Adulation and congratulations to Kip Thorne and his Nobel co-recipients for their confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves

Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech

I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice.  I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS).  In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time.  The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*

If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.”  (You can find it here on Amazon.)  The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.

I have rarely been so pleased with a science book.  If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly.  Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed.  This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant.  This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.

Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves.  I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount?  Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?”  Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one.  I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me.  I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).

Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months.  It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring.  We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.

I get chills.  Seriously.

So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger.  If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.

These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature.  Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients.  It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.

*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.

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