Home / Science / How a "singular hero" helped to open a new field in physics: NPR

How a "singular hero" helped to open a new field in physics: NPR

Rich Isaacson, seen in his backyard in Pentagon City, Virginia, wrote his thesis on gravitational waves and said he always thought that their existence would be proven sometime during his career. But he did not know that trying to see her would become his career.

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Ryan Kellman / NPR

Imagine spending 40 years and more than a billion dollars on gambling.

This has been done by a science agency of the US government. It pays off now, almost every week come new discoveries about black holes and exotic neutron stars.

And while three physicists shared the Nobel Prize for the work that made this possible, one of them says the true hero is a former National Science Foundation employee named Rich Isaacson, who saw an opportunity to do some amazing research and use them.

"What Rich Isaacson did was such a miracle," says Rainer Weiss, a physicist at MIT and one of them the Nobel Prize winners of 201

7. "I think he's the hero, he's a unique hero simply not a good way to recognize such people, Rich was in a unique place where a unique war was unleashed that no one else could have led. "

Without him Weiss says, "We would have died dead in virtually every area." He and his co-winner Kip Thorne recently donated money to create a brand-new American Physical Society award in honor of Isaacson.

This unlikely story begins in the 1960s when Isaacson was a graduate student and was interested in one of Albert Einstein's predictions.

In 1916, Einstein theorized that every time two massive objects collided, they would move shockwaves through the structure of the universe. These gravitational waves through space and time are like the waves you see in the water when you throw a pebble.

"In my work, I have shown how gravitational waves behave like other types of waves, such as light and radar, X-rays," says Isaacson.

His calculations showed that these waves were not just a mathematical ambiguity, but something that could possibly be measured. "It showed exactly how Einstein's theory works in detail when generating gravitational waves," says Weiss. "And it was done so that it was mathematically correct and no one could deny it."

Einstein, who had dealt with the question of gravitational waves, believed that most likely this would never be the case – the distortions they cause in space are simply too small.

Isaacson was more optimistic. "I imagined that we would see it sometime in my career," he says.

He just did not realize that trying to see it would become his career.

Back in the early years In the 1970s, Isaacson accepted a position at the still-young National Science Foundation to review financing proposals. And Weiss wanted money for a crazy idea he was pursuing: the attempt to detect gravitational waves with lasers.

Theoretically, lasers could be used to measure very, very small distortions in space – such as changes that are one-thousandth of the width of an atomic nucleus. "Most people said, 'Holy mackerel, he has to be crazy, you can not,' Weiss remembers.

The technology was just too hard. Besides, no one knew what could spew gravity waves in the universe that are strong enough to be measured.

Usually, Weiss says, "this proposal would have been dead on arrival with these two things, but it would be." That was not the case with Rich.

Having studied gravitational waves, Isaacson recognized the potential and personally led this research for nearly three decades.

It became the largest project the National Science Foundation had ever funded.

"He was sitting in the NSF and single-handedly convinced – I single-handedly – all in the NSF of supporting the right thing for the NSF and the science would be spectacular if it should succeed, "says Weiss." And he has held out the argument. " He has spent years doing prototype tests and expert review panels as well as feasibility studies and management nightmares.Of course, many people have worked on this project, but Weiss says that "the elegance of Rich was that he knew how the system worked works, and that he knew the science. "

" He was a lawyer, like a Messiah, "For all this idea to discover gravitational waves "He became a strategist then," explains Weiss. "Imagine now, the guy running the NSF program becomes the chief advocate for it, and also the guy who has developed most of the strategies for the program, which was a miracle to me, and that's what It has made it so that the field survives. "

After all, many people thought it crazy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building huge detectors that might never discover anything – especially astronomers who feared that the money would be from Safe betting would be distracted as would building new telescopes.

"There is always a risk that the project will be stopped," says Isaacson. "And like all big projects in science, it's a roller coaster ride."

Officially, Isaacson never worked longer than about half time. In fact, it was all consuming. The long working days took their toll. At some point, his blood pressure rose sky high and his doctor was alerted.

Isaacson says he feels happy to have been able to change history. "But history requires you to pay a price for this privilege, in terms of stress and distress, lifestyle and family events," he says. "When you're ready to pay the price, you have this chance and you can go ahead and maybe it will work, maybe it will not work."

In 2002, Isaacson retired. This year, the NSF began to search the sky with its brand new Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO): two massive detectors, one in Washington State and one in Louisiana. Everyone has lasers that walk down 2 1/2 miles of pipes.

For years, these detectors searched for gravitational waves … and found nothing.

Scientists stuck to it. They improved the instruments of the detectors. And in 2015, Isaacson traveled to Maine with Weiss and another colleague to open a laptop with the measurements taken just a few days earlier.

It was the first discovery of gravitational waves from two black holes that collided over a billion light-years away. "It was absolutely clear that this fantastic thing had just happened," recalls Isaacson.

The realization produced "a little warm glow," he says. "I guess now that I'm a few years away, I'm starting to feel it more."

Asked about the opportunities that a government-funded science project like this could have today, he says, "Zero."

"We live in a different time," says Isaacson. "I think nobody can do such a large-scale, high-risk, long-term research."

Gravitational wave research has given astronomers an unprecedented opportunity to see some of the most powerful and exotic events in the universe. For example, in 2017 the LIGO detectors registered a collision between two neutron stars, and telescopes were able to find the cosmic fireworks and observe them in real time.

Just last month, researchers launched the massive detectors after another major hardware upgrade. You have already discovered at least five more gravitational wave events.

Isaacson keeps science in mind, but retired, he is finally completely free to pursue another love: ancient textiles from Central Asia , He even wrote a book about the decorated ribbons that wrap around nomad tents.

He likes carpets and weavings with geometric patterns. "Because modern physics is very geometric, it's not that different," says Isaacson. "Except that physicists usually work in four or ten dimensions, so for a career in retirement, it's a breeze to work in two dimensions."

In the mid-19th century, he rolls out a red carpet of an Uzbek tribe "They were anonymous," says Isaacson, "and they were completely ignored." beautiful things. "

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