The American theoretical physicist Kip Stephen Thorn is best known for his contributions to astrophysics and gravitational physics. He was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for “his decisive contributions to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the observation of gravitational waves”. He shared the prize with American physicists Rainer Weiss and Barry C. Barish.
Kip S. Thorne was the Feynman Professor, teaching Theoretical Physics at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) until 2009 and he is considered one of the foremost authorities on Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The Early Life of Kip S. Thorne
Kip S. Thorne was born on June 1, 1940 in Logan, Utah. Both his parents were professors at Utah State University. His father was D. Wynne Thorne, a soil chemist and his mother was Alison C. Thorne, an economist. He was brought up in a very academic-centered environment and two of his four siblings also went on to become professors.
He was eight years old when he first started showing an interest in science. As a child, he attended a lecture about the solar system and after, he and his mother went to work on calculations to make their own solar system model.
His Educational Background
Thorne attended Logan High School obtained his degree at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1962. The following year he graduated from Princeton with his doctorate; his thesis was titled “on Geometrodynamics of Cylindrical System” which he completed with guidance and supervision from John Wheeler who is himself a relativist.
Thorne then returned to Caltech as an associate professor in 1967 and he became professor of theoretical physics in 1970. Just over a decade later in 1981, he became the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor and in 1991, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Science. He became Professor Emeritus of this position in 2009.
He resigned from his prestigious position at Caltech to pursue a career in writing and making movies for the big screen. His first ever film project involved Christopher Nolan who is most known for his work as director of the Dark Knight movies.
His Academic Career
In the years of his involvement with the academe, Kip S. Thorne made for an excellent mentor and advisor for many young, bright minds many of whom are now known for their works as leading theorists. No less than 50 students have received their doctorates at Caltech under his guidance.
Thorne is recognized for his incomparable ability to inject excitement and impress upon people the significance of discoveries made in the field of astrophysics and gravitation.
Much of Thorne’s research has been focused on gravitation physics and relativistic astrophysics in general and he placed special focus on gravity, space, and time. However, he is best-known for his theory that wormholes found in space can be used for time travel. This idea is quite controversial but has captured the imaginations of people nevertheless.
On LIGO and Gravitational Waves
In 1984 Thorne helped establish the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) which is engaged in gravitational wave experiments.
Gravity waves were predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity but gravity is such a weak force that gravitational waves can only be detected when enormous amounts of mass interact, such as when two black holes spiral into each other.
The first gravitational waves were detected in 2015 when two black holes, 1.3 billion light years away, spiraled into one another forming a new black hole. Thorne received a share of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics for his contribution to the LIGO and the observation of gravitational waves.
Black hole cosmology
Thorne made contributions to the study of black holes and he proposed the Hoop Conjecture theory which describes an imploding star turning into a black hole and does away with naked singularity theories.
Wormholes and time travel
Kip S. Thorne has also worked with physicists concerning his theory of wormholes and time travel. Such scientists include Sung-Won Kim, Mike Morris, and Ulvi Yurtsever and they devised various theories about mass travelling through wormholes and the effects on time.
Thorne wrote the comprehensive physics textbook “Gravitation” (1973) with Charles W. Misner concerning Einstein’s theory of gravity. It contains 10 parts and 44 chapters, each beginning with a quotation.
He also wrote the popular science book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” in 1994.
In 2014, Thorne published “The Science of Interstellar” which explains the science behind Christopher Nolan’s film “Interstellar”.
In 2017 he co-authored a graduate physics textbook “Modern Classical Physics: Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics”.