NG: Welcome to STEMPod leaders conversations with today's great minds, my name is Nathan Goldrich, the founder of stem pod tutoring, an academic outreach program, and I'm here with co-host Erik Rabin, a medical student at Feinberg School of
Medicine, we are so pleased to welcome a guest to the program who has revolutionized astrophysics. He has won numerous awards including the
Special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, the 2016 Grouper Prize in cosmology, the Shop Prize in astronomy, and the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Our guest was born in Berlin in 1932. He was forced to move to Prague with the rise of the Nazi party and antisemitism in Germany following the German occupation in Czechoslovakia. His family fled to the United States and he spent the remainder of his childhood in New York City. He obtained his Bachelor's of Science and Ph.D. from MIT in 1955 and 1962 respectively. He went on to become a leader in the field of astrophysics and conceived of the first instrument sensitive enough to detect gravitational waves: LIGO. On September 14th, 2015 at 5:51 eastern time the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves was made due to the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. We are honored and humbled to have Dr. Rainer Weiss on the program thank you so much for being here, Dr. Weiss.
RW: While we get going I want to correct something. One little fact, it's not important but it's the difference between life and death. We escaped from Prague before the Germans got there. Not when they we would never made it out all right let's go.
NG: What is LIGO?
RW: Well it's called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. I'm embarrassed by the big long word but it's a device that you described already. it's a thing that measures gravitational waves that were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, and they actually exist. A lot of people for many many years spent a lot of intellectual time trying to figure out whether Einstein was right including Einstein himself. He didn't necessarily believe in his own prediction, that happened a lot that were good old Albert he was an interesting man, a remarkable man, but he was as questioning as anybody else. It's a very good thing for scientists to be very questioning as you both probably know, you don't accept things even the things you invent you shouldn't accept them right away, you got to think about it. Anyway so that's uh it's an experiment run both by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and we have one site in Louisiana for a big detector and another site in
the northwest parts of Washington state, and just as you described that September that uh
yeah, I guess that's right, that same September morning we detected this black hole making uh gravitational waves, and uh it's been going on ever since then we're detecting more and more of them, and we have opened up a whole new field of astronomy, because of that, that's the best i can tell you about LIGO. And anybody who really wants to know about LIGO you go to the web and just type in the four letters and you'll get swamped.
So when you first got the news that uh you detected these um this event did you believe it.
Well that's a long story and I don't, that would take the whole time we have but i'll make it very very short. Those of us who've been around for a while, us old types, not younger people but the old types, were very very skeptical. There had been prior attempts at trying to detect gravitational waves, and one of them had failed dramatically and it tainted the field it made it look like the field was full of crazy people, and that was in 1969. I won't go into that. so we had a terrible burden. We had uh we did a monkey on our back about the fact that what we were going to, if we were to discover something we had to be absolutely right. otherwise. we this would be a second go in this thing so, uh, we didn't believe it for a while, a lot of us, and that won't go into all the different reasons. We thought we'd been hacked. I don't know that's something nowadays that nobody would have ever thought 30 years ago would be a problem, you know. People, computer people, hacking us into the experiment making believe that putting a signal into it so we would be fooled. That was a big worry for us and it took us almost five weeks to figure out that that was not the case, and then eventually people began to realize, well, you know we don't have a good explanation except that nature did it, and uh, and then luckily, nature gave us another event. We had another event, uh on day after Christmas of that that same yea, and many of us then said, okay we'll publish this. This seems to be reasonable, why should we get fooled twice, you know, so and that was it.
I mean, but nobody believed that right away, okay, you have one base set up in Louisiana, and you have another base set up in Washington, right? Was it because you needed to have a certain distance of the two, uh the two apparatuses from each other, or did you want to have one closer to CalTech and one closer to MIT?
