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May 7, 2004

Caltech physicist Kip Thorne to give public lecture

By Geoff Koch

Physicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology will deliver a lecture on Friday, May 14, about two of the more captivating concepts in theoretical physics -- black holes and the birth of the universe.

"We may be able to measure what happens when the fabric of space-time is plucked violently like a violin string," said Thorne of the gravitational wave detectors he will describe in his speech, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. in Braun Auditorium. The lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required since space is limited. To register, go to

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity predicts the existence of gravitational waves. Roughly analogous to light waves, gravity waves are thought to be produced by cataclysms in the cosmos of a nearly unimaginable scale -- think collapsing or exploding stars and even the Big Bang -- and may subtly alter the geometry of space itself.

Scientists have been able to indirectly infer the existence of gravity waves. But success in directly detecting the waves has been elusive, a situation that may change, thanks in large part to Thorne's efforts.

Last year, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) began searching for gravity waves. Co-founded in 1984 by Thorne and Rainer Weiss, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor, LIGO is the largest project ever funded by the National Science Foundation.

Thorne will talk about the quarter-century effort to build this observatory, composed of networked laser interferometers in Livingston, La., and Richland, Wash. And he'll describe an even grander project known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA).

This antenna, a joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, will consist of three separate pillbox-shaped spacecraft. These spacecraft will fly freely -- they won't be connected to each other -- and will orbit the sun arrayed as a triangle, the points of which are separated by 5 million kilometers. Pending approval by Congress, the NASA rockets carrying the ESA-built spacecraft will blast off in 2012.

These megaprojects come with big potential payoff to physicists, astronomers and indeed anyone with even a passing interest in fundamental questions about the cosmos. The ground- and space-based detectors may be able to confirm the existence of black holes and detect the shuddering of space-time that harkens back to the Big Bang.

Thorne, Caltech's Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, has served as mentor and thesis adviser to many of the leading scientists working on general relativity. His 1973 textbook, Gravitation, co-authored by Charles Misner and John Wheeler, has been widely used in university classrooms around the world.

Thorne is also a well-known popularizer of science. His 1994 book Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, for nonscientists, won many awards and was translated into six languages.

Thorne's Friday remarks will be aimed at nonscientists. "High school and even younger students are welcome to come," he said, promising to leave ample time for questions from the audience.

Editor Note:

This release was written by science writing intern Geoff Koch.



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,

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