Gravitational waves and neutron stars aren't exactly the kinds of things most people talk about over coffee every morning. But some, like Cal Tech physicist Kip Thorne, can engage in illuminating conversation about these mysteries of the universe right after rolling out of bed, or so some that know him will testify.
To many in the world of physics, Kip, as he likes to be called, is a latter-day Buddha. No exaggeration here. After all, this is a man whose name is mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Hawking, John Wheeler, Alan Lightman and other scientific greats. His theories on black holes and time-travel once the stuff of science fiction are legendary. At Cal Tech, he's a bit of a cult figure. Consider "Kipfest" for example a symposium in honor of Kip's 60th birthday, or the academic "family tree" listing all his students, and their students down to the third generation.
Although he's looked upon with Buddha-like regard, the soft-spoken and somewhat shy professor of theoretical physics comes across as anything but a know-it-all. The son of well-known Utah feminist and Logan resident Alison Thorne, Kip grew up in Logan.
The Herald Journal caught up with him last Saturday at his family home. The Thorne family reunion is a ritual that almost unfailingly brings him back to Cache Valley every year. As tall in person as he is in stature, a slight stoop notwithstanding, the pony-tailed master physicist appears modest. Any reference to his lengthy resume makes him squirm, and he brushes it off quickly with a reluctant smile.
In an extensive interview, Kip discussed his road to fame, speaking plainly and candidly about everything from his best-selling book to why, although once a devout Mormon, he now no longer believes in a god.
"This was a wonderful place to grow up," Kip recalled, seated in the Thorne's vast, grassy backyard the only quiet place in the house on that bustling morning.
"I just went walking with one of my sisters and nieces yesterday down along the steep hillside between the Fifth Ward up here and down in the Island where I used to play as a little boy. I was talking about how, here I was, four or five or six, and I'd just go out and play down there. My parents didn't worry about me. It was glorious to be able to just run around and have a good time and not have your parents worry."
He has many fond memories of his early days in Logan, while a student at the Whittier School.
"Playing kickball variants of kickball that we invented," he recalled, going down a mental list. "Hiking in the winter time, building snow caves up Blacksmith Fork Canyon one winter when it was something like 20 below down in Logan, discovering without having been taught how good a snow cave was to keep you warm."
Kip loves winters, or seems to at least. He even admits to a childhood fantasy about wanting to command a snow plow for a living. It was during the winter of 1948.
"I was eight years old, and we had the deepest snow that we'd had in my eight-year lifetime," he laughed. "The snow-plow driver, I felt, had such great power clearing the roads and climbing up the snow drifts that I thought I wanted to be one."
REACHING FOR THE STARS
Snowplows didn't hold young Kip's fascination for long. Another experience in the same year veered his interests toward more cerebral pursuits. He remembers the day vaguely.
"My mother took me when I was eight years old to a talk by some professor named Peterson … Uh, she can tell you which one it was," Kip faltered, apparently searching for a name.
The older Thorne makes mention of her son's defining moment in a recently released book, "Leave the Dishes in the Sink." The educator who had such a profound influence on Kip was William Peterson, a geologist at Utah State at the time.
"He talked about the solar system," Kip continued. "I was really young to go to this, but she took me, and I became enchanted with the solar system."
Alison nurtured her son's growing interest in the stars, and talked him into taking up astronomy as a hobby.
"We began by trying to portray the planets in a manageable size on a long stretch of shelf paper pinned across a wall of the kitchen," she writes, describing her efforts to guide Kip's early forays in the field.
The bug bit the budding scientist hard.
"I did astronomy as a hobby for a few years, and then I just started reading paperback books about science," Kip recalled. "I came across books by George Gamow who, by then, was a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A great physicist, he wrote wonderful books for the general public that got me fascinated with physics. So I started finding my own projects related to physics from there, and that's sort of how I got into science."
TO CALTECH AND FAME
When Kip was only 13, Time magazine featured a story about Cal Tech, the then up-and-coming Pasadena, Calif., school, that left a lasting impression on him.
"One thing that I most remember is the description of how, if on an exam, you got the wrong answer, but your arguments were good, you could get a decent mark. That sounded like a very good kind of place," Kip explained.
So while most of his peers at Logan High School headed up the hill to Utah State, Kip packed his bags for what he considered to be "the very best place that I could find in the world."
"While Utah State, then with John Wood as the chair of the physics department, had a good, strong program, no place in the world was as good as Cal Tech," he emphasized. "In fact, Cal Tech has been ranked No. 1 for physics graduate study or tied for number one every year, as far as I'm aware, since I was a kid."