The big reason was that we wanted to have two detectors that would be far enough separated so that earthquakes and thunderstorms and calamities that happen could not make signals in both of them that would be coincident in both of them. In other words this is very important to us. We would have never been able to publish this unless we had one detector see the thing, and the other detectors see exactly the same thing, and we could correlate those two detectors, and we could say: no this is not due to some craziness, somebody's setting off a bomb or people putting a, you know, running a chainsaw in both places or something like that no. No, what you had to prove is that it affected both places and you could not easily imagine something making a signal in both places that wasn't coming in from outside, you know you've had it's got some more reoccurrences, and, like you mentioned, oh yeah we've had a lot of work on the field. No we've opened the field look let's let's face it, and uh and if you, if people now want to go into astronomy or astrophysics, they have to say, well maybe they want to go into gravitational wave research because it's a real field. It's just like any other branch of astronomy, but a more interesting branch in some regards because it looks at a completely different thing than people do with electromagnetic things, you know, with their eyes or with radio waves or with gamma rays, it looks directly at the inside of events. You see, the gravitational waves are so penetrating they go through everything. A gravitational wave that gets started, let's say, it's some distant uh pair of black holes. Someplace the gravitational waves go all the way, all the whole universe, and they don't attenuate. That's the first thing, they don't get affected by their travel and the other thing is, because of that, you can look deep inside of a collision or a big thing that's going on which is normally shrouded by plasma and dust and everything, that none of that matters at all. You can look right into what's going on inside the device so that's a completely new form of astronomy.
Were there any processes that needed to be performed on a regular basis in order to keep LIGO operating smoothly?
Oh yeah, I mean, you have to, you look there's about, at each site there are about 30 people, uh you know, people do technical work, keep the thing running. We have, we at the universities, we go to the sites all the time and uh, no no there's uh, you have to, it's a apparatus. Yeah, you have a lot, you have to have a lot of people tending to it.
What do you look for most when a someone who's aspiring to go into the sciences is trying to uh to join?
Well, we love to have them come and join us. I mean uh and I can tell you how that's done. This particular experiment is set up so that Caltech and MIT were the ones who are the responsible laboratory for building it and maintaining it, but there are something like 55 other institutions and also government labs, but 55 universities all over the world that are part of the LIGO scientific collaboration, and they do, the data analysis is done in the LIGO scientific collaboration. So a lot of the papers we write are written by people who are not at MIT and Caltech at all, and uh I mean, we don't expect people on the outside of Caltech at MIT to know exactly where should [you] turn a bolt to fix something that's wrong in the apparatus, that's our responsibility. But we do expect that people who join that collaboration are interested in the science and they propose to the collaboration what they would like to work on then they get voted in. There's generally many meetings, and we have new groups join, or typically every year a couple of group, new groups, join from different universities, and so and what they do is they propose a certain science study. Some people say we'd like to analyze the data to look for a certain class of sources, so that's one kind of a thing people do. Another kind of, people do is we'd like to join so we can sit and help interpret the data. Some people actually like to come and under help, under, help us understand the apparatus if the apparatus makes funny noises or does something crazy, sometimes you know you want to know what that is and some people enjoy that, looking at the apparatus, but they don't go to the sites. Some of them do, but most stay home. They can do everything but [it’s] all interconnected by the same way you and I are right now, yeah. So it's, it's so, first of all, it's it's it's possible to join the thing if you want, but you have a responsibility if you join, you say i'm gonna do this kind of research with this and you have to outline what it is and then a group of people that are in that LIGO scientific collaboration vote on whether they think that this is a good thing to work on, and we've rarely rejected people it's very very rare, okay, so that's why the group of people now, that's in the collaboration is something like, maybe a thousand two hundred people
Yeah many of them students by the way, and graduate students and undergraduate students, by the way, you went to Northwestern, both of you at Northwestern right? A very big group at Northwestern is involved with LIGO. They said Vicki Calaguera is the lady who runs that and she is, uh she runs a really wonderful group and they do a lot of the data analysis.
Is there any specific trait that you think that a student can have that is the most important when they're pursuing?
