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Rainer Weiss' birthday: from Slovakia to circuits, vinyl in Manhattan to LIGO

Along with Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, Rainer Weiss is one of the most likely "triplet" that can share the Nobel prize in physics next Tuesday. Weiss' key contribution already occurred in 1967 – see the history of LIGO – when he began to construct a laser interferometer and published a text pointing out its usefulness.

WVXU, a BBC-linked news source, just released a fun biography:

A physicist who proved Einstein right started by tinkering with the family record player
Aside from fundamental physics, one of the additional reasons why this biography may be relevant on this blog are his family's links to Czechoslovakia.




He was born in Berlin on September 29th, 1932, exactly 84 years ago. Congratulations! His mother was a German actress, his father was a Jewish neurologist (physician). The last adjective of the previous sentence didn't indicate a great career move in Germany of the 1930s, especially because the dad was a communist, too. The Nazi propaganda often talked about the Judeo-Bolshevism. Somewhat unfortunately, I think that the data make it clear that there is something "particularly attractive for the Jews" about communism.

It reminds me of the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory. Rajesh asked Howard whether Howard has a cousin who is a lawyer. Howard got irritated: Is it just because I am Jewish? It's like saying that your cousin must work in a call center because you're Indian. Needless to say, Rajesh pointed out that he has a cousin (Sanjay/David) who is indeed working in a call center, before Howard conceded that he has a cousin who is a lawyer, too. :-)




OK, but let me return to Weiss' life. When Rainer was born, the atmosphere in Germany was quickly getting unlivable for the Jews. At the end of 1932, when Rainer was a few months old, Weiss' family moved to Prague, the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, a beacon of freedom and democracy in the growing central European ocean of totalitarianism of the 1930s.

In Fall 1938, the First Republic was destroyed by Hitler and replaced by the truncated Second Republic of Czecho-Slovakia, an indefensible core of Czechoslovakia – which had been stripped of the Sudetenland, the Hungarian-rich Southern Slovakia, and where no one pretended that the country would operate independently of Hitler's wishes forever. The hyphen before Slovakia and the capitalization of "S" reflected the German support for the Slovak nationalism – the same hyphen and capitalization reemerged in the early 1990s before Czechoslovakia was dissolved (again).

At any rate, the situation became too dangerous for the Jews even in Czechia around 1938, they probably moved to Slovakia which was more independent during the war. But sometime in 1938 – I don't know the month and I would be interested – Weiss' family flew from Slovakia to America. A generous family in St Louis was ready to accept 10,000 Jewish refugees and pay for the damages they could cause. That was quite a deal. I think that if someone made this offer to accept the Muslim migrants and pay for their expenses or damages caused by them from his pocket, I would agree with such a deal, too. But such people no longer exist because basically everyone realizes that the Muslim immigration is costly and pathological.

The only hostility that Rainer has ever faced in the U.S. was on a day when his German mom gave him some typical Nazi boy trousers to the school and the Third Reich just did one of their nasty operations. So they did great in the U.S. but if he wanted to boast and exaggerate, Weiss could still paint himself as one of the unlucky guys who may get expelled from Europe because they're Judeo-Bolsheviks and harassed elsewhere because they're Nazis. ;-)



At the end of the war in 1945, the 12-year-old Rainer was already close to Cortland Street in New York, see the picture above. The street near the World Trade Center no longer exists. My understanding is that not only the houses are gone; the linear road on the map has evaporated, too. It looks sort of remarkable given the "modern" appearance of the street. These smaller buildings were replaced by a bigger infrastructure. Are the Newyorkers sure it was an improvement?

He could find lots of components for electric circuits on that street. He constructed lots of things as a kid and his sound systems were considered great and concert-hall-like. After completing the Columbia Grammar School, he went to the college – MIT – in order to solve some problem with the vinyl records and the quality of their sound. And the rest is already his "standard scientific biography". After his teaching at Tufts in 1960-62 and two postdoc years at Princeton in 1962-64 (note the chronology), he returned to MIT.



One of the newest vinyl record players produced by Tesla. Japan has bought lots of them as carousels for puppet shows. BTW Elon Musk wants to have tens of millions of people on Mars around 2050. (Just if you were caught by this prank: Tesla was the largest Czechoslovak electronic company during communism. You may buy the device above for $0.04 or for $20 a month.)

His teenage activities were useful because if you study how to detect the tiny motion of the needle tracking a vinyl record, it's not so far from measuring the oscillations caused by the gravitational waves. And the laser interferometer is obviously not useful just for the gravitational waves. It may measure lengths – constant and time-dependent lengths – very accurately. The accuracy is incomparably, much better than the accuracy achieved by vinyl records, of course, but it's a similar kind of a task. LIGO may be viewed as an "extension of that path" that Rainer Weiss has followed.



The text above may make it sound that Weiss was just a teenage and then older engineer playing with vinyl records who did something useful for general relativity and the general relativists just happened to find it useful even though he had nothing to do with general relativity. That's not the case. You may listen to his 75-minute March 2016 KITP talk on gravitational waves. He told the audience pretty much everything about the waves, Einstein's theory, and the history of all this stuff as many of us who have given talks on the same subject. And when it comes to the experimental technicalities, he said much more, of course.

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