Transcript from an interview with Kip S. Thorne

Interview with Kip S. Thorne on 6 December 2017 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden, during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Why did you decide to become a physicist?

Kip S. Thorne: I grew up in Logan, Utah, which is high in the Rocky Mountains, altitude nearly 2,000 meters. We had deep snow when I was growing up so obviously, and before I was eight years old, I wanted to be a driver of a snow plow because you could push the snow to such great heights. But then when I was eight my mother took me to a lecture about astronomy, about the solar system, and I became very excited about the idea of the solar system, so she did some projects with me about astronomy. And I started doing reading on my own, decided I wanted to be an astronomer.

But then when I was thirteen I found in the big city, Salt Lake City, a great big city, about a hundred thousand at the time, I found a little paperback book called ‘One two three infinity’ by a physicist cosmologist named George Gamow, and it described ideas for mathematics and theoretical physics and cosmology that I found even more exciting than astronomy, and so at age thirteen I decided I wanted to be a physicist but I would work on things connected with astronomy and so here I am.

What do you enjoy about science?

Kip S. Thorne: The most enjoyable part of science is doing it. It is sometimes very hard, sometimes very frustrating but extremely rewarding when you suddenly understand something. It is an adrenaline rush when you suddenly understand something. It does not matter very much whether somebody else has understood it first or not. It is nice if you are the first person, but just to suddenly understand a puzzle that you have been struggling with for a long time is just fabulous. And it is remarkable that we as humans are capable of understanding the physical world around us in such detail that we can predict things that turn out to be true, that we can understand things that are very far from earth, such as the black holes that we have described colliding with gravitational waves. And that we can use the understanding we develop in the physical laws for technology for human benefit, so that aspect of it also is really quite wonderful. The power of science for understanding and for technology. But personally, the joy of discovery is the big deal.

How important are imagination and creativity?

Kip S. Thorne: Imagination and creativity are really very crucial, particularly for the big leaps of understanding. But they are far from enough, because you may have imagination and creativity and suddenly think you understand something far beyond the frontiers of current knowledge, but you will usually be wrong, and you validate this through experiment and you validate it also by seeing how it fits into the well-established laws of nature and how it fits logically into this complex structure of all the well-established laws of nature. So you really, in order to validate the insights, you have to use these two additional things, experiment and detailed mathematical analysis.

Who are your biggest influences?

Kip S. Thorne: There are a number of people that have influenced me and how I think and work as a physicist. John Wheeler, who is my PhD mentor and was a tremendous inspiration. We had very different views about the political world, but we were very much of the same mind about how you understand nature. And I learned so much from him, he was a professor at Princeton. Also at Princeton was Robert Dicke who is a superb experimental physicist who was a mentor to Ray Weiss, my colleague on the LIGO project. And I was there studying about black holes with John Wheeler and gravitational waves and also participating in the research group meetings of Robert Dicke, and I was learning about how experimental physics is done through Robert Dicke and his research group and Ray Weiss. So those two were among the handful of people who profoundly influenced me.

Which Nobel Laureates inspire you?

Kip S. Thorne: Among the Nobel Laureates my colleagues that with whom I am receiving this prize. Actually, Barry Barish and Rainer Weiss and I are icons for a very large experimental team of a thousand people in LIGO. That team is so superb, but the people that really have inspired me working with them  are Weiss, Barish and Ronald Drever, who is no longer with us, he has passed away, whom I have worked with intensely on this. Also Robbie Vogt who was the first director of LIGO and helped us in the first step in the transition from a set of ideas into the real world of where LIGO is today.

How important is collaboration?

Kip S. Thorne: Let me describe my personality. I am a person who likes to work on science quietly by myself or with one or two students, maybe a postdoctoral student. I am an introverted. I behave like an extrovert, I learned how to do that, but I am fundamentally an introvert. I get the greatest pleasure from that kind of work. But LIGO could only be done as a big collaboration, there was no other way to do it. So I gritted my teeth and I plunged into this and helped in every way that I possibly could to lay foundations for LIGO and to help Barry Barish wherever he needed any help from me. Grow LIGO from a small experimental project that I began with Ronald Drever at Caltech, and Ray Weiss at MIT, a small collaboration into what it is today. It could only be done as a big collaboration. It is so difficult, the things that go wrong are such number of different things it requires large numbers of experts and a variety of different pieces of physics and engineering to pull it off.

LIGO is the triumph of a thousand people, the superb experimental team. I think my biggest contribution was to understand where they had to go because I am a theorist and I knew about how strong the waves were. I understand how they interact with the detector, I understood what needed to be done. There is no way I could do any of that, but I could also convey to the funding agencies and the science community my faith in the experimental team and I could explain why I had faith in the experimental team, so that was probably my biggest contribution, to convince funding agency and physicists that this should go forward. It is a strange kind of a role but I think without that role it would probably not have happened.

How important is government support?

