Archive for Kip Thorne

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2017 by telescoper

Usually at this time of year I make a point of watching the live announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics, but this time I was otherwise engaged. On the other hand, this year was the least surprising announcement I can remember for a long time. Confirming almost everyone’s expectations, the award goes to Rainer Weiss (MIT), Barry C. Barish (Caltech) and Kip S. Thorne (Caltech) “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. You can see the full citation here.

Perhaps one surprise the split (50% to Weiss and 25% each to Barish and Thorne). I suppose the reason is that it divides the prize equally between MIT and Caltech. Ronald Drever, who had shared in other awards for the LIGO discovery (e.g the Gruber,  Shaw and Kavli prizes), sadly passed away earlier this year.

Anyway,  heartiest congratulations to the winners and also to all the other members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration who collectively earned this award! That includes the Gravitational Physics group at Cardiff University who will no doubt be getting pissed celebrating in appropriate style.

Two thoughts. One is that the LIGO Collaboration is very large (the papers have over a thousand authors) but the Nobel Prize rules do not allow this award to be divided among more than three people. This is a problem for `Big Science’ which is always done by large teams. In a real sense, the Nobel Prize for physics reflects the way physics was done when it was founded, over a hundred years ago. It seems to me the limitation perpetuates the myth of the lone genius, when science doesn’t really work like that nowadays. I’m not sure it ever did, actually. I  wonder if they’ll ever change?

Another thing that struck me is that the interval between discovery and award seems to be decreasing. For example, he Cosmic Microwave Background was discovered in 1965, but Penzias and Wilson were not awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery until 1978. I attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2005, when George Smoot and John Mather were award the prize for COBE which had happened over a decade earlier. This time the gap between discovery and award is just two years. I suppose that proves that we live in an accelerating universe (Nobel Prize 2011).

Anyway there are too many people in LIGO for them all to be able to attend the Prize Ceremony and Banquet in Stockholm in December, but I hope the winners don’t just give their invitations to senior members of the LIGO collaboration. Perhaps some form of lottery might be organized to allow early career researchers to attend?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I had the honour to be invited to the 2006 Nobel Prize ceremony. As a matter of fact, I still have this:

The chocolate has probably gone off by now, though. I stress that I attended not as a winner but as a guest of the Nobel Foundation. It was a wonderful occasion, of which I have very special memories. I’m sure everyone who does get to attend will have a ball! (Geddit?)

Although the Nobel Prize has its limitations as a true reflection of scientific contributions, I still has value in that for once the news media are talking about a great human achievement which contrasts with much of the stuff we have to hear about these days.

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 3, 2016 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post to point out that tomorrow, Tuesday 4th October 2016, will see the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Physics. See here if you want to follow the announcement live.

You might think that this year is a foregone conclusion. The big science result of the year is undoubtedly the discovery of gravitational waves by Advanced LIGO. The three leaders iof the team, i.e.

Ronald W.P. Drever Professor of Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Kip S. Thorne Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA USA
Rainer Weiss Professor of Physics Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA USA

These three scientists have already won this year’s Gruber and Kavli prizes and they are among the favourites on this Nobel Prize prediction site.

I would be very happy indeed to see the Nobel Prize for Physics go to this group, but I don’t think it’s the foregone conclusion many think it is.

To see why, look at the timetable of how the Nobel Prize Committee works. In particular, note:

SeptemberNomination forms are sent out. The Nobel Committee sends out confidential forms to around 3,000 people – selected professors at universities around the world, Nobel Laureates in Physics and Chemistry, and members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, among others.

February – Deadline for submission.The completed nomination forms must reach the Nobel Committee no later than 31 January of the following year. The Committee screens the nominations and selects the preliminary candidates. About 250–350 names are nominated as several nominators often submit the same name.

The official announcement of the detection of gravitational waves was not made until 11th February, i.e. after the above deadline. Now of course many people had inside knowledge about the discovery before then so they may well have made a nomination on time, but it’s not obvious how the Nobel Prize Committee would have treated a submission based essentially on hearsay. They have a reputation for being sticklers for procedure so it’s hard to be sure. If it did make the shortlist then this nomination will surely win, but it may not have. We’ll just have to wait and see. Or am I being too cautious? Let me know what you think will happen through the  poll below:

 

Oh, and if you think it will be for “Something Else” please feel free to expand via the Comments Box.

 

 

R.I.P. Leonid Grishchuk

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 14, 2012 by telescoper

As I was travelling to Heathrow airport in order to fly to the USA (from where I am posting this message), I heard the sad news of the death of a dear and respected colleague, Professor Leonid Petrovich Grishchuk.

Leonid was a  Distinguished Research Professor here in Cardiff from  1995 until his retirement in 2009 and was frequently to be found in the department after that. You can read more of his scientific biography and wider achievements here, but it should suffice to say that he was a pioneer of many aspects of relativistic cosmology and particularly primordial gravitational waves. He was also a larger-than-life character,  held in great affection by many scientists and friends around the world.

