Born in Logan Utah in 1940, Kip Thorne received his B.S. degree from Caltech in 1962 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1965. After two years of postdoctoral study, Thorne returned to Caltech as an Associate professor in 1967, was promoted to Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1970, became The William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor in 1981, and The Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1991. In June 2009, Thorne retired from his Feynman Professorship (becoming the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) in order to ramp up a new career in writing, collaborations at the interface between science and the arts (including the movie Interstellar), and continued scientific research.
Thorne's research has focused on gravitational physics and astrophysics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes and gravitational waves.
From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Thorne and his research group developed insights into the theory of gravitational waves and gravitational radiation reaction, and developed techniques for computing the generation of gravitational waves. In the early 1970s, he and his students began formulating a vision for gravitational wave astronomy: the frequency bands in which waves might be detected, the sources in those bands, and the information that could be extracted from their waves. From the mid 1970s through the 1980s, he worked closely with Vladimir Braginsky (Moscow), Ronald Drever (Glasgow/Caltech) and Rainer Weiss (MIT) on developing technical ideas and plans for gravitational wave detection. In 1984, with Weiss and Drever, he founded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory Project (LIGO). He tried to lead LIGO, together with Weiss and Drever, in its earliest years (1984-87), then eagerly turned leadership over to a succession of outstanding directors: Robbie Vogt, then Barry Barish, Jay Marx, and David Reitze.
From the 1980s onward, Thorne and his research group provided theoretical support for LIGO, including identifying gravitational wave sources that LIGO should target, laying foundations for data analysis techniques by which the waves are sought and information is extracted from the waves, designing the baffles to control scattered light in the LIGO beam tubes, developing insights into other noise sources and their control, and — in collaboration with Braginsky's Moscow research group — inventing and analyzing quantum-nondemolition designs for advanced gravitational-wave detectors.
In the early 2000s, Thorne left day-to-day involvement in LIGO, so as to initiate, with Lee Lindblom, a Caltech effort to simulate on supercomuters collisions of black holes — as an expansion of Saul Teukolsky's mature similar effort at Cornell. The primary goal of this Cornell/Caltech SXS (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes) Project was to learn about "storms" in the fabric of spacetime produced by black-hole collisions, and the gravitational waves produced by those storms, as input for LIGO's gravitational wave searches and data analysis. In 2015, when gravitational waves from colliding black holes were discovered, it was a joint culmination of LIGO's experimental work, and the SXS, and other, computer simulations of the collisions.
With Carlton M. Caves, Thorne invented the back-action-evasion approach to quantum nondemolition measurements of the quadrature amplitudes of harmonic oscillators — a technique now implemented in gravitational wave detection, in quantum optics, and in nanotechnology. With Clifford Will and others of his students, he laid foundations for the theoretical interpretation of experimental tests of relativistic theories of gravity — foundations on which Will and others then built.
With Anna Zytkow, Thorne predicted the existence of red supergiant stars with neutron-star cores ("Thorne-Zytkow Objects"). 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 never any farther; this is probably the maximum black-hole spin allowed in Nature.
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. In 1972 he formulated the hoop conjecture (that any object of mass M, around which a hoop of circumference 8π GM/c2 can be spun, must be a black hole)--- a conjecture for which there is now extensive theoretical and computer-simulation evidence but still no firm proof. With students and colleagues he developed the membrane paradigm for black holes and used it to clarify the "Blandford-Znajek" mechanism by which black holes may power some quasars and active galactic nuclei. With Wojciech Zurek he showed that the entropy of a black hole of known mass, angular momentum, and electric charge is the logarithm of the number of ways that the hole could have been made.
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"). 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). This triggered research to explore the ability of quantum fields to possess such extended negative energy.
Thorne has been mentor for 52 PhD physicists, many of whom have gone on to become world leaders in their chosen fields of research. With John A. Wheeler and Charles W. Misner, Thorne coauthored in 1973 the textbook Gravitation, from which most of the present generation of scientists have learned general relativity. He is also a co-author of Gravitation Theory and Gravitational Collapse (1965) and Black Holes: The Membrane Paradigm (1986), and the sole author of Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (1994).
In research: Since his 2009 retirement from Caltech's Feynman Professorship, Thorne, with ten young physicist colleagues, has invented tools for visualizing spacetime curvature. These include frame-drag vortex lines, which are gravitational analogs of magnetic field lines and control the twisting of space, and tidal tendex lines, which are gravitational analogs of electric field lines and control the stretching and squeezing of space. Combining these tools with the SXS team's numerical simulations, Thorne and colleagues are currently exploring the nonlinear dynamics of curved spacetime, triggered when spinning black holes collide.
