The Inventive Experimenter
As told on behalf of Ronald Drever
Ronald William Prest Drever, was born at home in the village of Bishopton, Renfrewshire, Scotland, in October 1931. Two years later his brother was born completing the family. The son of a local doctor, Ronald and his family lived in a house that was also a busy village surgery.
In 1936, Ronald started infants class at Glasgow Academy, a private school in Glasgow for boys, this being made possible by financial assistance from a grateful patient. However, World War II interrupted the normal living of the family in the Autumn of 1939; Ronald was moved to the local school, Erskine Public School. As local danger reduced towards the end of the War, he restarted school at Glasgow Academy, completing his Senior School in 1950.
Ronald and his brother, were very close and they were great companions, playing together all the time. Ronald was always an inventive experimenter. He was most content while being creative: studying, winding wire, designing and making gadgets and countless electric motors. In the interests of science, he would use his brother in his experiments, giving him electric shocks on his tongue and fingers. He loved Meccano, metal rods, screws and nuts, wheels, gears and wind up engines. He was particularly fascinated by the interaction of light and mirrors. He would spend hours aligning them to increase path lengths and study the changes. One of his favourite games was the “Pepper’s Ghost” which he used as a party trick making things disappear and reappear through the use of mirrors and glass.
By the age of 14, Ronald was an accomplished constructor; he could construct and repair anything, electricity was his joy. Tools and metals were in short supply during wartime, but he was an expert with scrap from a young age and was great with his hands. He would even make his own tools to repair clocks and radios for his father’s patients. Many of them in return offered him pieces of wood and metal fragments; which he would cut away with a hacksaw for his electric motor armatures or other electrical toys. He once made a 12-inch-long toy boat with a wooden propeller that was made from scraps of wood and an electric motor that he made from scratch.
Ronald’s father was not an engineer or a scientist; his Uncle, John Richan Drever, known as ‘Uncle Rec’ was the person who filled that gap in Ronald’s knowledge. Uncle Rec was an inventive and cheerful man. He was skilfully trained in precision engineering, astronomy, mathematics and arts. During the War he had worked on Lancaster bombers at the British aircraft manufacturer, AVRO, making fine adjustments of the spinning mechanism on the bouncing bomb of Dam Busters fame – made from bicycle frames in prototypes. At the end of the War, he came to live with Ronald’s family while enrolling in correspondence courses for commercial art. He showed Ronald many conceptual and practical techniques in design and construction – large and minute; investigation of motors and engines, making odd tools, and honed an artist’s care for fine carving.
Ronald’s father had built a garage with a workshop at the side of the family house after the War ended. In the garage Ronald amassed all kinds of electric gadgetry, racks of war surplus radios, cathode ray tubes from bombers, old generators, small and large motors, lots of small magnets, other bits and pieces of ‘useful’ electronic kit and along with all his Meccano sets. Nothing was ever thrown away, they were all packed into this small area. This was an ideal space for Ronald with Uncle Rec, to advance construction and design thoughts, further learning technical methods and techniques. Uncle Rec showed Ronald how to repair almost anything – often with items just lying around the house. Uncle Rec was a perfectionist, delighting in top-most quality in all he did. This fastidious attention to detail and fundamental inside-out know-how of mechanisms was to prove fundamental to Ronald’s scientific career.
At school Ronald excelled in Mathematics and Science – Physics in particular – for which he won many prizes. His Physics teacher, Mr. Sowery, recognised his talents and nurtured him. Ronald once made a rudimentary television along with his class, which he later replicated and enhanced with a cathode ray tube with a 4-inch screen, surplus war items and pieces of junk in the family garage at home. The family watched the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 on his invention while sitting on car bumpers and surrounded by racks of aeronautical electronics in the garage.
On leaving Glasgow Academy, Ronald accepted a place at the Department of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he embraced all the opportunities that this offered him. He graduated with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Pure Science in 1953. Ronald was exempted from National Service as a science student; although he did volunteer in the University Territorial Army as a wireless operator, a physics-related activity which adequately fed his interests.
He stayed on at the University of Glasgow for his Ph.D. studies. By the mid 50s, particle physics had become a discipline in its own right and Glasgow was one of the world authorities. His Ph.D. was supervised by an incredible team of pioneering experimentalists: Prof. Phillip Dee and Sir Samuel Curran. His thesis, awarded in 1958, was titled, “Studies of orbital electron capture using proportional counters”. Of particular note at this time was the mentoring and collaboration by Visiting Professor, Prof. Anton Moljk from Ljubljana, who became a close family friend. Together with Moljk, he researched experimental nuclear physics and low energy beta spectroscopy. Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Glasgow, Sir John Gunn, was one of the most important mentors for Ronald and remained a friend and guide throughout his career.
Encouraged by Prof. Dee, Ronald commenced spectroscopic investigations into fundamental relativity and gravitational theories, in his post-doctorate research at Glasgow. In 1960 he conceived and performed a highly precise experiment on anisotropy of inertial mass – an experiment that tested Mach’s principle. Ronald achieved this by observing nuclear precession within the earth’s magnetic field. He took an open air approach to his experiment – considering the earth in its relation to the cosmos – as his lab. He strung up car batteries from his parent’s garage and equipment that he borrowed from the students’ laboratory at the university in his family’s garden back in Bishopton – an ideal location eschewing urban interference. He stayed up for twenty-four hours with an old camera and an antique compass, taking measurements every half an hour of lithium nuclei in the form of a solution in a polythene bottle – surrounded by a coil – placed with its axis perpendicular to the direction of the earth’s field. Despite its apparent makeshift assemblage, Ronald’s device was able to detected a shift nearly as small as “one part in a trillion trillion” (Bartusiak 2000). This experiment is recognised as significantly improving on the limits set by Dr. Vernon Hughes, in a well-funded and resourced experiment undertaken at Yale University in the same year. Today the Hughes-Drever experiments are considered precision tests on the universality of gravity coupling and Einstein’s Equivalence Principle.
