Kip Thorne was awarded the coveted Kavli Prize jointly, sharing it with Professor Ronald WP Drever and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based Professor Rainer Weiss, in a glittering ceremony in Oslo, Norway, earlier this month.
The researchers were instrumental in the direct detection of gravitational waves using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (Ligo).
The signal, picked up last year on September 14 in the US, lasted just a fifth of second but the discovery has already played a role in revolutionising the way astronomical research is done – filling gaps where electromagnetic radiation simply cannot offer insights.
Weiss said in his presentation before the ceremony that the signal was generated by two black holes that spiralled into each other more than a billion years ago – but which only reached us now.
The detection also helps prove Albert Einstein’s prediction that they existed – using his general theory of relativity – a hundred years ago.
But despite the prize committee heralding their ingenuity and intellectual leadership, the trio were quick to point out that their work was part of an effort going back decades, involving the work of many.
Thorne said: “We are symbols of the thousands of people who were behind this research, who made this happen. We could never have done it ourselves.”
The discovery, he said, showed aspects of the universe that humans could not see in any other way, and things “we have not known about before”.
“The collision of the two black holes is a good example.
“This could not have been seen by any other method and it showed us how warped space and time behave,” said Thorne.
“When they are wildly excited, they behave like the surface of the ocean in a storm.
“We had no way to see this with electromagnetic waves.”
Thorne said: “If our descendants looked back on this era in history, I think one of the things they’re going to say is our greatest gift to them is an understanding of the universe. That came from gravitational waves and other forms of observation.”
Thorne is known for his collaboration with sci-fi producer Linda Obst in writing the premise for the 2014 movie Interstellar, and also releasing a book on the science of the film.
“Interstellar began with a treatment, which is a description of all the science in the movie and the basic story that we wrote. From there, we brought on Steven Spielberg who was the creative face of the project, but the movie was later taken up by Christopher Nolan who directed it.”
His brother Jonathan also directed the film which is set on a futuristic Earth, where crops struggle to grow and the fate of human beings hangs in the balance.
This pushes explorers to travel beyond the galaxy to find another suitable planet for life to continue. It deals with wormholes, interstellar travel and the physical laws that govern space and time.
“They changed the story completely, so it’s their story, not ours, but the science vision was Linda’s and mine and we wanted a movie that would inspire people around the world about science. I think we succeeded.”
His foray into film has not stopped with Interstellar.
“(Theoretical physicist) Stephen Hawking, a close personal friend of mine, Obst and I are now working together on our next sci-fi project. That’s all I can say about it at the moment.”
Thorne said that, while many dismissed space travel as wasteful, it had spin-off value for all of humanity.
“Because the technology that was required (to make the discovery) was so complex, because we had to measure the positions and motions of masses with far better precision than anybody has, inevitably it was necessary to develop new technology and new techniques.”
He said Einstein’s research was a prime example of this.
“The things that he worked on did not have practical implications for 50 to 100 years later but his work on stimulated emission of radiation underlines the laser, which is used in supermarket scanners, and so many other things in everyday life. His idea of conversion of mass into energy underlies not just thermonuclear weapons but also thermonuclear energy which I think by the middle part of this century is going to be our major energy source.”
Exploring space was a part of the culture of human beings.
“Understanding the laws of nature and the universe is a tremendously important part of human culture. It’s very important that the general public comes to understand science better and what it’s capable of and what its limitations are.”
Science could also help in fighting some of the largest challenges humanity faces, as explored in the film.
“Of course there are many challenges: there are human ones, like the refugee crisis and terrorism and then there are things like climate change.
“This will be a huge challenge for our descendants and is starting to be a big challenge for us in our own lifetimes.”