In technical writing and education: With Roger Blandford, Thorne has completed and published Modern Classical Physics (2017), an ambitious book aimed at broadening physics graduate education.
At the interface between science and the arts: With Lynda Obst, Thorne has conceived and initiated a Hollywood movie with science embedded deep into its fabric — a movie that became Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. As Interstellar's executive producer and science advisor, Thorne worked closely with Nolan, Obst and others to ensure that the movie would inspire its audience about science. To educate some of those so inspired, he wrote a book The Science of Interstellar (2014). Thorne has also collaborated with the academy award winning composer Hans Zimmer and visual effects guru Paul Franklin on multimedia concerts about the Warped Side of the Universe (objects and phenomena made from warped space and time). He currently is working on another movie whose details are shrouded in secrecy, and on a book of paintings (by Lia Halloran) and poetic prose (by Thorne) about the Warped Side of the Universe.
For his contributions to LIGO's discovery of gravitational waves, Thorne (along with Rainer Weiss, and Ronald Drever and/or Barry Barish) has been awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016), the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics (2016), the Gruber Cosmology Prize (2016), the Shaw Prize in Astronomy (2016), the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in the Physical Sciences (2016), the Harvey Prize for Breakthroughs in Science and Technology (2016), the Fudan-Zongzhi Science Award (2017), the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical & Scientific Research (2017), the Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize for an Outstanding Contribution to Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (2017), and the Nobel Prize in Physics (2017).
For his contributions to science more broadly, Thorne by himself has been awarded the Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society (1996), the Karl Schwarzschild Medal of the German Astronomical Society (1996), The Robinson Prize in Cosmology from the University of Newcastle (2002), California Scientist of the Year (2004), The Common Wealth Award in Science (2005), the Albert Einstein Medal from the Albert Einstein Society in Berne Switzerland (2009), the UNESCO Niels Bohr Gold Medal from UNESCO (2010), the Tomalla Prize for Extraordinary Contributions to General Relativity and Gravity (2016), the Georges Lemaître International Prize (2016), the Genius Award from the Liberty Science Center, Newark (2016), the Oskar Klein Medal from Stockholm University and the Nobel Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (2016), and the James Joyce Award for Human Endeavor from the Literary and Historical Society of The College Debating Union, University College, Dublin (2016).
For his teaching and mentoring, Thorne has been given the 24th Annual Award for Excellence and Teaching from the Associated Students (undergraduates) of Caltech (1999-2000), the Mentoring Award from the Graduate Student Council of Caltech (2004), and the J.D. Jackson Award for Excellence in Graduate Education from the American Association of Physics Teachers (2012).
For his writing, Thorne has been awarded the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award in Physics and Astronomy (twice: 1969 and 1994), the Priroda [Russian] Readers Choice Science Writing Award (1989 and 1990), the Phi Beta Kappa Science Writing Award (1994), and the Lewis Thomas Prize Honoring the Scientist as Poet, from the Rockefeller University (2018).
For his contributions to film, in particular to the movie Interstellar, Thorne has been awarded the Kip Thorne Gravity Award (named after him) for the Best Depiction of a Scientific Principle in a Feature film, from the RAW Science Film Festival (2014); and the Space Pioneer Award for Mass Media, from the National Space Society (2015).
Thorne was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1972, the National Academy of Sciences in 1973, the American Philosophical Society in 1999, and (as foreign members) the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1999 and the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in 2016. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by Illinois College (1979), Moscow State University – USSR (1981), Utah State University (2000), the University of Glasgow (2001), Claremont Graduate University (2002), the University of Chicago (2008), the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (2017), and the ETH Zurich (2017); and an Honorary Professorship from the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2017).
Thorne has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, a Danforth Foundation Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow, and a Guggenheim Fellow; and he has served on the International Committee on General Relativity and Gravitation, the Committee on US-USSR Cooperation in Physics, and the National Academy of Science's Space Science Board, which advised NASA and Congress on space science policy. In 1996–97 he organized and chaired the search for a new president of Caltech, culminating in the selection, by the Caltech Board of Trustees, of the Nobelist-biologist David Baltimore.
Questions or comments? Please contact joann[at]caltech.edu