Kip S. Thorne: For a project of this sort the only way it could be done was through a governmental agency. It was a project that cost up until now about 1.1 billion dollars. It is a lot of money. Not as much as some of the very biggest physics projects but by far, I think, the largest thing that the National Science Foundation in the US has ever done. It was absolutely crucial. So this really was a collaboration, initially between Caltech led by Ronald Drever and me, MIT led by Rainer Weiss and the National Science Foundation were the key person was Richard Isaacson who was our programme director, who himself had made an enormous breakthrough in the theory of gravitational waves, had solved a problem that had puzzled everybody from Einstein on for decades. How is energy carried by gravitational waves? This was Isaacson who turned into government funding agent and he understood how things worked in Washington and he understood what we were doing because he is such as superb physicist himself. He was really the additional person who pulled this off. Without the National Science Foundation and Isaacson this would never, never have happened.

 Can breakthroughs in physics still be done independently?

Kip S. Thorne: You need to work on a breakthrough problem with whatever kind of team is optimal. And in many areas of physics a very small team is optimal. That is true particularly in condensed matter physics. It was true on this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize which was done by physicists. It is true in last year’s physics Nobel Prize and so I would say the majority of breakthrough work can still be done in small teams but there are certain things, and gravitational waves is one, that can only be done in a big collaboration. We in the physics community have learned, I think, how to function side by side as colleagues with some people working in huge teams, like LIGO with a thousand people, and others who are working in the manner that I prefer to work myself, in a very small effort with just one or two or three professors and a small number of students and postdoctoral students. Both are needed depending on the problem.

Do you enjoy being a mentor?

Kip S. Thorne: My mentoring has been one of my greatest joys. I am proud that I have mentored fifty something, fifty-two or fifty-four, I do not even know the number, PhD students during my career and that they have gone in huge number of different directions because I mentored them broadly so that they had the tools to be able to work in anything from an analyst at the CIA on one extreme, to a very abstract theoretical physics, another extreme, in the computer industry, in management. I had a student, two students who moved into the financial world very, very successfully. And they look back and they say far more useful to them than Harvard Business School, which was a key piece for what they wanted to do, was doing a theoretical physics PhD under me. Because in doing a theoretical physics PhD they learned how to take a complex problem, break it down into pieces that could be solved, how to transform a problem into a soluble form, and that general skill that is the essence of success in physics is transferable into all these different areas of human enterprise. So yes, I am proud of my mentoring and I have taken great joy in it.

What is your favourite piece of advice for students?

Kip S. Thorne: I have several favourite bits of advice. The one that I gave particularly to my granddaughter who is a physics PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University now. I told her when she said she wanted to be a physicist I said physics is a great springboard from which you can move in many directions, so fine, but you have to find a direction that you absolutely love. Because if you are going to spend a large portion of your life on something it has to be something you love. It also should be something that is important, something that can help the world, but you have to love it and this advice that I got from my own grandfather when I was about four or five years old. He told me, Kip, if you will succeed in life if you find a job that is like play. So that is one thing, you have to be willing to, ready to, eager to work very, very hard. It does not come easily. So that is the second piece of crucial advice.

Third piece of advice is you find your own way of functioning. My mind is much slower than most of my colleagues’ minds and I discovered that when I was an undergraduate. I struggled for the first year and a half as an undergraduate at Caltech where I spent most of my subsequent career, but I developed my own ways of learning things. Keeping records of what I was learning, working things out in my own way, and notebooks and so forth, that enabled me to achieve despite having a slow working mind. So I advise students, you find your own way, and you have to experiment of mastering material and your own directions that you can be successful in and everybody is different. We can all succeed in different ways.

How did you become interested in movies?

Kip S. Thorne: Almost everything that I have done was something I never planned to do. That was true of LIGO, gravitational waves. I have watched through my entire career, my lifetime particularly as an adult, for opportunities, unexpected opportunities and that’s just basically what gravitational waves were. I came along at just the right time to do this together with Barish and Weiss and I jumped on the opportunity once I saw that it had a real possibility to succeed. Similarly, I never intended to be involved in movies, but I was single in southern California for about nine years and I dated in Hollywood and one of the people that I dated was a woman named Lynda Obst. She was a movie producer, had just arrived in Hollywood at the time that I was single and so our romance never went anywhere because perhaps I was too much of a nerd for her and she was perhaps too intense for me, but we became very close friends and she is a close friend of my wife Carolee as well today.

Many years later Lynda telephoned me, and she said Do you want to brainstorm with me for a movie? I thought for a very short time and said Yes. I could see immediately, one it would be fun, I would be working with brilliant people who were very different from me and that is particularly fun. And I would have a possibility to convey through a Hollywood movie the beauties and power of science to an audience what turned out to be about a hundred million people who bought a ticket to this movie. How else can a professor reach a hundred million people? So I said Yes. We brainstormed and we created the ideas for a movie, and she brought Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan on board to write the screen play and direct it. They completely changed our story but kept all the science that we put into the movie. It turned out to be a wonderful collaboration between me and these filmmakers about a movie in which the movie is really based on and steeped in real science.

Is popular culture an important way to educate audiences?

Kip S. Thorne: Popular culture has tremendous potential for inspiring people about real science. I do not know how effective we can be about educating people about real science. Interstellar was not an education process it was more of an inspiration process. I wrote a book to go along with the movie called ‘The Science of Interstellar’ which is my attempt to provide education in addition. But I think popular culture can provide tremendous inspiration about science and can convey some of the ethos of science but hard to convey the basic ideas with any precision obviously.

