Column: The man who helped prove Einstein correct weighs in on America’s startling science gap


There is order to the monumental grandeur of the universe, like the stately constancy of gravity. And there is stupendous violence, like the crash between black holes. Albert Einstein, a hundred years past, argued that something called gravitational waves existed, too — waves that ripple like mussed-up bedsheets across spacetime. But he believed we would never have the means to prove it.

Well, guess what: Two black holes collided in deep space, and humans were finally able to record gravitational waves from it. In the way that it takes light from the sun eight minutes and change to reach the Earth, it took more than a billion years for the ripples from that ancient smashup to reach the instruments of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

The proof of these invisible waves zipping through space at the speed of light, elbowing and distorting anything in their path, is a revolution in astrophysics. The LIGO team’s work earned the Nobel Prize in physics for three men with leading roles: Rainer Weiss of MIT, and Caltech’s Barry Barish and Kip S. Thorne. By the numbers, it was a billion-dollar enterprise, 40 years in the making, with more than a thousand researchers from 20 countries, and a half-century quest by Thorne … all of which goes to show that you cannot put a stopwatch on science.

You’ve had two phenomenal moments in the last couple of years: in September 2015, when observations of gravitational waves were confirmed by the data, and then in October 2017, when they called and said, You got the Nobel Prize. Talk about those two moments.

I have to say that the first moment was much more significant to me than the second. Let’s talk about the discovery. I had worked toward this for a half-century, so for me it was a half-century quest. A colleague sent me to look at an internal website of our LIGO collaboration, and I saw the data that had just come in. I was just amazed at the beauty of the signal that was seen — so beautiful it seemed like maybe it wasn’t real.

But after very thorough checking of everything that could have gone wrong, it became clear that it truly was real. For me it was just a sense of profound satisfaction that I had chosen to try to push this decades earlier.

Interestingly, my collaborator and also co-winner of the prize, Rai Weiss — his reaction was enormous relief. Like my wife, he was subject to Jewish guilt, and he was carrying around a load of guilt that we had convinced the National Science Foundation to spend a billion dollars of taxpayer money, and we hadn’t seen anything yet!

Under the leadership of the third winner of the prize, Barry Barish, who really transformed what Rai and I and [the late physicist] Ron Drever began with, transformed it into this successful project and built the huge team that was required for success.

So the call from the Nobel committee was an afterthought?

The call came at 2:15 in the morning. I was sound asleep. The first thing I said to the person on the other end — a member of the physics committee that made the decision to award the prize to us for gravity waves — was that I was quite disappointed, because I believed strongly this prize should go to the entire LIGO team. It should not be going to three individuals.

And the member of the committee said, Well, we’ve been talking about this kind of change of how we do things, but we have not made the change. I’d be happy to discuss it with you in Stockholm.

I still feel a large amount of embarrassment over this prize because it really belongs to the whole team.

You started this work 50 years ago, I think pretty much on the strength of Einstein’s predictions that there would be these kinds of ripples. Now that it’s been verified, what does this mean for science?

The key point in my mind — and this is what motivated me to put the enormous effort that I did into this — is this. The laws of physics tell us that there are only two kinds of waves that can travel across the universe and bring us information about what’s far away: electromagnetic waves and gravitational waves.

Electromagnetic waves of course include light, radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays, infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, microwave — they’re all electromagnetic. And it was Galileo, 400 years ago, who opened up electromagnetic astronomy by building the first optical telescope pointing at the sky.

It was a brief collision, but it was the most powerful thing that humans have ever observed.

What we set out to do was what Galileo has done, but for this second kind of wave, gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the shape of space. They stretch and squeeze space and everything that lives in space. So that’s radically different from electromagnetic waves.

And just as electromagnetic astronomy, over these last 400 years since Galileo, has brought us enormous surprises and an enormously rich understanding of the universe around us, over the next 400 years I expect gravitational waves to do the same — but to show us aspects of the universe that we could never learn about with electromagnetic waves.

This had already begun to happen with colliding black holes. We had expected that black holes would collide; we had expected that when black holes collide they would create a veritable storm in the shape of space and time. But we hadn’t known that for sure. And we hadn’t known how many pairs of black holes there were out there. We hadn’t known how big they were.

And LIGO has seen colliding black holes for the first time. It has seen, through these observations, the storm in the fabric, in the shape of space and time, that’s created by those collisions.

Where those heavy black holes come from, we’re not sure. Through further observations we’ll pin that down.

In this collision, the first one observed by LIGO, the amount of energy that came off it in gravitational waves is the same that you would get by annihilating three suns — and turning all of the energy from annihilating them into gravitational waves.

That happens so quickly that the power output — the amount of energy that came off in a very short period of time — was 50 times bigger than the power output from all of the stars in the universe put together during that approximately one-tenth of a second that the collision lasted.

It was a brief collision, but it was the most powerful thing that humans have ever observed, except for our indirect observation of the birth of the universe.

You’re such a good friend to Stephen Hawking. It occurred to me that he doesn’t have a Nobel Prize. Did he send you a little message about this?

