A Madman Dreams of Tuning Machines: The Story of Joseph Weber, the Tragic Hero of Science Who Followed Einstein’s Vision and Pioneered the Sound of Spacetime
By Maria Popova
In his groundbreaking 1915 paper on general relativity, Albert Einstein envisioned gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of spacetime caused by astronomic events of astronomical energy. Although fundamental to our understanding of the universe, gravitational waves were a purely theoretical construct for him. He lived in an era when any human-made tool for detecting something this faraway was simply unimaginable, even by the greatest living genius, and many of the cosmic objects capable of producing such tremendous tumult — black holes, for instance — were yet to be discovered.
One September morning in 2015, almost exactly a century after Einstein published his famous paper, scientists turned his mathematical dream into a tangible reality — or, rather, an audible one.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — an enormous international collaboration known as LIGO, consisting of two massive listening instruments 3,000 kilometers apart, decades in the making — recorded the sound of a gravitational wave produced by two mammoth black holes that had collided more than a billion years ago, more than a billion light-years away.
One of the most significant discoveries in the history of science, this landmark event introduces a whole new modality of curiosity in our quest to know the cosmos, its thrill only amplified by the fact that we had never actually seen black holes before hearing them. Nearly everything we know about the universe today, we know through five centuries of optical observation of light and particles. Now begins a new era of sonic exploration. Turning an inquisitive ear to the cosmos might, and likely will, revolutionize our understanding of it as radically as Galileo did when he first pointed his telescope at the skies.
In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) — one of the finest and most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times — astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin tells the story of LIGO and its larger significance as a feat of science and the human spirit. Levin, a writer who bends language with effortless might and uses it not only as an instrument of thought but also as a Petri dish for emotional nuance, probes deep into the messy human psychology that animated these brilliant and flawed scientists as they persevered in this ambitious quest against enormous personal, political, and practical odds.
Somewhere in the universe two black holes collide — as heavy as stars, as small as cities, literally black (the complete absence of light) holes (empty hollows). Tethered by gravity, in their final seconds together the black holes course through thousands of revolutions about their eventual point of contact, churning up space and time until they crash and merge into one bigger black hole, an event more powerful than any since the origin of the universe, outputting more than a trillion times the power of a billion Suns. The black holes collide in complete darkness. None of the energy exploding from the collision comes out as light. No telescope will ever see the event.
What nobody could see LIGO could hear — a sensitive, sophisticated ear pressed to the fabric of spacetime, tuned to what Levin so poetically eulogizes as “the total darkness, the empty space, the vacuity, the great expanse of nothingness, of emptiness, of pure space and time.” She writes of this astonishing instrument:
An idea sparked in the 1960s, a thought experiment, an amusing haiku, is now a thing of metal and glass.
But what makes the book most enchanting is Levin’s compassionate insight into the complex, porous, often tragic humanity undergirding the metal and glass — nowhere more tragic than in the story of Joseph Weber, the controversial pioneer who became the first to bring Einstein’s equations into the lab. Long before LIGO was even so much as a thought experiment, Weber envisioned and built a very different instrument for listening to the cosmos.
Weber was born Yonah Geber to a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in early-twentieth-century New Jersey. His mother’s heavy accent caused his teacher to mishear the boy’s name as “Joseph,” so he became Joe. After he was hit by a bus at the age of five, young Joe required speech rehabilitation therapy, which replaced his Yiddish accent with a generic American one that led his family to call him “Yankee.” As a teenager, he dropped out of Cooper Union out of concern for his parents’ finances and joined the Navy instead, where he served on an aircraft carrier that was sunk during WWII. When the war ended, he became a microwave engineer and was hired as a professor at the University of Maryland at the then-enviable salary — especially for a 29-year-old — of $6,500 a year.
Eager to do microwave research, he turned to the great physicist George Gamow, who had theorized cosmic microwave background radiation — a thermal remnant of the Big Bang, which would provide unprecedented insight into the origin of the universe and which Weber wanted to dedicate his Ph.D. career to detecting. But Gamow inexplicably snubbed him. Two other scientists eventually discovered cosmic microwave background radiation by accident and received the Nobel Prize for the discovery. Weber then turned to atomic physics and devised the maser — the predecessor of the laser — but, once again, other scientists beat him to the public credit and received a Nobel for that discovery, too.
Joe’s scientific life is defined by these significant near misses… He was Shackleton many times, almost the first: almost the first to see the big bang, almost the first to patent the laser, almost the first to detect gravitational waves. Famous for nearly getting there.
