LIGO: Playing the long game, and winning big!

Wow. What a day! And what a story!

Kip Thorne in 1972, around the time MTW was completed.

Kip Thorne in 1972, around the time MTW was completed.

It is hard for me to believe, but I have been on the Caltech faculty for nearly a third of a century. And when I arrived in 1983, interferometric detection of gravitational waves was already a hot topic of discussion here. At Kip Thorne’s urging, Ron Drever had been recruited to Caltech and was building the 40-meter prototype interferometer (which is still operating as a testbed for future detection technologies). Kip and his colleagues, spurred by Vladimir Braginsky’s insights, had for several years been actively studying the fundamental limits of quantum measurement precision, and how these might impact the search for gravitational waves.

I decided to bone up a bit on the subject, so naturally I pulled down from my shelf the “telephone book” — Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler’s mammoth Gravitationand browsed Chapter 37 (Detection of Gravitational Wave), for which Kip had been the lead author. The chapter brimmed over with enthusiasm for the subject, but to my surprise interferometers were hardly mentioned. Instead the emphasis was on mechanical bar detectors. These had been pioneered by Joseph Weber, whose efforts in the 1960s had first aroused Kip’s interest in detecting gravitational waves, and by Braginsky.

I sought Kip out for an explanation, and with characteristic clarity and patience he told how his views had evolved. He had realized in the 1970s that a strain sensitivity of order 10^{-21} would be needed for a good chance at detection, and after many discussions with colleagues like Drever, Braginsky, and Rai Weiss, he had decided that kind of sensitivity would not be achievable with foreseeable technology using bars.

Ron Drever, who built Caltech's 40-meter prototype interferometer in the 1980s.

Ron Drever, who built Caltech’s 40-meter prototype interferometer in the 1980s.

We talked about what would be needed — a kilometer scale detector capable of sensing displacements of 10^{-18} meters. I laughed. As he had many times by then, Kip told why this goal was not completely crazy, if there is enough light in an interferometer, which bounces back and forth many times as a waveform passes. Immediately after the discussion ended I went to my desk and did some crude calculations. The numbers kind of worked, but I shook my head, unconvinced. This was going to be a huge undertaking. Success seemed unlikely. Poor Kip!

I’ve never been involved in LIGO, but Kip and I remained friends, and every now and then he would give me the inside scoop on the latest developments (most memorably while walking the streets of London for hours on a beautiful spring evening in 1991). From afar I followed the forced partnership between Caltech and MIT that was forged in the 1980s, and the painful transition from a small project under the leadership of Drever-Thorne-Weiss (great scientists but lacking much needed management expertise) to a large collaboration under a succession of strong leaders, all based at Caltech.

Vladimir Braginsky, who realized that quantum effects constrain gravitational wave detectors.

Vladimir Braginsky, who realized that quantum effects limit the sensitivity of  gravitational wave detectors.

During 1994-95, I co-chaired a committee formulating a long-range plan for Caltech physics, and we spent more time talking about LIGO than any other issue. Part of our concern was whether a small institution like Caltech could absorb such a large project, which was growing explosively and straining Institute resources. And we also worried about whether LIGO would ultimately succeed. But our biggest worry of all was different — could Caltech remain at the forefront of gravitational wave research so that if and when LIGO hit paydirt we would reap the scientific benefits?

A lot has changed since then. After searching for years we made two crucial new faculty appointments: theorist Yanbei Chen (2007), who provided seminal ideas for improving sensitivity, and experimentalist Rana Adhikari (2006), a magician at the black art of making an interferometer really work. Alan Weinstein transitioned from high energy physics to become a leader of LIGO data analysis. We established a world-class numerical relativity group, now led by Mark Scheel. Staff scientists like Stan Whitcomb also had an essential role, as did longtime Project Manager Gary Sanders. LIGO Directors Robbie Vogt, Barry Barish, Jay Marx, and now Dave Reitze have provided effective and much needed leadership.

Rai Weiss, around the time he conceived LIGO in an amazing 1972 paper.

Rai Weiss, around the time he conceived LIGO in an amazing 1972 paper.

My closest connection to LIGO arose during the 1998-99 academic year, when Kip asked me to participate in a “QND reading group” he organized. (QND stands for Quantum Non-Demolition, Braginsky’s term for measurements that surpass the naïve quantum limits on measurement precision.) At that time we envisioned that Advanced LIGO would turn on in 2008, yet there were still many questions about how it would achieve the sensitivity required to ensure detection. I took part enthusiastically, and learned a lot, but never contributed any ideas of enduring value. The discussions that year did have positive outcomes, however; leading for example to a seminal paper by Kimble, Levin, Matsko, Thorne, and Vyatchanin on improving precision through squeezing of light. By the end of the year I had gained a much better appreciation of the strength of the LIGO team, and had accepted that Advanced LIGO might actually work!

I once asked Vladimir Braginsky why he spent years working on bar detectors for gravitational waves, while at the same time realizing that fundamental limits on quantum measurement would make successful detection very unlikely. Why wasn’t he trying to build an interferometer already in the 1970s? Braginsky loved to be asked questions like this, and his answer was a long story, told with many dramatic flourishes. The short answer is that he viewed interferometric detection of gravitational waves as too ambitious. A bar detector was something he could build in his lab, while an interferometer of the appropriate scale would be a long-term project involving a much larger, technically diverse team.

Joe Weber, who audaciously believed gravitational waves can be detected on earth.

Joe Weber, whose audacious belief that gravitational waves are detectable on earth inspired Kip Thorne and many others.

Kip’s chapter in MTW ends with section 37.10 (“Looking toward the future”) which concludes with this juicy quote (written almost 45 years ago):

“The technical difficulties to be surmounted in constructing such detectors are enormous. But physicists are ingenious; and with the impetus provided by Joseph Weber’s pioneering work, and with the support of a broad lay public sincerely interested in pioneering in science, all obstacles will surely be overcome.”

That’s what we call vision, folks. You might also call it cockeyed optimism, but without optimism great things would never happen.

Optimism alone is not enough. For something like the detection of gravitational waves, we needed technical ingenuity, wise leadership, lots and lots of persistence, the will to overcome adversity, and ultimately the efforts of hundreds of hard working, talented scientists and engineers. Not to mention the courage displayed by the National Science Foundation in supporting such a risky project for decades.

I have never been prouder than I am today to be part of the Caltech family.

When I met with Steven Spielberg to talk about Interstellar

Today I had the awesome and eagerly anticipated privilege of attending a screening of the new film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan. One can’t help but be impressed by Nolan’s fertile visual imagination. But you should know that Caltech’s own Kip Thorne also had a vital role in this project. Indeed, were there no Kip Thorne, Interstellar would never have happened.

On June 2, 2006, I participated in an unusual one-day meeting at Caltech, organized by Kip and the movie producer Lynda Obst (Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, The Invention of Lying, …). Lynda and Kip, who have been close since being introduced by their mutual friend Carl Sagan decades ago, had conceived a movie project together, and had collaborated on a “treatment” outlining the story idea. The treatment adhered to a core principle that was very important to Kip — that the movie be scientifically accurate. Though the story indulged in some wild speculations, at Kip’s insistence it skirted away from any flagrant violation of the firmly established laws of Nature. This principle of scientifically constrained speculation intrigued Steven Spielberg, who was interested in directing.

The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm about the story and the science behind it with Spielberg, Obst, and Thorne. A remarkable group assembled, including physicists (Andrei Linde, Lisa Randall, Savas Dimopoulos, Mark Wise, as well as Kip), astrobiologists (Frank Drake, David Grinspoon), planetary scientists (Alan Boss, John Spencer, Dave Stevenson), and psychologists (Jay Buckey, James Carter, David Musson). As we all chatted and got acquainted, I couldn’t help but feel that we were taking part in the opening scene of a movie about making a movie. Spielberg came late and left early, but spent about three hours with us; he even brought along his Dad (an engineer).

