On Wednesday, Oct. 10, I had the pleasure of attending a talk held by Nobel Prize-winner Rainer Weiss at The Duke Lecture Hall of the Stony Brook Southampton Campus. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised in several ways.
The talk was well attended and the audience was very diverse. There were students who arrived by bus from the Stony Brook University main campus, and a smattering of scientists from other local colleges and institutions like Brookhaven National Laboratory, but the majority of the audience seemed to be local residents who were just interested in hearing a Nobel Prize winner talk about probing the universe.
The talk was hosted by the Montauk Observatory, which isn’t located in Montauk but has a good reputation for presenting science events for the general public all over the South Fork that contain magic and mystery.
Rai Weiss, who invented the laser interferometer technique at the heart of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory(LIGO) 2016 discovery of gravitational waves, has a pleasant speaking manner, is certainly a very gifted physicist, and thankfully has a real ability to communicate his ideas to regular people in a way that makes them understand.
He joked, tried earnestly to accommodate everybody’s methods of learning, and used a PowerPoint presentation to show everyone in the room how the universe has been made, what the latest definition of gravity is, and what is on the horizon for scientists to discover in the next generation.
The talk was exciting, engaging, and left me feeling that there is still a sense of hope and optimism in the science community that we could all use a little more of in our daily lives.
That’s not to say that it was simplistic. Professor Weiss dove into deep details on occasion, leaving much of the audience scratching their heads, but he always returned to the surface, using kitchen science examples and stories about human nature to weave a history of how we got from Isaac Newton dropping an apple to the present theories of gravitational waves that explain far more about the way the universe behaves.
His talk showed the hard work, determination and connection of generations of scientists who made mistakes, wouldn’t give up, and finally made progress in understanding the universe. He offered insight into how, when scientists make mistakes, it is often the most helpful thing that can happen.
His anecdote about Albert Einstein’s famous mistake made in the 1916 paper where the great physicist introduced the concept of gravitational waves, and how humbly Einstein acknowledged his mistake, was fascinating.
It was also interesting to realize that even though physics and astronomy are separate disciplines, they work together to confirm each other’s work. Without confirmation using various kinds of modern telescopes, the conjectures of many physicists would go unverified.
He also touched on how black holes, supernovas, and the different collisions of heavenly bodies make the different elements that we find on the periodic table today.
He brought physics, astronomy, and chemistry together in his work about the nature of the universe, and he, of course, referred to mathematics as one of the primary languages used in this process.
For me, the high point of the lecture was when he described the process where a group of scientists working together were able to determine and confirm that two black holes had collided, by comparing the similarity between two patterns they had recorded.
He even showed what they might sound like as audio representations. Pattern recognition is something I can relate to. We all use familiar patterns of some sort to recognize the world in which we live.
The professor apologized several times for taking up so much time, but 90 minutes zipped by quickly and nobody in the audience left or had trouble staying awake. When he concluded his talk, he opened up the floor to questions. Several geeks had questions that were difficult to understand but the professor dispatched them with great ease. The audience moved on to a reception afterwards and the diehard questioners formed a line to ask more questions, which went on past the end of the reception.
On the ride home, I couldn’t help thinking that I was glad there were still men in the world like Rai Weiss who spend their whole lives trying to understand the nature of the universe and all that it means. He’s a man who obviously spends much time giving great attention to detail and can still see the big picture.
It was obvious that Professor Rai Weiss realizes that his work continues because we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. I got the feeling from him that he is happy to be just a part of the effort by generations of men to further the understanding of the world around us. He seemed like someone who has hope that we will find something out there that will make our journey worthwhile.
We are lucky to live in a place where people can go and experience a talk about the significance of gravitational waves in defining our understanding of the universe. It was good to be there.