Biography:Rainer Weiss

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Short description: American physicist
Rainer Weiss
Rainer Weiss after a conference in Almería.jpg
Weiss in June 2018
Born (1932-09-29) September 29, 1932 (age 91)
Berlin, Germany
EducationMassachusetts Institute of Technology (BS, PhD)
Known forPioneering laser interferometric gravitational wave observation
AwardsEinstein Prize (2007)
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016)
Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2016)
Shaw Prize (2016)
Kavli Prize (2016)
Harvey Prize (2016)
Princess of Asturias Award (2017)
Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)
Scientific career
Laser physics
Experimental gravitation
Cosmic background measurements
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology
Princeton University
Tufts University
ThesisStark Effect and Hyperfine Structure of Hydrogen Fluoride (1962)
Doctoral advisorJerrold R. Zacharias
Doctoral studentsNergis Mavalvala
Philip K. Chapman
Rana X. Adhikari
Other notable studentsBruce Allen
Sarah Veatch
InfluencesRobert H. Dicke
Rainer Weiss during Nobel Prize press conference in Stockholm, December 2017

Rainer "Rai" Weiss (/ws/ WYSSE, German: [vaɪs]; born September 29, 1932) is an American physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. He is a professor of physics emeritus at MIT and an adjunct professor at LSU. He is best known for inventing the laser interferometric technique which is the basic operation of LIGO. He was Chair of the COBE Science Working Group.[1][2][3]

In 2017, Weiss was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves".[4][5][6][7]

Weiss has helped realize a number of challenging experimental tests of fundamental physics. He is a member of the Fermilab Holometer experiment, which uses a 40m laser interferometer to measure properties of space and time at quantum scale and provide Planck-precision tests of quantum holographic fluctuation.[8][9]

In a 2022 interview given to Federal University of Pará in Brazil, Weiss talks about his life and career, the memories of his childhood and youth, his undergraduate and graduate studies at the MIT and the future of gravitational waves astronomy.[10]

Early life and education

Rainer Weiss was born in Berlin, Germany, the son of Gertrude Loesner and Frederick A. Weiss.[11][12] His father, a physician, neurologist, and psychoanalyst, was forced out of Germany by Nazis because he was Jewish and an active member of the Communist Party. His mother, an actress, was Christian.[13] His aunt was the sociologist Hilda Weiss. The family fled first to Prague, but Germany's occupation of Czechoslovakia after the 1938 Munich Agreement caused them to flee again; the philanthropic Stix family of St. Louis helped them obtain visas to enter the United States.[14] Weiss spent his youth in New York City, where he attended Columbia Grammar School. He studied at MIT, dropped out during his junior year,[15] but eventually returned to receive his S.B. degree in 1955 and Ph.D. degree in 1962 under Jerrold Zacharias.[16]

He taught at Tufts University from 1960 to 1962, was a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University from 1962 to 1964, and then joined the faculty at MIT in 1964.[11]


Weiss brought two fields of fundamental physics research from birth to maturity: characterization of the cosmic background radiation,[3] and interferometric gravitational wave observation.

He made pioneering measurements of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation, with a balloon experiment that made the definitive measurement showing that the microwave background exhibited the thermal spectrum characteristic of the remnant radiation from the Big Bang.[15] He later became co-founder and science advisor of the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite,[1] which made detailed mapping of the radiation.

Weiss also pioneered the concept of using lasers for an interferometric gravitational wave detector, suggesting that the path length required for such a detector would necessitate kilometer-scale arms. He built a prototype in the 1970s, following earlier work by Robert L. Forward.[17][18] He co-founded the NSF LIGO (gravitational-wave detection) project,[19] which was based on his report "A study of a long Baseline Gravitational Wave Antenna System".[20]

Both of these efforts couple challenges in instrument science with physics important to the understanding of the Universe.[21]

In February 2016, he was one of the four scientists of LIGO/Virgo collaboration presenting at the press conference for the announcement that the first direct gravitational wave observation had been made in September 2015.[22][23][24][25][lower-alpha 1]

Honors and awards

Rainer Weiss has been recognized by numerous awards including:

  • In 2006, with John C. Mather, he and the COBE team received the Gruber Prize in Cosmology.[2]
  • In 2007, with Ronald Drever, he was awarded the APS Einstein Prize for his work.[26]
  • In 2016 and 2017, for the achievement of gravitational waves detection, he received:
  • The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics,[27]
  • Gruber Prize in Cosmology,[28]
  • Shaw Prize,[29]
  • Kavli Prize in Astrophysics[30]
  • The Harvey Prize together with Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever.[31]
  • The Smithsonian magazine's American Ingenuity Award in the Physical Science category, with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish.[32]
  • The Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics, 2017.[33]
  • Princess of Asturias Award (2017) (jointly with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish).[34]
  • The Nobel Prize in Physics (2017) (jointly with Kip Thorne and Barry Barish)[4]
  • Fellowship of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters[35]
  • In 2018, he was awarded the American Astronomical Society's Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation "for his invention of the interferometric gravitational-wave detector, which led to the first detection of long-predicted gravitational waves."[36]
  • In 2020 he was elected a Legacy Fellow of the American Astronomical Society.[37]