Yeah, I could I can tell you reams, here you have to be careful now. I have some controversial opinions okay. They may not agree with what your, your mentors have told you but I'll give you my version okay. Again, I've lived it, that's the thing. So I find the most important thing a student can do, I mean if you especially, for interest in coming into something that's engineering or science, okay, it's probably true of every field, but I know the engineering the science part most is to actually have, even as an undergraduate or even as a high school student, expect me. Let's start there because that's important. Yeah uh, the uh, that you have had hobbies that are in that business. I mean you've built things, uh you may have worked in a garage, that's great, or you may work on a farm and you know all about how to fix a tractor, that's absolutely fantastic! And uh, or you may have worked with a doctor in a hospital and helped do whatever is necessary depends on, anyway, the more of the kind of training you have that had nothing to do with you going taking courses, but has a lot to do with what you see as a life experience, and people who work in that area of STEM research or whatever you want to call it now, you have experience with that early on, the better it is for you the more you know before you go to college because you'll be far better motivated to pick the right major for yourself because you've already experienced something. So for example, when I used to sit on MIT’s admissions policies, you know, every faculty member, if he wants or she wants in fact, sometimes they're asked to sit on admissions committees. I always always would read the thing and I would say: to the hell I don't want to know what the grades are! I don't know why I don't, not interested how much sports this person's done. I don't give a damn if this man is a woman, is in 16 clubs what do they do for fun, that I want to know what did they get a kick out of, you know? For example, if if somebody has as a hobby, been a ham radio operator or built his own electronics, or her own electronics, or made a race car work or stuff like that, or work… I worked on something with hands and head together, I would always pick them. I didn't care, but damn what their grades were, okay now that that was not always the case with, by the rest of my faculty friends. They say, if you pick some person who can't get uh, can't finish an exam they'll never graduate. I said, nah, don't worry about it, I'm sure there'll be ways, and that that does happen so when kids like that go to college, okay, they get in because they have some sort of earlier apprenticeship kind of experience already, and then they should do exactly the same thing when they go to college. In other words, I don't know how many, and how Northwestern is now, but we have a program at MIT, and I think most universities have a thing, and MIT is called the Undergraduate Research Opportunities program, and freshmen all the way up to seniors, we have a little book that every, MIT is a big technical place as you know, I'm sure Northwestern has similar things, I know Harvard has things like this also, and you look at, you look at this little book. You come in there, you come as a freshman or you may even comp ahead of the time, become a freshman, it's a good idea as you apply to college to look and see what are the opportunities for doing research with somebody who's an adult already at the university, and so what you do is uh you look in there and you find, in most universes have a little book that says: here, this lab is looking for somebody who can do this sort of thing. Programming for example, by the way that's an important thing if you can learn how to even do an elementary basic program. [If] You can do some programming on a computer, you're immediately useful to almost anybody, so it's worthwhile investing in high school on learning how to do, not elaborate programming, but a little bit of things so you can help people plot data, or make uh or be able to write, but or able to even write a formula and get solutions to it. So it turns out that there are many programs that are useful for that sort of thing. Learning that before you go to college is a very important thing in this because you can then go after you've read about all the different research that's going on, you can go on knock on the door of the group that had you got interested in what they're working on.
It might be they're working on cost cosmology they might be working on making new materials out of fur that are, that are you know, that are much stronger than any other material ever made. All sorts of different projects going on in the universities and you can go and say, look, I'm very interested in what you're working on, had you need somebody to help that's, and very often if it's done by saying a little more than that: I can help you, I know certain things, I know how to even, I know how to build electronics, I know how to test something, I know how to, I know how to make uh I can even machine things on a miller or a lathe. I mean that's kind of strange but occasionally you run into that, or I can, I can, I know how to program a computer so I can plot things for you, or I can even do calculations, I can take data and, and put it into such a format so you could, you can, you can manipulate it. Having some elemental skill is absolutely wonderful because then right away, uh and you don't ask for money, you don't ask for, don't go and go and say, look I'll come and work with you but I have to be paid. That's not a good way to start. A better way is just say, look I’m interested in what you're doing, here [are] the things I bring to you if you, or maybe I don't bring much but I'm so enthusiastic about what you're working on, but you have had to done some research. You as a student had at least look up what those people are doing and try to read some of the papers that they've put out. You may not understand them completely but then you have a opening, you have a conversation, see? I look at this paper of yours, I don't understand it but why, why did you do this and then they get very interested, the people who you're talking to say, well this person has at least put some time into this. So what am I trying to tell you is apprenticeship as a, as a person at [a] high school level, very very good find somebody you can work with doing something just, just so that you're talking to an adult who is in the sciences, or in the engineering business, okay, and then when you go to college, don't just take courses immediately as soon as you get there. Start seeing if you can find a group to join that you will then make your home. It turns out that will become a very interesting thing for you. It'll become a place where you if you get into trouble with exams or you get into trouble with something, you can go and you can talk to adults who are around you who are in that in that group.