Time_cover_interstellarThough the official release of Interstellar is still a few days away, you may already know from numerous media reports (including the cover story in this week’s Time Magazine) the essential elements of the story, which involves traveling through a wormhole seeking a new planet for humankind, a replacement for the hopelessly ravaged earth. The narrative evolved substantially as the project progressed, but traveling through a wormhole to visit a distant planet was already central to the original story.

Inevitably, some elements of the Obst/Thorne treatment did not survive in the final film. For one, Stephen Hawking was a prominent character in the original story; he joined the mission because of his unparalleled expertise at wormhole transversal, and Stephen’s ALS symptoms eased during prolonged weightlessness, only to recur upon return to earth gravity. Also, gravitational waves played a big part in the treatment; in particular the opening scene depicted LIGO scientists discovering the wormhole by detecting the gravitational waves emanating from it.

There was plenty to discuss to fill our one-day workshop, including: the rocket technology needed for the trip, the strong but stretchy materials that would allow the ship to pass through the wormhole without being torn apart by tidal gravity, how to select a crew psychologically fit for such a dangerous mission, what exotic life forms might be found on other worlds, how to communicate with an advanced civilization which resides in a higher dimensional bulk rather than the three-dimensional brane to which we’re confined, how to build a wormhole that stays open rather than pinching off and crushing those who attempt to pass through, and whether a wormhole could enable travel backward in time.

Spielberg was quite engaged in our discussions. Upon his arrival I immediately shot off a text to my daughter Carina: “Steven Spielberg is wearing a Brown University cap!” (Carina was a Brown student at the time, as Spielberg’s daughter had been.) Steven assured us of his keen interest in the project, noting wryly that “Aliens have been very good to me,” and he mentioned some of his favorite space movies, which included some I had also enjoyed as a kid, like Forbidden Planet and (the original) The Day the Earth Stood Still. In one notable moment, Spielberg asked the group “Who believes that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe?” We all raised our hands. “And who believes that the earth has been visited by extraterrestrial civilizations?” No one raised a hand. Steven seemed struck by our unanimity, on both questions.

I remember tentatively suggesting that the extraterrestrials had mastered M-theory, thus attaining computational power far beyond the comprehension of earthlings, and that they themselves were really advanced robots, constructed by an earlier generation of computers. Like many of the fun story ideas floated that day, this one had no apparent impact on the final version of the film.

Spielberg later brought in Jonah Nolan to write the screenplay. When Spielberg had to abandon the project because his DreamWorks production company broke up with Paramount Pictures (which owned the story), Jonah’s brother Chris Nolan eventually took over the project. Jonah and Chris Nolan transformed the story, but continued to consult extensively with Kip, who became an Executive Producer and says he is pleased with the final result.

Of the many recent articles about Interstellar, one of the most interesting is this one in Wired by Adam Rogers, which describes how Kip worked closely with the visual effects team at Double Negative to ensure that wormholes and rapidly rotating black holes are accurately depicted in the film (though liberties were taken to avoid confusing the audience). The images produced by sophisticated ray tracing computations were so surprising that at first Kip thought there must be a bug in the software, though eventually he accepted that the calculations are correct, and he is still working hard to more fully understand the results.

ScienceofInterstellarMech.inddI can’t give away the ending of the movie, but I can safely say this: When it’s over you’re going to have a lot of questions. Fortunately for all of us, Kip’s book The Science of Interstellar will be available the same day the movie goes into wide release (November 7), so we’ll all know where to seek enlightenment.

In fact on that very same day we’ll be treated to the release of The Theory of Everything, a biopic about Stephen and Jane Hawking. So November 7 is going to be an unforgettable Black Hole Day. Enjoy!

Free Feynman!

Last Friday the 13th was a lucky day for those who love physics — The online html version of Volume 1 of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLP) was released! Now anyone with Internet access and a web browser can enjoy these unique lectures for free. They look beautiful.

Mike Gottlieb at Caltech on 20 September 2013. He's the one on the right.

