Ronald Drever

Born: October 26, 1931;

Died: March 7, 2017

PROFESSOR Ronald W P Drever, who has died aged 85, was a Scottish physicist who led the way on the detection of gravitational waves, the ripples in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein. Professor Drever established Glasgow’s first dedicated gravitational waves research group in the 1970s and was part of the team that drove the establishment of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, which detected evidence of gravitational waves for the first time in 2015.

Gravitational waves were first predicted by Einstein as part of his Theory of General Relativity, which demonstrates how gravity arises from mass curving space and time. The waves are ripples in space-time thrown out by cataclysmic events, and are thought to be key to understanding how gravity works and even why planets orbit stars. Professor Drever dedicated his life to researching the waves and attracted worldwide recognition for his work.

Born in Bishopton, Renfrewshire in 1931, he was educated at Erskine Public School and Glasgow Academy, where he excelled at a young age in mathematics and science, particularly physics. His family have a fond memory of him as a school boy building a rudimentary television set out of surplus items from the war and pieces of junk he found in the family garage. The Drever family watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on his invention in 1953.

He graduated from The University of Glasgow with a BSc (Hons) in pure science before continuing his study there with a PhD thesis, entitled Studies of Orbital Electron Capture using Proportional Counters.

He went on to work at the university conducting spectroscopic investigations into fundamental reality and gravitational theories. In his parents' garden, he worked on a makeshift assemblage that observed nuclear precession within the earth’s magnetic field, which improved the limits set by Dr Vernon Hughes in a study at Yale University the same year.

Today the Drever and Hughes experiments are considered precision tests on the universality of gravity coupling and Einstein’s Equivalence Principle. This unconventional, yet ingenious, experiment drew the attention of Professor Robert Pound at Harvard University and Professor Drever joined him as a research fellow developing sensitive radiation detectors for Pound’s ongoing gravitational redshift experiments.

In 1970 Professor Drever established Glasgow’s dedicated gravitational waves research group. Enthused by a presentation from Dr Robert Forward on the use of interferometers to detect gravitational waves, he began to focus his research on this area.

By 1978, he had designed his own Fabry-Pérot interferometer and built one more than double the size of anything that had been seen before. In collaboration with Professor John Hall, Professor Drever invented a new means of keeping the laser’s light pure and steady. This technique was published as the Pound-Drever-Hall approach or RF Reflection Locking, which is now widely used in many fields.

In 1977, Professor Drever joined Caltech as part of an experimental gravitational wave group. In 1984, he was appointed as one of the co-leaders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory project, along with Professor Kip Thorne and Professor Rai Weiss, where he devised methods for increasing the efficiency and power of the optical systems at the heart of LIGO. His insights led to major improvements in LIGO’s capability that were essential in achieving the required sensitivity and detecting the first gravitational wave on September 14 2015, proving a key component in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The breakthrough was announced early last year and was hailed as the dawn of a new way of probing the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. The international team included many researchers from the University of Glasgow - experts from its Institute for Gravitational Research led on the development, construction and installation of sensitive mirrors at the heart of the Ligo detectors which were central to the first detection.

Over the years, Professor Drever's contribution has been recognised by numerous institutions. He was vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was also elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a fellow of the America Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he was a fellow of the American Physical Society, who awarded him the Einstein Prize jointly with Professor Weiss.

For his contribution to the detection of gravitational waves, in 2016 he was awarded The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, The Gruber Cosmology Prize, The Shaw Prize in Astronomy, The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, The President’s Award from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, The Smithsonian, American Ingenuity Award for Physical Sciences and The Harvey Prize in Science and Technology.

Professor Drever's family announced his death in a statement, which said: “Ronald dedicated his lifetime to researching gravitational wave detection through LIGO and despite the fact dementia featured in his latter years, he was still aware of the global recognition that he and his colleagues at Caltech University in California and also the University of Glasgow had achieved.

“We are extremely proud of Ronald and his scientific achievements; he was unique and unconventional but very caring with a strong sense of humour. He will be sadly missed by us all.”

Professor Drever, who died in Edinburgh, is survived by his brother Ian, niece Anne, nephews John and Douglas, and six great nieces and nephews.

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