You're not dealing just with your colleagues, you're dealing with people who have had some experience and so it turns out that's what virtually almost all undergraduates at MIT do that now, okay, and yes they take courses but they, when they flunk an exam, they can say they can go there and they say, I just flunked this example, come on don't worry about it. Somebody will tell you don't worry okay, and uh so that's my strongest advice for young people trying to get into engineering and science: work with somebody. I went to a small public school where it was about 100 in New York in Westchester. It was about 100. It was about 140 students per class, we were lucky we had great teachers. Students were really smart and we have never had anybody admitted to Caltech until my year and the person who was admitted to Caltech, he would build out of cardboard these really interesting looking machines. Yep, or or figures it was almost like an artistic project. He would take cardboard, flat cardboard and almost like woodworking, he'd shape it into these really cool things, and and they they they were functional too. Wasn't just uh for aesthetic reasons and yeah, and so what you're saying also rings true just from my own experience. For example, one, I mean there's so many especially in the biology, and and and and that part of technical things that are border on on on medicine, which is such a mysterious problem. Fact is, there's a tremendous amount of, if you know a little bit of computing and you know a little bit, you learn a little statistics as you go along, you can be enormously helpful to people and then you get drawn into something and, uh and what happens for example at MIT, and happens all the time, I ran a lab for years and what these people do, they stay, live in the lab with us uh you know. And then they do a senior thesis with us, you know, some senior thesis, seniors thesis project and then they have on top of that right away, a bunch of people who know them well and can write recommendations for them for graduate school or medical school or whatever it is, see it's very artificial to go to somebody who you've taken a course with and go up to him or her and say, can you write me a recommendation because I got an “A-“ in your course, I mean I hate that, but what the hell do I know about you. It's much better if you've worked with them and you are, and so they know you at least as somebody who's tried to do something with them so generally, all I’m, what I’m really trying to tell you is the association with people in the business is an absolute critical thing at all levels. Don't wait until the end of your college years to do that. In fact, I would insist that you try to start doing that in your high school years. Students do find it very difficult to talk to individuals, especially if they're, you know, professors, teachers, um I'll be careful of that what you do is, for example, you… the way that's pretty much let me repeat, if you have, I think, the first thing you want to do is make sure that it's a field that, if you have an instructor in, in, let's say in high school, it's easy.
You can go up to your your science teacher for example and say, look can I help you out setting up experiments, or something like that. There are many things you can do or it might be, there even some time [is] an outreach program that, or you can talk, you know, you work, you work for them with the plumber that comes to your house. You say, hey you need somebody to help out? I mean there's a million things you can do just have, to have the intent in mind. The big thing is don't, you don't want to get intimidated because it turns out that most people don't like to intimidate. Most people much prefer uh to be able to be friendly and also they enjoy enormously the fact that they're helping somebody that, you have to take that into, uh into account as your first, the first priority. Most people who are teaching have, is they're very very anxious that you learn something from them, okay? And that's building up their ego. Just the fact that you have listened to them and you learned something, that's dramatic, okay. So now the thing is that if you then want to work with somebody, you would go look up in what they're working on. That means you have to spend some time uh looking up on the web and looking up in the catalogs of the institution you're at, what do they actually do for their research, okay. Yeah, and uh then you want to maybe spend a little time on that trying to understand that, way before you go visit them, okay. And in fact, a sneaky thing to do is to find out, maybe you can find a graduate student or somebody who's already an undergraduate who's working in that group and you can ask them, hey what's it like working in professor so-and-so's group? So you can get a really good idea of what's going on and then you approach the person and you say, Look, I know a little bit about what you're doing. I got interested in what you're doing, I don't know it all, I can't know it all, but I got interested in the ideas, and I have a question already because I can't answer it. So then that's the approach you take, and then the next step is, okay I mean, I can, the guy may then, or the woman might say to you, I can, what what can you know, how can you help us, what do you know, and that's where whatever you might have learned in high school or whatever you might have taken is good, saying: I've taken all the courses that are necessary, isn't necessarily a distinguishing feature. You can say, look, when I was in high school, I worked with so and so on such a thing, or I've already, over the summer last summer, I worked with somebody in industry, you're doing this and then, if you ought to know a little about that, so the very first thing that, for example, I would do if somebody came in with that he said, well what, what did you really work on that summer and you say well I worked on making, uh you know, digital DIGI analog to digital converters I says. Well what was so special about the ones that you were working on why, why was a new work, it's an old idea, what was so important that you should work on it. Well, we we worked on some things that were terrible in them, they were, they got too hot, or they, they were not linear. I don't know, you make up a story that's real about what it really is. I mean, and you embellish it a little bit if you want, but don't go too far because you get caught and then uh, and so there is a all of a sudden there's a conversation. It's no longer and so, that's the thing to prepare for and the way you do that is find out what you're walking into before you get there. It's so interesting because uh passion should be an essential part of science, but just because research institutions, they grade on a curve. You take exams that are graded on a percentile to some degree, students are put up against each other and because of that, I think it's very easy for students to get discouraged just if their number is just not above somebody else's.