We are getting together to discuss this at his home in a couple of weeks. I just had a message from him that he is so looking forward to seeing me.

Do you think he’s being a little sarcastic?

Oh, I know he’s looking forward to seeing me. Yeah, I suspect he’s a little bit jealous! We’ll discuss it. We’re doing a movie together, too, that is enormous fun. So we have a lot to talk about.

You were the science advisor on the film “Interstellar,” which broke new ground in visualizing some of these massive phenomena in deep space.

I think the biggest technical thing we did on “Interstellar” is we found that the standard technique for making visualizations based on computer simulation of astrophysical things cannot get highly accurate movies of this, using any techniques that anyone had ever devised before. So we devised new ways to do these visualizations that give you far better accuracy, far better resolution on a big IMAX screen.

That was the biggest thing for me that came out of it, aside from the enormous fun of working with Christopher Nolan and his crew, and the fact that through this, I was able to inspire huge numbers of people around the world about the beauties of science.

Sixty years ago, the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik. You’re old enough to remember the shock wave that it sent across the United States, and the interest in science that it launched as we entered the space race. What do you remember of it, and of that era?

I was a teenager growing up in Logan, Utah, and I remember well the announcement of Sputnik, going out and looking up at the sky and wondering about it.

I was already very, very interested in science. I had decided already, at age 13, that I would become a theoretical physicist. At age 8 I decided I would be an astronomer, so I combined the two. For me, it was an added inspiration.

Obviously for American society, it was a shock that the Russians were first. And it did spur the race to go to the moon, and it did create an inspiration for large numbers of kids like me to pursue science and technology as careers.

My perception is that that urgency about science has drifted away. There may be an indifference to science, even a hostility to science in some quarters.

That’s also my impression in the United States. Of course, there are other parts of the world where science and technology are absolutely front and center. Let me give you a good example: South Korea.

I was invited to go there for something called the Seoul Digital Forum, as a result of my work on “Interstellar.” The first speaker at this event was the president of [South] Korea. The second speaker was the secretary general of the United Nations. And I was the third speaker.

This was televised throughout Korea, and it was part of the Korean government’s effort to mobilize the general population in terms of getting young people interested in science and technology. They viewed people as their only major natural resource, their biggest natural resource. And inspiring children to become interested in science and technology — whether they were going to be scientists or not — to have an educated populace was a central goal.

I was amazed at that when I saw it in Korea. Yeah, so we do have a problem in the United States today.

Where did it drift to, that enthusiasm in the post-Sputnik era?

Let me say I’m not an expert on this. There are other scientists who have thought more deeply about this. I do have some sense that part of the problem is the focus that is built into our economy, through tax laws and through the way that businesses are run, to focus on short-term gain.

If a business invests and expects a reward on a time scale of several years, not a time scale of ten years and longer — science and technology just don’t work that fast, typically, great science and technology. Part of the problem is somehow cultural, that our cultural and political leaders pay less attention to science and technology than they once did, perhaps than they should.

When Americans think of science, they may think of it, as you say, like business — transactional: What good is it? We got Tang from the space program; so what are you going to get us?

I completely agree. That’s perfectly valid: What do you get out of it that’s of direct benefit to the people now? But there is the other piece of it that when we look back on the era of the Renaissance and ask ourselves, what was the legacy that our ancestors gave to us from that era? It’s cultural. It’s great music. Great art. Great architecture and the scientific method.

And in 300 years, when people look back at our era and say, What did our ancestors give to us? I think it’s going to be an understanding of the universe around us, and an understanding of the laws of nature and how to use those laws of nature in order to solve societal problems.

It truly is an era where science and technology have enormous cultural impact, and a cultural impact that will be far more appreciated in 300 years than it is today.

What’s next on your to-do list? You’ve been able to check off — OK, proved Einstein right; what’s next?

Proving Einstein right was not a biggie for me, but opening up a whole new way to observe the universe was. And that’s my achievement, that’s LIGO team’s achievement.

I’m 77. I have enormously enjoyed my career as a Caltech professor. We have the best students in the world, and I think that their contributions to society as a whole far outweigh anything that I might do. That’s my biggest contribution to the world, is my students.

I decided a few years ago that I wanted, for the next stage of my life, to pursue something else that I would thoroughly enjoy but which would also have an impact on society. So my efforts now are going largely into the interface between science and the arts, and using that interface to inspire people about science. The next film I’m doing, where I’ve coauthored the treatment with Stephen Hawking and [“Interstellar” producer] Lynda Obst, is another example.

I have a collaboration, a book with Lia Halloran, a superb young painter who’s on the faculty at Chapman [University]. It’s her paintings and my poetry. I figure I’ve had enough success elsewhere, if I flop at poetry, well, OK. And she is sufficiently successful that she will survive it if my poetry drags her down! I need four months of quiet time to hone the poetry, and I’m not getting it because of this damn Nobel Prize.

And people like me.

That’s right! I’m always happy to talk with you, Patt.

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