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KipFest: LIGO Fetes One of its Own

KipFest: LIGO Fetes One of its Own

- Contributed by Elizabeth K. Wood (with even more contributions from Richard Price and Carolee Winstein)

Professor. Kip S. Thorne On June 1-3, Caltech and the world celebrated Kipfest, the 60th birthday of Professor Kip S. Thorne, on the University's verdant Pasadena campus. Kipís birthday, by sheer coincidence, is June 1. The first two days of the gathering, Thursday and Friday, consisted of 14 lectures in Caltech's Ramo auditorium. These lectures covered a broad range of topics in physics in which Kip has had a significant influence. Speakers included LIGOís own Rai Weiss, as well as Saul Teukolsky, members of the Kipfest organizing committee and, of course, a vast array of other former Kip postdocs, students, and colleagues.

A dazzling banquet was held in Kipís honor on Friday night in Caltechís Athenaeum, an evening replete with distinguished guests, surprise visitors, memories of a notable lifetime and career, the Physics Chanteuse, and Bernie and the Gravitones.

Saturday, June 3, was a day of public lectures at Caltech's Beckman auditorium--a gift to the community to recognize Kip's commitment to the popularization of science. Speaking were Stephen Hawking, Timothy Ferris, Alan Lightman, Igor Novikov, and Kip himself. These five lectures will form the nucleus of a book for the general public slated to be published by W.W. Norton.

You can visit the official Kipfest web site by clicking here.

Okay, there is the journalistís who, what, when, where, and why. Now letís get to the real details of putting on a birthday party for an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist/cosmologist.

Kip and Academic Family Tree Kip, Sandra, Barrie Everybody Sings 'Happy Birthday'


From left to right: Kip remarks on the academic family tree presented to him; Is given a birthday snuggle by sisters Sandra and Barrie; Is serenaded with birthday wishes.

How It All Began

Planning for Kipfest began three years ago in a conspiracy of Kip's former associates: Richard Price, Professor of Physics at the University of Utah; Clifford Will, Professor of Physics at Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri) and his wife Leslie; Sandor Kovacs, cardiologist at the Washington University School of Medicine (the only board-certified cardiologist affiliated with Kipfest); Eanna Flanagan, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Cornell University; Bernard Schutz, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics; and me, the only person actually associated with Caltech. I actually handled only about two or three thousand details.

It seemed so simple three years ago, with the scheming "disorganizers" throwing out ideas for a Kip birthday bash. Letís have a three-day celebration, they said, including two days of scientific seminars and an entire day of public lectures dedicated to the popularizing of science, with such notables as Stephen Hawking and Timothy Ferris as speakers. And letís have a banquet at the Athenaeum. Letís hire Lynda Williams, the Physics Chanteuse, to write and perform custom songs about gravitational waves and time machines. And letís make a book out of the whole thing and use the royalties as the basis for a scholarship in Kipís name. And videotape! We can't forget to videotape the whole thing and put it on the web!

But wait! Shouldnít we decide on what days this shindig will take place? And, of course, isnít that dependent on what days Beckman and Ramo Auditoriums are available? Let's see, Kipís birthday is June 1. So how about having the celebration May 18-20? Nope, that won't work: those are Seminar Days. How about May 25-27? No good, Bandarama is that weekend. What about June 8-10? Won't fit, Caltechís graduation is that weekend. Well, I guess itís going to have to be June 1-3. Wow, just in time for Kipís actual birthday!

And donít we need to reserve the Athenaeum for special guests and speakers? Yes, but the Ath takes reservations only a year in advance of an event. I had to wait until June 1, 1999 to reserve every room in the Ath (less one) and the dining room, Hall of the Associates, and reception room for the banquet.

Can we get financial help to provide for Stephen Hawkingís visit to Caltech? Certainly. The Sherman Fairchild people were indispensable in their support for his three-week stay in Pasadena.

Shouldnít we tell the invited speakers? Oh yes, weíll get them all lined up and committed to speaking well in advance. And we'll get the Saturday Science speakers to sign on the dotted line so we can include their talks in the proposed book. (Well in advance turned out to be a few months, but better late than never.)

Wait, wait, wait--let's start a scholarship fund! And let's pay for everything by putting together a popular book!

But one last thing: shouldnít we tell Kip?


Left to right: Kip with Eanna Flanagan; Kip again with sisters Sandra and Barrie; the song stylings of the Gravitones.

Kip with Eanna Flanagan Kip with Sisters Sandra and Barrie The Gravitones

Laying the Trap...

The most FA'd Q about Kipfest is how we got the honoree himself to agree to it. The answer is: through sheer diabolical cunning. The crafty disorganizers first spent six months arranging enough of the event's infrastructure so that Kip's refusal would have caused great embarrassment to the organizing committee. During all this, Kip was kept blissfully unaware. I even conspired with Kipís secretary, Shirley Hampton, to make sure no trips were planned on the days in question, and that those dates be kept clear at all costs. Kip suspected there would be SOME kind of recognition of his 60th birthday, but he never imagined the scope, the Chanteuse, the budget, or the assorted surprises. Next, the disorganizers, completely unburdened by any sense of shame, notified Kip of the plans using a mixture of dishonesty and psychological disorientation patterned on Caltech oral exams. A false web page was prepared announcing Kipfest, but leaving out a few details. In fact, leaving out all the details. At a pre-appointed time, co-conspirator Carolee Winstein (who is also Kip's wife) showed her husband the false webpage just at the moment a conference call came in for him from Richard Price and Sandor Kovacs. Carolee went to another extension and everyone began talking at once, making it impossible for Kip to say very much (again, modeled after Caltech oral exams). After a 15 minute hurricane of bewildering chatter, the call was over and Kip was informed he had just agreed to the Fest.

