Across the Universe

Steven Wheeler in Inference:

As the 1960s drew to a close, Rainer Weiss was working as an associate professor at MIT’s Department of Physics.1 Asked to teach an undergraduate course on general relativity by the department chairman, Weiss found himself in the unenviable position of teaching an unfamiliar subject. “I had a terrible time with the mathematics,” Weiss recalled, “[a]nd I tried to do everything by making aGedankenexperiment out of it.”2

Weiss’s students were curious about the work of physicist Joseph Weber and, in particular, his attempts to detect gravitational waves. Predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravitational waves were a much-debated phenomenon for which no experimental evidence had been found. Weber’s efforts were centered on resonant mass detectors of his own design: suspended aluminum cylinders two meters in length and a meter in diameter fitted with a ring of piezoelectric crystals.3 Weber believed that the cylinders would, in effect, act like giant tuning forks; a passing gravitational wave would ring the cylinders at their resonant frequency. In a 1969 paper published by the Physical Review, Weber claimed to have found evidence for gravitational waves.

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