Friday, November 21, 2014

Under the Feet of Giants

Other movies by Kip - When I was a student, I used to watch movies with Kip. They were made by my brother, and did not feature famous actors. Instead they recorded lectures on gravitational waves.  Kip was primary actor and executive producer, and Mihai, a Caltech graduate student at the time, was "the driving force behind" (see Kip's course description). These lectures are still being watched by people around the world.

Today web courses are not a novelty. However, in 2002 the internet was too slow for them, and the cameras used for recording seminars were of very low quality. Mihai wanted his movies to be good enough to be watched for many years to come. He convinced Kip that they needed closer to Hollywood-quality equipment than Caltech could provide. Since their outreach department did not have the grant money to help, Mihai bought the equipment, taught himself to use it, and burned the movies on DVDs, which took many, many nights and days. He was, of course, reimbursed from Kip's grant, and was paid a regular Caltech graduate student stipend. Kip himself spent significant time organizing the course, giving the lectures, and inviting some of the experts in the field to be guest lecturers.  In addition, Yanbei (another graduate student who is now professor at Caltech and leads the TAPIR group) and Mihai had regular teaching assistant duties. Mihai also had his Caltech qualifier exams that year, and took classes himself.

I am three years younger than my brother, and we had always been close. In 2002, I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois working in Ed Seidel's group. Every time I visited Mihai, he would take me to Kip's group meetings, and I would sometimes help him burn DVDs at night. Once I finished my undergraduate studies, I was admitted to both Caltech and Cornell, and to other universities as well. I chose Cornell.  I knew Kip reasonably well by this time from my Caltech visits, and I also sometimes saw him at meetings. He came to the first talk I ever gave, helped me answer my first set of questions, and was, in general, kind to me. We even stayed at the same hotel, and took a taxi together to my first American Physical Society meeting.

Once the gravitational wave web-course by Kip, Mihai and Yanbei, was finished, Mihai personally took DVDs to the Albert Einstein Institute in Germany, and gave seminars about it throughout Europe. We were also invited to Louisiana State University, where we watched and discussed the lectures with a group of students that included Ravi Kopparapu, a brilliant physicist and friend. I later organized gravitational-wave lecture watching at Cornell.

So, what is the connection with Interstellar? The movies Mihai made might have given Kip the idea/confidence to start Interstellar.

The day he met with Steven Spielberg to discuss the acceptance of the script (wrote by Linda Obst and Kip), Kip took an overnight flight to Cornell and told us about his meeting the King of Hollywood.  This was about ten years ago. After briefly discussing with a long line of people who wanted his advice, Kip went to the back of the room to talk to me about my brother's potential graduation from Caltech. My Cornell professors waited in the front of the room, and were very impressed that Kip had found so much to talk about with a mere graduate student.

The rest of the story
By 2006, Mihai was a 5th year graduate student, who was trying to obtain his PhD degree. He had written an article with Kip in Physical Review D, and had done other work as well. I'll never forget my discussion with Kip that day after the script of Interstellar was accepted by Hollywood. Kip told me that he could not possibly let my brother graduate because the article they wrote together amounted to only 5% of a PhD thesis. The other work he could not evaluate because it was not in his field. Mihai had an argument with Kip over the importance of string theory vs. that of gravitational waves. He had stopped working for Kip and instead did some work at the interface between string theory and gravitation. He was the only student ever who had been sole author and has won an award from the Gravity Research Foundation. However, Kip thought that while famous people like Stephen Hawking wrote articles for the Gravity Research Foundation competition and won, the award was not prestigious enough and thus they did not matter. This was unlike awards from the American Astrophysical Society. Since my brother's petition was official, this evaluation was later done in writing as well. As I walked Kip back to his hotel, we concluded on a more personal level where I explained how much my parents, and especially my father, want Mihai to graduate. After all he had already spent 5 years of his life working towards this degree. Kip said he understood the pressure having had two children himself, but that he had to accept the fact that one of his own sons did not graduate from highschool. We parted friends.

