Good things seem to happen for Rainer Weiss at 5 a.m.
This morning, still in bed, his wife picked up the phone. It was the Nobel Prize committee. With a chuckle, Weiss admits he and his wife were “in the nude” when they found out he'd won. "Now that you asked, I'm telling you," he said.
Two years ago, in September, it was also around 5 a.m. when two massive instruments Weiss' team had built heard a little chirp. That sound, it was later confirmed, was a passing gravitational wave.
A gravitational wave is a tiny distortion in time and space caused by a huge and violent event in the universe. The wave they detected was caused by two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago.
Albert Einstein had predicted the existence of gravitational waves almost exactly 100 years ago, but he thought it would be virtually impossible to detect.
Weiss and his colleague proved Einstein’s theory right, but his measurement concerns wrong. They measured the tiny distortion, which was just one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton.
"If Einstein was still alive, it would be absolutely wonderful to go to him and tell him about the discovery. He would have been very pleased, I am sure of that," Weiss said. “But then if we told him what the discovery was – that it was a black hole – he would have been absolutely flabbergasted."
For his part, Weiss says he was flabbergasted to win the Nobel Prize.
"To be put in the same category as some of the giants of physics, that's sort of unbelievable," he said.
He thinks the measurement tools he and his colleagues have built and their ability to pinpoint where in the sky the black holes were will clear the way for future discoveries.
"We've opened a new field in astronomy and astrophysics,” said Weiss. “I think that’s the fundamental thing that's so new about this."
Weiss says his advice to young scientists is to surround yourself with people who believe in you. That's what he learned after flunking out of MIT as a student. Now, Rainer Weiss has been a professor at MIT for nearly 40 years.