And that is how Weber got to gravitational waves — a field he saw as so small and esoteric that he stood a chance of finally being the first. Levin writes:
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. A solid aluminum cylinder about 2 meters long, 1 meter in diameter, and in the range of 3,000 pounds, as guitar strings go, 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.
Following his announcement, Weber became an overnight celebrity. His face graced magazine covers. NASA put one of his instruments on the Moon. He received ample laud from peers. Even the formidable J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man of slim capacity for compliments, encouraged him with a remark Weber never forgot: “The work you’re doing,” Oppenheimer told him, “is just about the most exciting work going on anywhere around here.”
Under the spell of this collective excitement, scientists around the world began building replicas of Weber’s cylinder. But one after another, they were unable to replicate his results — the electrifying eagerness to hear gravitational waves was met with the dead silence of the cosmos.
Weber plummeted from grace as quickly as he had ascended. (Einstein himself famously scoffed at the fickle nature of fame.) Levin writes:
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.
Among Weber’s most enthusiastic initial supporters was the great theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. Perhaps out of his staunch belief that no question is unanswerable, Dyson had emboldened Weber to attempt what no one had attempted before — to hear the sound of spacetime. But when the evidence against Weber’s data began to mount, Dyson was anguished by a sense of personal responsibility for having encouraged him, so he wrote Weber an extraordinary letter urging him to practice the immensely difficult art of changing one’s mind. Levin quotes the letter, penned on June 5, 1975:
I have been watching with fear and anguish the ruin of our hopes. I feel a considerable personal responsibility for having advised you in the past to “stick your neck out.” Now I still consider you a great man unkindly treated by fate, and I am anxious to save whatever can be saved. So I offer my advice again for what it is worth.
A great man is not afraid to admit publicly that he has made a mistake and has changed his mind. I know you are a man of integrity. You are strong enough to admit that you are wrong. If you do this, your enemies will rejoice but your friends will rejoice even more. You will save yourself as a scientist, and you will find that those whose respect is worth having will respect you for it.
I write now briefly because long explanations will not make the message clearer. Whatever you decide, I will not turn my back on you.
With all good wishes,
But Weber decided not to heed his friend’s warm caution. His visionary genius coexisted with one of the most unfortunate and most inescapable of human tendencies — our bone-deep resistance to the shame of admitting error. He paid a high price: His disrepute soon veered into cruelty — he was ridiculed and even baited by false data intended to trick him into reaffirming his claims, only to be publicly humiliated all over again. In one of the archival interviews Levin excavates, he laments:
I simply cannot understand the vehemence and the professional jealousy, and why each guy has to feel that he has to cut off a pound of my flesh… Boltzmann committed suicide with this sort of treatment.
Here, I think of Levin’s penchant for celebrating tragic heroes whose posthumous redemption only adds to their tragedy. Her magnificent novel A Mad Man Dreams of Turing Machines is based on the real lives of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel, both of whom committed suicide — Turing after particularly cruel mistreatment. Levin’s writing emanates a deep sympathy for those who have fallen victim to some combination of their own fallible humanity and the ferocious inhumanity of unforgiving, bloodthirsty others. No wonder Weber’s story sings to her. A mad man dreams of tuning machines.
Without diminishing the role of personal pathology and individual neurochemistry, given what psychologists know about suicide prevention, social support likely played a vital role in Weber’s ability to withstand the barrage of viciousness — Dyson’s sympathetic succor, but most of all the love of his wife, the astronomer Virginia Trimble, perhaps the most unambivalently likable character in the book. Levin writes:
She called him Weber and he called her Trimble. They married in March 1972 after a cumulative three weekends together. She laughs. “Weber never had any trouble making up his mind.” Twenty-three years her senior, he always insisted she do what she wanted and needed to do. Perhaps trained in part by his first wife, Anita, a physicist who took a protracted break to raise their four boys, the widower had no reservations about Virginia’s work, her independence, or her IQ. (Stratospheric. In an issue of Life magazine with a now-vintage cover, in an article titled “Behind a Lovely Face, a 180 I.Q.” about the then eighteen-year-old astrophysics major, she is quoted as classifying the men she dates into three types: “Guys who are smarter than I am, and I’ve found one or two. Guys who think they are— they’re legion. And those who don’t care.”)
