A Nobel laureate, black holes and Hollywood: Engineers Week at Sweet Briar celebrates engineering and physics, science and art

Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne speaks at Sweet Briar College on Feb. 20, 2019.

Even another snow day, brought on by a strange collision of snow, ice and rain, couldn’t derail Sweet Briar College’s annual celebration of National Engineers Week on Wednesday, Feb. 20. The weather certainly didn’t deter area engineers, college students, faculty, staff and community members from packing the field house, nor did it prevent Nobel laureate and keynote speaker Kip Thorne from making it to campus that afternoon — and back to the airport four hours later — to talk about the collision of black holes, and how his discovery of gravitational waves required close collaboration between engineers and physicists.

His cousin, Sweet Briar engineering professor T.C. Scott, had invited him to campus to speak at the regional banquet, sponsored for the fourth time by Sweet Briar College’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program. “Our grandfather,” Thorne told the crowd of nearly 300, “once told me: If I could find something as an adult that is like play, I had succeeded. Well, I have succeeded.”

It was obvious from the sparkle in his eyes that even at 78, this is still true for Thorne.

Engineers Week BanquetSweet Briar student Yasmin Bekri ’20, who introduced Thorne, noted that his accomplishments as a theoretical physicist were much too exhaustive to relay in an entire evening, let alone a few minutes. Consequently, Thorne’s talk focused entirely on the massive collaboration that led to his 2015 discovery of gravitational waves, which earned him and two other scientists the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. He admitted his entire team should have received the honor, and there were many involved: What started as a team of about 50 physicists and engineers from Caltech and MIT has now grown to 1,200 scientists from 80 institutions and 18 different nations. The number of data channels: a staggering 100,000.

Since 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory — LIGO — has discovered 10 black hole collisions, Thorne noted. By 2030, he predicts, scientists will be able to see 20 times farther. “We’ll see every black hole collision of the universe going back to the beginning,” he added. Of course, Thorne knows that he may be wrong — that’s just how science works. “I’m always hoping for things to go wrong,” he told the audience after a brief Q&A. “Not with our experiments, but in terms of our predictions.”

What does he mean by that? Sweet Briar engineering students would know. Before the banquet, they had a chance to meet Thorne during a 30-minute Q&A in Guion Science Center. Junior Karlynn McCarthy wanted to know: Does being a scientist take a special kind of courage?

Woo and Thorne
Sweet Briar College President Meredith Woo and Thorne after the presentation

“You have to be willing to try to look beyond the boundaries of current knowledge, and with enough wisdom, you might have half a chance of getting it right,” Thorne replied. When he first began working with black holes, he explained, most physicists didn’t think they existed. One’s speculations, he said, always have the potential of being proven true as time evolves, or they could turn out to be completely false. Being wrong over and over again makes scientists humble, he said. But it also is a natural aspect of science, and necessary to progress. “My Ph.D. advisor’s motto was: ‘The best physicists are the ones who make the most mistakes the fastest, because they get to the truth much quicker than anyone else.’”

Another question, by junior Isabel Joyner, dealt with the movie “Interstellar,” on which Thorne collaborated with director Christopher Nolan. They had agreed, he said, that the film would not violate any laws of physics. But, Thorne admitted, understanding the movie was impossible without reading his book, “The Science of Interstellar.” Nolan, he said, wanted to have an ending that was as puzzling as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Students and Thorne
Engineering majors pose for a photo with Thorne after the Q&A.

Since the 2014 movie, Thorne has waded deeper into what he calls the intersection between science and art: There is a new secret movie project; a collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer and “visual effects guru” Paul Franklin on multimedia concerts about “The Warped Side of the Universe”; and a forthcoming book on “The Warped Side of the Universe,” composed of paintings by the artist Lia Halloran and poetic prose by Thorne.

Bekri wanted to know: Is it a stretch for the physicist to be dabbling in movies and poetry? Is it a challenge to be creative?

“Really good science is very creative,” Thorne responded, adding that he had just observed a group of high school girls devise their own electromechanical drawing machines during Sweet Briar’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day event. “That’s very creative.”

Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day
Thorne with associate dean Hank Yochum during the Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day event

The 12 participants — most from Lynchburg and Amherst high schools, one from California, another from D.C. and one from Richmond — had spent the afternoon just down the hall in the engineering lab with Kaelyn Leake, assistant professor of engineering. At 4:30, Thorne had stopped by for a chat. “Hi, I’m Kip,” he told the aspiring engineers, who kept working feverishly on their devices. Some of them had started to function, others jerked wildly across the table, shedding screws after a few pink pen strokes. Leake offered advice, but in the end, it was up to the students to come up with their own solutions. Thorne was impressed.

“I believe that we’re all born to be creative,” he told the Sweet Briar students during the Q&A. Going beyond that boundary of current knowledge, he added, “requires a great deal of creativity.” Besides, he noted, before scientists can study something, they need to know what to look for.

“This intuitive leap is a highly creative thing.”

You can watch Thorne’s full presentation at Sweet Briar College’s 2019 National Engineers Week Banquet below.