Albert Einstein had to wait nearly a century to be proven right. In 1916, the great physicist predicted that collisions in space could warp the fabric of spacetime itself—like a bowling ball warps the surface of a trampoline—sending out ripples called gravitational waves. It was an utterly counterintuitive idea. Space is empty, and time is, well, time, and neither of them can ripple.
But they can and they do and in 2015, gravitational waves were at last recorded by two great detectors, one in Livingston, La., and the other in Hanford, Wash. The telltale signal that proved the theory amounted to nothing more than a chirp from the instruments, but it was a chirp that resulted from something cataclysmic: a collision between two black holes—one with 29 times the mass of our sun, one with 36 times—more than 1.2 billion years ago. That finding that was equally cataclysmic in the world of physics, and the scientists behind the work did not have to wait nearly as long as Einstein for their recognition. On Oct. 3, the three leaders of the research—physicists Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology—were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Of the three, it is Thorne, 77, who is seen as the true father of the breakthrough, having first begun working on how to search for gravitational waves as long ago as 1975—and having pushed and inspired the effort over the two generations that followed. Thorne became known to most people outside of physics in 2014, when he served as technical adviser on director Chris Nolan’s landmark film Interstellar. When the movie was released, Nolan and Thorne sat down with TIME for a conversation about the collaborative process and the complicated business of turning abstruse physics into gripping filmmaking. Thorne, for his part, didn’t seem to think the two had to be that far apart.
“When I ask myself what are the great things we got from the Renaissance it’s the great art, the great music, the science insights of Leonardo da Vinci,” he said. “Two hundred years from now, when you ask what are the great things that came from this era I think it’s going to be an understanding of the universe around us. This is culture and I think it’s culture that the human mind and spirit embrace.”
With the Nobel announcement, the culture has formally embraced both the science and Thorne himself. Watch the entire interview above.
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