What is your favourite film?

Kip S. Thorne: I think my two favourite films were not necessarily scientific, were the two that preceeded mine, that were also, had the science built into them from the beginning, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, where a physicist Arthur C Clarke provided the underpinnings for it. It was Stanley Kubrick’s film and then the movie ‘Contact’ where Carl, which was a collaboration between Carl Sagan and Lynda Obst, the same woman that I collaborated with to make ‘Interstellar’. It is the beginning for that film it was Carl Sagan’s film and, in both cases, again the science was embedded so deeply it was inextricably interwoven with the film and I have loved that.

Has working in films helped your own research?

Kip S. Thorne: In small ways but not major ways. In ‘Interstellar’ I worked very closely with a visual effects team with computer graphics people at the company Double Negative were the lead person is Paul Franklin, who got the Academy Award for the visual effects in ‘Interstellar’. And in order to make the beautiful images of the black hole, gas around the black hole, a swirling gas around the black hole, the wormhole in that film, it was necessary to create a whole new way of going from a computer simulation to visuals on a screen.

Oliver James, who is the chief scientist at Double Negative, and I worked out this new method to do it which was necessary because you could not get the high resolution smooth images that were required for this science fiction movie in any other way. But the methods that we devised are now being used by astrophysicists as part of their visualization of simulations they do of things like black holes and accretion discs around black holes and neutron stars colliding neutron stars and so forth. So there is a feedback in that sense but I think beyond that the direction of the feeding is largely from the science into the film and through that to a popular culture.

How do you like to spend your free time?

Kip S. Thorne: You know, my current career that interface with arts, the arts which is not just movies. It is music with Hans Zimmer and visual effects, multimedia, concerts, it is a book I am working on with my poetry and paintings by a superb young painter. My new career is my hobby in some sense. I thoroughly enjoy these interfaces with the arts. But also my wife and I just enjoy each other and we have a wonderful time. In very extreme moderation, we do not have that much time for it, but we hike, we scuba dive and we ski but not very much in the last few years. The last few years have just been too hectic.

Where do you do your best thinking?

Kip S. Thorne: The kind of work that I do, whether it is working on a movie searching for ideas for a movie or in physics, I collect information, problems, issues that I am struggling with during the day. Day after day and I may be struggling with some issue. How do you depict something in a movie? Or how do you solve a particular physics problem? I may collect all this information related to it during the day for a few days. Then in the middle of the night the inspiration comes, somehow things connect together in the middle of the night. I get up going to the bathroom and write notes and go back to bed. Usually the notes are fairly coherent and often they have the key idea that I could not get in any other way. My mind has to go more or less blank and things have to just somehow naturally start fitting themselves together and in a semi-conscious state and that is where the inspirations come.

What projects are you working on now?

Kip S. Thorne: Gravitational waves are a tool to explore what I like to call the warped side of the universe. These are objects and phenomena, they are not made from matter like you and I and people watching this video, but instead are made from warp space and warp time. A black hole is the prime example. Black hole is made from warped space and the diameter of black hole is huge compared to the circumference whereas normally circumference is bigger. Time slows to a halt near the surface of a black hole. You see this in ‘Interstellar’ where Cooper’s daughter Murph, Cooper being Matthew McConaughey, Murph being Jessica Chastain. Daughter Murph ages from age eleven to ninety-five while Cooper ages hardly at all because Cooper goes near a black hole where time slows. So near a black hole time slows down. Inside a black hole time flows in a direction you would have thought was a space direction toward the centre but that is the direction time flows.

Black holes drag space into whirling motion like the errand or tornado. So black hole is made from warped space and time. Colliding black holes create a veritable storm in the fabric of space and time. There are other phenomena on the warped side of the universe, the birth of the universe itself. The earliest moments of the universe space and time tremendously warped. Things called cosmic strings where the circumference around this sort of rubber band like object is less than π times the diameter. And these weird things that are made of space and time are a wonderful topic for a book about the warped side of the universe.

This book is a collaboration between Lia Halloran who is a young painter and photographer who is good enough to have sold pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She is in her thirties and so it is her paintings of these phenomena, the storm and the fabrics of space and time to produces gravitational waves, cosmic streams, that produce gravitational waves. Her paintings and my poetry about it, so I never shown anybody except my wife hardly any of my poetry. My attempts of poetry, if my poetry is so bad that it makes this book be a total loser and does not sell but two copies one to her and one to me, well that is alright. I have had success elsewhere and if I drag her down that is alright. She has had success elsewhere, so we are having fun doing something that is different for us. Perhaps people will enjoy it. I enjoy the process very much of working with creative people who are very different than I am and trying to do something different from what I have done before.

What do you find harder – poetry or physics?

Kip S. Thorne: Right now for me writing poems is a lot harder than doing physics because it is new. That is why I am doing it. I have done physics for most of my life, I have been doing physics in a serious sort of way for more than half a century and so let’s do something different. That is also very hard because I am very new at it. So that is the challenge and that is the joy.

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