Pioneer researcher into gravity waves now pariah in field


April 07, 1991|By Luther Young | Luther Young,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

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