Einstein proof: Nobel winners find ripples in the universe

Scientists Barry Barish, center, and Kip Thorne, both of the California Institute of Technology, share a toast to celebrate winning the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday in Pasadena, California. Thorne is a native of Logan.

The Associated Press

Logan native Kip Thorne was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for a collaborative project that led to the observation of gravitational waves for the first time.

Thorne, professor emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, and two other professors were cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for discovery of the waves the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which made it possible to detect the waves. Thorne’s colleague at CalTech, Barry Barish, and Rainer Weiss of MIT share this Nobel Prize with Thorne.

The academy described observation of gravitational waves as “a promising revolution in astrophysics” and “an entirely new way of following the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge.”

Thorne said in a phone interview with The Herald Journal it was “overwhelming” to learn he had received the Nobel Prize.

“The call came at 2:15 a.m.; woke me up,” he said. “So it was a little overwhelming, but it was not unexpected because the discovery of gravitational waves is a huge thing.”

Asked how winning a Nobel Prize could change his life, Thorne responded, “I’m not going to let it change anything.”

“It will change in the sense that the world comes at me for a few months, lots of different people and organizations wanting me to give lectures and so forth, but I will say no to 99 percent of them and just move on with my life,” he said.

Thorne is the second Logan native and Logan High School graduate to receive a Nobel Prize. The first was Lars Peter Hansen, a professor at the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2013.

LHS Principal Ken Auld said the school learned of Thorne’s Nobel Prize on Tuesday and decided it would be best for students to produce a segment on “Grizz News,” the student-television show, about the world-renowned physicist.

“It sends a message to our students, that, ‘You know what? You might be a Nobel Prize winner,’” Auld said. “I think I want them to know anything is possible. Kip Thorne, when he was in high school, I’m sure, didn’t dream of winning the Nobel Prize later in life. But he worked hard in school, I imagine, became very successful and was able to take that work ethic and knowledge and make a difference in the world — literally.”

For Thorne, the Nobel Prize is the culmination of decades’ worth of work trying to figure out the mysteries of gravitational waves.

More than a century ago, Einstein proposed the waves existed, but it was not something that was scientifically accepted until midway through the 20th century. What Einstein never thought possible was that the waves could be captured.

That’s where LIGO came in.

A project between Thorne’s Cal Tech and other institutions, with funding from the National Science Foundation, LIGO currently has more than 1,000 employees and observatories in the United States and around the world.

On Sept. 14, 2015, LIGO detected gravitational waves. Though the signal was weak when it reached Earth, it was considered a breakthrough scientific discovery.

Thorne attributes this to a talented team of people and advancements in technology.

“It was clear we had a possibility to build detectors that would succeed, despite Einstein’s earlier skepticism,” Thorne said. “We can expect in the next 400 years gravitational waves will teach us huge things we never dreamed about the universe, just as electromagnetic waves have since Galileo’s time.”

With the detection of gravitational waves, scientists have learned black holes can come in pairs, they’re “heavier” than previously thought — though it’s not clear why — and black hole collisions can create a storm “like a storm on the ocean,” Thorne said.

Thorne, 77, is a graduate of Logan High School. He took some classes at Utah State University when he was a teenager but did not enroll there for college. Instead, he went to CalTech, where he earned a B.S. in 1962 and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1965.

Since then, Thorne has become a world-renowned theoretical physicist, earning not only the Nobel Prize, but also a place on the list of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2016. In 2014, Thorne’s work was the anchor point for the Oscar-winning major motion picture “Interstellar.”

Thorne earned an honorary doctorate from USU in 2000 and gave the commencement address that year.

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Kevin Opsahl is the USU reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at kopsahl@hjnews.com or 435-792-7231.

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