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CHASING LONELY DREAM, CATCHING A WAVE Pioneer researcher into gravity waves now pariah in field

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK -- Joseph Weber has a problem. He's discovered one of the secrets of the universe, but the world won't listen.

Almost a quarter-century after his pioneering physics research at the University of Maryland held the attention of scientists worldwide and earned prestige for his school, he's alienated virtually everyone in his field.

And the 71-year-old professor emeritus -- with wispy white hair as distinctive as Albert Einstein's famous frizz -- can't figure out how they could be so wrong.

"We're No. 1 in the field, but I haven't gotten funding since 1987," he said, standing in a small, concrete-block building, deep in woods near the university golf course. The faded sign outside reads: "Gravitational Wave Observatory."

It's where Joseph Weber's dreams reside, amid the huge machines he built and has religiously kept operating at his own expense for four years. "They've been running continuously since 1969," he said. "I think this is a tremendous tradition for Maryland."

But the retired professor is uncertain of the future these days, as Congress ponders funding a $211 million gravity wave observatory using a different system from the one he invented, a rival design championed by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Known as LIGO, the observatory will listen with unprecedented sensitivity for faint, invisible waves, the ripples in space predicted in Einstein's theory of general relativity to emanate from violent objects in the universe such as supernovas and black holes.

And in LIGO's long shadow, Dr. Weber's lonely efforts to raise $2 million for an improved model of his observatory in the golf course woods appear doomed, seen by others as blind devotion to a runner-up technology.

"Joe's sort of a voice in the wilderness at this point," said Derek A. Boyd, chairman of Maryland's department of physics and astronomy, who candidly acknowledges the controversy surrounding Dr. Weber. "But this is a university. He's entitled to hold his opinion."

Dr. Weber's evolution from pioneer to pariah gives a glimpse into the world of fast-lane scientific research, where federal grants are life and death, where colossal egos clash, where being first but wrong can be a greater failure than doing no research at all.

And at the root of the drama is this: Dr. Weber believes his instruments have detected evidence of gravity waves. Not true, say the majority of his colleagues, who disagreed quietly at first but more angrily as he has persisted in claims they consider unsupported.

"The things people have accused me of are just incredible," said the intense, energetic father of four grown sons who has jogged an hour every morning for 30 years. "The criticism has been enormous. I don't like it, but I've accepted it as the price of breaking new ground."

Dr. Weber defiantly waves a journal article challenging his theories and experiments. "I'm going to run into this guy . . . at a meeting back home," he said with a sly smile. "I intend to speak up for myself."

"Home" for half the year is California. He and his second wife, astronomer Virginia Trimble, who is 24 years his junior, spend six months in Maryland and six months at the University of California at Irvine, where she's a tenured professor and he's a visiting professor.

But the critics will be waiting wherever he goes. Dr. Weber arouses high emotions, understandable in light of the long, frustrating search for gravitational waves, a holy grail in physics that promises Nobel prizes and lasting fame for the lucky scientists who succeed.

Detection of the waves would confirm one of the few untested predictions of the brilliant 1916 theory of general relativity and open a new observational window on the universe that could answer questions about its age and evolution.

The waves are extremely faint by the time they reach Earth, so faint that Einstein thought they would never be detected. But he did identify a signature: As gravity waves pass by, they slightly compress and expand objects along their path.

In 1958, Dr. Weber -- a Naval Academy graduate who had arrived at College Park 10 years earlier to teach electrical engineering and later earned a doctorate in physics from Catholic University -- became intrigued by the seemingly impossible challenge.

"I had been teaching the theory of radio antennas," he recalls, "and I thought, couldn't we build a gravitational wave antenna?" The result was the classic device now attributed to Dr. Weber in the history books, a simple yet ingenious "resonant bar detector."

A solid cylinder of aluminum 2 feet in diameter and 6 feet long, it weighed 2,600 pounds and was suspended in a vacuum chamber on wires to isolate it from vibration.

On its surface were strain gauges to measure the slight distortion of the bar caused by a gravitational wave.

"Weber is a wizard with instrumentation," said Richard A. Isaacson, program director for gravitational physics at the National Science Foundation.

"He created the field out of nothing and got to the point where people could see it was possible. That's an enormous contribution."

Kip Thorne, professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, calls Dr. Weber "a highly intelligent, creative scientist who did pioneering work not only in gravitational waves but in the theory of amplifiers and lasers."