A highly stimulating year
Ronald’s unconventional yet ingenious spectroscopic experiment drew attention from another precision experimentalist, Prof. Robert Pound at Harvard University, who had just published the Pound-Rebka Experiment (1959). As a Research Fellow at Harvard in 1960-61, Ronald developed sensitive radiation detectors with Mössbauer spectroscopy for Prof. Pound’s ongoing gravitational redshift experiments. After this highly stimulating year, Ronald returned to Glasgow as a Lecturer, where he developed detectors for nuclear physics and made further explorations into cosmic-ray physics.
Between 1968 and 1972, Ronald was a consultant and Visiting Scientist at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, UK Atomic Energy Authority, in Harwell, England. Working closely with Dr John Jelley at Harwell, Ronald worked on Cerenkov and fluorescence observations relating to supernovae and pulsar emissions and other astronomical observations. During one of these trips, Ronald visited University of Oxford to hear Dr. Joseph Weber present his claim of discovering gravitational waves. This claim was questioned at the time, nevertheless from this moment onwards Ronald became transfixed by the quest for gravitational waves.
In 1971, Ronald accompanied by Dr. James Hough at Glasgow, built highly sensitive gravitational wave detectors, which monitored outputs from piezoelectric transducers attached to aluminium bars. This was used to set early limits to the flux of gravity-wave pulses, continuous waves and stochastic background levels. Ronald’s inventive nature led him to implement experiments and construct models and prototypes from scrap – famously using the rubber matting from his laboratory floor and old tobacco tins.
The Pound-Drever-Hall approach
Dr. Robert Forward had started to experiment with an interferometer at the Hughes Labs in Malibu. In 1976, his did a guest lecture at Glasgow, which Ronald was enthused by. From then on he concentrated on the development of laser interferometers for gravitational wave detection. By 1978, Ronald had designed his own Fabry-Pértot interferometer and wanted to build it on a modest budget without compromising its scale. When the University of Glasgow cancelled plans for a new synchrotron, he procured the abandoned space and built an interferometer more than double the size of anything that had been seen before. As the laser in this new design had to be stabilized on an unprecedented level; Ronald, in collaboration with Prof. John Hall of the U.S. National Bureau of Standards invented a new means of keeping the laser’s light pure and steady. Ronald realised that his previous colleague, Prof. Pound, had developed a similar method for measuring microwave cavities. This technique was published in 1983 as the Pound-Drever-Hall approach or RF Reflection Locking. Today this technique is widely used in many fields, including spectroscopy, chip and reticule inspection, precision standards definition, optical frequency standards, space borne metrology applications, development and testing of ultra-low-loss mirrors, frequency reference cavities, fibre optic sensing and nonlinear laser frequency conversion.
Despite the significant developments Ronald had made to its precision, the Glasgow interferometer was too small to conduct such an experiment fully. Meanwhile, Prof. Kip Thorne and Prof. Rainer Weiss from Caltech and MIT and had aspirations for a larger scale research project, which needed the skills of experimentation and insight that Ronald had exhibited in his research to date, and they enticed him on board. In 1979, Ronald became a full Professor of the University of Glasgow and in the same year, Caltech hired him as part of an experimental gravitational wave group. His time was divided between laboratories in California and Glasgow. His expertise was in turning concepts into physical form. He would prefer drawing diagrams or making prototypes to convey his ideas over writing conventional documentation. The long distance travels between California and Glasgow provided him time to fill notebooks with sketches of instruments he wanted to develop.
After living in two continents for nearly 5 years, Caltech demanded Ronald’s full commitment and this created a dilemma for him. He had to choose between Glasgow and California. During his time at Caltech, the prototyping of long arm interferometers had shown that size was fundamental. Despite deep connections and loyalty to Glasgow, he decided to say farewell to his home town, Glasgow, for California. In 1984, Caltech and MIT signed an agreement for joint design and construction of LIGO with Ronald appointed as one of the co-leaders along with Prof. Thorne and Prof. Weiss. In 1992 Ronald left the LIGO project. He continued to develop concepts and experiments in his own lab at Caltech, to further improve gravity-wave and other sensitive measurements. These included the use of magnetically-levitated test masses in interferometer design.
In 2009, Ronald was diagnosed with dementia. With encouragement and assistance, he returned to Scotland, shortly after the death of his brother’s wife, and moved in with his brother for a short while. After several years in sheltered housing in Edinburgh, he moved into residential care as his health deteriorated.
Ronald was often seen as a challenging person to work with and his inventions emerged out of “lateral thinking”. His life’s sole focus was his work, and he expected others to share his fervour. Despite his hectic work schedule, he kept daily contact with his brother and would visit his family in Scotland every Christmas.
Ronald’s contribution has been recognized 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 American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, who gave him the Einstein Prize, jointly with Prof. Weiss in 2007.
Ronald’s spirits were buoyed by news of the discoveries of his life’s work. He watched the announcement of 18th February, 2016, and showed delight in the appearance of his fellow collaborators. He was a cheerful character who enjoyed the company of others. It’s wonderful that he witnessed the detection of gravity waves in his lifetime allowing others to build on his vision.
Ronald Drever passed away March 7, 2017.