Joseph Weber

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For other people named Joseph Weber, see Joseph Weber (disambiguation).
Joe Weber
Joseph Weber (1919–2000). Depicted in US Naval Academy uniform in 1940.
Born (1919-05-17)May 17, 1919
Paterson, New Jersey, USA
Died September 30, 2000(2000-09-30) (aged 81)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Residence USA
Nationality American
Fields Physicist
Institutions University of Maryland College Park
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
US Navy Bureau of Ships
Alma mater United States Naval Academy
The Catholic University of America
Doctoral advisor Keith J. Laidler
Doctoral students Robert L. Forward
Known for Weber bars
Quantum electronics
Gravitational wave detection
Notable awards Guggenheim Fellowship (1955, 1962)
National Research Council Fellowship (1955)
Scientific Achievement Award from the Washington Academy of Sciences (1958)
Babson Award of the Gravity Research Foundation (1959)
Fulbright Scholarship (1963)
Sigma Xi (1970)
Boris Pregel Prize of the New York Academy of Sciences (1973)
Maryland engineering hall of fame (1988)

Joseph Weber (May 17, 1919 – September 30, 2000) was an American physicist. He gave the earliest public lecture on the principles behind the laser and the maser and developed the first gravitational wave detectors (Weber bars).

Early education[edit]

Weber was born in Paterson, New Jersey[1] and graduated from Paterson Eastside High School[citation needed] (and the Paterson Talmud Torah) in the midst of the Depression. He began his undergraduate education at Cooper Union, but to save his family the expense of his room and board he won admittance to the United States Naval Academy through a competitive exam. He graduated from the Academy in 1940.[2]

Naval career[edit]

He served aboard US Navy ships during WWII, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. A memorable experience was his service on the "Lady Lex" USS Lexington (CV-2). Weber was the Officer of the Deck on the Lexington when the ship received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the Battle of the Coral Sea his carrier sank the Japanese aircraft carrier Shōhō and was in turn mortally damaged on May 8, 1942. Weber often regaled his students with the story of how the Lexington glowed incandescent as she slipped beneath the waves.

Later, he commanded the sub-chaser SC-690, first in the Caribbean, and later in the Mediterranean Sea. In that role, he took part in the invasion of Sicily at Gela Beach, in July, 1943.[3][4]

He studied electronics at the Naval Postgraduate School in 1943, and from 1945–1948, he headed electronic countermeasures design for the Navy's Bureau of Ships, in Washington, DC.[2] He resigned from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander in 1948 to become a professor of engineering.

Early post-naval career; development of the MASER[edit]

In 1948, he joined the engineering faculty of the University of Maryland, College Park. A condition of his appointment was that he should quickly attain a PhD. Thus, he did his PhD studies, on microwave spectroscopy, at night, while already a faculty member. He completed his PhD, with a thesis entitled Microwave Technique in Chemical Kinetics, from The Catholic University of America in 1951. During the course of his doctoral research, he worked out the idea of coherent microwave emissions, and gave the earliest public lecture on the principles behind the laser and the maser at the Electron Tube Research Conference held in Ottawa in 1952.[5] These ideas were developed simultaneously by Charles Townes,[6] Nikolay Basov, and Aleksandr Prokhorov, who built working prototypes of these devices, and received the Nobel Prize for this work in 1964.

Work on gravitational wave detection[edit]

His interest in general relativity led Weber to use a 1955–1956 sabbatical, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, to study gravitational radiation with John Archibald Wheeler at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ and the Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.[4] At the time, the existence of gravitational waves was not widely accepted. Weber was the first to make a real attempt to detect these waves. After he began publishing papers on the detection of gravitational waves, he moved from the Engineering department to the Physics department at Maryland.

He developed the first gravitational wave detectors (Weber bars) in the 1960s, and began publishing papers with evidence that he had detected these waves. In 1972, he sent a gravitational wave detection apparatus to the moon (the "Lunar Surface Gravimeter", part of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package) on the Apollo 17 lunar mission.[7]

Claims of gravitational wave detection discredited[edit]

In the 1970s, the results of these gravitational wave experiments were largely discredited, although Weber continued to argue that he had detected gravitational waves.[8] In order to test Weber's results, IBM Physicist Richard Garwin built a detector that was similar to Joseph Weber's. In six months, it detected only one pulse, which was most likely noise.[9] David Douglass, another physicist, had discovered an error in Weber's computer program that, he claimed, produced the daily gravitational wave signals that Weber claimed to have detected. Because of the error, a signal seemed to appear out of noise. Garwin aggressively confronted Weber with this information at the Fifth Cambridge Conference on Relativity at MIT in June 1974. A series of letters was then exchanged in Physics Today. Garwin asserted that Weber's model was "insane, because the universe would convert all of its energy into gravitational radiation in 50 million years or so, if one were really detecting what Joe Weber was detecting." "Weber," Garwin declared, "is just such a character that he has not said, 'No, I never did see a gravity wave.' And the National Science Foundation, unfortunately, which funded that work, is not man enough to clean the record, which they should." The process of how physicists and the general public came to reject Weber's claims that he had found gravitational waves is described in several articles and the books Gravity's shadow by sociologist Harry Collins and Einstein's unfinished symphony by Marcia Bartusiak.


Although his attempts to find gravitational waves with bar detectors are considered to have failed, Weber is widely regarded as the father of gravitational wave detection efforts, including LIGO, MiniGrail, and several HFGW research programs around the world. His notebooks contained ideas for laser interferometers; later such a detector was first constructed by his former student Robert Forward at Hughes Research Laboratories.

The Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation was named in his honor.

Personal life[edit]

Weber was the youngest of four children born in Paterson, New Jersey, to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents. His name was "Yonah" until he entered grammar school. He had no birth certificate, and his father had taken the last name of "Weber" to match an available passport in order to emigrate to the US. Thus, Joe Weber had little proof of either his family or his given name, which gave him some trouble in obtaining a passport at the height of the red scare.

His first marriage, to his high school classmate Anita Straus, ended with her death in 1971. His second marriage was to astronomer Virginia Trimble. He had 4 sons (from his first marriage), and six grandchildren.


  1. ^ Staff. A COMMUNITY OF SCHOLARS: The Institute for Advanced Study Faculty and Members 1930-1980, p. 429. Institute for Advanced Study, 1980. Accessed November 22, 2015. "Weber, Joseph 55f, 62-63, 69-70 M(NS), Physics Born 1919 Paterson, NJ."
  2. ^ a b Biographies W. Retrieved on 2011-05-17.
  3. ^ The Long Voyage. Retrieved on 2011-05-17.
  4. ^ a b Archive Index. Retrieved on 2011-05-17.
  5. ^ Innovation Hall of Fame
  6. ^ Charles H. Townes – Nobel Lecture
  7. ^ Lunar Surface Gravimeter
  8. ^ Early days in the Sociology of Gravitational Waves
  9. ^ Marcia Bartusiak, Einstein's unfinished symphony, Joseph Henry Press, 2000, p. 102

External links[edit]