Kip Thorne

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Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne at Caltech.jpg
Born Kip Stephen Thorne
(1940-06-01) June 1, 1940 (age 76)
Logan, Utah, U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Astrophysics, gravitational physics
Institutions California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor John Archibald Wheeler
Doctoral students William L. Burke[1]
Carlton M. Caves
Lee Samuel Finn
Sándor J. Kovács
David L. Lee
Alan Lightman
Don N. Page
William H. Press
Richard H. Price
Bernard F. Schutz
Saul Teukolsky
Clifford Martin Will
Wai-mo Suen
Yanbei Chen
Known for Relativity and Cosmology
Notable awards Lilienfeld Prize (1996)
Einstein Medal (2009)[2]
Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (2016)
Gruber Prize in Cosmology (2016)
Shaw Prize (2016)
Kavli Prize (2016)

Kip Stephen Thorne (born June 1, 1940) is an American theoretical physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. A longtime friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, he was the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) until 2009[3] and is one of the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity. He continues to do scientific research and scientific consulting, most notably for the Christopher Nolan film, Interstellar.[4][5]

Life and career[edit]

Discussion in the main lecture hall at the École de Physique des Houches (Les Houches Physics School), 1972. From left, Yuval Ne'eman, Bryce DeWitt, Thorne, Demetrios Christodoulou.

Thorne was born in Logan, Utah on June 1, 1940, the son of Utah State University professors D. Wynne Thorne and Alison (née Cornish) Thorne, a agronomist and an economist, respectively.[6] Raised in an academic environment, two of his four siblings also became professors.[7] [8] Thorne's parents were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and raised Thorne in the LDS faith, though he now describes himself as atheist. Regarding his views on science and religion, Thorne has stated: "There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God [...] There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God."[9]

Thorne rapidly excelled at academics early in life, becoming one of the youngest full professors in the history of the California Institute of Technology. He received his B.S. degree from Caltech in 1962, and Ph.D. degree from Princeton University in 1965. He wrote his doctoral thesis, Geometrodynamics of Cylindrical Systems, under the supervision of relativist John Wheeler. Thorne returned to Caltech as an associate professor in 1967 and became a professor of theoretical physics in 1970, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in 1981, and the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1991. In June 2009 he resigned his Feynman Professorship (he is now the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) to pursue a career of writing and movie making. His first film project was Interstellar, working with Christopher Nolan.[3]

Throughout the years, Thorne has served as a mentor and thesis advisor for many leading theorists who now work on observational, experimental, or astrophysical aspects of general relativity. Approximately 50 physicists have received Ph.D.s at Caltech under Thorne's personal mentorship.[3]

Thorne is known for his ability to convey the excitement and significance of discoveries in gravitation and astrophysics to both professional and lay audiences. In 1999, Thorne made some speculations on what the 21st century will find as the answers to the following questions:[10][11]

  • Is there a "dark side of the universe" populated by objects such as black holes?
  • Can we observe the birth of the universe and its dark side using radiation made from space-time warpage, or so-called "gravitational waves"?
  • Will 21st century technology reveal quantum behavior in the realm of human-size objects?

His presentations on subjects such as black holes, gravitational radiation, relativity, time travel, and wormholes have been included in PBS shows in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom on the BBC.

Thorne and Linda Jean Peterson married in 1960. Their children are Kares Anne and Bret Carter, an architect. Thorne and Peterson divorced in 1977. Thorne and his second wife, Carolee Joyce Winstein, a professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC, married in 1984.[12]


Thorne in 1972.

Thorne's research has principally focused on relativistic astrophysics and gravitation physics, with emphasis on relativistic stars, black holes and especially gravitational waves.[3] He is perhaps best known to the public for his controversial theory that wormholes can conceivably be used for time travel.[13] However, Thorne's scientific contributions, which center on the general nature of space, time, and gravity, span the full range of topics in general relativity.