My first experience of Leonid was many years ago at a scientific meeting at which I attempted to give a talk. Leonid was in the audience and he interrupted me,  rather aggressively. I didn’t really understand his question so he had another go at me in the questions afterwards. I don’t mind admitting that I was quite upset with his behaviour. I think a large fraction of working cosmologists have probably been “Grischchucked” at one time or another. Later on, though, people from the meeting were congregating at a bar when he arrived and headed for me. I didn’t really want to talk to him as I felt he had been quite rude. However, there wasn’t really any way of escaping so I ended up talking to him over a beer. We finally resolved the question he had been trying to ask me and his demeanour changed completely. We spent the rest of the evening having dinner and talking about all sorts of things and were good friends ever since. Over the years I’ve learned that this is very much a tradition amongst Russian scientists of the older school. They can seem very hostile – even brutal – when discussing science, but that was the way things were done in the environment where they learned their trade.  In many cases the rather severe exterior masks a kindly and generous nature, as it certainly did with Leonid. Leonid’s confrontational behaviour was partly sport – once you got used to that twinkle in his eye it was impossible to take offence – but partly a genuine desire to cut away the flannel and get to the heart of things. He detested bullshit and had no time for people who traded in it.

Here’s a picture of Leonid taken a few years ago with his longstanding friend Professor Kip Thorne.

lpg008_test

Some months ago Leonid was struck down by a brain tumour, against which he struggled bravely. On Monday this week, however, the doctors were forced to admit that the treatment had failed and Leonid could not live much longer. Fortunately his death, when it came, was peaceful. He passed away in his sleep on Wednesday night.

Farewell, Leonid. We’ll all miss you.

Leonid’s Shower

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 18, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday (17th April) was the last day of our Easter vacation – back to the grind on Monday – and it was also the occasion of a special meeting to mark the retirement of Professor Leonid Petrovich Grishchuk.

Leonid has been a Distinguished Research Professor here in Cardiff since 1995. You can read more of his scientific biography and wider achievements here, but it should suffice to say that he is a pioneer of many aspects of relativistic cosmology and particularly primordial gravitational waves. He’s also a larger-than-life character who is known with great affection around the world.

Among other things, he’s a big fan of football. He still plays, as a matter of fact, although he generally spends more time ordering his team-mates about than actually running around himself. One of his retirement presents was a Cardiff City football shirt with his name on the back.

My first experience of Leonid was many years ago at a scientific meeting at which I attempted to give a talk. Leonid was in the audience and he interrupted me,  rather aggressively. I didn’t really understand his question so he had another go at me in the questions afterwards. I don’t mind admitting that I was quite upset with his behaviour. I think a large fraction of working cosmologists have probably been Grischchucked at one time or another.

Later on, though, people from the meeting were congregating at a bar when he arrived and headed for me. I didn’t really want to talk to him as I felt he had been quite rude. However, there wasn’t really any way of escaping so I ended up talking to him over a beer. We finally resolved the question he had been trying to ask me and his demeanour changed completely. We spent the rest of the evening having dinner and talking about all sorts of things and have been friends ever since.

Over the years I’ve learned that this is very much a tradition amongst Russian scientists of the older school. They can seem very hostile – even brutal – when discussing science, but that was the way things were done in the environment where they learned their trade.  In many cases the rather severe exterior masks a kindly and generous nature, as it certainly does with Leonid.

I also remember a spell in the States as a visitor during which I heard two Russian cosmologists screaming at each other in the room next door. I really thought they were about to have a fist fight. A few minutes later, though, they both emerged, smiling as if nothing had happened…

Appropriately enough Leonid’s bash was held immediately after BritGrav 9, a meeting dedicated to bringing together the gravitational research community of the UK and beyond, and to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas. It aimed to cover all aspects of gravitational physics, both theoretical and experimental, including cosmology, mathematical general relativity, quantum gravity, gravitational astrophysics, gravitational wave data analysis, and instrumentation. I chaired a session during the meeting and found Leonid in characteristic form as a member of the audience, never shy with questions or comments, and quite difficult to keep under control.

I enjoyed the meeting because priority was given to students when allocating speaking slots. I think too many conferences have the same senior scientists giving  the same talk over and over again. Relativists are also quite different to cosmologists in the level of mathematical rigour to which they aspire.  You can bullshit at a cosmology conference, but wouldn’t get away with it in front of a GR audience.

On the evening of 16th April we had a public lecture in Cardiff by Kip Thorne on The Warped Side of the Universe: from the Big Bang to Black Holes and Gravitational Waves and Kip also gave a talk as part of the subsequent meeting on Friday in Leonid’s honour.

lpg008_test

Kip and Leonid are shown together a few years ago in the photograph to the left here. The rest of the LPGFest meeting was interesting and eclectic, with talks from mathematical relativists as well as scientists in diverse fields who had come over from Russia specially to honour Leonid. We later adjourned to a “Welsh Banquet” at the 15th Century Undercroft of Cardiff Castle for dinner accompanied by something described as “entertainment” laid on by the hosts. That part was quite excruciating: like Butlins only not as classy. Heaven knows what our distinguished foreign visitors made of it, although Leonid seemed to think it was great fun, and that’s what matters.

Once the dinner was over it was time for Leonid to be showered with gifts from around the world and, by way of a finale, he was serenaded with a version of From Russian With Love, by Bernie and the Gravitones. Now at last I understand what the phrase “extraordinary rendition” means.