All in the (Scientific) Family

February 26, 2019 • by Marc Airhart

Scientists often talk about the people who mentored them, and the students and postdocs they supervise, in ways that sound like a family.

A casual photo of college students and faculty sitting on a living room floor

Kip Thorne surrounded by students and other members of his lab at Caltech—his scientific family—circa 1972. At bottom left is Bill Press, Thorne’s former PhD student and now professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Other notable scientists include David Lee (bottom right), founder of Global Crossing Ltd. and current Board Chair of Caltech, and Alan Lightman (behind and to the right of Thorne), a physics professor at MIT, essayist and novelist. Photo courtesy of Bill Press.

Today, in the second of a two-part conversation, we listen in on two members of a well-known scientific lineage: Bill Press, a professor of computer science and integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin and his former doctoral adviser, Kip Thorne, one of the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of gravitational waves.

Show Notes

Missed the first part of the conversation? Thorne and Press talked about what it's like to be a scientist advising on a major Hollywood movie such as Interstellar (which just so happens to star UT Austin alum Matthew McConaughey)? Check it out here

Special thanks to the family of Bryce DeWitt and Cécile DeWitt-Morette for their involvement in bringing Dr. Thorne to Austin for the inaugural Cécile Dewitt-Morette Memorial lecture in 2018. Watch a video of that lecture:

Music for today's show was produced by Mike ArnoultAdrian WaltherFinn's Fandango, and Sounds Like Sander.


MA: This is Point of Discovery, the podcast that takes you behind the front lines of science. I'm Marc Airhart.

MA: Whenever scientists give talks about their research, there's this thing you see at the end of their presentations: they show a photo with a group of smiling people. It looks like a family photo, but look closer: those people around the scientist aren't their kids. They're post docs and grad students. This is a scientific family. Here's the point of that photo: Behind every breakthrough, there's a lineage of mentors who came before—and a passel of protégés carrying the work forward.

MA: Today, in the second of a two-part conversation, we have two members of a well-known scientific lineage. Bill Press is a professor of computer science and integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He recently sat down with the scientist who was his own doctoral adviser, Kip Thorne, one of the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of gravitational waves.

MA: They started by talking about Thorne's "academic parent," a former UT Austin professor, the late John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler trained some of the best-known physicists of a generation, including Kip Thorne, who recalls what it was like working together:

KT: John was a tremendously inspiring man, full of ideas and ready to let his students flounder and had this real wisdom about mentoring students: those who were a little weaker he gave greater guidance to, and those who were a little stronger he truly let flounder, and I floundered. [laughs]

BP: So what kind of a flounder were you?

KT: Oh, I thought I had made a great discovery at one point. I'd found a solution of Einstein's equations for a toroidal black hole (one shaped like a donut). I was so excited about it and I described it to John, and he must have realized that it was wrong, but it took me about three months that I'd made an error.

BP: Kip, you've had more than 50 PhD students over the many decades. I was lucky enough to be one of the earlier ones. … You've always been strong on teaching your students to communicate well. I think every student who has worked with you has had the experience of giving you the draft of a paper, and having it come back marked in more red ink than the black ink that they submitted to you. How did you come by that?

KT: So John Wheeler did that, to effect, on manuscripts that I wrote, and I realized at the time that there were aspects of technical science writing that I didn't understand that he taught to me through marking up my manuscripts.

BP: It's also a lesson that I pass on to my students, that if you discover something, you haven't really discovered it unless you've succeeded in communicating it. It's the tree fall in the forest problem.

KT: I did also try to push students in that direction.

BP: I recall, in the days when there were still chalkboards, that you'd insist that all of your students also learn how to write on the chalkboard without squeaking the chalk.

KT: When I first met Carolee, who I went on to marry, …she said her brother Bruce had been a student at Caltech, I said, he was in the first relativity class I taught, so she telephoned him and asked him about me. His only response was: he has great chalk skills.

BP: I know you were interested in gravitational waves in particular when I had the pleasure of being your student almost fifty years ago. You persisted in that interest for a long, long time. What did it take to be so laser focused like that?

KT: … when you and I wrote the paper about our vision for this field in 1972, I knew that if the detection of gravitational waves could succeed, it would be tremendously important. That was in one sense, the driving force. The other aspect of it was that it was a lot of fun. Working on this involved … working on really interesting little sub-problems along the way, and the collaborations were almost always enormous fun. … Just the joy of working with brilliant people to throw ideas around with.

Diagram showing how different scientists are connected to the 2017 Nobel prize in physics

BP: You always kept the faith that gravitational waves could be used to do astronomy…. Did it turn out to be harder than you thought, or was it easy and smooth-coasting all along?

KT: You know, I have a history of making bets with people, and I usually win when the issue is a science one, and I usually lose when the issue is how fast it will be done. I underestimated how long it would take; I thought in the early 1980s that we would have detected gravitational waves by the year 2000, and I lost the bet on that. It was harder than I'd expected, but all the way along, you could see what needed to be done. … What I feel mostly is some profound satisfaction that I did put my energies in the right directions.

BP: Now that we know that LIGO is a success, what are we going to learn from its future observations?

KT: With the colliding of black holes (I don't know if you call it astronomy or physics) is really interesting. You're exploring the dynamics of highly curved space times. The first neutron star collision that was observed … it produced electromagnetic waves in all frequency bands. The stars collided and created a fireball, the fireball expanded … roughly 15% of all the world's astronomers participated in observing this thing -- observed by more astronomers than any other event in history.

At the present time, when LIGO is turned on, we've been seeing about one black hole merger, two black holes colliding and merging every month… We are about a factor of two or three away from the sensitivity we expect of the current instruments; by 2020, we ought to be at that level of sensitivity and seeing two or three times farther into the universe. If you cube that for the volume, we should see black holes merging a few times a week, maybe once a day, and we should see these neutron stars collide maybe once a month, a few times a month.

BP: I'm in the interesting situation where both my professor and my student Adam Riess have won Nobel Prizes, but I don't think I ever had even the ghost of a chance.

KT: I think you're a lot smarter than either Adam or I are.

BP: Kip, after you won the Nobel Prize, there was some secret backchannel communication among all of your former students, resulting in an event that I know you know a lot about.

KT: I was up giving this talk, when suddenly, a bunch of my former students and postdocs started to file in to this banquet room filled with … a lot of illustrious people. I could not figure out what was going on, and I muttered some sort of mild profanity under my breath …they were all there -- you were among them, Bill! – were all there to kidnap me and steal me away from this conference to take me back to Pasadena for a reunion with former postdocs and graduate students.

BP: To a much livelier party than the one you were at, but with not such famous people.

KT: With people who were a lot more fun to be with.

BP: It was a lot of fun, and it would have been a lot of fun even if you hadn't won the Nobel Prize.

MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. To hear part one of this conversation, where Kip Thorne and Bill Press talk about science in Hollywood, visit us on the web at or wherever you get your podcasts. Our senior producer is Christine Sinatra. Special thanks to Bill Press and Kip Thorne for today's conversation, and to the family of Bryce DeWitt and Cécile DeWitt-Morette for their involvement in bringing Dr. Thorne to Austin for the inaugural Cécile DeWitt-Morette Memorial lecture. Find a video of that lecture, with a lot more interesting behind-the-scenes science, on our website along with notes on today's music, archival lab photos and a fun infographic that relates to the famous scientific family featured on today's show. I'm your host and producer Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening!