Ronald William Prest Drever, was born at home in Bishopton, just outside Glasgow, Scotland, in October 1931. The eldest son of a local doctor, Ronald and his family lived in a house that was also a busy village surgery.
Ronald was always an experimenter. In childhood, he occupied himself with inventing. He was most content while being creative: studying, winding wire, designing and making gadgets and countless electric motors. He gathered surplus war radios and cathode ray tubes along with other bits and pieces of “useful” electronic kit. Nothing was ever thrown away. He was fascinated by interactions between mirrors and light. He once made a rudimentary television in his Physics class at Glasgow Academy, which he replicated with a 4-inch salvaged cathode ray tube at home; enabling the family to watch the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
Ronald went on to embrace the University of Glasgow where he obtained his BSc(Hons), followed by gaining his PhD in 1958. During this time, he struck upon using the magnetic field of the earth to pick up nuclear magnetic resonance. Using basic apparatus yet with accurate measurement, the Hughes-Drever experiment was conducted in the family garden in Bishopton, away from urban interference. This unconventional approach drew attention from Harvard University which subsequently offered him a fellowship in researching the stabilisation of laser light. This was later described in the Pound-Drever-Hall technique, which has multiple applications today. Around the same time, he was also a consultant and visiting scientist at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, England.
Ronald always believed that gravitational waves existed and were detectable. On his return to Glasgow this was becoming a hot research topic. His experimental and inventive nature led him to construct models and prototypes from scrap, famously using the rubber matting from his laboratory floor. By 1978, Ronald had designed his own interferometer and wanted to build it on a shoestring. When the University of Glasgow cancelled plans for a new synchrotron, he procured the space and built an interferometer more than double the size of anything that had been seen before. However, this interferometer was still too small to conduct his experiment fully. Meanwhile, Kip Thorne had plans for a larger scale research project which needed Ronald’s talents and 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 on two continents for nearly five 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 Kip Thorne and Rai Weiss.
Ronald was often seen as a challenging person to work with. His life’s sole focus was his work and he expected others to share his fervour. He never married but despite his hectic work schedule, he kept daily contact with his brother in Scotland. On retirement, Ronald became an Emeritus Professor and gave worldwide lectures on the subject of gravity.
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, which gave him the Einstein Prize, jointly with Rai Weiss in 2007.
In 2009, Ronald was diagnosed with dementia. With encouragement and assistance he returned to Scotland soon 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. His brother continues to visit him regularly.
Ronald’s spirits have been buoyed by news of the discoveries of his life’s work. He watched the announcement of 18th February and showed delight in the appearance of his fellow collaborators. He remains a cheerful character who enjoys the company of others. It’s wonderful that he has witnessed the detection of gravity waves in his lifetime allowing others to build on his vision.
Information provided by the family of Professor Ronald W P Drever
27 September 2016 Hong Kong