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Computer and gravitational wave astronomy pioneer Heinz Billing celebrates his 100th birthday

April 07, 2014

The Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute/AEI) congratulates Heinz Billing on the occasion of his 100th birthday on April 7th, 2014. Heinz Billing is often mentioned in the same breath as Konrad Zuse as an important German computer pioneer, but he has also been intensively involved in gravitational wave research since the early 1970s. Without his work, projects like GEO600, the British-German gravitational wave detector near Hannover and the US LIGO project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory) would not have been possible.

Heinz Billing was born as the son of a teacher and headmaster. After finishing high school, he went on to study physics and mathematics in Göttingen and Munich and earned his PhD degree at the early age of 24. He worked in the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt (AVA) - the Aerodynamics Reseach Facility - at Göttingen, staying on after the war in the reorganized institute, now the Institut für Instrumentenkunde (Institute for Instrumentation) of the Max Planck Society. In 1947, Heinz Billing and Konrad Zuse were members of the German delegation to a meeting of computer experts and other scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, where they met with theoretical computer scientist Alan Turing.

At the meeting, Billing learned something about the concept of binary numbers (zeroes and ones), but the British did not reveal their computer memory technology. Billing thus went on to invent the magnetic drum memory, for which he received the very first Konrad Zuse medal ever to be awarded. The Physicist Werner Heisenberg recruited Billing into the Max Planck Institute for Physics at Göttingen in 1950. Billing developed the first German electronic computer there, the G1, which was used for astronomical computations. Later, the models G2 and G3 were developed, also for astrophysical research, but after that IBM computers manufactured in the US replaced the models developed at the institute.

Heinz Billing and Gravitational Wave Detectors

Heinz Billing became involved in gravitational physics in the early 1970s, when he tried to verify the detection claims made by American physicist Joseph Weber. Billing and his team made repeated measurements on precise duplications of Weber's apparatus, but neither they nor colleagues working with a similar detection cylinder in Frascati were able to duplicate the results, running the longest and most sensitive coincidence experiment of the time. Weber's results were considered to be proven wrong by these experiments. In 1975, Billing acted on a proposal by Rai Weiss from the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) to use laser interferometry to detect gravitational waves. From 1980 onward Billing commissioned the development and construction in Garching near Munich of a prototype laser interferometer with an arm length of 30m. Without the knowledge gained from this prototype, the LIGO project would not have been started when it did, said Rai Weiss in 2013.

Billing's influence on gravitational research did not end with his retirement in 1982. The many successful experiments started by him as well as the sensitivities reached by 1980, directly led to the proposal of a German gravitational wave detector with an arm length of 3km. In the mid 1990's, construction started on gravitational wave detectors in Germany (GEO600), in the US (LIGO), in Italy (Virgo) and in Japan (TAMA).Today, the German-British GEO collaboration is the world-wide leader in developing new technologies for detecting gravitational waves. The laser systems which are core components of the next generation of the US LIGO detectors were developed at GEO600, for example.

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