The storyteller

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Science  05 Aug 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6299, pp. 532-537
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6299.532

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Nearly 50 years ago, Rainer Weiss dreamed up a way to detect gravitational waves—infinitesimal ripples in spacetime predicted by Einstein's theory of gravity, general relativity. Last September, that dream came true as 1000 physicists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), two huge detectors in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, sensed a pulse of waves radiated by two massive black holes as they spiraled into each other a billion light-years away. The discovery makes Weiss, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, a sure bet to win a Nobel Prize, his peers say. By any measure, Weiss has led an extraordinary life. Born in 1932 in Berlin, he and his family fled the Nazis. He grew up in New York City, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, a street-smart kid with a gift for tinkering who built and sold his own high fidelity systems. As an MIT undergrad, Weiss flunked out, and he later struggled to get tenure there. Still, he established himself as a leading physicist and worked for 40 years on LIGO, one of the most audacious experiments ever attempted. He works on it even now. Yet getting a fix on Weiss isn't easy. An inveterate storyteller, he has clearly told his tales many times, smoothing the edges and burnishing the details. As he conjures up his past, little clues—loose threads, differing versions—suggest he's not quite an open book. In fact, for Weiss, storytelling itself seems to serve some more subtle purpose.