2016 Astrophysics Laureate Biographies

The Kavli Prize - Astrophysics

Ronald W.P. Drever

Ronald Drever

Born in Renfrewshire, Scotland, Ronald Drever studied at Glasgow University and gained his PhD there in 1958. At Glasgow he looked for gravitational waves first by monitoring the vibrations of aluminium bar detectors and then by setting up a 10-metre interferometer. In 1979 he was hired by the California Institute of Technology to lead a new programme in experimental gravitation, which led to the construction of a 40-metre device that tested many of the techniques employed in LIGO.

Drever has carried out experiments in a number of areas of physics, including spectroscopic measurements to look for anisotropy of mass and space - his null results providing accurate confirmations of both special and general relativity. However, it is in the study of gravitational radiation that he has left his biggest mark. Among his many innovations is a technique for improving the stability of laser frequencies.

Drever has been awarded the Einstein Prize, the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, having also been vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Photo © IAU/Gruber Foundation

Kip S. Thorne

Kip Thorne

Kip Thorne was born in Utah and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. After obtaining his PhD from Princeton University in 1965 and carrying out two years of postdoctoral study, he returned to Caltech and has worked there ever since.

Thorne has carried out a wide range of theoretical research in gravitation and astrophysics, including having predicted the existence of a type of red supergiant star with a neutron star core, and using general relativity to describe how black holes move and precess. His work has also provided the theoretical underpinnings for LIGO; he and his colleagues have established target sources of gravitational waves and carried out numerical simulations of the kind that allowed the September 2015 signal to be identified as a pair of merging black holes.

In addition to awards recognising his work as a writer and a science advisor to the film Interstellar, Thorne has won the Lilienfeld Prize, the Niels Bohr Gold Medal, the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology, among others. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, as well as being a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Photo: © Caltech

Rainer Weiss

Rainer Weiss

Born in Berlin, Rainer Weiss obtained his first degree and then in 1962 his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After serving as an assistant professor of physics at Tufts University and then a research associate at Princeton University, he returned to MIT and has been there ever since.

Weiss has contributed to a variety of scientific fields, including atomic physics, laser physics and astronomy. As part of the latter, he measured the spectrum of the very faint but ubiquitous radiation known as the cosmic microwave background, and was one of the founders of NASA’s COBE cosmic microwave mission. He co-founded LIGO with Thorne and later Drever, having laid the foundations for the project in 1972 with a paper detailing how an interferometer could distinguish gravitational waves from background noise. He has continued to contribute to nearly all elements of the experiment since then.

Weiss has been awarded the Einstein Prize and the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, and has twice won the Gruber Prize in Cosmology. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Astronomical Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: © Courtesy of Les Guthman