I agree with you, it's the most artificial thing you can think of in the world.
I hate grades I hate the idea because, let me say when you start working with people and they give you a real problem, a real problem like you could, let's suppose they, you're supposed to solve an equation that they gave you. I mean you, can do that once you know how to do integrals or whatever. I mean, that gets a little advanced, but you can do some of that and you get stuck. That being getting stuck there is worth it because then you learn how to get out of being stuck. Taking an exam where you have to be instantaneously smart is completely ridiculous. It never happens again in your life, it's completely artificial, and so I really get very upset when I see students really get upset about the fact that they got a bad grade because it has nothing to do with their skills. It has to do with how nervous they were or how well they slept the night before, all sorts of completely artificial things. When you work with somebody on a continuous basis they begin to realize yeah you're good at these things, you've been not so good at those, but all of us have that problem. We're good at certain things and not at others so, uh it puts a little bit of what I would call humanity into the education process instead of this cuckoo-ness that we call you know competition which is completely crazy.
You work with Dr. Zacharias who helped with education reform. He also led to NMR and he led to MRI, What kind of influence does a leader like that have on you especially as you're developing as a scientist?
No no, that was a very important thing. Now I'm going to correct you a little bit, I'm sorry. Gerald Zacharias was my hero, okay, he was a guy who said, I'll give you this story in a minute, but Gerald was not a guy who worked on molecular beams. If you tell anybody that, turns out he worked on the thing he's really famous for is two things. He was the first person to make an atomic clock that involved MR, it didn't involve, MRI involved magnetic resonance experiments, okay, so MRI was derived from all of that later on, but he himself didn't work on that, but he worked on making atomic clocks and then uh, and they were very important thing to have because then you could, the earth is of keepers lousy you know. The rotation of the earth is only good to apart in 10 to the eighth. These clocks are good to parts and 10 to the 13, 14 now, even better than that. Anyway, so Gerald Zacharias, it will be Zacharias and Gerald, that's the same person okay. I'll tell you how I got to meet him. It was, I flunked out of MIT as a junior and I had, because I had a crazy love affair with a woman at Northwestern as a matter of fact, and I came out I was in January I was in, it was in the middle of my junior year and I was so crazy in love that I couldn't believe and I did what I did, but I somehow stopped getting letters from this lady, and I decided to get an airplane and get out and to Evanston and ace her down. Okay and of course that was a really stupid thing to do. You do everything you can to name a passion and love so that's right, and so what happened is I stayed there and I thought, I could, you know, being a good techie guy, I thought I could fix a problem, okay, like that. You can't fix a problem like that, but anyway I just learned a little bit but she was a musician and she was absolutely wonderful, no question, and uh so I spent probably a month and a half maybe two months in Evanston, uh and in the second term of the junior year and when I came back to MIT I had the arrogance to think that I could possibly take exams it was completely nutty. So I flunked everything okay, and uh so I looked around and for, since I had one thing, I had in this. I'm, you know, I knew something quite well. I knew how to do electronics, I had learned that as a high school kid because I was very interested in electronics or the hobby, so I went around trying to find out where did they need an electronics technician. I would decide to become a technician and I found a lab which happened to be run by Gerald Zacharias at the time and uh there's a fairly big lab at MIT. They were building atomic clocks at the time and uh they hired me, they let me build circuits for them and I, I worked my way in into being actually somebody who Gerald got to know pretty well and we actually together did some experiments. I was a technician and he was the head of the lab I mean he could use me for anything that he wanted, but I was good enough. I knew enough so that I wasn't wasting his time okay, and so we built and then little by little what happened is we became friends. He became my alter-father in effect okay. Now it doesn't happen to everybody, but I happen to, I'll give you the example. I love music, he liked music, I didn't know that we were working on an apparatus and I was whistling a tune of something, one of the Beethoven violin piano sonatas. I was listening, whistling the piano part, I was working up on, you know, up on a second floor, but it was and he was down one floor below me and could hear everything that was going on and all of a sudden, he was whistling the violin part. I couldn't believe it. You go that's a long story. His mother was a violinist and so he knew all of this by heart, and so we whistled at each other for about a few minutes and couldn't believe it, you know. He was right on tune, he was right, that the rhythm was right, everything was right, and so that's how he got to be real real buddies, and so all the rest of my life he was sort of my mentor man. The only reason I survived as a student.
