In 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barrish and Kip Thorne for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”
On February 11, 2016, the world and the scientific community was shaken by gravitational waves. This is, of course, only figuratively speaking, because on that date a team of four physicists announced that in September the previous year, the signature of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light years away had been recorded.
While the discovery did not literally shake the Earth, the detection was, and is, extremely significant and confirmation of an important prediction in Einstein´s general theory of relativity. The gravitational waves were detected by LIGO or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, a multi-institutional gravitational wave experiment founded in 1984. The LIGO has two sites in the continental US, Hanford Site in Washington and Livingston, Louisiana. As of 2019, 50 gravitational waves have been detected by LIGO.
Kip Thorne was born on June 1, 1940 in Logan, Utah. Today, Logan´s inhabitants number around 51.000 but when Logan was born, only 16.000 people lived there. Perhaps Thorne best exemplifies that despite coming from a small town, one does not necessarily posses a small mind. His parents, both academics, were Mormons and raised Thorne in the Mormon faith. Thorne has however described himself as an atheist but has been quoted as saying; “There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to no believe in God.”
Thorne was an exceptionally talented student and became one of the youngest full professors in the history of the California Institute of Technology at the age of 30. However, in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, Thorne described himself as being quite the opposite, slow in reading and his thought process being slow claiming not to be as astute as other students. He completed his undergraduate studies at Caltech and received his doctorate from Princeton in 1965. Thorne´s doctoral mentor was John Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist credited with reviving interest in Einstein´s theory of general relativity in the United States. Wheeler is perhaps better known for popularizing the term “black hole” and coining the term “wormhole.” Thorne describes Wheeler as an inspiring mentor. At Princeton, he also met Rainer Weiss.
It was not only Wheeler who had influence on Thorne. He has counted the late Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan as his longtime friends as well as Nobel Prize winners Willy Fowler and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. On one occasion, in the 1960s, Thorne was driving from Princeton, New Jersey, to Caltech and purposely stopped in Chicago to have a discussion with Chandrasekhar. All of these great scientists had a great influence on Thorne, directing him into the field of studying black holes, rotating neutron stars, and gravitational waves.
Kip Thorne is anything but a dry and boring scientist. Thorne collaborated with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan on the blockbuster film Interstellar. Previously, he made a contribution toCarl Sagan’s book Contact. Sagan used of some of Thorne’s concepts and ideas of journeys through wormholes. Thorne is highly dedicated to the popularization of science, following in the footsteps of his friends Hawking, Feynman and Sagan. Thorne has also collaborated with PBS and the BBC in making documentaries on science, dedicated to space, black holes, relativity, gravitational radiation and the possibility of time travel, explaining the hypothetical mechanisms of travel through wormholes.
Thorne is the author of a number of books and articles, including: The Science of Interstellar andBlack Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy.
Translated by Jonas Helgason
This text was produced with the support of the United States Embassy in BiH as part of the “U.S. Scientists Who Changed the World” project and we thank the US Embassy.