Selected publications


  1. Other physicists presenting were Gabriela González, David Reitze, Kip Thorne, and France A. Córdova from the NSF.

See also

  • List of Jewish Nobel laureates


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lars Brink (June 2, 2014). Nobel Lectures in Physics (2006–2010). World Scientific. pp. 25–. ISBN 978-981-4612-70-8. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "NASA and COBE Scientists Win Top Cosmology Prize". NASA. 2006. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Weiss, Rainer (1980). "Measurements of the Cosmic Background Radiation". Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 18: 489–535. doi:10.1146/annurev.aa.18.090180.002421. Bibcode1980ARA&A..18..489W. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "The Nobel Prize in Physics 2017". The Nobel Foundation. October 3, 2017. 
  5. Rincon, Paul; Amos, Jonathan (October 3, 2017). "Einstein's waves win Nobel Prize". BBC News. 
  6. Overbye, Dennis (October 3, 2017). "2017 Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to LIGO Black Hole Researchers". The New York Times. 
  7. Kaiser, David (October 3, 2017). "Learning from Gravitational Waves". The New York Times. 
  8. Emily Tapp (October 6, 2017). "Why we built the Holometer". IOP, Classical and Quantum Gravity journal. 
  9. Aaron Chou (2017). "The Holometer: an instrument to probe Planckian quantum geometry". Class. Quantum Grav. 34 (6): 065005. doi:10.1088/1361-6382/aa5e5c. Bibcode2017CQGra..34f5005C. 
  10. Interview with Rainer Weiss (2017 Physics Nobel Prize Laureate). Federal University of Pará. 2022.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Weiss CV at". 
  12. "MIT physicist Rainer Weiss shares Nobel Prize in physics". MIT News. October 3, 2017. 
  13. "Rainer Weiss Biography". 
  14. Shirley K. Cohen (May 10, 2000). "Interview with Rainer Weiss". Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 Cho, Adrian (August 4, 2016). "Meet the College Dropout who Invented the Gravitational Wave Detector", Science. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  16. Weiss, Rainer (1962). Stark effect and hyperfine structure of hydrogen fluoride (Ph.D.). Massachusetts Institute of Technology. OCLC 33374441 – via ProQuest.
  17. Cho, Adrian (October 3, 2017). "Ripples in space: U.S. trio wins physics Nobel for discovery of gravitational waves," Science. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  18. Cervantes-Cota, Jorge L., Galindo-Uribarri, Salvador, and Smoot, George F. (2016). "A Brief History of Gravitational Waves," Universe, 2, no. 3, 22. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  19. Mervis, Jeffrey. "Got gravitational waves? Thank NSF's approach to building big facilities". Science Magazine. ISSN 1095-9203. 
  20. Linsay, P., Saulson, P., and Weiss, R. (1983). "A Study of a Long Baseline Gravitational Wave Antenna System, NSF. Retrieved May 20, 2019.
  21. David Shoemaker (2012). "The Evolution of Advanced LIGO". LIGO Magazine (1). 
  22. Twilley, Nicola. "Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. 
  23. Abbott, B.P. (2016). "Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger". Phys. Rev. Lett. 116 (6): 061102. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102. PMID 26918975. Bibcode2016PhRvL.116f1102A. 
  24. Naeye, Robert (February 11, 2016). "Gravitational Wave Detection Heralds New Era of Science". Sky and Telescope. 
  25. Castelvecchi, Davide; Witze, Alexandra (February 11, 2016). "Einstein's gravitational waves found at last". Nature News. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19361. Retrieved February 11, 2016. 
  26. "Prize Recipient". 
  27. "Breakthrough Prize – Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics Awarded For Detection of Gravitational Waves 100 Years After Albert Einstein Predicted Their Existence" (in en). San Francisco. May 2, 2016. 
  28. "2016 Gruber Cosmology Prize Press Release" (in en). The Gruber Foundation. May 4, 2016. 
  29. "Shaw Prize 2016". 
  30. Prize, The Kavli. "9 Scientific Pioneers Receive The 2016 Kavli Prizes". (Press release).
  31. Harvey Prize 2016
  32. "Meet the Team of Scientists Who Discovered Gravitational Waves". 
  33. "The Willis E. Lamb Award for Laser Science and Quantum Optics". 
  34. "The Princess of Asturias Foundation". 
  35. "Group 2: Astronomy, Physics and Geophysics". Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. 
  36. "Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation". American Astronomical Society. 
  37. "AAS Fellows". AAS. 

Further reading

External links