Steve Mirsky: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk, posted on June 14, 2016. I'm Steve Mirsky. The whole world was captivated in February with the announcement that elusive gravitational waves had finally been detected by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. On June 2nd, the announcement came that three scientists who cofounded LIGO were awarded the 2016 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. They are Cal Tech's Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, and MIT's Rainer Weiss. Scientific American's Clara Moskowitz spoke briefly to Thorne and Weiss at the award's breakfast. First, you'll hear Thorne and then Weiss, who as you'll hear was kind of stunned at how much non-scientists seem to be interested in the LIGO results.
Kip Thorne: I think the credit for LIGO's discovery really belongs to a team of 1,000 people who pulled it off. Ray and Ron and I were there at the beginning and got it started, but it is the superb LIGO team that makes us look good.
Clara Moskowitz: Yes.
Thorne: And the one person who gets much less credit than he should is Brian Barrett, who transformed LIGO from a small R&D project that Ray and Ron and I started into the modern LIGO with 1,000 people contributing that really made the discovery in the end.
Moskowitz: Yeah, were you surprised that you won? Did you know coming into this?
Thorne: I didn't know, but I suspected because they begged me to come to this event. So I suspected that that might be the case. So wonderful to be sharing this with Ray and Ron. Ray really is the primary inventor of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Detector. His paper in 1972 about this technique became a blueprint for the initial LIGO detectors, and the blueprint that guided us for the first several decades. He really is the big hero of this.
Moskowitz: Well congratulations. It's very well deserved. It's nice to see you.
Rainer Weiss: We had—it was an article in Scientific American written by some of our younger colleagues in I would say the early '90s and maybe late '80s. Early '90s about LIGO. It was the very first article.
Moskowitz: I'll have to look for that one.
Weiss: Take a look for it. I know one of the authors was Peter Saulson, I believe. That's one name that I think is right. The other one is Andrew Jeffries was another author. Look for it, and you'll see it has a description of LIGO before it was built, and it—it wasn't terribly bad. It was okay.
Moskowitz: Sure. I was hoping to ask you how you feel for winning the prize?
Weiss: Oh my God, it's very complicated. I mean I'm very honored by it, but at the same time, I feel my God, I didn't do this by myself. Everybody knows that, but I think at least the man who made the announcement said, "Look, it was to these people, but also the people—and they must have been many of them who made LIGO work," and that's I think the right way to look at it. That's what I can come to terms with it if I can think of it as being something that has been given. Yes, I've been singled out in a way, but it really is for the whole idea of LIGO and all the people who made it operate. Then that's what I—people I think generally feel that way within the project.
So they're honored as well, and I think that's a good way for me to deal with it.
Moskowitz: Has it been gratifying to see the public just go crazy?
Weiss: Well for me, a _____ to answer that question, and I've been puzzling about that myself. A lot because I tell you what the question is. It's the following. I mean here is this thing. There have been many, many big scientific discoveries, so—and I know about them, but this one sort of hit the public in a way that I can't believe. So I say to myself there are two obvious things. One is Einstein who still when you talk about average person who hasn't looked at science, they know of Albert Einstein because the hair and all that stuff. But that's one thing. The other thing is black holes. A lot of people think they know what a black hole is. It's fine. They have a lot of it right, and they're scared of them, and they're sexy and all sorts of stuff.
At the same time though, is that enough to have done this? For example, I see when I come to New York, I went to New York to Channel 11's book opening somewhere in Brooklyn, the Pioneer _____. I go on a subway train, come off the train, I'm sitting there, and all of a sudden, I see this advertisement. Scientists can find gravitation waves, but it's much harder to find an apartment in New York with a big enough closet. He says, "Holy mackerel, how do they even know about that scientist did anything about gravitational…" Or The New Yorker had a little article. No, it had a cartoon. But very shortly after the announcements, two birds sitting on a branch, and one is looking at the other. "Was that you, or was that a gravitational wave?" Holy mackerel, where does that come from? All the things, like the Higgs boson or some really significant things that have happened never got this kind of attention.
So I don't know the real answer. I've given you the two parts of it that must be there, but I don't know if that's enough. But I'm delighted with it because science needs things like that so the average person can understand what they're paying their taxes for.
Weiss: To me, that's one of the most gratifying things that if we can make the argument that science is something everybody gets benefit from, not materially, but in their heads when they think about what the world is like and how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with the world, it gives you something to stew about and makes life a lot more interesting. And that's really what science is about. The sense of that comes across a little bit when something thematic like this happens.
Mirsky: That's it for this short episode, get your science news at our Web site, www.ScientificAmerican.com. We can read about how socializing can be exhausting for introverts and extroverts alike, and follow us on Twitter where you'll get a Tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.