Kip raced to the top of his class, earning his bachelor's degree in 1962. He didn't stopped there. While at Cal Tech, he had developed an interest in the enigmatic subject of black holes regions of space with so much mass concentrated in them that nearby objects cannot escape their gravitational pull. By the time he completed graduate study at Princeton, from where he obtained his doctorate in 1965 at the young age of 25, Kip was already comparing notes with Nobel laureate and University of Chicago physicist Subramanyan Chandrasekar.
"Chandra and I were very close friends," Kip reminisced. "I first met him the summer after I got my doctorate, when we were both lecturing at a summer school in northern Italy. We had already exchanged correspondence because we were working on some of the same problems."
The two hit it off almost immediately.
"After a year of postdoctoral study at Princeton, my wife, our daughter and dog drove west through Chicago and I spent a day with Chandra. It was a wonderful day," he said. "Chandra offered me my first professorship at Chicago, but Cal Tech met the offer so I stayed at Cal Tech."
A professor at age 30, Kip wasn't very much older than some of his students during his early career.
"I've been close personally to many of my students because I was not far from their age. I am now, but for sometime, I was really fairly young," he laughed.
The young professor was also an avid traveler. As an undergraduate, he had taken classes in Russian and French, and was conversant enough in both languages to "get along happily" in both societies. However, Russia was special.
"I've spent a fair amount of time in France, but France never held a fascination for me that Russia has had," Kip said. "I don't think I understand French society."
Russia, on the other hand, is something of an obsession. Kip spent a great deal of time there during the later years of the Cold War, working with Russian physicists to apply Einstein's theory of relativity to understand the universe.
"I spent six weeks there every other year," he said, the twinkle apparent in his eyes. "I had this wonderful opportunity to see Russia from the inside every two years, always shopping at the same stores, becoming familiar with the same neighborhoods and watching how things developed."
ON THE COLD WAR AND COMMUNISM
Talk to Kip about the fall of communism, and he's likely to get on a soapbox about the inefficiency of a centrally planned economy.
"The thing that broke the back of the Soviet Union was, I think in large measure, the growing inability of the government to control information," he suggested.
As the computer revolution took the world by storm, the Soviet Union was forced to open up the information floodgates, Kip will tell you with passion in his voice.
"In order to have any hope at all of having a modern economy, they (the Soviet administration) had to let the use of computers spread," he explained. "By the early to mid-1980s because of this, people in the Soviet Union middle-level managers, college students and so forth became well aware of the huge difference between the west and the east. They forced the revolution that basically overthrew communism."
"The claims that are made in the United States that Ronald Reagan policies of heavy military spending forced them (Soviets) into heavy military spending (causing the collapse) are absolute bullsh. They bear no resemblance to the reality of what was going on," he emphasized.
ON BLACK HOLES AND BELIEVING
Back in the United States from his globe-trotting adventures, Kip went to work on what he calls "Einstein's outrageous legacy." That work recently became the subject of a best-selling book which chronicled the landmark discoveries that attempted to make sense of Einstein's theory of relativity. It was a bizarre journey of discovery for Kip and others involved.
"The predictions that we dug out from Einstein's laws of relativity were very strange so strange that the people who made the discoveries were often unwilling to believe what they were seeing in the mathematics for some years, or decades in some cases," he said.
Belief, therefore, is not an alien concept to him. However, religion is another matter altogether.
"I grew up in the Mormon church, and had a wonderful upbringing in the culture here in Logan, but as I grew older, religion of all sorts, including the Mormon religion, came to appear to me to be more and more irrelevant," Kip explained.
For the mind that seeks verifiable answers, religion fails to offer much, he said.
"In understanding the creation of the universe, the physical world around us, religion has nothing useful to say whatsoever as far as I've ever been able to see. Absolutely nothing," he emphasized. "When I look out into the beauty of the universe, I see how it all works. I see nothing there that makes me in any way believe that there is a creator."
But that doesn't mean he's right, he added.
"I have colleagues who see it differently," he said. "I can't claim that the direction I've moved in is the right direction by any means, but that's just the way I see it."
Kip won't impose his beliefs on anyone, and he's mostly humble about his views. The only time he sounds cocky is when he tells you how many bets he's won against Stephen Hawking.
"I have him down 2-0," he laughed, adding quickly, "but that's just luck."
Not surprising then that he won't talk much about the prospect of a Nobel.
ON THE NOBEL PRIZE
"What about the Nobel Prize?" Kip asked, smiling.
No interview with Kip Thorne would be complete without asking this question. He is widely rumored to be in the running for the highest recognition, but you won't get him to admit it. The prize will almost certainly be awarded for the discovery of gravitational waves, and Kip will acknowledge that he has been the theorist who "has motivated the project more than anyone," but he will tell you that credit should be given elsewhere.
"Oh I know (what you want to hear), I do not expect to get the Nobel Prize," he said matter-of-factly. "I have not done the hands-on experimental work, and that's where the real achievement is."
But then, Kip is the modest sort.