Detection of gravitational waves fulfills life’s work of Logan native Kip Thorne

Science • Utah native among researchers who developed a method of observing a phenomenon known only in theory before.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) A visual of gravitational waves from two converging black holes is depicted on a monitor behind Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) Co-Founder Kip Thorne as he speaks to members of the media following a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, as it is announced that scientists they have finally detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. The announcement has electrified the world of astronomy, and some have likened the breakthrough to the moment Galileo took up a telescope to look at the planets.

It took 1.3 billion years for gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes to reach Earth, where their detection by scientists was the first of its kind — likened to the discovery of a whole new sense.

It would be another five months before the findings were published and Kip Thorne and Richard Price were free to talk to each other about it.

Thorne, born in Logan to a father who taught agronomy at Utah State University and a mother with a doctorate in economics, is one of three co-founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, credited Thursday with a momentous breakthrough in astrophysics: the observation of the gravitational ripple effect predicted a century prior by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

And he's helped keep a lid on it — not even dishing to his wife — since that observation was made in mid-September.

Price was informed but sworn to secrecy when he began working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a couple of months later.

"Everyone was walking around trying to suppress a smile, because the event was so pronounced and it was so obvious that it was a discovery," said Price, who was once Thorne's graduate assistant at the California Institute of Technology and later joined the faculty at the University of Utah, where Thorne was an adjunct professor from 1971 to 1998.

When the news finally broke Wednesday night, Price congratulated Thorne on the fulfillment of a vision that was once thought wildly ambitious.

Pennsylvania State University physics theorist Abhay Ashtekar told The Associated Press that "it's really comparable only to Galileo taking up the telescope and looking at the planets."

Price said he joked to Thorne that it was unusual for astrophysicists to find what they expected to find, a particular credit to the theoretical work of Thorne and LIGO co-founder Rainer Weiss.

Thorne, 75, was a Caltech professor by 30, well-known as a friend of Stephen Hawking and more recently for informing Christopher Nolan's sci-fi blockbuster "Interstellar." He told The Tribune by phone from Washington D.C. that last September's discovery gave him "a sense of profound satisfaction.

"I devoted most of my career to making this happen," he said.

He and Weiss met in the mid-1970s and joined with University of Glasgow experimenter Ronald Drever in the 1980s to start LIGO.

Drever designed an instrument in which two laser beams travel through two 2 1/2-mile-long perpendicular tubes, bouncing off mirrors at the ends of the tubes. A gravitational wave distorts space-time, and as it passes through the detector, an infinitesimal change — as small as one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton — can be detected in the mismatch between the beams.

Price had reviewed a mid-1970s proposal from Weiss, at a time when the technology required was almost unfathomable. He was a believer. But seeing Drever's apparatus almost made a doubter of him, he said.

"When I saw the optical path that that poor little laser beam actually had to travel through, I thought no way. ... It was just a fantastically difficult technological problem."

Detectors in Washington state and Louisiana were turned on in 2001 and struck out until 2010, when they were shut down for five years of upgrades that increased the sensitivity of the instruments.

They rebooted in February 2015 and hit pay dirt shortly before 4 a.m. MT on Sept. 14.

Thorne and Weiss were looking for this exact type of event. Binary black holes orbit each other until they collide and form a single black hole, but not before emitting a final burst of gravitational waves that in this case is described as being 50 times as powerful as all the stars in the visible universe.

"We're seeing things that do not emit electromagnetic waves or light," Thorpe said. "... We're seeing what I like to call the warped time of the universe for the first time."

U. professor Ben Bromley, who began working with Price when he arrived at the U. in 1998, said "we're feeling the way these objects interact with each other. We're not just watching it."

Because gravitational waves travel through space and time unimpeded, their detection may allow scientists to observe things at incredibly vast distances, in near-total darkness.

They may hint at the origin of the supermassive black hole theorized to be at the center of the Milky Way, or echoes of the Big Bang itself.

Price, who left the U. in 2004, said it's a new type of information, completely unlike any other, and that "what will be most exciting about what we find is something we cannot predict."

It may take 100 years for the layperson to feel the practical impact of the discovery, Thorne said, but he compared recent advances in astrophysics to the cultural progression of The Renaissance.

Said Thorne: "When our descendants look back in several hundred years on this era and ask, 'What did we get?': An understanding of the universe."

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