Gravitational waves and LIGO[edit]

Thorne's work has dealt with the prediction of gravitational wave strengths and their temporal signatures as observed on Earth. These "signatures" are of great relevance to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), a multi-institution gravitational wave experiment for which Thorne has been a leading proponent – in 1984, he cofounded the LIGO Project (the largest project ever funded by the NSF[14]) to discern and measure any fluctuations between two or more 'static' points; such fluctuations would be evidence of gravitational waves, as calculations describe. A significant aspect of his research is developing the mathematics necessary to analyze these objects.[15] Thorne also carries out engineering design analyses for features of the LIGO that cannot be developed on the basis of experiment and he gives advice on data analysis algorithms by which the waves will be sought. He has provided theoretical support for LIGO, including identifying gravitational wave sources that LIGO should target, designing the baffles to control scattered light in the LIGO beam tubes, and – in collaboration with Vladimir Braginsky's (Moscow, Russia) research group – inventing quantum nondemolition designs for advanced gravity-wave detectors and ways to reduce the most serious kind of noise in advanced detectors: thermoelastic noise. With Carlton M. Caves, Thorne invented the back-action-evasion approach to quantum nondemolition measurements of the harmonic oscillators – a technique applicable both in gravitational wave detection and quantum optics.[3]

On February 11, 2016, a team of four physicists[a] representing the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, announced that in September 2015, LIGO recorded the signature of two black holes colliding 1.3 billion light-years away. This recorded detection was the first direct observation of the fleeting chirp of a gravitational wave and confirmed an important prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.[16][17][18][19][20]

Black hole cosmology[edit]

Main article: Hoop conjecture
A cylindrical bundle of magnetic field lines

While he was studying for PHD in Princeton University, his mentor John Wheeler gave him an assignment problem for him to think over: find out whether or not a cylindrical bundle of repulsive magnetic field lines will implode under its own attractive gravitational force? After several months wrestling with the problem, he correctly proved that it was impossible for cylindrical magnetic field lines to implode.[21]:262–265

Why is it that a cylindrical bundle of magnetic field lines will not implode, while spherical stars will implode under its own gravitational force? Thorne tried to explore the theoretical ridge between the two phenomena. He found out eventually that the gravitational force can overcome all interior pressure only when an object has been compressed in all directions. To express this realization, Thorne proposed his hoop conjecture, which describes an imploding star turning into a black hole when the critical circumference of the designed hoop can be placed around it and set into rotation. That is, any object of mass M around which a hoop of circumference can be spun must be a black hole.[21]:266–267[22]:189–190

As a tool to be used in both enterprises, astrophysics and theoretical physics, Thorne and his students have developed an unusual approach, called the "Membrane paradigm", to the theory of black holes and used it to clarify the "Blandford-Znajek" mechanism by which black holes may power some quasars and active galactic nuclei.[21]:405–411

Thorne has investigated the quantum statistical mechanical origin of the entropy of a black hole. With his postdoc Wojciech Zurek, he showed that the entropy of a black hole is the logarithm of the number of ways that the hole could have been made.[21]:445–446

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 not any farther. This is probably the maximum black-hole spin allowed in nature. The maximum disk efficiency is 30%[3]

Wormholes and time travel[edit]

A wormhole is a short cut connecting two separate regions in space. In the figure the green line shows the short way through wormhole, and the red line shows the long way through normal space.

Thorne and his co-worker at Caltech conducted scientific research on whether the laws of physics permit space and time to be multiply connected (can there exist classical, traversable wormholes and "time machines"?).[23] 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").[24]

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).[25] This has triggered research to explore the ability of quantum fields to possess such extended negative energy. Recent calculations by Thorne indicate that simple masses passing through traversable wormholes could never engender paradoxes – there are no initial conditions that lead to paradox once time travel is introduced. If his results can be generalized, they would suggest that none of the supposed paradoxes formulated in time travel stories can actually be formulated at a precise physical level: that is, that any situation in a time travel story turns out to permit many consistent solutions.

Relativistic stars, multipole moments and other endeavors[edit]

With Anna Żytkow, Thorne predicted the existence of red supergiant stars with neutron-star cores (Thorne–Żytkow objects).[26] He laid the foundations for the theory of pulsations of relativistic stars and the gravitational radiation they emit. 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.[27] Thorne has also theoretically predicted the existence of universally antigravitating "exotic matter" – the element needed to accelerate the expansion rate of the universe, keep traversable wormhole "Star Gates" open and keep timelike geodesic free float "warp drives" working. With Clifford Will[28] and others of his students, he laid the foundations for the theoretical interpretation of experimental tests of relativistic theories of gravity – foundations on which Will and others then built. Thorne is currently interested in the origin of classical space and time from the quantum foam of quantum gravity theory.