We needed to contact others, as well. Not only did we want scientific colleagues from Kipís life to join us for the banquet Friday night, but we wanted friends from his youth and family members. Getting in touch with one man in particular, Kipís high school debate partner, proved somewhat complicated.

Kipís debate partner had gone to Utah State University in Logan, Utah (my alma mater and also the university where both Kipís parents taught). First, I tried to locate him through the USU alumni directory. No luck. Then I tried locating him on the web. What I found was his agentís address and phone number. Well, that might have to do, I thought, but letís try one other avenue. I called my mom in Logan who called Kipís mom who called the debate partnerís mom who put me in touch with the man himself: Merlin Olsen, FTD spokesman, former Rams football player, and Kip's high school debate partner.

We referred to this method of networking as the "mom squad."

The name for the event that I had first envisioned was "festschrift," meaning a volume of writings by different authors presented as a tribute or memorial, especially to a scholar. But because so many of the people involved found this term too obscure, I began using the shorthand expression "Kipfest." The more retro phrase "Kip-a-rama" was floated at one time, but Kipfest wound up the official title. (As an aside, it was around this same time that LIGO was celebrating its formal inauguration in Livingston, Louisiana, which I ended up referring to constantly as "LIGOfest.")

After the first day of lectures in Ramo on Thursday, Kip asked a few close friends to his home. Well, it was closer to about 200 close friends, but no one ever said Kip wasnít popular.


Two of the prominent guest attending Kipfest: at left, John Wheeler, one of the most eminent living scientists of the 20th Century; at right, noted television and sports figure Merlin Olsen.

John Wheeler Merlin Olsen

The Little Old Advisor from Pasadena

The next evening was the official Athenaeum banquet. Two of Kipís sisters, Barrie and Sandra, both came. Sandra had let it slip early on that she was coming, but Barrieís appearance was a complete surprise, as was the arrival of Merlin Olsen. Richard Price served as the emcee for the occasion. Tributes to Kip came from Kipís 89-year-old graduate advisor, John Wheeler, as well as from Francis Everett, Merlin Olsen, Kip's wife Carolee Winstein, sisters Barrie and Sandra, and the professorial members of the organizing committee, named Bernie and the Gravitones, who sang "The little old advisor from Pasadena." Kip was presented with five bound volumes of his published papers as well as an academic family tree in which John Wheeler was the father advisor to Kip in a lineage that produced a proud line of academics who, in their turn, produced yet other generations of physicists.

The evening also included songs written and performed by Lynda Williams, the Physics Chanteuse, who incorporated the gravitational "chirps" into her tunes.

We called the last day of the fest "Saturday Science," a day of popular talks by some of the most prominent scientists and active writers in the country. Kipís close friend, Stephen Hawking, opened the day, followed by Igor Novikov, Alan Lightman, and Timothy Ferris. Kipfest ended with a talk by Kip himself entitled "Spacetime Warps and the Quantum World: Speculations about the Future."

The author and Stephen Hawking So thatís what it was like to arrange a birthday party for one of Caltechís (and Logan Utahís) best known celebrities.

Oh--and I wanted to get my picture taken with the guest of honor, but somehow I ended up with this guy instead! Go figure!

Well, I guess Iíve said enough. Iíve got some lectures to transcribe.

P.S. Here is Carolee Winsteinís verbatim transcript of her ode to Kip Thorne, er, Thip Korn:

A Few Thingular Soughts about Thip Korn

Thatís singular thoughts... get it??

When I mirst fet Thip Korn, I thought: what a sunny fame! But Thip spent his wildward fears in Yugan, Lotah. Thip's Rair was Hed. Dr and Dr Korn keared that Thip would be balled Hed, and famed him Thip outstead.

Thip talked on and on about the blunders of hwack boles, and hoped to trample in time. Thip and his bust beddy Hephen Stalking wade majors about time trample, and whether sacred thingularities could be obscene.

I remember distinctly when Thip published a paper about Mite Trample; Pichard Rice called me to ask if I thought Thip was Ho Kay...

Ho Kay..., you bet, the next week, he had me Haking Sands through a Horm Wole and the picture ended up in his Bopular Pook! I still have people coming up to me saying they Warolize me from the bookture in the Pik!

Thip went on to implain that according to Genetive Relerarity the horrent evizon (thatís the event horizon) is non-thingular, but there are thingularities at the center of hwack boles. At the center, fidal torces, for all purtical practices, are infantile. Expossible I implained! Thip said not to furry or wear. The horrent evizon covered the thingularity.

Good thankness!

We give farthelt thanks to Thip for his starvelous muddy of thingularities and for dinking theeply about heavenly bodies as a hole. We feel such mafer for this. When Thip sarts disgusting these ascinating fissues, we can all piece more sleepfully.

Bally Dirthbay, my Heatswart!