I mean he got me back into MIT as a student to finish off my degree and then my record was so bad because, having flunked out, that I couldn't go to graduate school anywhere else, so he got me into MIT graduate school and I worked as a graduate student of his for a whole bunch of time. Then he became very interested in education which is what you know him about probably, know about he really completely changed the way America looks at their education back in about the 90 about 1956 50 yeah, in the late 50s and then he persisted with this for about 10 years, 15 years. Revamped the whole educational system, you don't know where you are, I guarantee you, you have been influenced by in textbooks and all sorts of stuff by the stuff he did, and uh then he and I were friends for life and uh turns out that uh it was a wonderful relation. But it was a sort of a complete happenstance you see. Not everybody can have that, but generally there has to be somebody and what Gerald did for me, and that's what most people should have if they can do it, they should have somebody in their lives who looks at them and say you're not as stupid as you look okay. That's the first thing you think of when everything goes bad for you. Oh God I am dumb you know, and I shouldn't be here. But I'd just, you need somebody in your life who is technically good, who you respect, to say yep, you're not as bad as you think you are, and once you find that, that's how you build yourself up again.
Zach, Dr. Zachariah seems to be a great mentor for you right, um it sounds like you've really passed along some of that mentorship and how important that is, and you said this you just described this but how important is it to pay it forward?
Well I don't understand what that means, pay it forward. Like mentorship, I mean for students, it's critical and uh I mean, I think the very worst thing that I can think of, and people should never go to work with somebody in grad, it's mostly here's where you run it into graduate school. In undergraduate school, it doesn't happen that much but usually what happens is if you work with somebody in undergraduate you will be talking to graduate students a lot in that lab, and those will be the people you interact with most. But in graduate school, you're interacting with the person who runs the lab a lot, okay or runs this group, and if that person is in any way so self-centered that they can't see that you're in trouble, I wouldn't want to stick around okay. And there are some people like that but they're not very many. Most people that I know of uh really as soon as they see that the person who is coming to them is in in some kind of troublesome relation or is self-doubting or worried about his or her abilities, they will try to pitch in and see, try to see, if they can't help fix it. Most of the people, very few are cruel in other ways, so I would always give people the benefit of doubt.
First how old were you when you came to America?
Well we came uh in 1939 so I was six or seven. I was seven.
Do you think that those six or seven years would have influenced you differently if you had grown up in America?