Thorne has written and edited books on topics in gravitational theory and high-energy astrophysics. In 1973, he co-authored the textbook Gravitation with Charles Misner and John Wheeler;[29] that according John C. Baez and Chris Hillman, is one of the great scientific books of all time and has inspired two generations of students.[30] In 1994, he published Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy, a book for non-scientists for which he received numerous awards. This book has been published in six languages, and editions in Chinese, Italian, Czech, and Polish are in press. And in 2014, Thorne published The Science of Interstellar in which he explains the science behind Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar; Nolan wrote the foreword to the book.

Thorne's work has appeared in publications such as:

Thorne has published more than 150 articles in scholarly journals.

Honors and awards[edit]

Thorne has been elected to:[31]

He has been recognized by numerous awards including:

He has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, and Fulbright Fellow. He has also received the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters from Claremont Graduate University.

He was elected to hold Lorentz chair for the year 2009 Leiden University, the Netherlands.

Thorne has served on:

Kip Thorne was selected by Time magazine in an annual list of the 100 most influential people in the American world in 2016.[37]

Adaptation in media[edit]

  • Thorne contributed ideas on wormhole travel to Carl Sagan for use in his novel Contact.[38]
  • Thorne and his friend, producer Lynda Obst, also developed the concept for the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.[39] He also wrote a tie-in book, The Science of Interstellar.
  • In Larry Niven's novel Rainbow Mars, the time travel technology used in the novel is based on the wormhole theories of Thorne, which in the context of the novel was when time travel first became possible, rather than just fantasy. As a result, any attempts to travel in time prior to Thorne's development of wormhole theory results in the time traveller entering a fantastic version of reality, rather than the actual past.[40]
  • In the film The Theory of Everything, Thorne was portrayed by actor Enzo Cilenti.

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • Thorne, K. S., in 300 Years of Gravitation, (Eds.) S. W. Hawking and W. Israel, 1987, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press), Gravitational Radiation.
  • Thorne, K. S., Price, R. H. and Macdonald, D. M., Black Holes, The Membrane Paradigm, 1986, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press).
  • Friedman, J., Morris, M. S., Novikov, I. D., Echeverria, F., Klinkhammer, G., Thorne, K. S. and Yurtsever, U., Physical Review D., 1990, (in press), Cauchy Problem in Spacetimes with Closed Timelike Curves.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The announcement team were Thorne, David Reitze, Gabriela González, Rainer Weiss, and France A. Córdova.


