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Interview with Stanley E. Whitcomb

Whitcomb, Stanley (2019) Interview with Stanley E. Whitcomb. [Oral History]

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Interview in five sessions, April–June 2017, with Stanley Whitcomb, chief scientist with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and one of the longest-serving principals on the project, having been at various times deputy director, R&D director, detector group leader, and acting director. These interviews, a follow-up to a 1997 interview [], were conducted about 18 months after LIGO made its landmark detection in September 2015 of gravitational waves from colliding black holes, confirming a key prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The first session deals with Whitcomb’s account of the discovery and its aftermath, with sessions 2 through 5 focusing on his involvement with LIGO from the 1990s to the present day. He describes LIGO’s evolution from a modest scientific undertaking to a Caltech-MIT-NSF mega-collaboration with hundreds of personnel at multiple institutions, and recalls the organizational, administrative, and technical changes that accompanied this transition. There is extensive discussion of the roles played by B. Barish, R. Drever, J. Marx, D. Reitze, K. Thorne, R. Vogt, and R. Weiss, and numerous others who made essential contributions to LIGO’s success. He recalls the doubts and controversies that swirled around the project, especially in its earlier phases, and offers his thoughts on the factors that kept it viable and moving forward despite these challenges. He talks about his multifaceted administrative responsibilities, including his work with LIGO’s Livingston and Hanford observatories, particularly the latter, and his tenure as head of the detector group charged with developing and installing LIGO’s unprecedented optics and other innovative technologies. He charts LIGO’s progress from Initial to Advanced LIGO, the establishment of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and international outreach efforts, including overtures to Australia and the creation of LIGO–India. His personal reflections on LIGO’s scientific and historic significance also form part of this oral history.

Item Type:Oral History
Keywords:Physics, LIGO
Record Number:CaltechOH:OH_Whitcomb_S_Ligo_2017
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URLURL TypeDescription with Stanley E. Whitcomb
Official Citation:Whitcomb, Stanley E. Interview by Heidi Aspaturian. Pasadena, California, April 24, May 8 and 22, June 5 and 19, 2017. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved [supply date of retrieval] from the World Wide Web:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
Subjects:Subjects > LIGO
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Subjects > Physics
ID Code:283
Deposited By: Oral Histories Administrator
Deposited On:15 Apr 2019 19:40
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 15:24

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