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Q&A: Kip Thorne, co-winner of 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

Kip Thorne GS 65 was recently jointly awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish. The team was granted the award for “decisive contributions to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” according to the Nobel Prize website

Thorne received his doctorate degree from the University in 1965. He was the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology until 2009 and served as scientific advisor for the 2014 film “Interstellar.” The Daily Princetonian spoke to Thorne over the phone about his research, the University’s influence on his research interests, and the importance of scientific inquiry.


The Daily Princetonian: In a recent interview with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, you said that the discovery of gravitational waves is like “Galileo pointing his telescope in the sky and discovering Jupiter's moons.” What are the implications of this discovery for research in physics?

Kip Thorne: Well, I think the implications are simply — as they were for Galileo — that the future for us is very exciting. The electromagnetic waves that Galileo used for exploring the universe brought us an enormously rich and amazing insight into the universe. And they came not just from light, but from radio waves, x-rays, gamma rays, infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, microwaves — all different frequency bands from electromagnetic waves.

Similarly, I think over the next 400 years gravitational waves will really revolutionize our understanding of the universe. But it won’t just be the high frequency waves, as we call them, that LIGO uses; it will be waves in other frequency bands. We might about twenty years from now — perhaps sooner — have three other frequency bands all opened using other kinds of instruments, so I think it’s going to be quite amazing.

DP: Before the detection of gravitational waves, did you believe they would be detected within your lifetime?

KT: Yes, I did. I tend to be an optimist, and I was overly optimistic about when they would be detected. I became convinced that this approach to detecting them had a good probability of success... The technique was primarily invented by Ray Weiss, who shares the prize with me and Barry Barish.

I was skeptical of it at first, but after long discussions with Ray and Vladimir Braginsky — a superb Russian experimental physicist — and after studying a technical paper that Ray had written in 1972 describing this technique and explaining how you would deal with all of the major noise sources, I became convinced. At that point in the mid-’70s I decided that the odds of success would be high, and that it would a very long, difficult effort that I wanted to be involved with. I decided that I, and postdocs and students working with me, would do whatever we could as theorists to pull this experiment off.


DP: How did your time at Princeton and the people who worked with here shape your research interests?

KT: Enormously. I was particularly influenced by two professors at Princeton. John Wheeler, who was my Ph.D. mentor, was a theorist and it was from him that I learned about black holes and neutron stars, which became our primary targets in our search for gravitational waves. I also was a member of Robert Dicke’s experimental physics research group, in the sense that I sat in on essentially all of their research group meetings and tried to absorb and understand the experimental techniques they were working with and the goals of their experimental work. It was there that I met Ray Weiss, who then became the pioneer for LIGO and the inventor of our techniques.

The combination of the experimental insights I got — from being in Bob Dicke’s research meetings every week, week after week, for four years, and from working with John Wheeler —  were the major underpinnings, more than anything else, in my career in connection with gravitational waves.

DP: What advice would you give to young people interested in pursuing research?

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KT: One piece of advice is to always keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities. I did not plan to go into this area; it was only when I saw Ray Weiss’s ideas, and then said, “Well, this is worth investigating,” and went in and really studied it and realized it was an opportunity and something I would really want to pursue, that I made the jump. Similarly, at other phases of my career there were unexpected opportunities that I looked at very closely and then grabbed them and took them.  

Another thing is that in order to have real progress in research you need to focus very narrowly to pull something off, but at the same time, you need to look very broadly at what’s going on in adjacent areas and adjacent fields so that you will see and be able to utilize insights that come from elsewhere and use them in your own research, and notice the unexpected opportunities.

A third piece of advice is to work hard. Even for the most brilliant young scientist it does not come easy.

DP: You’ve been known for conveying discoveries and ideas equally well to both professional and general audiences. Why do you think it’s important for everyone to share in scientific discoveries?

KT: The quest to understand the universe and the laws of nature is a human quest. It’s not just a quest for those of us who made our career out of it. Human beings by nature are curious and want to understand the kinds of things that we’re studying. In that sense, we have some cultural obligation to share what we are learning.

We also live in a technological age where technology is the key to both producing problems for society, but more importantly to solving problems for society. It’s essential that the general public has some level of understanding of science and technology in order to deal with this technological world. An example, of course, is climate change, where it’s absolutely clear that it’s going on and that humans contribute. It’s essential that the general public understands this and understands how science works to be able to make judgements of the right sort in the face of politicians who, for whatever reason, try to fight against things that are absolutely true.

DP: What’s next for you?

KT: I think the happiest thing is to sit back and watch the LIGO team pull off discovery after discovery after discovery. This discovery of gravitational waves is not mine, and this prize should not have gone to me, and Ray Weiss, and Barry Barish – it should’ve gone to the entire LIGO team who pulled this thing off. We’re just icons for the team. The team is superb, and the discoveries are now coming in very fast. Several things in the coming months will be announced, and it’s really an exciting time. That’s one thing, to just sit back and watch and wonder as the discoveries come in.

In terms of myself personally, I’m 77, and I’ve chosen for the latter phase of my life to embark on a different career. I retired from my professorship at Caltech eight years ago in order to initiate, to ramp up a career that was not a career I ever intended to pursue earlier, but was an unexpected opportunity.

It’s a career in collaborations with filmmakers, artists, and musicians at the interface of science — a career of communicating the ideas, beauty, and power of science to people through the arts, and I’m enjoying this enormously.