  1. ^ "Kip Stephen Thorne". Mathematics Geneaogy Project. North Dakota State University. Retrieved 6 Sep 2016. 
  2. ^ "einstein medal". Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Kip S. Thorne: Biographical Sketch". Information Technology Services. California Institute of Technology. Retrieved January 6, 2013.
  4. ^ Kevin P. Sullivan (December 16, 2013). "Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Trailer: Watch Now". MTV. Retrieved October 30, 2014. 
  5. ^ "Watch Exclusive: The Science of Interstellar - WIRED - WIRED Video - CNE". WIRED Videos. Archived from the original on 5 December 2014. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Grant Kimm, Webmaster - The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University. "Plaza of Heroines at Iowa State University". Archived from the original on 14 August 2015. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Jones, Zachary (2011). "D. Wynne Thorne Papers, 1936-1983". Archives West. Orbis Cascade Alliance. 
  8. ^ "Dr. Alison Comish Thorne". The Salt Lake Tribune Obituaries. 26 Oct 2004. Retrieved 7 Sep 2016. 
  9. ^ Rory Carroll (21 June 2013). "Kip Thorne: physicist studying time travel tapped for Hollywood film". Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 30 October 2014. Thorne grew up in an academic, Mormon family in Utah but is now an atheist. "There are large numbers of my finest colleagues who are quite devout and believe in God, ranging from an abstract humanist God to a very concrete Catholic or Mormon God. There is no fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. I happen to not believe in God." 
  10. ^ "Spacetime Warps and the Quantum: A Glimpse of the Future". THE KITP PUBLIC LECTURE SERIES. KAVLI INSTITUTE FOR THEORETICAL PHYSICS. 1999. 
  11. ^ Kip, Thorne (24 Feb 1999). "Space-Time Warps and the Quantum: A Glimpse of the Future". KITP Public Lectures. KAVLI INSTITUTE FOR THEORETICAL PHYSICS. 
  12. ^ Kondrashov, Veronica. "Kip S. Thorne: Curriculum Vitae". Kip S. Thorn. California Institute of Technology. 
  13. ^ Cofield, Cala (19 Dec 2014). "Time Travel and Wormholes:Physicist Kip Thorne's Wildest Theories". 
  14. ^ "LIGO: The Search for Gravitational Waves". National Science Foundation. Retrieved 9 Sep 2016. LIGO is the largest single enterprise undertaken by NSF, with capital investments of nearly $300 million and operating costs of more than $30 million/year. 
  15. ^ "Catching waves with Kip Thorne". Plus Magazine. December 1, 2001
  16. ^ "Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein's Prediction". 11 February 2016. 
  17. ^ Twilley, Nicola. "Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2016-02-11. 
  18. ^ Abbott, B.P.; et al. (2016). "Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger". Phys. Rev. Lett. 116: 061102. arXiv:1602.03837Freely accessible. Bibcode:2016PhRvL.116f1102A. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102. PMID 26918975. 
  19. ^ Naeye, Robert (11 February 2016). "Gravitational Wave Detection Heralds New Era of Science". Sky and Telescope. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  20. ^ Castelvecchi, Davide; Witze, Alexandra (11 February 2016). "Einstein's gravitational waves found at last". Nature News. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19361. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  21. ^ a b c d Kip S. Thorne (1994). Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. W.W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-31276-8. 
  22. ^ V. Frolov; I. Novikov (6 December 2012). Black Hole Physics: Basic Concepts and New Developments. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-94-011-5139-9. 
  23. ^ "How to build a time machine". Paul Davies. Scientific American. 1 February 2006. Retrieved 19 June 2016. 
  24. ^ Kim, Sung-Won; Thorne, Kip S. (1991). "Do vacuum fluctuations prevent the creation of closed timelike curves?". Physical Review D. 43 (12): 3929–3947. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.43.3929. 
  25. ^ Morris, Michael S.; Thorne, Kip S.; Yurtsever, Ulvi (1988). "Wormholes, Time Machines, and the Weak Energy Condition". Physical Review Letters. 61 (13): 1446–1449. Bibcode:1988PhRvL..61.1446M. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.61.1446. PMID 10038800. 
  26. ^ Thorne, Kip S.; Żytkow, Anna N. (15 March 1977). "Stars with degenerate neutron cores. I - Structure of equilibrium models". The Astrophysical Journal. 212 (1): 832–858. Bibcode:1977ApJ...212..832T. doi:10.1086/155109. 
  27. ^ Hartle, James; Thorne, Kip S. (1985). "Laws of motion and precession for black holes and other bodies". Physical Review D. 31 (8): 1815–1837. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.31.1815. 
  28. ^ Thorne, Kip S.; Will, Clifford (1971). "Theoretical Frameworks for Testing Relativistic Gravity. I. Foundations". The Astrophysical Journal. 163: 595–610. Bibcode:1971ApJ...163..595T. doi:10.1086/150803. 
  29. ^ Misner, Charles W.; Kip S. Thorne; John Archibald Wheeler (September 1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-0344-0. 
  30. ^ "A Guide to Relativity books". John Baez, Chris Hillman. Department of Mathematics, University of California at Riverside. 1998. Retrieved 19 June 2016. 
  31. ^ "Kip S. Thorne: Curriculum Vitae". Caltech. Retrieved 18 Sep 2016. 
  32. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  33. ^ "UNESCO's Niels Bohr Gold Medal awarded to prominent physicists". Niels Bohr Institute. Retrieved 8 December 2016. 
  34. ^ Shaw Prize 2016
  35. ^ "9 Scientific Pioneers Receive The 2016 Kavli Prizes". 2 June 2016. 
  36. ^ "The Tomalla prize holders". The Tomalla Foundation. Retrieved 18 September 2016. 
  37. ^ "Kip Thorne". Christopher Nolan. Time magazine. 21 April 2016. Retrieved 8 May 2016. 
  38. ^ "Contact – High Technology Lends a Hand/Science of the Soundstage". Warner Bros. Archived from the original on 2001-03-04. Retrieved 2014-09-01. 
  39. ^ Fernandez, Jay A. (March 28, 2007). "Writer with real stars in his eyes". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 1, 2014. 
  40. ^ Larry Niven. Rainbow Mars. New York: Tor Books, 1999, pp. 45, 366.

External links[edit]