As a young boy growing up in snowy Cache Valley, Kip Thorne wanted to be a snowplow driver. He was fascinated by how much power those machines had to move so much snow at a time. A few years later, Thorne was introduced to a four-dimensional cube called a Teseract, and suddenly snowplows didn’t seem as interesting anymore.
“I got really fascinated by the geometry of what could go on in four dimensions,” Thorne said Thursday afternoon. “Our universe has three dimensions: East-West, North-South, up-down. If you had four dimensions what would it be like?”
That early fascination pointed Thorne in a direction that eventually led him on a path to discovery, discovery that proved a century-old Einstein theory and earned himself a Nobel Prize for Physics last fall. Thorne shared a presentation at the Logan High School auditorium titled “My Journey Through Space and Time: The Big Bang Theory, Black Holes and Gravitational Waves.”
Thorne is in Logan to celebrate the 60 year reunion for the Logan High graduating class of 1958. Thorne’s class not only produced a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, but also a Hall of Fame football player (the late Merlin Olsen) and a current Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Quentin L. Cook, who was in attendance at Thursday’s presentation). Thorne had a close personal friendship with Olsen which Thorne said began in an irrigation ditch, playing with toads when the boys were toddlers. The two of them later became partners on Logan High School’s debate team and remained close after high school when Thorne studied at Caltech and Olsen played for the Los Angeles Rams. In fact, Thorne shared a picture of a towering Merlin Olsen as the best man at Thorne’s wedding.
Thorne shared his journey of research and fascination about black holes, gravity and tracking gravitational waves to a full auditorium. His research about gravity and its effects on time became the foundation of the major motion picture Interstellar which was released in 2014. One year after the film’s release, on September 14, 2015, Thorne’s research was validated with the positive detection of gravitational waves for the very first time.
Gravitational waves that were cast off from two colliding black holes 1.3 billion years ago were detected at labs in Louisiana and in Washington on that date.
Thorne described that these gravitational waves “arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, traveled upwards through the earth unscathed, unaffected by all the matter in the earth (and) arrived at a detector called LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, in Livingston, Louisiana.
“Seven milliseconds later it arrived at a similar detector in Hanford, Washington. They shook these detectors ever so slightly but strong enough that they showed up on our instruments.”
Thorne said a team of about 1,000 scientists and engineers from all around the world studied the data for approximately four months with great care. When the waves matched complex computer models and were confirmed, news about the discovery spread around the world and became headline news. Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish were recognized for leading the efforts which led to the first-ever detection of the waves, which reveal more information about how the universe works. When Thorne was told he and his collaborators would be receiving the Nobel Prize for their discovery, he said he was very disappointed.
“I would have thought that by now you would have figured out that discoveries of this sort are a team effort,” Thorne said, when describing the initial phone call he received notifying him of the recognition. “The team is the one that deserves the Nobel Prize. It should go to the thousand scientists who all played crucial roles in making this thing happen. It shouldn’t go to just three people.”
Thorne said he was told the goal of the Nobel Prize committee was to make the general public aware of the importance of science and to promote science. They thought that three people were better icons to fulfill that mission than a whole team.
“But it seems to me their other responsibility is to inform the world about how science is done,” Thorne continued with a smile. “Much of science today can only be done by collaboration. Collaborations are absolutely essential.
“This could never have been done by only three people, it could only be done by a large collaboration.”
He said this collaboration continues to this day. In fact, it is a growing, international effort with scientists in more countries than ever before with a new lab in Europe, similar to those in Louisiana and Washington. Thorne said that with the three labs in different locations on the planet, it becomes much easier for scientists to triangulate and pinpoint where the waves may have been coming from.
The data has not only proved useful in understanding black holes and where they may be located in the universe, but Thorne said a fascinating discovery was made last August when they observed two neutron stars colliding, called a Kilinova.
LIGO has been shut down for about 15 months and will turn back on in January 2019. He said the labs and data are so intricate that scientists need to understand the complex nature of the data “personality.” When it comes back online, by 2020, Thorne said scientists will be able to see three times farther into the universe. With that increased sensitivity, Thorne is expecting to be able to track one black hole collision per day. By the 2030s he expects to see every black hole collision in the universe. He said there are ambitious plans to detect gravity waves from space with specialized satellites and spacecraft that will orbit the sun, which he believes will help us understand the very first seconds of our known universe.
“It was 400 years ago that Galileo built a small optical telescope and he pointed it at Jupiter and discovered the four biggest moons of Jupiter,” Thorne concluded. “He pointed it at our moon and discovered the craters on the moon. It’s nearly three years ago that LIGO discovered the first gravitational waves from colliding black holes.
“When you think about the huge changes in our knowledge of the universe that come from electromagnetic waves in the 400 years since Galileo, I invite you to think about, specifically, what changes in our understanding of the universe will come in the next 400 years from the combination that we now have of both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves.”
In a question-and-answer segment following his presentation, Thorne encouraged young students to find topics in school they can be passionate about, then the tediousness and hard work that follow won’t be a grind. He also thanked all the taxpayers in the room because it was with public funds that his labs were able to be built (to the tune of over $1 billion).
Thorne was raised in an LDS family but currently identifies as a non-believer. But when asked if he felt the discoveries and current knowledge of the universe are compatible with 19th century Mormon doctrine, he said they are.