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LIGO’s success was built on many failures

The powerful collision of two black holes, depicted in a computer simulation, was detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. (Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory via Reuters)
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There he is again, on the front page of the New York Times: Albert Einstein. A nice little head shot with the hair flying upward as the great man puffs on a pipe, no doubt pondering something mind-blowing.

When big news breaks about gravity, or the shape of the cosmos, or the origin of the universe, or the nature of time and space, Einstein is often (and deservedly) part of the narrative, and he gives our stories some star power. In fact, Einstein’s name is right there in the headline of both of my stories in today’s print edition of The Post discussing the historic announcement of the detection of gravitational waves.

[Cosmic breakthrough: Physicists detect gravitational waves from violent black-hole merger]

This may be a good moment to remind ourselves that science is extremely collaborative, and that, just as there are very few “Eureka!” moments, there also aren’t many breakthroughs that come from a single individual. This is true of CRISPR-cas9, the revolutionary gene-editing tool, as we wrote in this space a few weeks ago. It was true of New Horizons, the intrepid NASA probe that flew by Pluto last summer, as we noted at the time. And it’s true of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the findings of which were reported in a paper with 1,004 authors.

22 stunning photos of our solar system and beyond in 2016

In this undated photo provided by NASA, Saturn's icy moon Mimas is dwarfed by the planet's enormous rings. Consider it a cosmic carousel with countless rings up for grabs. NASA’s Saturn-orbiting spacecraft, Cassini, has begun an unprecedented mission to skim the planet’s rings. On Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, Cassini got a gravitational assist from Saturn’s big moon Titan. That put the spacecraft on course to graze Saturn’s main outer rings. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP) (AP)

That’s not to take away from Einstein at all. He earned his glory the hard way. But even Einstein needed help with the equations at the core of his General Theory of Relativity, and many others played important roles in discovering the implications of the theory. Their names are well known among physicists but unlikely to wind up in a headline in 2016. For example: Karl Schwarzschild (whose name I just misspelled on first try).

[A brief history of gravity, gravitational waves and LIGO]

Schwarzschild, a German theorist, was literally on the Russian front during World War I when he saw the first iterations of Einstein’s theory. He somehow found time to scribble out some implications of the theory, one of which is the existence of black holes (a term not used until John Wheeler coined it half a century later). From Wikipedia we unashamedly lift this translated sentence from a letter written by Schwarzschild to Einstein in December 1915, just weeks after Einstein gave his lectures revealing General Relativity:

“As you see, the war treated me kindly enough, in spite of the heavy gunfire, to allow me to get away from it all and take this walk in the land of your ideas.”

Schwarzschild died just months later from an illness contracted on the Eastern front.

“All this happened in the midst of the devastating war in Europe,” Dr. Hanoch Gutfreund, director of the Einstein Archives at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me by phone this morning. I asked him if Einstein and his colleagues understood how monumental General Relativity would prove to be. “I don’t think they anticipated the big impact that it would have over the years,” Gutfreund answered.

He noted that Einstein wrote to Schwarzschild in February 1916 [not 2016 as I originally wrote — even Einstein couldn’t swing time travel] saying he didn’t think the gravitational waves were real. Then four months later he published a paper in which he revealed that he’d changed his mind. But in that paper he made an error, not corrected for another two years. The point being that this was tough slogging even for Einstein.

The most poignant figure in the history of LIGO is Joseph Weber of the University of Maryland. Every scientist I interviewed about LIGO talked about Weber, who was a favorite of science writers back in the day with his ambitious attempts to detect gravitational waves.

Watch: A brief history of theories about gravity (Video: Gillian Brockell, Joel Achenbach/TWP)

He first looked for the waves in 1957 using suspended aluminum cylinders. He generated headlines in 1969 when he said he had evidence for the waves, but the findings were later discredited.

“Physicist’s Device Bound for Moon” declared a headline in The Washington Post in 1970, describing how Weber had persuaded NASA to carry one of his instruments on an Apollo mission. Weber saw the moon as a serene, calm place to pick up gravitational waves with one of his exquisitely sensitive devices. He told The Post:

The moon is a rare opportunity. It’s the biggest mass we have close by and it has no atmosphere, no oceans, no civilization and almost no seismic activity to interfere with gravity waves that might strike it from outer space.

Weber’s device, “a kind of super-delicate spring,” as The Post put it, was designed to “pick up a movement in the moon of one-ten-billionth of an inch.”

None of Weber’s labors succeeded, ultimately. He died in 2000.

One of the people who studied under Weber was Kip Thorne, who co-founded LIGO and also devoted much of his career to the search for Einstein’s waves. Thorne came to Washington Thursday to be part of the big announcement — his picture is on our front page today — and he took pains Thursday to credit Weber as an inspiration.

When I asked Thorne after the news conference about Weber’s claims of discovering gravitational waves, Thorne corrected me: He said Weber only claimed to have found evidence for such waves, and didn’t claim an actual discovery.

Perhaps that’s a fine distinction, but let’s move on: Weber also was a pioneer of lasers, and he arguably should have shared in the Nobel Prize for their invention. LIGO is a masterpiece of laser-based science and delicate instrumentation. Keep in mind, the gravitational waves are not detected directly but are inferred through their effects on a split laser beam. The founders of LIGO (including Thorne and Ronald Drever of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of MIT) derived many of their ideas and technologies from Weber’s groundbreaking work.

Thorne told me, “He really is the founding father of this field.”

[Einstein predicted gravitational waves 100 years ago. Here’s what it took to prove him right.]

That’s not just Thorne’s view. Weber’s widow, astrophysicist Virginia Trimble, attended the news conference Thursday and got a shout-out from France Cordova, the director of the National Science Foundation.

One lesson here is that success in an ambitious enterprise can take many years, or even decades, and may not arrive in one’s lifetime. Failures create a foundation for eventual triumph.

That’s kind of the story of science right there.

Further reading:

Everything you need to know about gravitational waves (in gifs)

Einstein’s General Relativity at 100: Put that in your pipe and smoke it

Einstein for dummies

European probe launched in a search for gravitational ripples in space-time