Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, Caltech
For his contributions to gravitational physics and astrophysics; his mentorship of physics students, many of whom have become leaders in their fields; and for helping to increase the awareness of science through books and film.
Hanging in the hallway outside Kip Thorne’s office on Caltech’s campus are a series of framed certificates. They are not, however, the typical display of academic degrees or awards. They’re wagers, a run of infamous bets between Thorne and other scientists. One pits Thorne and fellow physicist John Preskill against Stephen Hawking about the existence of naked singularities (singularities without event horizons, which would allow them to be observed). Thorne and Preskill are for, Hawking against, and the terms stipulate that “the loser will reward the winner with clothing to cover the winner’s nakedness.”
In their own way, the wagers offer an apt description of Thorne’s career: one marked by bold bets on the composition of the universe and a strong collaboration with colleagues. Thorne is perhaps one of the most recognized names today in theoretical science, known for his contributions to gravitational physics and astrophysics, and a leading expert on Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
“As a boy, I fell in love with relativity,” Thorne said. “And the things that excited me about it then still do today. Questions such as: Could we travel to other parts of the universe? Can we go back in time? These still hold a powerful sway over me.”
Thorne’s career at Caltech has spanned more than five decades. He first arrived as a student in the 1950s but struggled initially to find his footing. “The first year was very hard; my mind didn’t work as quickly as other students’,” he said. “I realized that to survive, I had to develop strategies to compensate.” Thorne quickly improved, went on to earn his doctorate at Princeton, and returned to Caltech as a professor—where he has been ever since.
In 1973, Thorne co-authored Gravitation with Charles Misner and John Wheeler; widely considered the classic textbook on general relativity theory. A few years later, he and then-student William Press set forth theories that laid the groundwork for gravitational-wave astronomy.
Thorne quickly became a leading proponent of efforts to detect and measure such waves. “Rainer Weiss, a physicist at MIT, had presented in a now-classic paper plans for a device—a laser interferometer gravity-wave detector—that interested me,” Thorne said.
Such a device could open the door on an entirely new kind of astronomy, allowing researchers to observe and study portions of the universe that do not emit light, such as black holes. “But Weiss couldn’t get anyone to fund it,” Thorne said. “Some people claimed that any waves would be too faint to be detected—it couldn’t be done. The wonderful thing about Caltech is that we had the freedom to dream big. I had no problem convincing colleagues here we should do it.”
- BS, Physics, Caltech, 1962
- AM, PhD, Physics, 1965
- Gravitation, C.W. Misner and J.A. Wheeler, 1973
- Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, 1994
- The Science of Interstellar, 2014
- Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize, American Physical Society, 1996
- California Scientist of the Year, 2005
- Albert Einstein Medal, Albert Einstein Society, Berne, Switzerland, 2009
- UNESCO Niels Bohr Gold Medal, 2010
Caltech Teaching Awards
- Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology: 24th Annual Award for Excellence in Teaching, 2000
- Caltech Graduate Student Council: Mentoring Award, 2004
A decade later, in 1983, Weiss, Thorne, and fellow Caltech physicist Ronald Drever cofounded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the largest-ever project to be funded by the National Science Foundation.
“Without Kip Thorne, LIGO simply would not exist,” said David Reitze, executive director of the LIGO project. “It’s a testament to his vision, passion, and drive. He had the ability to persuade the scientific community that this was not only possible, it was achievable.”
The first, foundational phase of the observatory operated from 2002 to 2010. A second phase, known as “Advanced LIGO,” celebrated its opening in Richland, Washington, on May 19 and will begin its first search for waves later this year. Thorne and others estimate that the first detections may come within the next four years.
“This is the payoff,” Thorne said. “This is the culmination of the ideas that we had back in the ’70s and ’80s. The question is: How kind will nature be? What will she let us see?”
“You have to be a true believer in this field,” said Reitze. “This project has taken three decades to come to full fruition.”
In 2009, Thorne retired from his Caltech professorship and became Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus. But at 74, he has hardly slowed down, launching what he fondly calls his “second career”—in filmmaking and writing—while continuing scientific research.
With film producer Lynda Obst, Thorne initiated and executive-produced Christopher Nolan’s 2014 blockbuster Interstellar. Working closely with the filmmaker to embed science throughout the movie, Thorne ensured that the depictions of black holes and other cosmic phenomena were based on physics, which contributed to the film’s 2014 Oscar for visual effects. He now has a second movie and two more books in the works, and is collaborating with a team of young physicists on the dynamics of curved space-time.
Amid all his accomplishments, Thorne is most proud of his role as a teacher, noting the 52 physicists he has mentored, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in their chosen fields. “I’ve been deeply fortunate to call Caltech my home. Now I have the privilege of seeing this next generation of physicists—many of whom are better than me—take over,” he said. “I enthusiastically watch as they tackle some of the deepest, most important questions about the nature of the universe.”
Knowing Thorne, he may do more than just watch. He might place a bet.
by Ben Tomlin
Photo: Jon Rou