That's a good question I sometimes thought about that. I look, I can't answer that directly. There's certain things I wish I had done differently as a kid and one of them is I wish I had learned how to play the piano as a kid okay. And I'm now… 21 I started learning the piano and that's very late, and I have a terrible technique and I'm never going to be as good as somebody who starts at six or seven and we never had any money until all a little bit, so that one thing, I live with that daily because I love to play the piano okay and I taught my daughter who took the piano. She started at six and she can outplay me in a minute you know, so uh so that's a very personal and not very important thing, but it turns out to be important to me but otherwise I can't think that I was not actively involved. My parents sure were terrified, I'm sure, of what a horrible situation. To have to pack up and keep being ahead of the Nazis, but I was not, I was not really knowledgeable of that as a kid so much. The only thing, I'll give you an experience which was my sort of an eye-opener for me was, this happened in 1938, just about the time we were about to leave, and uh we, my father, had become, he was a doctor and he didn't want. In Germany, he had already got his MD, but when he got to Czechoslovakia he would have had to taken an exam all over again to prove that he was competent as a doctor, and he didn't know Czech that well and so consequently it turned out that he decided not to work as a doctor. He worked with a pharmaceutical company doing testing and stuff like that, and he made enough money so we were able to take a vacation finally as a group. My mother, my father, my sister, who was barely born, she was born in 37, she was less than a year old yeah, and I, we all went to a little resort in the Tatra mountains of Czechoslovakia. It's in Slovakia really, and I remember coming into a foyer of a lot of people list and there was one of these radios that looked like a gothic cathedral. I don't know if you know what I'm talking about.
These are old-time radios that were made into a gothic kind of structure and I know, and as a kid I was absolutely fascinated, I ran up to that radio and you could look in the back and see all the glowing tubes. There was hot tubes in there and to me the voices coming out the front it was absolutely fascinating to look what was inside that radio but what was coming out of the front of that radio was terrible news. It was Neville Chamberlain effectively selling or giving Hitler the Zudayton Gabit, which is that shell that runs an envelope that runs around Czechoslovakia which is all German and it's called Sudetenland or whatever you know, and this was a big contention. Hitler was trying to get all the German-speaking countries under him as quickly as he could and everybody there who was there, most of them being Jewish, saw exactly what was coming and that place emptied out in less than six hours. Everybody racing to Prague to try to get an affidavit to get out of there to anywhere else in the world okay, and that was a real scandal but it's what happened. So we did the same, we raced back. We were going to go on vacation, We raced back to Prague to get the hell out of there and the people who saved us by the way, is a people we, I would have never expected, is a lady in St. Louis named Stixx who uh, they ran a department store, Fuller Bayer and Sticks I think was the name of the store. It's in St. Louis it's, I don't know if it still exists, but she was moderately well-off Jewish and she gave bond for 10,000 Jews, that's, she gave bonds. And the bond being that if they came somehow came to the united states and became welfare cases, she would personally make sure that she paid for the welfare payments. Not the federal government, and the United States government wasn't terribly eager to take Jews either in those days, and so especially immigrants from Czechoslovakia that's, they wouldn't mind taking a British, they wouldn't mind taking a German, but Slavic people no no, okay. So what happened was that she gave bond and we managed to get out of there, but, and when I was 21, I went to see her and thank her for it and she didn't know who I was, and I didn't know who she was but still, it was a big deal yeah. So I don't know, I mean you asked what was, those were the sort of one thing I remember, uh that the racing out of that hotel to get to Prague to get affidavits to get the hell out of Czechoslovakia was a big deal. We all felt that yeah.
At your age were you aware of the seriousness of the circumstances?
I couldn't tell you that I don't know, no. I got it, it was, I mean, an hour looking back of course it looks very serious yeah, but I think if your parents are not totally crazy, they'll try to scare the crap out of the kids, you don't want to do that. Then you have, I'll tell you what you, makes you like your life as a parent, even more difficult if you can avoid that.
At what age did you start to become interested in physics?
Yeah, I didn't know what physics was okay, I got interested in electronics at about the age of 12. And mostly from reading popular, you know, popular mechanics and popular science you know. Stuff that was, I would call, street electronics you know. If you build this this way it'll make, it'll pick up radio Tokyo, or if you build a thing, you know, all sorts of wonderful little projects you could do and so, and the big thing that happened for me, that was the end of the war because what happened in the end of the second World War, what happened is the New York City streets, especially around where the world's trade center was, were filled with junk that came back as junk from the salvage from the war. You could buy for pennies, you could buy oscilloscopes and two vacuum tubes and transformers so, as a kid you know, I could build all sorts of stuff, really great stuff. And the thing is, that started me on electronics and I never got really interested in physics. I didn't even know what physics was because I, what I did is, I came to MIT and I had a set of, when I was accepted at MIT to start, I had a whole business going making high, for hi-fi equipment I don't want to go into all of that, but a lot of immigrants who heard, so I built an FM set and had a very elegant loudspeaker I’d taken out of a burnt down movie theater and uh, and had wonderful amplifiers. I'd built out of this junk and I would invite people to come and listen to the New York Philharmonic in my room you know, and they would sit there and they couldn't believe it, they thought they were sitting in Carnegie Hall, so they would ask me build me one and then another and they would have friends and they would have one. So eventually I had a little business going but there was something I couldn't solve and that had to do with, I won't go into what it was, it was how to actually get the noise out of phonograph records. Let's leave that go, but and so I couldn't figure out how to do that and there was a challenge that was past what I knew in electronics, how to how to do a thing like that, so I decided I want to go to MIT to learn how to do that. That was the whole reason for going to college and so I went into electrical engineering and got bored silly what they were. I was in, I wanted to work with somebody in those days, they wouldn't do that to find out how to fix this problem with phonograph records and they were making me study about old generators and transmission lines and motors and how to build the power stations and stuff like that. I was not interested in that so I quit and I joined physics. Why? Because it looked like I had less requirements.
