Kip Thorne

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Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne at Caltech.jpg
Thorne in August 2007
Kip Stephen Thorne

(1940-06-01) June 1, 1940 (age 78)
Education California Institute of Technology (BS)
Princeton University (MS, PhD)
Known for Thorne-Żytkow object
Roman arch
Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet
Awards Lilienfeld Prize (1996)
Albert Einstein Medal (2009) [1]
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016)
Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2016)
Shaw Prize (2016)
Kavli Prize (2016)
Harvey Prize (2016)
Princess of Asturias Award (2017)
Nobel Prize in Physics (2017)
Lewis Thomas Prize (2018)
Scientific career
Fields Astrophysics
Gravitational physics
Institutions California Institute of Technology
Thesis Geometrodynamics of cylindrical systems  (1965)
Doctoral advisor John Archibald Wheeler
Doctoral students William L. Burke [2]
Carlton M. Caves
Lee Samuel Finn
Sándor J. Kovács
David L. Lee
Alan Lightman
Don N. Page
William H. Press
Richard H. Price
Bernard F. Schutz
Saul Teukolsky
Clifford Martin Will
Kip S. Thorne during Nobel Prize press conference in Stockholm, December 2017 Kip S. Thorne EM1B8790 (24027017497).jpg
Kip S. Thorne during Nobel Prize press conference in Stockholm, December 2017

Kip Stephen Thorne (born June 1, 1940) is an American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. A longtime friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, he was the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) until 2009 [3] and is one of the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity. He continues to do scientific research and scientific consulting, most notably for the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar . [4] [5]

Theoretical physics branch of physics

Theoretical physics is a branch of physics that employs mathematical models and abstractions of physical objects and systems to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena. This is in contrast to experimental physics, which uses experimental tools to probe these phenomena.

Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that employs the principles of physics and chemistry "to ascertain the nature of the astronomical objects, rather than their positions or motions in space". Among the objects studied are the Sun, other stars, galaxies, extrasolar planets, the interstellar medium and the cosmic microwave background. Emissions from these objects are examined across all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the properties examined include luminosity, density, temperature, and chemical composition. Because astrophysics is a very broad subject, astrophysicists apply concepts and methods from many disciplines of physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity, nuclear and particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics.

Stephen Hawking British theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author

Stephen William Hawking was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author who was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge between 1979 and 2009.


In 2017, Thorne was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics along with Rainer Weiss and Barry C. Barish "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves". [6] [7] [8] [9]

Nobel Prize in Physics One of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize in Physics is a yearly award given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for those who have made the most outstanding contributions for humankind in the field of physics. It is one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895 and awarded since 1901; the others being the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Nobel Prize in Literature, Nobel Peace Prize, and Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Rainer Weiss American physicist

Rainer "Rai" Weiss is an American physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. He is a professor of physics emeritus at MIT and an adjunct professor at LSU. He is best known for inventing the laser interferometric technique which is the basic operation of LIGO. He was Chair of the COBE Science Working Group.

Gravitational-wave observatory

A gravitational-wave observatory is any device designed to measure gravitational waves, tiny distortions of spacetime that were first predicted by Einstein in 1916. Gravitational waves are perturbations in the theoretical curvature of spacetime caused by accelerated masses. The existence of gravitational radiation is a specific prediction of general relativity, but is a feature of all theories of gravity that obey special relativity. Since the 1960s, gravitational-wave detectors have been built and constantly improved. The present-day generation of resonant mass antennas and laser interferometers has reached the necessary sensitivity to detect gravitational waves from sources in the Milky Way. Gravitational-wave observatories are the primary tool of gravitational-wave astronomy.

Life and career

Discussion in the main lecture hall at the Ecole de Physique des Houches (Les Houches Physics School), 1972. From left, Yuval Ne'eman, Bryce DeWitt, Thorne, Demetrios Christodoulou. Ecole de Physique des Houches (Les Houches Physics School) main lecture hall 1972.jpg
Discussion in the main lecture hall at the École de Physique des Houches (Les Houches Physics School), 1972. From left, Yuval Ne'eman, Bryce DeWitt, Thorne, Demetrios Christodoulou.

