Dr. Daniel Kennefick

"Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson Blues?

    I'm going down to Geneva, baby..."

   Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds,"Higgs Boson Blues", 2013. 

Dr. Daniel Kennefick (pictured above next to one of his books, Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves)​ took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his graduate school experience under the mentorship of Kip Thorne, finding inspiration in Johannes Kepler, and his approach to storytelling when writing about science history.

The following interview took place on October 27, 2017 and January 16, 2018.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up? 

 

KENNEFICK

In Ireland, primarily in Cork.

 

INTERVIEWER

Who or what were your main influences growing up? What got you started down the scientific path?

KENNEFICK

A big influence on me was Isaac Asimov’s writings on science and his science fiction. My parents, both of whom were teachers, very much influenced me in an academic direction.

 

INTERVIEWER

Were you always a writer? Or was it science that got you started writing?  

 

KENNEFICK

I think I was interested in writing even before I knew I wanted to be a scientist.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite books? Favorite books on science? They certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I guess I’m trying to tease out fiction versus books on science, which are generally more historical non-fiction.

 

KENNEFICK

I liked both Azimov’s science writing and his science fiction.

 

INTERVIEWER

Your PhD thesis was titled, “Radiation Reaction in Binary Systems in General Relativity.” What did you discover and what does it mean?  

 

KENNEFICK

Primarily I looked at how the orbit of a small hole around a big black hole would evolve as it emitted gravitational waves. It will be useful once a space-based gravitational wave detector is launched, as it should help interpret the signals it sees. That won’t happen for at least another decade.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of, you're currently involved with a proposed mission to operate a gravitational wave detector in space. What are the implications of that sort of work? 

 

KENNEFICK

Yes, that's the LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) mission. I should begin by saying that I'm not a member of the group that will put it in space, but I am a theorist working in the area that would benefit from and, to some extent, facilitate the science of the mission when and if it finally flies. 

We now know that gravitational waves are real - we have detected them here on

Earth through the LIGO's and Virgo projects, but they are just the tip of the iceberg of the gravitational waves that are out there. From the Earth, we really can only detect the highest frequency gravitational waves. The lower-pitched stuff, we'll never hear on Earth because of the seismic noise in the ground, all those earthquakes and vibrations in the ground are just drowning it out. The reason we want to detect the lower frequency gravitational waves is because they'll include, among other things, gravitational waves from collisions of super massive black holes at the centers of galaxies. That's something we'd love to know more about, but there's a limit of how much we can get from current astronomy because you can't see these black holes. But if they collide and merge, you can detect the gravitational waves coming from them.

More than a decade ago, LISA was a favored mission of NASA in conjunction with

the European Space Agency. Unfortunately, a reorientation of NASA's priorities and budget crises brought on by the banking crisis led to its cancellation. Luckily, the European Space Agency moved forward with what was called the LISA Pathfinder mission, which launched last year to test the science and engineering. Due to its success, NASA decided to get involved at a lower level again.

Eventually that mission will fly, and I tell my students I'll be in the old folks home

when it finally happens, but I want them to come visit me and let me know how it worked.

INTERVIEWER

What are some aspects of your graduate school experience that current PhD students would be envious of? What do you envy of current students’ experiences?

 

KENNEFICK

Primarily that I had such kind mentors. That isn’t something everyone has. I try to do the same for my students.

INTERVIEWER

The Nobel announcement this week had to have been tremendously exciting news for you, not just because of the discovery that was honored, but because of the work you performed on the project with one of the award’s recipients, Kip Thorne, as a graduate student. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what your early days as a graduate student were like?

KENNEFICK

Kip was a wonderful advisor: knowledgeable, brilliant, yet kind and insightful. In my case he was particularly unusual because I wanted to combine history of science with physics. Instead of insisting that I focus upon the research he needed me to do he came up with the history project for me to work on myself.

INTERVIEWER

On that same note, some in the scientific community criticize the Nobel committee’s decision to not grant group or organization awards for something like the LIGO project. Critics, like Martin Rees, contend that the frequent omission of so many directly responsible for the award is “a misleading representation of how a lot of science is actually done.” What are your thoughts?

KENNEFICK

I agree with this, although it has to be admitted in this case that the three people recognized did play especially large roles.

INTERVIEWER

Einstein supposedly said he "wants to know God's thoughts; the rest are details" (this is removed from its larger context but is often attributed to him). What does knowing that gravitational waves exist and that we can perceive them tell us, if anything, about God's thoughts?

KENNEFICK

It is compelling because these things link the universe together and bring us news of things we otherwise could not know.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of, can you tell us a little bit about the mission and objectives of the Einstein Papers Project, as well as your responsibilities as scientific editor?

KENNEFICK

Sure. The project is engaged in publishing the collective papers of Albert Einstein. There's a long series of books published by the Princeton University Press - these contain not only Einstein's published papers, but his manuscripts, letters, and other writings, and in the context of his correspondence, also includes letters to him. We've just finished working on the 15th volume, I'm currently consulting on the 16th, and it will probably take us many more volumes to finish his life's work.

Part of the work involves finding his manuscripts, of course, evaluating them,

dating them, preparing them for publication, and providing them with annotation and notes that would provide some context for the reader. The idea is that it's a tool for people that are interested in Einstein, maybe even studying or writing about Einstein - now they don't have to pore through the archives.

As for my role, although I'm not a historian per se, my expertise is in general

relativity, which of course is the field that he founded, so I help with translating and communicating the scientific documents.

