Nobel Prize laureate Rainer Weiss talks gravitational waves in UT Austin distinguished lecture series

Sara Johnson

Nobel laureate Rainer Weiss spoke to UT students about his research on gravitational waves Thursday night at Hogg Auditorium. 

The lecture, a part of the Dean’s Scholars Distinguished Lecture Series, focused on the history of gravitational wave research and the methods of detecting such waves, which were first successful in 2015. According to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, gravitational waves are ripples in space-time caused by massive objects moving around each other.

“You cut the laser off at the first mirror, and that solves one of the problems,” Weiss said. “It allows you to change the way the interferometer (a device that measures gravitational waves) behaves in relation to a gravitational wave.”

Weiss won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2017 with physicists Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for their contributions to the observatory and observation of gravitational waves. The observatory has two centers with gravitational wave detectors in the United States. When the observatory picked up frequencies that detected gravitational waves in 2015, it was major breakthrough.

“There’s one site in Hanford and one in Livingston,” Weiss said. “The fact that they picked up that one wave at the same time with nearly the same frequency was groundbreaking.”


The Dean’s Scholars Honors Program has invited distinguished scientists to campus to speak to students for 20 years, said Meghan Mallya, a member of the lecture series committee.

“We compile a list of speakers, and this year, we were gearing it towards math and physics,” neuroscience sophomore Mallya said. “Scientific communication is super important, so I’m glad that Dean’s Scholars does something like this because we really care about outreach.”

The program encompasses less than 2% of College of Natural Sciences students and serves as a community for students interested in research careers.

“Most of our events are focused on creating a community that encourages people to be able to do scientific research,” said Maike Morrison, mathematics junior and chair of the Dean’s Scholars Honors Program council. “Having a community of peers like that has really defined my time at UT.”

Weiss said he admired the projects already underway that could improve his work in the future, such as an initiative to put the program in space.

“These types of projects might not manifest for another fifty years, maybe,” Weiss said. “It’s still extremely speculative, putting this technology in space, but no one will believe in it until there’s proof that it’s worth it.”