Long Haul, Towering Discovery

“Caltech has a long history of going after the golden ring—going after the great discoveries—especially if they’re hard and if the payoff is enormous,” declares Kip Thorne (BS ’62), Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus.

In the early 1970s, Thorne had an audacious idea: Build a large research effort at Caltech to create a whole new way of observing the universe. The new way was based on gravitational waves—a phenomenon predicted by Einstein in 1916 but never yet seen.

“Some people claimed that any such waves would be too faint to be detected—it couldn’t be done,” Thorne says. “The wonderful thing about Caltech is that we had the freedom to dream big.”

Some 40 years later, the dream came true. On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) observed gravitational waves generated when two black holes, 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, collided 1.3 billion years ago. And now, LIGO is moving forward with other discoveries.

Cofounded by Thorne, Rainer Weiss of MIT, and Caltech’s Ronald W. P. Drever, LIGO today is a scientific collaboration headquartered at Caltech that comprises more than 1,000 scientists from 90 research institutions in 16 countries. But before LIGO was created and became the largest-ever project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Caltech designated resources that allowed Drever, Thorne, and a small team of Caltech researchers to begin to pursue this new kind of astronomy.

In 1979, at a time when no other institution or funding agency was yet ready to take the risk, Caltech leadership allocated roughly $2 million in private funds (adjusted for inflation, nearly $7 million today) to help cover the expense of constructing and refining a 40-meter LIGO prototype on campus. And in intervening years, when federal funding did not adequately support computer simulations of gravitational-wave sources, Thorne and colleagues again turned to philanthropy. The Sherman Fairchild Foundation and other donors contributed some $14 million, and the payoff was big: Those simulations are crucial to understanding the waves that LIGO has discovered.

“It has been a long haul. Caltech has stood by LIGO and the gravitational wave effort through 40 years, through thick and thin. Caltech has been a believer, and I don’t imagine there’s any other place in the world that would have taken that huge risk and stuck by us in that way.”
- Kip Thorne (BS ’62)

Since its founding, visionary philanthropists have helped make Caltech’s boldest ambitions achievable by providing funding that researchers can use to venture into uncharted areas of inquiry. Discretionary support makes it possible for Caltech to invest in extraordinary science and technology whatever the time frame, wherever the opportunities may lead. In this case, the availability of funding and willingness to take a risk opened a new window on the universe.

As LIGO founders, Thorne, Drever, and Weiss have received numerous awards and honors including, in 2016, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy.

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