I suppose it's true that sometimes parents (and siblings) just have to accept their children's failings. I, of course, agree that Mihai should have never argued with Kip in the first place. However, I can never consider my brother a failure simply because he is not one. He will never be a failure in my eyes, whatever the world thinks. I also pledge to always try to stand by any children I raise, but hope they will not attract as much trouble as my brother always has, and that they will always stand by each other.

Epilogue: Coincidentally, the ending of the Interstellar movie is along the lines of my brother's thoughts. It states that the equations we know now are not enough to understand the world, and makes extra dimensions and string theory play and important role. The original ending was supposed to involve the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, which would have been a less speculative way to find the worm-whole.

Mihai did graduate with a Caltech PhD in June 2007. His Caltech visa did not extend to the last year. For international students, this is can be problematic if they exit and want to re-enter the country. So, he obtained a job at the Mitchell Madison Group (MMG), a global consulting firm. This involved working around the clock to restructure major companies in a failing economy. He was promoted to work with the highest ranking partners and paid at about $2 000/day (before taxes). In addition to this, he had found out that emeritus professors can also sign his PhD thesis, and went and talked to every retired professor alive from the area. Each discussion was interesting and yet difficult in its own way. Eventually, he gave a seminar that convinced Barry Barish to be on his committee and sign his PhD.  For this he continued research work with Yanbei Chen that involved optimizing mirrors for advanced gravitational wave detectors. He took a number of transatlantic flights to work with Yanbei. He also married. David was born in February 2007. To be with his wife when David was born, he took paternity leave, and that forfeited his consulting job, but it allowed him to finish his PhD. Before his PhD defense, he was told he will fail if he defends. He chose to defend anyway. He presented his work well, and passed.

Many students who have done less are allowed to graduate because being humble is often valued more than being talented. At the time, it seemed so unfair. Since then I have seen this happen time and time again with many talented people who quit science because they had little or no support from the scientific community. Every time it happens with a person I know well and think highly of, I feel so powerless. We assume loses that we cannot afford, and yet we do it again and again - not caring about the future.

Mihai's salary stipend
After he graduated, Mihai did a one year postdoc with Yanbei, his co-author on the movies and friend. He was paid for the winter months at full salary, and then the AEI continued paying him with 300 Euro/month for the rest of the 2008 year. Mihai slept in a car he bought for 300 Euro. To help prepare Yanbei for his upcoming Caltech professorship, Mihai suggested they organize a journal club where they discuss and try to understand the most recent articles in the field. Since they were both Caltech PhDs, they were well matched and could understand scientific work often only after discussing with each other. They also published their work on optimizing the mirrors of Fabry Perot cavities in Physical Review D, which has been well received by the community. After that one year,  Mihai joined the faculty at the University of Mississippi. He taught Mathematical Methods for PhD students while he was still the youngest in the class and was voted by his students to be the best teacher in the physics department. He was in Mississippi for two years, retained an affiliation with Olemiss to date, and also received a similar position at the Universitatea de Vest from Timisoara.

Mihai has always believed in people and, generally, notices only their good side.  He even claims to have enjoyed sleeping in the car. His marriage broke up about a year later. I have never agreed with the type of sacrifices he made for other people and for his quest of immortality. I try to be a force of good in the world, but never at such expense for my health or my family.

This post states facts as I remember them happen. It is not meant to offend in any way. I have admired and respected Kip Thorne all my life. I still do. So do many, many other people. He is my academic grandfather, and the academic father of some of the best scientists in the world. I also think very highly of Yanbei who leads the TAPIR group at Caltech, and is an outstanding professor in his own right. I consider him to be a friend as does my brother.

Mihai's note on String Theory: Beyond their contribution to science, a lot of String Theorists end up working in the financial and consulting world. The availability of cheap string theory brain for companies like Goldman Sachs, MMG or McKinsey give the US the competitive edge to stay afloat despite its massive debt.

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