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OVER MATTER / K.C. COLE

Scientist's Timeless Legacy Is the Study of Time Itself

June 15, 2000|K.C. COLE

In physics, as in life, there is a big difference between waves and splashes.

The Edsel made a splash; Elvis Presley made waves. So did Albert Einstein.

So, as was more than evident at a recent 60th birthday celebration at Caltech, did one of Einstein's most accomplished successors: physicist Kip Thorne.

Most famously, perhaps, Thorne made waves with his explorations into the physics of time travel. During a day of public talks in Thorne's honor, Caltech President David Baltimore called him "Caltech's No. 1 strange scientist."

As Thorne's good friend and colleague Stephen Hawking said during the celebration, understanding time is one of the great challenges physicists currently face. In the spirit of the occasion, Hawking invited Thorne to jump down a black hole--the better to see whether time really comes to an end there, as some physicists speculate.

(While Hawking is better known to the general public, Thorne is at least equally revered among physicists.)

Of course, as Hawking acknowledges, Thorne would be stretched into spaghetti by the huge gravitational forces inside the hole, and would "not be able to tell us."

Simply studying time travel takes courage because it puts you at risk of ridicule from your colleagues. You can't get funding for time travel outright, as Hawking likes to tell his audiences, so physicists couch it in obscure technical terms, like "closed timelike curves."

And yet, understanding what happens to time in severely warped scenarios where it might break down or reverse sheds light on fundamental unsolved problems.

Studying time travel is also tricky because it requires abandoning the familiar intuitions that guide us into the future, based on our knowledge of the past. It means riding into the unknown without training wheels.

In recognition of these efforts, Baltimore called his colleague Thorne "the prince of counterintuitive science."

Thorne's research also made waves in ways that are only beginning to be felt. Late last year--thanks largely to the efforts of Thorne--a gravity wave "telescope" named LIGO was dedicated at Livingston, La., by National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell and other luminaries.

LIGO stands for Laser Interometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. It is essentially two pairs of L-shaped, four-kilometer-long laser beams strung on opposite sides of the country--the other is in Washington state--to snare gravity waves from space.

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Why would anyone want to catch a gravity wave? Every time a star shudders, it sends out ripples in the fabric of space-time that later lap upon the shores of Earth. When hugely massive objects like collapsed stars or black holes collide, they crash together like cymbals in the night, making waves. When the universe was born, the Big Bang left its imprint in gravity waves that are still traveling through space today--a vast spectrum of them ranging from mere meters to the size of the cosmos.

Encoded in the sounds is a whole new way of looking at the universe. Perhaps other exotic phenomena not even imagined are calling to us right now. Indeed, when the first gravity wave telescopes tune in to this unheard symphony--probably sometime later this decade--there's a fair chance that the things we discover might be as startling as those that greeted the first humans to peer at the sky through a telescope.

LIGO, said Hawking, will be Thorne's most lasting legacy.

He wasn't counting, of course, the 150-odd "progeny" of Thorne who gathered to honor, praise and roast him royally at Caltech, with songs, dancing and embarrassing memories. Generations upon generations of students and students of students and students of students of students.

Which brings us back to waves and splashes. A splash is a one-shot event. It comes and goes like a shooting star. Its energy is entirely self-contained.

A wave, on the other hand, spreads its influence far and wide--carrying energy and information far from the source, like a rumor passing through a crowd. A wave keeps right on going, ringing out long after whatever started it has gone quiet. It shares its influence with its surroundings.

So it's been, it seems, with Thorne. Speaker after speaker told of his enormous generosity of spirit; his willingness to spend time with students, sit at a sick colleague's bedside (murmuring encouragement in Russian), deflect credit from himself to others; to take a year from his life to find just the right president for Caltech, to take 10 years to write a popular book.

Thorne will no doubt continue making waves that will last long beyond his already impressive (if sometimes outrageous) legacy.

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