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How a & # 39; singular hero & # 39; helped start a new field in physics: NPR



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Rich Isaacson, seen in his backyard in Pentagon City, Virginia, wrote his thesis on gravitational waves and says he always thought that his existence would be tested at some point in his career. But he did not realize that trying to see them would become his career.

Ryan Kellman / NPR


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Ryan Kellman / NPR

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

That's what a science agency of the United States government did. Now it's paying off big time, with new discoveries about black holes and exotic neutron stars that come almost every week.

And while three physicists shared the Nobel Prize for the work that made this possible, one of them says that the real hero is a former staff member of the National Science Foundation named Rich Isaacson, who saw the opportunity to cultivate an impressive research and He took advantage of it.

"What Rich Isaacson did was a miracle," says Rainer Weiss, an MIT physicist and one of the Nobel Laureates of 2017. "I think he's the hero, he's a unique hero, we just do not have a good way to recognize people. Rich was in a unique place fighting a singular war that no one else could have fought. "

Without it, says Weiss, "we would have been killed dead on virtually every subject." He and his fellow laureate Kip Thorne recently donated money to create a new award from the American Physical Society in honor of Isaacson.

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

In 1916, Einstein theorized that each time two massive objects collide with each other, shock waves should move through the very fabric of the universe. These gravitational waves through space and time are like the waves that you see in the water when you throw a stone.

"For my thesis, I showed how gravitational waves behave like other types of waves, like light and radar, X-rays," says Isaacson.

His calculations showed that these waves were not just a mathematical darkness, but something that could possibly be measured. "It showed exactly how Einstein's theory worked in detail to make gravitational waves," says Weiss. "And it was done in such a way that it was mathematically correct and nobody could dispute it anymore."

Einstein, who had gone from one place to another on the question of gravitational waves, thought that they would probably never be detected: the distortions they create in space are too small.

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

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

In the early 1970s, Isaacson took a job at the nascent National Science Foundation, working to review funding proposals. And Weiss wanted money for a crazy idea he was looking for: try to detect gravitational waves using lasers.

Lasers could, in theory, be used to measure very, very small distortions in space, such as changes that were one thousandth of the width of an atomic nucleus. "Most people said:" Holy jack mare! He must be crazy. You can not do that, "recalls Weiss.

The technology was too hard. Also, no one even knew what in the universe could emit gravitational waves strong enough to be measured that way.

Normally, says Weiss, "with those two things … that proposal would have died on arrival, but it was not like that with Rich."

Because Isaacson had studied gravitational waves, he saw the potential. So he personally directed this research for almost three decades.

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

"He sat in NSF and with one hand, I mean, he just convinced everyone at NSF that this was the right thing for NSF and that science was going to be spectacular if it had to be successful," says Weiss. "And he made the argument stick."

It made it stand for years of testing prototypes and expert review panels and feasibility studies and management nightmares. Many people worked on this project, of course, but Weiss says that "Rich's elegance was the fact that he knew how the system worked and that he knew science."

"He was a defender, like a messiah, for this whole idea of ​​detecting gravitational waves, and then he became a strategist for that," Weiss explains. "Now imagine that the guy running the program at the NSF became the main advocate for him and also the one who did most of the strategies to do it, for me that was a miracle. that the field survived. "

After all, many people thought it was crazy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build giant detectors that could never detect anything, especially astronomers, who worry that money will deviate from secure bets, such as building new telescopes

"There is always the danger that the project will stop," says Isaacson. "And like all major scientific projects, it's a roller coaster."

Officially, Isaacson never worked on this more than half time. In fact, everything consumed. The long days of work took their toll. At one point, his blood pressure went up a lot and his doctor became alarmed.

Isaacson says he feels fortunate to have been in a position to try to change the story. "But history demands that you pay a price for that privilege, in terms of all the stress, agony, lifestyle and family events," he says. "If you're willing to pay the price, it's okay, you have this opportunity and you can go ahead and maybe it will work, maybe not."

In 2002, Isaacson retired. That was also the year in which the NSF began to search the sky with its new Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO): two massive detectors, one in the state of Washington and the other in Louisiana. Each one has lasers that travel through 2 1/2 mile long pipelines.

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

The scientists kept that. They improved the instruments of the detectors. And in 2015, Isaacson traveled to Maine for a break with Weiss and another colleague, who opened a laptop to reveal measurements that were made only a couple of days before.

It was the first detection of gravitational waves from two black holes that collided more than 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 from that, I'm starting to feel it more."

When asked about the possibilities that a government-funded science project like this could happen today, he says: "Zero."

"We live in a very different time," says Isaacson. "I think no one can undertake large-scale, high-risk and long-term research."

The science of gravitational waves has given astronomers an unprecedented ability to see some of the most powerful and exotic events in the universe. In 2017, for example, the LIGO detectors recorded a collision between two neutron stars, and the telescopes were able to find the cosmic fireworks and observe them in real time.

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

Isaacson remains attentive to science, but when he retires, he is finally free to completely pursue another love: the ancient textiles of Central Asia. He has even written a book about the decorated bands that surround nomadic tents.

He likes carpets and fabrics with geometric designs. "Given that modern physics is highly geometric, it's not that different," says Isaacson. "Except that physicists work somewhere between four or ten dimensions, usually, so for a retirement career, working in two dimensions is a piece of cake."

He unrolls a red carpet made by an Uzbek tribe in the mid-nineteenth century and says that the forgotten artisans who did this type of work, usually women, were one hundred years ahead of the famous celebrities of modern art.

"They were anonymous," says Isaacson, "and they were completely ignored, but they were doing beautiful things."

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