Thorne was born in Logan, Utah on June 1, 1940. His father was a chemist, his mother Alison (née Comish) Thorne, was an economist and the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in the discipline from Iowa State College. [10] Raised in an academic environment, two of his four siblings also became professors. [11] [12] Thorne's parents were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and raised Thorne in the LDS faith, though he now describes himself as atheist. Regarding his views on science and religion, Thorne has stated: "There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God [...] There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God." [13]

Logan, Utah City in Utah, United States

Logan City, commonly referred to Logan, is a city in Cache County, Utah, United States. The 2010 census recorded the population was 48,174, with an estimated population of 48,997 in 2014. By 2050 the population of Logan is expected to double. Logan is the county seat of Cache County and the principal city of the Logan metropolitan area, which includes Cache County and Franklin County, Idaho. The Logan metropolitan area contained 125,442 people as of the 2010 census. and was declared by Morgan Quitno in 2005 and 2007 to be the safest in the United States in those years. Logan also is the location of the main campus of Utah State University.

Chemist scientist trained in the study of chemistry

A chemist is a scientist trained in the study of chemistry. Chemists study the composition of matter and its properties. Chemists carefully describe the properties they study in terms of quantities, with detail on the level of molecules and their component atoms. Chemists carefully measure substance proportions, reaction rates, and other chemical properties. The word 'chemist' is also used to address Pharmacists in Commonwealth English.

Iowa State University public research university in Ames, Iowa, United States

Iowa State University of Science and Technology, generally referred to as Iowa State, is a public land-grant and space-grant research university located in Ames, Iowa, United States. It is the largest university in the state of Iowa and the third largest university in the Big 12 athletic conference. Iowa State is classified as a research university with "highest research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Iowa State is also a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), which consists of 60 leading research universities in North America.

Thorne rapidly excelled at academics early in life, winning recognition in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as a senior at Logan High School and becoming one of the youngest full professors in the history of the California Institute of Technology at age 30. [14] He received his B.S. degree from Caltech in 1962, and Ph.D. degree from Princeton University in 1965. [15] He wrote his doctoral thesis, Geometrodynamics of Cylindrical Systems, under the supervision of John Wheeler. Thorne returned to Caltech as an associate professor in 1967 and became a professor of theoretical physics in 1970, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in 1981, and the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1991. He was an adjunct professor at the University of Utah from 1971 to 1998 and Andrew D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University from 1986 to 1992. [16] In June 2009 he resigned his Feynman Professorship (he is now the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) to pursue a career of writing and movie making.[ citation needed ] His first film project was Interstellar , on which he worked with Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. [3]

Regeneron Science Talent Search

The Regeneron Science Talent Search, known for its first 57 years as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and then as the Intel Science Talent Search from 1998 through 2016, is a research-based science competition in the United States for high school seniors. It has been referred to as "the nation's oldest and most prestigious" science competition. In his speech at the dinner honoring the 1991 Winners, President George H. W. Bush called the competition the "Super Bowl of science."

Logan High School (Utah) public high school in Logan, Utah

Logan High School is a four-year public high school in the western United States, located in Logan, Utah. Established 101 years ago in 1917 as part of the Logan City School District, its campus is in the southwest part of the city. Logan High is currently in the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA) Class 4A Region XII and its mascot is a Grizzly.

California Institute of Technology private research university located in Pasadena, California

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is a private doctorate-granting research university in Pasadena, California. Known for its strength in natural science and engineering, Caltech is often ranked as one of the world's top-ten universities.

Throughout the years, Thorne has served as a mentor and thesis advisor for many leading theorists who now work on observational, experimental, or astrophysical aspects of general relativity. Approximately 50 physicists have received Ph.D.s at Caltech under Thorne's personal mentorship. [3]

Thorne is known for his ability to convey the excitement and significance of discoveries in gravitation and astrophysics to both professional and lay audiences. In 1999, Thorne made some speculations on what the 21st century will find as the answers to the following questions: [17] [18]

His presentations on subjects such as black holes, gravitational radiation, relativity, time travel, and wormholes have been included in PBS shows in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom on the BBC.

