Gravity’s Poet: Kip Thorne continues to help us explore the warped side of our universe

Gautham Shenoy January 13, 2018 8 min

The last time I saw so many eager starry-eyed folks gravitating towards a common venue far from the city, hours in advance, was for a rock concert. This Thursday, scores of Bengalurians, made a beeline to the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS) campus on the outskirts the city.

Even the delay of the person they’d come for – inevitable due to the infamous Bengaluru traffic which obeys its own warped laws of space-time – didn’t dent their enthusiasm. Because they were waiting for Kip Thorne, the rock star of theoretical physics, who was greeted with loud cheers and applause – and not a few whistles – as he arrived to deliver ICTS’ inaugural Vishveshwara Public Lecture, in honour of C.V. Vishveshwara, the ‘black hole man of India’.

“1.3 billion years ago…”, Kip Thorne began his talk on gravitational waves with, smiled, and pausing for a moment said, “…in a galaxy far, far away….” to even louder cheers and applause at the classic sci-fi reference from Star Wars. The world of sci-fi is not new to Kip Thorne, having – by his own admission – been motivated to become a scientist by reading science fiction by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and others. An equally motivating factor was the popular science books by Asimov and the physicist George Gamow. No wonder then, that Kip Thorne has not just dipped his feet into, but dived headlong into both popular science, and science fiction territory, and emerged successfully. And in doing so, joined an elite club of scientists who’ve broken through into the mainstream, popular imagination – a club that also includes his friends Stephen Hawking, and the late Carl Sagan. A testimony to his popularity beyond academia or the world of theoretical physics was the fact that amongst the students and professors gathered for Thorne’s ICTS lecture also were lay people from a non-science background, medical students, or as in the case of this writer, a commerce graduate.

Left: Kip Thorne with Lynda Obst. Right: Cover of Kip Thorne’s book explaining the story and science behind Interstellar. The ‘spoiler alert’ label reads, ‘This book explains the fantastic climax and ending of Interstellar’.

The geeks and sci-fi fans meanwhile were there to listen to the man behind the original story, and the science of Interstellar, and who – not many may know this – contributed in no small measure to Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact, helping spark a whole new field of theoretical physics with respect to wormholes and the nature of time travel (full story in the link below).

ALSO READ: The interstellar contributions of Kip Thorne, the man Carl Sagan contacted for physics advice

Kip Thorne’s lecture was well-received (but obviously!). The only adjective that I can think of to describe it is ‘Feyman-ish’ for its sheer simplicity in explaining complex topics, for Thorne’s enthusiasm for the subject, forgetting the audience drawn in to understand the physics behind gravitational waves, the LIGO project, and their implications for understanding our universe better. The applause had died out slowly, it was time to find out more about what’s keeping Thorne busy nowadays.

One word that he’d stressed on while speaking of the findings we can expect after India’s LIGO detector is ready, and once the ESA’s space-based LISA is operational was ‘Surprises’. Little did I know that surprises were what Thorne was full off once I chance to ask him about his life, sci-fi, and his involvements beyond the physics.

To paraphrase a great wit of yesteryears, ‘Kip Thorne may look affable, and talk like he’s affable, but don’t let that fool you. He really is affable!’. The word ‘avuncular’ readily sprang to my mind as he smiled and rose to shake hands in a disarming manner that will set anyone at ease.

Left: Kip Thorne (left) with Robbie Vogt (right), the first LIGO project director, in front of a prototype of the LIGO detectors. (Credit: Archives, Caltech). Right: Kip

“As someone behind Interstellar, what do you think is the role of scientifically rigorous fictional narratives that speak to the lay people and readers to get them interested in science?” I blurt out.

“With a movie like Interstellar, a Hollywood blockbuster-type movie you can inspire people about science, you cannot do much education, but you can do a lot of inspiration, which is very valuable,” he said. I had my answer, for to inspire people to take science seriously was half the battle won.

But will there be another movie? A sequel to Interstellar perhaps? When I’d written about him a couple of months ago, I’d mentioned, perhaps just rumours, about Thorne working on a movie project with his friend Stephen Hawking, and Lynda Obst, the Hollywood producer with whom he’d first thought up the project that would become the movie Interstellar. Well, this project now stands confirmed! Thorne, Stephen Hawking and Lynda Obst have a written treatment note ready for the next movie, and we can see the movie perhaps in about three years. There were more surprises in store when he said that the next movie will involve ‘a different physics’.

What about writing a science fiction book that will inspire a new generation given that he himself was motivated to take up science by reading sci-fi? And this is what great teachers do: give you new perspectives. He replied that there is more than one kind of book that can serve the same purpose. And it needn’t be pure science fiction, except in the sense of being a companion book tied to a sci-fi movie like ‘The Science of Interstellar’, a best-seller that Thorne wrote to explain the science behind the movie. He plans to do the same with the next movie that he is working on. Another type of book he said, is the standalone kind that speaks to a broad audience, a genre he attempted, and succeeded with, by writing ‘Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy’ – about how physics is done, and as he puts it, ‘the sociology and epistemology of it’, and how we know what we know.

Keeping the science real: Kip Thorne with Christopher Nolan on the sets of Interstellar.

Writing a book about the quest to discover gravitational waves is also a possibility he said while noting that there have been other books written about this, but none by someone as close to the subject as himself. One of the ‘other books’ on this topic which Thorne himself says is excellent is Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin.

But that will have to wait. As I find out soon enough, as he says that he has other projects to finish, apart from the next movie. One of them is a different kind of book – a coffee table book – in collaboration with Chapman art professor Lia Halloran, which will seek to explain “the warped side of the universe” by bringing together Halloran’s paintings on the sources of gravitational waves, and poetry by Thorne. ‘Open it up to a page and you will see a very interesting painting’, Thorne says, ‘and they will see some poetry that talks about what it is that you are seeing’.

Another project that Thorne says that is involved with is a multimedia project with Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, and Paul Franklin, the person behind the visual effects of Interstellar that won an Oscar. The project is a concert that brings together visuals born out of computer simulations brought alive by Paul Franklin that plays on screen, as an orchestra led by Hans Zimmer plays live, with music that evokes various sources of gravitational waves like colliding black holes and neutron stars, overlaid with Thorne speaking about the things that the audience is seeing and hearing. Amazingly brilliant, I think, but for Thorne, this is but just one approach among the many that he’s taking to communicate science to a broader audience.

“I’m enjoying this phase of my career…”, says Thorne speaking about all the things he’s currently involved with, “…exploring different ways of communicating science through collaborations with very different kinds of people– artists, musicians, computer graphics artists and others.”

So, what is he reading right now, other than scientific papers? What kind of science fiction? “I’m not reading science fiction right now!” he laughingly replies, reaching to pull out a book from his packed briefcase to show it to me. It’s a book that has not yet been published, but a highly awaited one. Thorne has an advance copy because he’s been asked to write a blurb for it, which he says he will do because ‘it’s a superb book’. And (perhaps) not surprisingly it’s by another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, called “Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters”, collecting Dyson’s letters to his parents, with annotations from him about what was going on in the world and what he was going through when he wrote those letters. I promise to mention this book when I write about the interview, as Thorne tries to stuff the book back into his briefcase and bids farewell.


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