But controversy overtook Dr. Weber in the late 1960s, when he began simultaneously operating an identical detector at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. The 700-mile separation helped eliminate false readings caused by local effects such as lightning or tremors.

And in June 1969, Dr. Weber stunned the world of physics by announcing that the two detectors were registering bursts of vibration as often as once a day, from a source in the center of the Milky Way. He was adamant that the pulses were real and not Earthly "noise."

It was the height of the wizard's fame, with funding from the National Science Foundation at a lush $200,000 a year. The observatory had been custom-built for his research through a combination of state and federal money, and the university community was at his feet.

"He was an energetic, radical person, someone who did a great deal to invigorate this place," said Dr. Boyd. "But it all began to unravel when he began to assert he had positive results from his bar detector."

To the researchers who tried to duplicate Dr. Weber's startling results, it quickly became apparent that he had "succeeded" too well. The recorded pulses were more frequent and far stronger than predicted by theory, and they were not consistent with the sensitivity of his detector.

Richard L. Garwin, an IBM fellow and science adviser to the company's director of research, led one of the groups. Ever since, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Maryland physicist's work.

"We built an aluminum bar detector more sensitive than his and found nothing," said Dr. Garwin bluntly. "Gravity waves exist, there's no doubt about it. But Joe Weber never detected any, and neither has anybody else."

Dr. Weber's faith has never wavered. He insists that an aluminum bar detector at the University of Rome began confirming his results in 1978, although the Rome group -- while noting some curious "coincidences" in data -- has never made that claim.

And, in the mid-1980s, he recalculated that his antenna was actually a million times more sensitive than he originally thought, correction that brought his data into closer agreement with theory.

But Dr. Weber's new math is wrong, according to Dr. Thorne of Caltech. He believes his colleague's first calculation was "impeccably correct" and represents a lasting contribution to the field.

The relentless criticism of all but his original work, performed decades ago when he was a young man, has "given me endless problems," said Dr. Weber with a sigh. "All money vanished. I've been doing this out of my own pocket."

In 1987, the NSF stopped funding his work in favor of others who were advancing bar-detector research. The state-of-the-art approach -- at Stanford University and Louisiana State University -- now involves "super-cooling" the metal to minimize internal noise caused by the motions of atoms in the aluminum bar.

"Joe's position with respect to gravitational waves is that his method is it and a little bit of refinement in his apparatus will make it detect anything you want, for much less cost," said Dr. Boyd. "This position is not, in fact, accepted by the community."

Dr. Weber stubbornly attributes the cutoff in funding to big-league science politics. "It's perfectly clear to me that any improvement in bars is a threat to the funding of LIGO," he said. "My critics are all in the LIGO camp."

LIGO, or Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, is designed to achieve a broad-range sensitivity beyond the theoretical limits of the bar detectors by using a precise laser technology to measure the minute effect of the waves.

But the NSF is pumping $1.5 million a year into research on the cold bar detectors, which will remain the most sensitive in the world until LIGO comes on line in 1996. "Theoretically, they're not sensitive enough," said Dr. Isaacson. "But we want them listening, just in case."

Ironically, it was Dr. Weber's room-temperature detectors and the University of Rome instrument that recorded pulses in March 1987, when a spectacular supernova, or exploding star, flared up in a neighboring galaxy 170,000 light-years from Earth.

And, once again, the Italians were leery of the data. In the United States, his supernova results have received the cold shoulder.

"There's absolutely nothing there. It just isn't worth looking into," said Dr. Garwin.

One researcher with a unique perspective on the gravity wave wars is Robert L. Forward, a California aerospace consultant and science fiction writer who was a graduate student of Dr. Weber's the early 1960s and invented the laser method of wave detection employed by LIGO.

"Nobody much listens to Joe anymore, and that's sad," Dr. Forward said. "People are convinced what he's seen couldn't be gravity waves as Einstein described them. But it's conceivably something else very interesting. No one knows."

Dr. Weber still has his unabashed champions. In a 1989 letter on university stationery supporting construction of the $2 million observatory, then-Chancellor John S. Toll lauded his friend as "the international leader in efforts to detect gravitational waves."

Now head of the university consortium that will manage the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, Dr. Toll acknowledges there "have been great disagreements about whether he was successful in his field. But I was always very proud of Joe Weber and his research."

In his white-painted observatory, Dr. Weber watches as pens on rotating drums slowly trace out the life-signs of his detectors on graph paper. The building is deserted. He's the only one who visits these days.

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