Once a 'refugee from physics,' late UM scientist Joseph Weber now recognized as inspiration of hunt for gravitational waves

For decades physicist Joseph Weber worked in a lab at the edge of the University of Maryland golf course, laboring as what one former colleague called a “refugee from physics.”

Weber, who died in 2000, was spurned by the scientific community for clinging to his conviction that he had spotted evidence of the ripples in space-time produced when two dead stars or black holes collide.

Now, nearly 50 years after Weber published his claim, scientists are confident they have in fact detected those ripples — known as gravitational waves — using a giant laser system called LIGO. The work earned three of those scientists the Nobel Prize in physics this month.

And Monday, researchers announced that the LIGO system had detected gravitational waves in August that allowed them to witness the final moments of a pair of neutron stars, a major step forward for astronomy.

With the recent discoveries, Weber’s legacy is shifting. The outcast is becoming a pioneer.

Derek Boyd, a former chair of the University of Maryland physics department, said people are now reassessing the history of the mutli-decade hunt for gravitational waves and Weber’s decision to go looking for the phenomena.

“What you see now is that because gravitational wave detection has succeeded, people are taking a sort of longer view,” Boyd said. “They’re looking over the history of the subject and they are now much more conscious in their assessment of what Joe’s contribution to that was.”

Weber was born in New Jersey to immigrants from what is now Lithuania in 1919. As a kid he became interested in amateur radio, sending him down a path that led — via the Naval Academy and service in the Pacific during World War II — to College Park.

Weber initially taught electrical engineering but earned a Ph.D in physics.

In the 1950s, Weber was looking to move on from groundbreaking early work on lasers that went largely unacknowledged even as another group claimed a Nobel Prize for similar efforts.

He began thinking about Albert Einsten’s theory of relativity. Einstein had predicted that gravitational waves — distortions in space and even time created by stars and other big objects — should exist, but he doubted that humans would ever be able to detect them.

Other scientists agreed and with seemingly no experiments to be done, the field became a backwater. But Weber decided it was worth a try, developing an approach using massive cylinders of aluminum to watch for them passing by.

The idea quickly caught on, generating excitement around the physics world.

“His case was sufficiently convincing that there were several other groups in the world who built similar detectors,” Boyd said. “These weren’t people who were caught up in some con game.”

In 1969, Weber published his first results, asserting his device detected 21 such waves in 81 days, but Boyd said peers had serious questions about whether his techniques could work. No one could replicate Weber’s purported success.

The publication, Boyd said, dealt a mortal blow to Weber’s reputation.

But by that point the hunt was on, and other scientists were thinking of other methods that might be sensitive enough to detect the waves.

Among them was Rainer Weiss, a longtime professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the three Nobel winners for their work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

He said Weber’s approach was nowhere near sensitive enough to detect the waves — 10 million times too imprecise — but those at the top of the field now recognize Weber’s contribution.

“All of us nevertheless credit him with the first serious attempt at making a direct detection,” Weiss said.

Physicists weren’t always so kind about Weber.

He was unwilling or unable to admit that he might have made an error. To others in the field, who were trying to get plans for what would become LIGO funded, that made him a threat.

Even if Weber’s work was discredited, there was a chance that one of the bureaucrats who controlled the funding could decide to back him, Boyd said.

Charles Misner, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Maryland, said that concern made people wary of giving Weber some sort of prize during his lifetime.

“But if we give him a prize he’ll make speeches,” Misner recalled people saying. “Nobody wanted to see him talk Congress into canceling all their money.”

Virginia Trimble, an astronomer at the University of California, Irvine and Weber’s second wife, said it was only after Weber’s death that his contributions began to be publicly recognized.

“They were nasty until he died because of competition for funding,” she said. “Once he died and wasn’t competing for money, slowly but surely all the people who had gotten the money said yes, he founded their field.”

The University of Maryland held an event honoring Weber last year, and the physics department is planning a memorial garden to him, turning six of his aluminum bars into a work of art.

Trimble said Weber’s professional frustration didn’t spill over into his family life, which was split between California and their house in Chevy Chase. The couple were the first on the dance floor at Naval Academy alumni events and took in plays, operas and ballets.

“We really really enjoyed our lives together,” she said.

But his isolation did come at a cost. One day in early 2000 he slipped on ice outside his lab and was found trying to crawl back to his car. The incident aggravated his non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which eventually killed him, Trimble said.

Weber was old enough that he might never have lived to see LIGO’s first results in 2015. But had he been been around, Trimble said, he probably would have said, “I told you so,” followed by an argument that they could have gotten results faster had his work been properly funded.

Trimble said Weber wasn’t bitter about how things turned out but believed the rest of his field had made a grave mistake.

“He wanted to get the science done,” she said.

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UPDATES:

This story has been updated with more accurate information about Joseph Weber’s fall in 2000.

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