“The music of the Universe? It’s so beautiful. It represents the excitement contained in our connection with the cosmos. And it’s the excitement, as human beings, of understanding: the Universe and the laws that govern it. It’s a pleasure immense, for me and for children of all ages and cultures, to be able to investigate it.” Kip Thorne he is an enthusiast. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2017 and a very long series of other awards, such as Breakthrough Prizea sort of second Nobel. Con Rainer Weiss e Barry Rain he founded the US project Ligoan immense ‘radar’ that with the counterpart called Virgoinstalled in Pisa, has detected the existence of gravitational waves: a century after the predictions of General Relativity by Albert Einsteinthe ripples in spacetime have finally come to light, paving the way for a new astronomy, revealing phenomena that were only theorized until recently, such as collisions between black holes or neutron stars.
Gravitational waves never cease to amaze: for some time now they have also become a signal and a series of sounds. A chirp, in the jargon of professionals. A sound message that is the result of the translation of the Big Data provided by the interferometers: the so-called “sonification” of the cosmos, a sophisticated process that is accompanying its visualization and which ignites fantasies. The result is an immersive and multidimensional experience: valuable for researchers, exciting for the general public. This is what Kip Thorne says about it.
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Professor, when we talk about the Universe we immediately think of extraordinary images, such as those processed by the Hubble telescope. But now we can also enjoy his sounds, such as chirps, and even his music. How important are they for the advancement of our knowledge?
“The first chirp, the first signal of a gravitational wave, was extraordinary. And very short. Then we obtained others, longer ones. The most famous comes from two black holes spiraling into each other, always getting closer more: the sound grows in intensity, until it stops abruptly, when they collide. Another, which was equally exciting, picked up by both Ligo and Virgo, comes from two neutron stars, each of which has a mass equal to and a half times that of the Sun. They spiral, collide, and finally merge, creating vast quantities of gold and platinum and other precious metals. In that case the chirp lasted for a full minute. It was a very, very, very long time indeed. long. And it was different from the black hole chirp, because the stars were smaller and less massive.”
What does the conversion of astronomical data, for example from telescopes, into sounds and melodies mean?
“I think it’s important for communicating with non-scientists, while for scientists the shapes of the sound waves, the peaks and troughs, are important. When you reproduce the chirps and observe their display, you can see the oscillations in detail. They are the latter which bring with them information on the source of the sound itself: whether it is two stars, rather than two black holes or, instead, a black hole that is about to swallow a star. And the information also concerns how massive they are and how fast they’re spinning. It’s all contained in the shapes of the sound waves.”
Many know you as the scientific consultant for Interstellar, Chris Nolan’s blockbuster which spread a widespread passion for astronomy and cosmology: did this sort of miracle surprise you?
“It’s impressive how much influence it has had: even now, at least in the United States, it has become a cult film. Just recently some colleagues at Stanford University asked me to give a lesson on the science it encompasses: it’s a way to involve their students with physics. And with what I like to call the ‘warped side’, the deformed side of the Universe, where objects and phenomena are the product of alterations of spacetime, rather than matter alone.”
You also wrote the essay ‘The Science of Interstellar’: it was a bestseller, despite being full of hyper-sophisticated scientific knowledge.
“The film contained a great deal of science, very interesting science, and it is significant that the book was so successful first of all among non-scientists. And then among science students.”
Is it true that it was his calculations that ensured the plausibility of the time differential between the planet orbiting the black hole Gargantua and the Earth? There one hour would be equivalent to seven years
“Yes. Let me tell the story. One day Christopher Nolan he called me and told me he wished there was this difference, one hour there and seven years on Earth. I told him it wasn’t possible. The laws of physics – I told him – prohibit it. But he was the director and screenwriter, Nolan, and he asked me if I could do some precise calculations and give him an opinion: if it was really like that. And then I started doing all the calculations and to my great surprise I discovered that it was possible. Not likely, but very likely. It was a surprise to me and it is an example: too often scientists approach problems with strong prejudices. You think that, almost certainly, something is true and then you prove to yourself that you were totally wrong. This consideration makes us scientists more humble and I would like politicians to also live the same experience and confess their mistakes every day, just like we do.”
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You have argued on several occasions that science is a collective process, to which the communication of knowledge is also linked: how do you live this experience of discovery and sharing?
“I have received many awards and, in particular, for Interstellar, i Raw Science Awardsrelated to Academy Awards di Hollywood. And not only. They then created an award named after me, the Kip Thorne Award, for the best science-inspired films. But I believe that the greatest reward, the best for my work, is that of the many young people who come and have come to me and tell me that they have become scientists thanks to the emotions aroused by Interstellar and its plot.”
There are many discoveries waiting for us. What should we expect? New revelations about black holes, dark energy, the Big Bang? Or others from gravitational waves?
“I think two things. There will be big surprises and these will change the way we conceive some aspects of the Universe. The other is linked to the gravitational waves coming from the Big Bang. These primordial waves will bring us a lot of information about how the cosmos was born and also about the physical laws that gave rise to the whole process. I’m referring to the laws of quantum gravity. And these laws, for me, represent the Holy Grail. The greatest goal of all. And also the strongest sense of excitement they arouse the waves themselves.”
Professor, while waiting for new chirps, sonification is producing many unpublished works: one of the most impressive is the melody obtained thanks to the cross-processing of data from the three Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. It is a part of the cosmos that corresponds to the center of the Milky Way, 400 million light years from us. Some have defined it as a very relaxing song. What is it for you?
“For me it is the music of the Universe! It is the voice of the cosmos and the laws that govern it”.