Mike Gottlieb at Caltech on 20 September 2013. He’s the one on the right.

On the day of release, over 86,000 visitors viewed the website, and the Amazon sales rank of the paperback version of FLP leapt over the weekend from 67,000 to 12,000. My tweet about the release was retweeted over 150 times (my most retweets ever).

Free html versions of Volumes 2 and 3 are in preparation. Soon pdf versions of all three volumes will be offered for sale, each available in both desktop and tablet versions at a price comparable to the cost of the paperback editions. All these happy developments resulted from a lot of effort by many people. You can learn about some of the history and the people involved from Kip Thorne’s 2010 preface to the print edition.

A hero of the story is Mike Gottlieb, who spends most of his time in Costa Rica, but passed through Caltech yesterday for a brief visit. Mike entered the University of Maryland to study mathematics at age 15 and at age 16 began a career as a self-employed computer software consultant. In 1999, when Mike was 39,  a chance meeting with Feynman’s friend and co-author Ralph Leighton changed Mike’s life.

At Ralph’s suggestion, Mike read Feynman’s Lectures on Computation. Impressed by Feynman’s insights and engaging presentation style, Mike became eager to learn more about physics; again following Ralph’s suggestion, he decided to master the Feynman Lectures on Physics. Holed up at a rented farm in Costa Rica without a computer, he pored over the lectures for six months, painstakingly compiling a handwritten list of about 200 errata.

Kip’s preface picks up the story at that stage. I won’t repeat all that, except to note two pivotal developments. Rudi Pfeiffer was a postdoc at the University of Vienna in 2006 when, frustrated by the publisher’s resistance to correcting errata that he and others had found, he (later joined by Gottlieb) began converting FLP to LaTeX, the modern computer system for typesetting mathematics. Eventually, all the figures were redrawn in electronic form as scalable vector graphics, paving the way for a “New Millenium Edition” of FLP (published in 2011), as well as other electronically enhanced editions planned for the future. Except that, before all that could happen, Caltech’s Intellectual Property Counsel Adam Cochran had to untangle a thicket of conflicting publishing rights, which I have never been able to understand in detail and therefore will not attempt to explain.

Rudi Pfeiffer and Mike Gottlieb at Caltech in 2008.

Rudi Pfeiffer and Mike Gottlieb at Caltech in 2008.

The proposal to offer an html version for free has been enthusiastically pursued by Caltech and has received essential financial support from Carver Mead. The task of converting Volume 1 from LaTeX to html was carried out for a fee by Caltech alum Michael Hartl; Gottlieb is doing the conversion himself for the other volumes, which are already far along.

Aside from the pending html editions of Volumes 2 and 3, and the pdf editions of all three volumes, there is another very exciting longer-term project in the works — the html will provide the basis for a Multimedia Edition of FLP. Audio for every one of Feynman’s lectures was recorded, and has been digitally enhanced by Ralph Leighton. In addition, the blackboards were photographed for almost all of the lectures. The audio and photos will be embedded in the Multimedia Edition, possibly accompanied by some additional animations and “Ken Burns style” movies. The audio in particular is great fun, bringing to life Feynman the consummate performer. For the impatient, a multimedia version of six of the lectures is already available as an iBook. To see a quick preview, watch Adam’s TEDxCaltech talk.

Mike Gottlieb has now devoted 13 years of his life to enhancing FLP and bringing the lectures to a broader audience, receiving little monetary compensation. I asked him yesterday about his motivation, and his answer surprised me somewhat. Mike wants to be able to look back at his life feeling that he has made a bigger contribution to the world than merely writing code and making money. He would love to have a role in solving the great open problems in physics, in particular the problem of reconciling general relativity with quantum mechanics, but feels it is beyond his ability to solve those problems himself. Instead, Mike feels he can best facilitate progress in physics by inspiring other very talented young people to become physicists and work on the most important problems. In Mike’s view, there is no better way of inspiring students to pursue physics than broadening access to the Feynman Lectures on Physics!