CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—If Rainer Weiss doesn't reach his goal of staring God in the eye—or at least gazing back to the first moment of creation—it won't be for lack of trying. Over the past 16 years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist has appeared before a host of committees, flitted between coasts on red-eye flights to meet with collaborators, and even endured what some call a scientific version of a shotgun wedding with rival physicists at Caltech.

For the pipe-smoking Weiss, the trials and tribulations are proving worth it. Two months ago, he and the Caltech physicists, who are now overseeing the direction of the project, received a multimilliondollar nod to forge ahead with their dream of detecting gravity waves— an unverified, extremely weak form of radiation predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Indeed, at a time when funds seem to be tightening up, the National Science Foundation renewed a...

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