The Kidnapping of Kip Thorne

A couple of weeks ago I helped kidnap Physics Nobel Prize winner Kip Thorne. He was at one of those glitterati Hollywood banquets that he goes to from time to time. There were 45 of us. We broke into the banquet room, surrounded the guests, and — after singing to him — hustled Kip out the door and off to Pasadena, where we gave him a meal instead in an Indian restaurant.

Well, it was almost like that anyway. It all started when some of Kip’s former PhD students conceived the brilliant idea of throwing a surprise party for Kip, to celebrate with him his sharing in the Nobel Prize in Physics in December. The team was led by Richard Price, editor of the American Journal of Physics. Carolee Weinstein, Kip’s wife, was on the team, as were Carlton Caves and Sándor Kovács. It was a  simple plan: we all turn up in Pasadena on Saturday January 13, Carolee delivers Kip, we shout “Surprise!”, and we all have a great time.

At first the planning went perfectly. The word circulated discreetly, and something like 45 people signed on, a few even coming from Asia, South America, and Europe.  And best of all, word of it never reached Kip’s ears. The event known as “Kip’s Spawn Reunion” was looking good!

But — it was such a well-kept secret that Kip got himself double-booked. That same weekend, Caltech was hosting a Physics Summit. The Summit series has traditionally attracted top thinkers in physics and related fields, and what could be more appropriate than to invite the two new local Nobel Physics Laureates, Kip and Barry Barish, to the Gala on Saturday January 13? And to invite local members of the LIGO project too, in order to recognize their contribution to the huge success of the gravitational wave detection enterprise. Kip, among the founding members of the series, happily accepted the invitation to deliver remarks at the Gala, despite having just returned from India the day before. And why not — there was nothing else in his calendar.

But unfortunately there was something else in all of Kip’s spawn’s calendars! And changing the date wasn’t an option: air tickets had been booked, hotels had been arranged. Happily, what to some people might be a disaster, to Richard Price and his team was an opportunity. They enlisted the help of the Caltech professor of physics in charge of the series, and through her they got the cooperation of the Gala venue staff. Together they evolved an audacious plan that required secrecy, complex coordination, the devious cooperation of many people, and luck!

Something unlike anything that had happened to a Nobel Prize winner before was going to happen to Kip on the 13th of January. He was going to be abducted by some of his closest colleagues.

If if worked, then something unlike anything that had happened to a Nobel Prize winner before was going to happen to Kip on the 13th of January. He was going to be abducted by some of his closest colleagues.

Late Saturday afternoon, about 45 people rendezvoused at the New Delhi Palace restaurant in Pasadena and then piled into a bus and headed for Hollywood. With military precision timing — or at least as close to that as Los Angeles traffic would allow — the bus arrived at the venue. We waited a block away until we were sure that Kip and the others had gone inside, and then we advanced. The venue staff, grinning conspiratorially, guided us to the service elevator that took us to the rooftop level, where the banquet room was. Four elevator-loads later, we were clustered near the swimming pool, out of sight of the event guests, admiring a pretty spectacular nighttime view of the Hollywood hills. Then word came by text from inside the dining room: Kip was speaking.

Single-file, with serious demeanor, we made our way through the kitchen and into the dining room, winding our way around the walls to encircle the guests. Kip looked astonished, remarked “What is going on?” — but, trooper that he is, he carried on, not missing a word of his speech paying tribute to his LIGO colleagues. His audience, of course, was more than a little distracted, but when Kip asked the LIGO team to stand, the rest of the guests pitched in with plenty of applause. Kip was followed at the lectern by J. Nolan, the acclaimed screenwriter, producer, and author, who paid a very warm tribute to Kip, with whom he had worked on the film Interstellar. Then, on cue from the professor who had become our co-conspirator, we took over.

First, four of us took turns loudly scolding Kip for not responding to our emails and phone calls because he was too busy with travel, poetry, Hollywood, … .

Richard then tried to reassure Kip by reminding us all that we had always found him to be a stable genius, and kind of, like, you know, really smart.

Richard then tried to reassure Kip by reminding us all that we had always found him to be a truly stable genius, and, like, you know, really smart.

The proceedings finally reached their nadir as all 45 of us burst into a rendition of that great Bernie and The Gravitones hit, Wise Old Advisor From Pasadena (which had been created on the occasion of Kip’s 60th birthday), singing along to the original, which the venue was playing over the their audio system.

By the end of the second verse we had already long overstayed our welcome, so it was time for our final move: Richard and Carolee got Kip to stand up and lead us, single-file again, out of the room and into the elevators. Down we went and onto the bus and back to Pasadena. We returned to the New Delhi Palace, where an excellent buffet awaited us, and where Kip, beaming all the time, wandered the room, making sure he caught up with each of his former students.

Well, that is the true story of how we kidnapped Kip Thorne. And I think he enjoyed it!


[For those of you who might want an official record of the proceedings, here is our script, with many thanks to Richard Price —

The voices of the Former Students are shouted by four Spawn in diverse locations around the room.

Student #1 (Cliff Will): Kip, I was your student. Kip, I’ve written the first draft of the paper we talked about. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.  I tried email. I tried calling. When I called I was told you are away, in Stockholm or India. They weren’t sure.

Student #2 (Bill Press): Kip, I was your student. Kip I would like you to be on a panel I am organizing, but I haven’t been able to get in touch with you. I tried email. When I called I think that they said that you were at a poetry reading, but I probably heard wrong.

Student #3: (Bernie Schutz) Kip, I was your student. Kip, I need to submit my grant proposal, and I was hoping for a letter of support from you. I’ve sent you email. I tried calling but I was told that you were on a movie set.

Student #4: (Saul Teukolsky) Kip, I was your student. Kip, I need a letter of recommendation for my tenure decision. I tried sending email. Then I tried calling. They had no idea where you were.

Richard (to Kip):

Kip we are your academic spawn. Kip.. Why hast thou forsaken us?  You are our mentor; we are your mentees. We are the products; you are the producer.  In unstable times, and in our unstable lives you have been a stable genius.  And kind of, like, you know, really smart. But now… now you are a cinema celebrity, a poet of some renown, Kip-

We would hate to embarrass you; the last thing we would want to do is to embarrass you, but we are reclaiming you because to us, you will always be our wise old advisor from Pasadena. (Music blares.)]