These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Dr. Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors. In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington.
Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.
The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”
The foundation, which would wind up spending $1 billion over the next 40 years on the project, ordered the two groups to merge. The plan that emerged was to build a pair of L-shaped antennas, one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La., with laser light bouncing along 2.5-mile-long arms in the world’s biggest vacuum tunnels to monitor the shape of space.
In 1987, the original three-headed leadership of Drs. Weiss, Drever and Thorne was abandoned for a single…