INTERVIEWER

One more Einstein question: what is your favorite lesser known anecdote or fact about the famous scientist?

 

KENNEFICK

This is a story about telling this story. One of my favorites has to be the time he angrily withdrew a paper from the Physical Review. So, Einstein wrote this paper on gravitational waves, having inaugurated the field, and then later on decided that he didn't believe they existed after all. So he wrote another paper with a young colleague in which he said so, and sent that one off to the Physical Review, too. The reviewer that received the second paper thought that its conclusion was wrong, and so they wrote back to Einstein with that news. He was annoyed, and decided to take his paper elsewhere.

Of course the referee was right, and Einstein had to change the paper in the new

journal he'd sent it to. Anyway, I was in a room full of theorists, and one of them, after I read the scathing letter that Einstein sent to Physical Review, turned to everyone in the room and said, "Wouldn't you like to write a letter like that?"

Certainly tells you a little something about physicists and their opinions of editors,

and also something about Einstein. We have this tendency to view him in this saintly light, but he had a mischievous side. He was no shrinking violet.

He was also aware he could be wrong. He wrote a book with one of his assistants,

largely to fund the assistant to do his research. One day, Einstein caught his assistant writing part of the book, and he said, "What are you working on this for? We're only doing the book so you can do your research." The assistant said, "Yes, but this book is going out with your name on it. I feel like I need to make sure there aren't any mistakes in it," and Einstein said, "Oh, don't worry. Plenty of things have gone out with my name on them that have been wrong."

INTERVIEWER

In the most simple terms, what was the reason or reasons that it took so long to detect gravitational waves? Was it mostly a matter of sensitivity related to our ability to sort through interfering wave patterns?

KENNEFICK

Certainly. Getting rid of the noise was a major factor. My daughter asked me a variant of this question yesterday: are gravitational waves rare? And yes, they are. Of course, in principal, they're very common, but the ones that are strong enough to put in the realm of detection are rare.

Gravitational waves just pass right through things. When this first one that was

detected reached the light of the detector, it had traveled all the way through the Earth to get to it. In astronomy, we're used to thinking that what you're looking at must be over your head because you can't see below your feet, but with a gravitational wave detector, you can.

It's been over 100 years since Einstein brought in the subject of gravitational

waves, and 50 years since the effort to detect them began. It took that long to get to the sensitivity that was required.

INTERVIEWER

Light and sound only enable us to understand so much about the universe and there seem to be limitations to what we can perceive using only these two waveforms. How does the perception of gravitational waves expand our ability to understand the Universe? 

KENNEFICK

Already they have proved the existence of black holes (or something very close to them), which was uncertain before and have helped us confirm our ideas on cosmology from a new angle. 

INTERVIEWER

Are you actively interested in other branches of science or how the implications of physics affect other fields of study?

 

KENNEFICK

I am interested in another area of astrophysics, galactic structure, and in the history of astronomy and physics.

 

INTERVIEWER

You seem very interested in controversies and, in the case of the search for gravitational waves, eventual triumphs of the collective human spirit. What’s your favorite historical controversy?

KENNEFICK

I have always been inspired by the work of Johannes Kepler, who was mired in controversy over the Copernican system and proving it using Tycho Brahe’s work (Brahe opposed the Copernican system). This is one major triumph of the collective human spirit, since Kepler asserted that Brahe’s scientific data could not be merely owned and kept away from him.

 

INTERVIWER

Speaking of controversies, arguably the most contentious debate, if not controversy, in science today is between physicists and philosophers, with the former questioning the vitality of modern philosophy, and the latter arguing that the laws of physics cannot and will not ever explain everything in existence. How to define “truth” and “fact.” Even though this is an overgeneralization, do you keep a stake in this back-and-forth?

 

KENNEFICK

Generally I avoid this controversy. I think it is natural that each discipline regards it own content as fundamental. Physicists think it all comes down to physics, but sociologists think everything is about society and so on. Since I'm not completely confined to one field I try to be tolerant of each of their attitudes.

 

INTERVEWER

In reading your interview with Quanta, I can certainly begin to see why, from what I gather, you’re fascinated by the history of scientific discovery. Scientists and their stories have long held a place in film and television, with examples today including Geoffrey Rush playing (one version of the) the man himself in National Geographic’s Einstein, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. I know the mediums are different, but in your books, are you paying attention to the balance between entertainment vs. education?

KENNEFICK

Yes, I think that a good deal of what I do is entertainment. We don’t need to detect gravitational waves to continue to survive, but it makes us feel happier as humans when we are making discoveries. I certainly hope that my books entertain people. Educating them is good, but it won’t happen without some entertainment.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay much attention to science journalism or how the major publications (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NPR, etc.) report scientific findings? If so, do you think American journalists communicate science effectively?

 

KENNEFICK

Overall, I’m impressed. When I’ve been interviewed, such as by Quanta, journalists have tried really hard to present my views and the science itself fairly.

 

INTERVIEWER

After the 2016 election, there was a lot of talk in the media about scientists coming forward to run for office. If you had to nominate one scientist to run for President, who would it be and why?

KENNEFICK

Noam Chomsky, though he is now too old to do it!

 

INTERVIEWER

What is, or will be, the greatest breakthrough discovery in physics in our lifetime?

KENNEFICK

For me, it is the detection of gravitational waves!  

 

INTERVIEWER

Last, but not least: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd?

 

KENNEFICK

Beatles.

Visit Dr. Daniel Kennefick's faculty page to learn more about his background and current research projects.

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.