Obituary: Professor Ronald WP Drever, made breakthrough work on the detection of gravitational waves

Professor Ronald WP Drever, 26 October 1931 '“ 7 March 2017, aged 85

Ronald Drever

Ronald William Prest Drever, was born in Bishopton, Renfrewshire in October 1931.

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

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Drever graduated from The University of Glasgow with a B.Sc. (Hons) in Pure Science before continuing his study there with a Ph.D thesis, entitled “Studies of orbital electron capture using proportional counters”.

He went on to work at the university conducting investigations into fundamental reality and gravitational theories. In his parent’s garden, Drever 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 Drever joined him as a Research Fellow developing sensitive radiation detectors for Pound’s ongoing gravitational redshift experiments.

In 1970, he established Glasgow’s first dedicated gravitational waves research group. Enthused by a presentation from Dr Robert Forward on the use of interferometers to detect gravitational waves, Drever 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 Prof. John Hall, 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, Drever joined Caltech as part of an experimental gravitational wave group. In 1984, he was appointed as one of the co-leaders of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project, along with Prof. Thorne and Prof. 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 14 September 2015, proving a key component in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Ronald’s contribution has been recognised by numerous institutions. 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 is 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.