Fresh off first Nobel, top physicist coming to SBU

Speech, speech: Caltech Professor Kip Thorne, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner in physics, will lecture at Stony Brook University this spring.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A freshly minted Nobel Prize winner will grace Stony Brook University this spring with a special guest lecture.

California Institute of Technology Professor Kip Thorne, who this week was named a winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, is scheduled to visit in April to participate in the Della Pietra Lecture Series. The series, hosted by SBU’s Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, gives a stage to world-renowned scientists and researchers to promote awareness of recent discoveries in mathematics and physical sciences.

Thorne, a theoretical physicist and longtime friend of legendary astrophysicists/cosmologists/all-around smarties Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan, shared the Nobel Prize with two colleagues at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Managed by Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, LIGO is a collaborative project of more than 1,000 researchers in 20-plus countries aiming to advance the field of gravitational-wave astrophysics through the direct detection of gravitational waves predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Thorne and co-Nobel laureates Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish earned the top physics prize for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” according to the RSAS.

Those contributions paid off on Sept. 14, 2015, when gravitational waves were observed for the first time by LIGO researchers. As Einstein guessed, gravitational waves are disruptions in spacetime (stop snickering, Mr. Spock, it’s true) created whenever mass accelerates. The weak energy waves travel the cosmos at the speed of light.

In 2015, a spacetime disruption caused by the collision of two black holes – some 1.3 billion years ago – rolled through our cosmic neighborhood. LIGO observers were able to catch the wave as it passed by Earth, measuring gravitational changes thousands of times smaller than an atomic nucleus with the help of the Virgo interferometric gravitational-wave antenna and two gigantic laser interferometers.

Time warp: Thorne, slightly earlier in the spacetime continuum.

Although it took more than four decades of research for the LIGO project to confirm Einstein’s theory, Thorne and Weiss were hailed by the RSAS as “pioneers” working arm-in-arm with Barish, the “scientist and leader who brought the project to completion [and] ensured that four decades of effort led to gravitational waves finally being observed.”

Before nabbing a share of the prestigious Nobel Prize, Thorne was arguably best known for hypothesizing Thorne-Żytkow objects, unique star formations – likely resulting from titanic stellar collisions – wherein a red giant star has a smaller neutron star at its core. Although Thorne and Polish astrophysicist Anna Żytkow first proposed such objects in 1977, it wasn’t until 2014 that astronomers identified a strong possible candidate: HV 2112, a variable star lingering near the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy neighboring our Milky Way.

While the 2017 physics prize is Thorne’s first Nobel, it’s hardy the renowned researcher’s first honor. Thorne – a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences (bring your Russian dictionary, comrade) and the American Philosophical Society – has won more than two dozen awards, prizes and fellowships.

Among the esteemed scientist’s top honors: the American Physical Society’s Lilienfeld Prize, the Albert Einstein Society’s Albert Einstein Medal, Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships and the Science Writing Award in Physics and Astronomy from the American Institute of Physics, which is based in Maryland but maintains its publishing division in Melville.

Thorne, the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, is scheduled to address the Della Pietra Lecture Series April 18 and 19, following a March guest appearance by celebrated conservationist and writer Carl Safina.