Caltech's Physics 237-2002

Gravitational Waves

Course Description

This course is an introduction to all major aspects of gravitational waves: 
  1. Their physical and mathematical descriptions; 
  2. Their generation, propagation and interaction withdetectors;
  3. Their astrophysical sources (the big bang, early-universe phenomena, binary stars, black holes, supernovae, neutron stars, ...); and 
  4. Gravitational wave detectors (their design, underlying physics, noise and noise control, and data analysis) with emphasis on earth-based interferometers (LIGO, VIRGO, GEO600, TAMA) and space-based interferometers (LISA), but also including resonant-mass detectors, doppler tracking of spacecraft, pulsar timing, and polarization of the cosmic microwave background.
The course is designed for physics graduate students or advanced undergraduates, and for scientists and engineers who have been working in other fields and are contemplating switching to gravitational-wave research -- experimental, theoretical, or both.  The live audience for the course [at Caltech in winter & spring 2002] was composed of about 1/3 advanced undergraduates, 1/3 graduate students, and 1/3 postdoctoral or higher-level scientists and engineers.  Mihai Bondarescu (a first-year grad student) had the idea to make videos of all the lectures and put them on the web along with all the other course materials, so that students and scientists elsewhere could benefit from this unique and timely course.  Mihai was the sparkplug and driving force behind the videos and this course website.

Prerequisites for this course are an understanding of classical mechanics at a level a little below the book Classical Mechanics by H. Goldstein, and of electrodynamics at a level a little below the book Classical Electrodynamics by J.D. Jackson.  An understanding of special relativity at the level of these texts is assumed, but no prior acquaintance with general relativity is required:  A brief introduction to general relativity is given in Lectures 3, 4 and 5.

There is no textbook for this course.  (No appropriate textbook covering the entire field has yet been written; this subject is too new and is developing too rapidly.)  However, for each lecture, a list of reading material is provided. The readings are divided into two classes,  suggested reading (an amount appropriate for a course like this), and supplementary reading (much larger amounts, for people who seek a deeper and more detailed understanding).

For each lecture (except those in the last week of each term, Weeks 10 and 19) a set of exercises is provided, along with detailed solutions.  The Caltech students who took this course were expected to solve reasonably well about half of the exercises.  Upon turning in their solutions for grading, the students were given the "official" solutions provided on this web site.  

I am far from happy with this course.  To some extent it grew organically as the winter and spring passed, refusing to conform itself to my (somewhat ill-conceived) plans.  Next time around the course will surely be better, and on the third pass it might actually be very good.  However, I think that this first version of the course is sufficiently good to be a useful resource for students, scientists, and engineers who wish to learn the basics of gravitational-wave science at this seminal epoch in this field's maturation.

            Kip S. Thorne
            28 July 2002

Links to this course's other web pages:

    Course home page
    Outlines of course:
        Part A - Gravitational-Wave Theory and Sources
        Part B - Gravitational-Wave Detection: original outline
        Part B - Gravitational-Wave Detection: alternative outline, with the order of the lectures made more logical
        Course Materials