Trimble was the second woman ever allowed at the famed Palomar Observatory, a year after pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin broke the optical-glass ceiling by becoming the first to observe there. Levin, whose subtle kind-natured humor never fails to delight, captures Trimble’s irreverent brilliance:
In her third year, having demonstrated her tenacity — particularly manifest in the fact that she still hadn’t married, she suspects — she was awarded a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. When she arrived at Caltech, she was delighted. “I thought, ‘Look at all of these lovely men.’” In her seventies, with her coral dress, matching shoes and lip color, Moon earrings, and gold animal-head ring, she beams. Still a lovely face. And still an IQ of 180.
This fierce spirit never left Trimble. Now in her seventies, she tells Levin:
When I fell and broke my hip last September, I spent four days on the floor of my apartment singing songs and reciting poetry until I was found.
It isn’t hard to see why Weber — why anyone — would fall in love with Trimble. But although their love sustained him and he didn’t take his own life, he suffered an end equally heartbreaking.
By the late 1980s, Weber had submerged himself even deeper into the quicksand of his convictions, stubbornly trying to prove that his instrument could hear the cosmos. For the next twenty years, he continued to operate his own lab funded out of pocket — a drab concrete box in the Maryland woods, where he was both head scientist and janitor. Meanwhile, LIGO — a sophisticated instrument that would eventually cost more than $1 billion total, operated by a massive international team of scientists — was gathering momentum nearby, thanks largely to the scientific interest in gravitational astronomy that Weber’s early research had sparked.
He was never invited to join LIGO. Trimble surmises that even if he had been, he would’ve declined.
One freezing winter morning in 2000, just as LIGO’s initial detectors were being built, 81-year-old Weber went to clean his lab, slipped on the ice in front of the building, hit his head, and fell unconscious. He was found two days later and taken to the E.R., but he never recovered. He died at the hospital several months later from the lymphoma he’d been battling. The widowed Trimble extracts from her husband’s tragedy an unsentimental parable of science — a testament to the mismatch between the time-scale of human achievement, with all the personal glory it brings, and that of scientific progress:
Science is a self-correcting process, but not necessarily in one’s own lifetime.
When the LIGO team published the official paper announcing the groundbreaking discovery, Weber was acknowledged as the pioneer of gravitational wave research. But like Alan Turing, who was granted posthumous pardon by the Queen more than half a century after he perished by inhumane injustice, Weber’s redemption is culturally bittersweet at best. I’m reminded of a beautiful passage from Levin’s novel about Turing and Gödel, strangely perfect in the context of Weber’s legacy:
Their genius is a testament to our own worth, an antidote to insignificance; and their bounteous flaws are luckless but seemingly natural complements, as though greatness can be doled out only with an equal measure of weakness… Their broken lives are mere anecdotes in the margins of their discoveries. But then their discoveries are evidence of our purpose, and their lives are parables on free will.
Free will, indeed, is what Weber exercised above all — he lived by it and died by it. In one of the interviews Levin unearths, he reflects from the depths of his disrepute:
If you do science the principal reason to do it is because you enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it you shouldn’t do it, and I enjoy it. And I must say I’m enjoying it… That’s the best you can do.
At the end of the magnificent and exceptionally poetic Black Hole Blues, the merits of which I’ve extolled more fully here, Levin offers a wonderfully lyrical account of LIGO’s triumph as she peers into the furthest reaches of the spacetime odyssey that began with Einstein, gained momentum with Weber, and is only just beginning to map the course of human curiosity across the universe:
Two very big stars lived in orbit around each other several billion years ago. Maybe there were planets around them, although the two-star system might have been too unstable or too simple in composition to accommodate planets. Eventually one star died, and then the other, and two black holes formed. They orbited in darkness, probably for billions of years before that final 200 milliseconds when the black holes collided and merged, launching their loudest gravitational wave train into the universe.
The sound traveled to us from 1.4 billion light-years away. One billion four hundred million light-years.
We heard black holes collide. We’ll point to where the sound might have come from, to the best of our abilities, a swatch of space from an earlier epoch. Somewhere in the southern sky, pulling away from us with the expansion of the universe, the big black hole will roll along its own galaxy, dark and quiet until something wanders past, an interstellar dust cloud or an errant star. After a few billion years the host galaxy might collide with a neighbor, tossing the black hole around, maybe toward a supermassive black hole in a growing galactic center. Our star will die. The Milky Way will blend with Andromeda. The record of this discovery along with the wreckage of our solar system will eventually fall into black holes, as will everything else in the cosmos, the expanding space eventually silent, and all the black holes will evaporate into oblivion near the end of time.
Published April 25, 2016