Gravity waves and the Kavli Foundation

Norwegian Fred Kavli’s legacy has led to breakthroughs in various scientific fields

Photo: Dan Dry / courtesy of the Kavli Foundation Fred Kavli in his office at The Kavli Foundation.

Photo: Dan Dry / courtesy of the Kavli Foundation
Fred Kavli in his office at The Kavli Foundation.

John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly

Albert Einstein did the math more than 100 years ago, and now we know for sure he got it right. Until this year, no one had been able to measure what Einstein had predicted: gravitational fluctuation. But now we have it. It is hard to say what this means for us regular, everyday folks, but advancements in basic science usually do affect us (think “germ theory of disease,” for example). So until we see some new kind of gadget come out of the discovery, we can appreciate the efforts and support of scientific visionaries that dedicate their efforts to honestly understanding how things really work.

The effort behind measuring changes in gravity is an example of really big science. The group responsible for the breakthrough is known as the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and is made up of more than one hundred institutions. The instruments that detected “a ripple in the fabric of space-time” are at LIGO observatories in Hanford, Wash. and Livingston, La. Each LIGO instrument is made up of two perpendicular “tunnels” that splay 4 km from their intersection. Fluctuations in gravity actually change the length of tunnel-arms by a tiny amount, but an amount that can be measured through changes in the phases of light beams traveling through the tunnels. By using two LIGO observatories, scientists can tell gravitational “signal” from the “noise” of less cosmic disturbances. On September 14, 2015, both LIGO observatories saw the same pattern with enough detail to remove all doubt: a gravitational wave had passed through both observatories. Not only that, the interval of time separating the measurements matched the time expected for the distance from Livingston to Hanford.

Wow! Of course, there is a Norwegian-American connection: the Kavli Foundation is among the supporters of the LIGO project.

Fred Kavli was originally from Eresfjord, Norway (Near Molde). Fred and his brother Aslak started with backyard science during the Second World War. Under the German occupation, gasoline was scarce. But it is actually possible to run a gasoline motor on what is basically wood smoke. The Kavli brothers made wood pellet fuel for these smoky cars. Fred moved to Canada in 1955 and eventually to the U.S. once he was able to procure a visa. In the States he worked on missile guidance systems. Fred’s understanding of science and technology coexisted with business acumen, a rare combination in one individual, and he was able to convince investors to fund his own business. Kavlico became of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautics. He sold Kavlico for $345 million in the year 2000, but by then he had also accumulated huge wealth through shrewd real-estate investment.

I think Fred Kavli would have celebrated along with scientists on the discovery of gravitational waves. Unfortunately, he died in 2013 at the age of 86. But his legacy lives on through his foundation and the institutes that bear his name. There are sixteen Kavli Institutes in all with focuses on cosmology, physics, and neuroscience. These institutes are housed in universities around the world (including NTNU in Trondheim). The institutes are not required to focus on any specific subject but are free to do any research they see fit. Six researchers associated with the Kavli institutes are Nobel laureates: David Gross, Frank Wilczek, Richard Axel, Eric Kandel, Edvard Moser, and May-Britt Moser.

The Kavli story is an inspiration, not only because it shows what one man can achieve, but also because it shows that Fred understood that scientists need the means to cooperate if they are to do the really heavy lifting.

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., but soon moved to Oslo, Norway. He studied at the University of Oslo and married his wife, Robin, in Oslo. They became friends with Norwegians and American colleagues alike. In 2003, they moved to Seattle, Robin’s home town. They visit Norway often and participate in the Scandinavian community in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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