, Drever returned to the UK to build and expand his own bars in Glasgow. Although he had reason for doubt, he permitted an optimism to render his mind open to the prospects. To his dismay, the bars offered only noise, and quickly he and his collaborators acknowledged that the doubt had ripened to a conclusion: Weber must be wrong.

“The claims that catapulted his fame, that made him possibly the most famous living scientist of his generation – were swiftly and vehemently refuted”

Joe Weber’s claims in 1969 to have detected gravitational waves – the claims that catapulted his fame, that made him possibly the most famous living scientist of his generation – were swiftly and vehemently refuted. The subsequent decades offered near total withdrawal of support, both from scientific funding agencies and his peers. He was almost fired from the University of Maryland. Weber summed up his circumstances with a self-effacing remark about his second wife, Virginia Trimble, a young astronomer 23 years his junior. The sociologist Harry Collins recounted: ‘[Weber] told me with a smile that when he married her, he was famous and she was not, and now their roles were reversed.’

Weber never relented, even as the evidence against him accumulated and the community turned away. Although occasionally his claims of a direct detection of gravitational waves are re-examined, the evidence weighs heavily toward the negative. It seems that Weber never measured a gravitational wave but instead recorded a fault in the equipment, or an error in the analysis, or, worst of all interpretations, he unconsciously biased the data.

Circumstances did not get better for Weber for the next 25 years. His detractors caught him in egregious errors. He made claims that were indisputably false. Weber noticed that when the centre of our galaxy was overhead, once every 24 hours, he recorded clusters of events. He deduced the signal could be coming from the dense nucleus of our galaxy, where lots of activity might plausibly generate a significant output of gravitational waves, most strongly detected during an overhead alignment. The astronomer Tony Tyson was in the front row, alongside physicist ‘Johnny’ Wheeler and Freeman Dyson, during a colloquium in Princeton in which Weber showed a plot with a big peak in the data once every 24 hours when the centre of the galaxy was overhead, indicating powerful bursts of gravitational waves coming from the dense galactic centre.

‘We all leapt to our feet,’ Tyson recalls, ‘and said, “Wait a second, Joe, gravitational waves should pass right through the Earth.”’ Problematically for Weber’s conclusion, since gravitational waves do indeed pass through the Earth, his bars should accumulate events once every 12 hours, both when the centre of the galaxy was overhead and when it was underfoot. When the error in reasoning was pointed out to Weber, he reanalysed the data and came back within a couple of weeks with clusters of events every 12 hours. This flexibility in his data analysis deepened distrust.

Eventually, Weber removed himself from the task of data analysis to quell any accusation of his personal bias, but it was too late. People became unkind. Intentionally he was tricked and deceived into false hopes that seemed to generate false claims, the ruse revealed in very public, very humiliating forums. He became a fraud to expose. Tyson said of Weber, ‘He was a great electrical engineer, but a lousy statistician.’

By the late 1980s, the professor emeritus used his wallet to maintain his laboratory, an unembellished concrete box between a Maryland wood and a golf course. He is reported to show the actual wallet to make the point. The sign in front he did not maintain with particular care and its pride faded, the announcement of the monument, ‘Gravitational Wave Observatory’, blanched by weather.

Epilogue

Despite the lack of funding, Weber worked on his devices until he died in 2000 at the age of 81. 16 years later his widow, Virginia Trimble was at the front row to hear LIGO’s announcement that they had officially proven what her husband could not. “Damn it,” she told Science magazine. “It’s devastating”.

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