I hate to tell you that a lot of people do get their start early in high school but for people who don't, physics is something that seems very daunting, just the electricity, the magnetism, kinematics, newton's laws, and obviously the Einstein 1918 publication clearly was a huge inspiration for your work but that's much much later
That's for that so you know almost 25 or 50 years later
Come on you had to learn an awful lot
No I was I was never a good student in the formal sense okay.
Do you think there's a reason that physics is so daunting to so many people?
Well, I'll tell you why. Because it's the way it's taught. That's, I have a theory about that namely, if you, I would always start a course with showing an experiment, have the kids work on the experiment along with me, and then we would try to understand the experiment and then eventually you'd wind up with the formula maybe, but it wasn't just memory. It was, and you didn't just get things thrown at you, you looked and you saw the phenomena and that was interesting itself you know. And that's the motivation for learning, I think. Physics is taught, you know, in a, in most of the ways physics is taught so mathematically that much of the people who, I'm not, I'm not very good at math. I freely admit that so I have to have a model or a some picture in my head of what that mathematics does, and many people are like that, not everybody. There's some people who get the math right away and they can learn from the math alone. I cannot do that, I have to see the phenomena and so it, I think it's a matter of training and if you, I don't know, that's something I've argued for a long many years and I've found that to be the case for many physicists. Physicists who do poorly in courses what they need is another way to look at the thing and in high school that's one that's the place where we lose almost everybody.
We know you're very busy so our last question is in your paper “LIGO and the Detection of Gravitational Waves.” You state that in the limit of highly relativistic scenarios, gravitational waves would introduce a new physics. Could you briefly explain what you mean by a new physics?
Well, I, but in the end, no I shouldn't have. New physics means new things that you haven't seen before okay, and in fact that's the case. Einstein's theory of gravity has a lot of things in it which are quite mysterious and as I told you very much at the beginning, he himself challenged it in his own way. For example, he didn't believe in black holes for a long, long time in fact I don't think he ever did. I mean, he saw that there was a solution of his equations but he said there was something wrong math and nature won't do that and he, so it turns out, that uh you know have a thing where nothing leaves it and it eats up everything around it and no signal can get out of it. That sort of thing was so crazy and it came about at least in the formulation of the equations that he had it looked like there was an infinity in the equation, something was something blew up you know we call it a singularity and he was absolutely right, there shouldn't be singularities in nature. Well it turned out this was a singularity in the mathematics, nature didn't seem to worry about that singularity so what I meant by new physics is, for example, you find some black holes well, we did, or you would find out that the universe actually started as a singularity, and I don't know if you know that, but that's our best theory right now. It started as a point of vacuum fluctuation and all of a sudden out of the vacuum pops this universe. It's a crazy completely nuts idea, but it's pretty good. It gives answers that are damn good and it predicts certain things which we'll probably see. It predicts that there are gravitational waves that come from the very origin of the universe that would be one of the most interesting things we could ever measure. I don't think we can do that with what we have now, but there are ideas of how to do that okay. So the thing is that Einstein's theory has all sorts of things in it that people had never experienced before. Next challenge for the next generation and uh yeah you guys have it all I mean, you're going to, you're going to discover that radiation. You guys are that, that radiation that comes from the moment, of the moment when the universe popped into existence.