LIGO co-founder and Glasgow alumni Professor Ronald Drever dies


Credit: Professor James Hough

Andrew McCluskey

Ronald Drever, a Scottish physicist who is credited with carrying out key experimental work in the detection of gravitational waves, recently passed away in Edinburgh aged 85.

Drever was born in Glasgow in 1931, and studied for his bachelor’s degree in pure science at Glasgow University. In 1959, he published his PhD Thesis on “Studies of orbital electron capture using proportional counters”. He continued to do postdoctoral research at Glasgow and set up a gravitational waves group in 1970. He was then recruited to the Caltech team working on gravitational waves in 1977.

Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity, although they are so minute that they are incredibly hard to detect. They are the “squeezing” of space when massive objects accelerate. The waves were first detected at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO detects the waves by monitoring movements in very stable lasers that travel 4km through underground tunnels. To verify the results, there are two detectors – one in the north-west state of Washington, and another in Louisiana, in the south-east.

Drever’s work focused on building large, stable laser systems that are used to detect the waves, which must be immune to the seismic effects of the Earth in addition to being incredibly sensitive. His later research involved using magnets to levitate the optical tables used to isolate them from outside vibration.

Professor James Hough, a physics lecturer at Glasgow University and emeritus holder of the Kelvin Chair of Natural Philosophy studied under Drever, stated: “His death is extremely sad – an end of an era.”

Professor Hough continued: “He started the work in the UK on gravitational waves and then took his ideas across to Caltech where he built a 40m prototype laser interferometer. And I think without Ron, it would have been difficult for that initial proposal for LIGO to be funded.”

Drever was awarded several prestigious prizes, including the Einstein Prize with Rainer Weiss in 2007 for “fundamental contributions to the development of gravitational wave detectors based on optical interferometry.” He also won a slew of prizes after the LIGO detectors successfully detected the first gravitational waves in 2016.