Thorne and Linda Jean Peterson married in 1960. Their children are Kares Anne and Bret Carter, an architect. Thorne and Peterson divorced in 1977. Thorne and his second wife, Carolee Joyce Winstein, a professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC, married in 1984. [19]


Thorne in 1972 Kip S. Thorne, 1972.jpg
Thorne in 1972

Thorne's research has principally focused on relativistic astrophysics and gravitation physics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes and especially gravitational waves. [3] He is perhaps best known to the public for his controversial theory that wormholes can conceivably be used for time travel. [20] However, Thorne's scientific contributions, which center on the general nature of space, time, and gravity, span the full range of topics in general relativity.

Gravitational waves and LIGO

Thorne's work has dealt with the prediction of gravitational wave strengths and their temporal signatures as observed on Earth. These "signatures" are of great relevance to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), a multi-institution gravitational wave experiment for which Thorne has been a leading proponent – in 1984, he cofounded the LIGO Project (the largest project ever funded by the NSF [21] ) to discern and measure any fluctuations between two or more 'static' points; such fluctuations would be evidence of gravitational waves, as calculations describe. A significant aspect of his research is developing the mathematics necessary to analyze these objects. [22] Thorne also carries out engineering design analyses for features of the LIGO that cannot be developed on the basis of experiment and he gives advice on data analysis algorithms by which the waves will be sought. He has provided theoretical support for LIGO, including identifying gravitational wave sources that LIGO should target, designing the baffles to control scattered light in the LIGO beam tubes, and – in collaboration with Vladimir Braginsky's (Moscow, Russia) research group – inventing quantum nondemolition designs for advanced gravity-wave detectors and ways to reduce the most serious kind of noise in advanced detectors: thermoelastic noise. With Carlton M. Caves, Thorne invented the back-action-evasion approach to quantum nondemolition measurements of the harmonic oscillators – a technique applicable both in gravitational wave detection and quantum optics. [3]

On February 11, 2016, a team of four physicists [lower-alpha 1] representing the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, announced that in September 2015, LIGO recorded the signature of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light-years away. This recorded detection was the first direct observation of the fleeting chirp of a gravitational wave and confirmed an important prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]

Black hole cosmology

A cylindrical bundle of magnetic field lines Cylindrical Bundle of Magnetic Field Lines.svg
A cylindrical bundle of magnetic field lines

While he was studying for his Ph.D. in Princeton University, his mentor John Wheeler gave him an assignment problem for him to think over: find out whether or not a cylindrical bundle of repulsive magnetic field lines will implode under its own attractive gravitational force. After several months wrestling with the problem, he proved that it was impossible for cylindrical magnetic field lines to implode. [28] :262–265

Why is it that a cylindrical bundle of magnetic field lines will not implode, while spherical stars will implode under their own gravitational force? Thorne tried to explore the theoretical ridge between the two phenomena. He found out eventually that the gravitational force can overcome all interior pressure only when an object has been compressed in all directions. To express this realization, Thorne proposed his hoop conjecture, which describes an imploding star turning into a black hole when the critical circumference of the designed hoop can be placed around it and set into rotation. That is, any object of mass M around which a hoop of circumference can be spun must be a black hole. [28] :266–267 [29] :189–190

As a tool to be used in both enterprises, astrophysics and theoretical physics, Thorne and his students have developed an unusual approach, called the "membrane paradigm", to the theory of black holes and used it to clarify the "Blandford-Znajek" mechanism by which black holes may power some quasars and active galactic nuclei. [28] :405–411

Thorne has investigated the quantum statistical mechanical origin of the entropy of a black hole. With his postdoc Wojciech Zurek, he showed that the entropy of a black hole is the logarithm of the number of ways that the hole could have been made. [28] :445–446

With Igor Novikov and Don Page he developed the general relativistic theory of thin accretion disks around black holes, and using this theory he deduced that with a doubling of its mass by such accretion a black hole will be spun up to 0.998 of the maximum spin allowed by general relativity, but not any farther. This is probably the maximum black-hole spin allowed in nature. [3]

Wormholes and time travel

A wormhole is a short cut connecting two separate regions in space. In the figure the green line shows the short way through wormhole, and the red line shows the long way through normal space. Wormhole-demo.png
A wormhole is a short cut connecting two separate regions in space. In the figure the green line shows the short way through wormhole, and the red line shows the long way through normal space.

Thorne and his co-workers at Caltech conducted scientific research on whether the laws of physics permit space and time to be multiply connected (can there exist classical, traversable wormholes and "time machines"?). [30] With Sung-Won Kim, Thorne identified a universal physical mechanism (the explosive growth of vacuum polarization of quantum fields), that may always prevent spacetime from developing closed timelike curves (i.e., prevent backward time travel ). [31]

With Mike Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever he showed that traversable Lorentzian wormholes can exist in the structure of spacetime only if they are threaded by quantum fields in quantum states that violate the averaged null energy condition (i.e. have negative renormalized energy spread over a sufficiently large region). [32] This has triggered research to explore the ability of quantum fields to possess such extended negative energy. Recent calculations by Thorne indicate that simple masses passing through traversable wormholes could never engender paradoxes – there are no initial conditions that lead to paradox once time travel is introduced. If his results can be generalized, they would suggest that none of the supposed paradoxes formulated in time travel stories can actually be formulated at a precise physical level: that is, that any situation in a time travel story turns out to permit many consistent solutions.[ citation needed ]

Relativistic stars, multipole moments and other endeavors

With Anna Żytkow, Thorne predicted the existence of red supergiant stars with neutron-star cores (Thorne–Żytkow objects). [33] He laid the foundations for the theory of pulsations of relativistic stars and the gravitational radiation they emit. With James Hartle, Thorne derived from general relativity the laws of motion and precession of black holes and other relativistic bodies, including the influence of the coupling of their multipole moments to the spacetime curvature of nearby objects, [34] as well as writing down the Hartle-Thorne metric, an approximate solution which describes the exterior of a slowly and rigidly rotating, stationary and axially symmetric body.

Thorne has also theoretically predicted the existence of universally antigravitating "exotic matter" – the element needed to accelerate the expansion rate of the universe, keep traversable wormhole "Star Gates" open and keep timelike geodesic free float "warp drives" working. With Clifford Will [35] and others of his students, he laid the foundations for the theoretical interpretation of experimental tests of relativistic theories of gravity – foundations on which Will and others then built. As of 2005, Thorne was interested in the origin of classical space and time from the quantum foam of quantum gravity theory.[ citation needed ]


Thorne has written and edited books on topics in gravitational theory and high-energy astrophysics. In 1973, he co-authored the textbook Gravitation with Charles Misner and John Wheeler; [36] that according to John C. Baez and Chris Hillman, is one of the great scientific books of all time and has inspired two generations of students. [37] In 1994, he published Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy , a book for non-scientists for which he received numerous awards. This book has been published in six languages, and editions in Chinese, Italian, Czech, and Polish are in press.[ when? ] In 2014, Thorne published The Science of Interstellar in which he explains the science behind Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar ; Nolan wrote the foreword to the book. In September, 2017, Thorne and Roger D. Blandford published Modern Classical Physics: Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics, a graduate-level textbook covering the six major areas of physics listed in the title. [38]

Thorne's articles has appeared in publications such as:

Thorne has published more than 150 articles in scholarly journals.[ citation needed ]

Honors and awards

Thorne has been elected to: [42]

He has been recognized by numerous awards including:

He has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, and Fulbright Fellow. He has also received the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters from Claremont Graduate University.

He was elected to hold the Lorentz chair for the year 2009 Leiden University, the Netherlands.

Thorne has served on:

Kip Thorne was selected by Time magazine in an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the American world in 2016. [51]

Adaptation in media

Partial bibliography

See also


  1. The announcement team were Thorne, David Reitze, Gabriela González, Rainer Weiss, and France A. Córdova.

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  35. Thorne, Kip S.; Will, Clifford (1971). "Theoretical Frameworks for Testing Relativistic Gravity. I. Foundations". The Astrophysical Journal. 163: 595–610. Bibcode:1971ApJ...163..595T. doi:10.1086/150803.
  36. Misner, Charles W.; Kip S. Thorne; John Archibald Wheeler (September 1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN   0-7167-0344-0.
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  38. Kip S. Thorne and Roger D. Blandford (2017). Modern Classical Physics: Optics, Fluids, Plasmas, Elasticity, Relativity, and Statistical Physics. Princeton University Press. ISBN   978-0-69115902-7.
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  44. "UNESCO's Niels Bohr Gold Medal awarded to prominent physicists". Niels Bohr Institute. Retrieved 8 December 2016.
  45. Shaw Prize 2016
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  48. Harvey Prize 2016
  49. Princess of Asturias Award
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