Nobel Laureate Barry Barrish about literature, physics and his lifework

102 years ago, Albert Einstein predicted that the gravitational waves exist but he doubted that they could be observed. On September 14, 2015, the gravitational waves were detected at the LIGO (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) in the U.S. for the very first time. It turned out that the waves came from a merger of two black holes. They reached our planet after about 1.3 billion years travelling through the universe. In 2017, Prof. Barry Barish and his colleagues Prof. Rainer Weiss and Prof. Kip Thorne were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the LIGO detector and observation of the gravitational waves.

 

Last week, Prof. Barry Barish held three Einstein Lectures about gravitational waves at the University of Berne. One of the most outstanding physicists and storytellers gave me about ten minutes for my questions.

You were born in Omaha, Nebraska. Your parents’ families were immigrants from a part of Poland that is Belarus now. Is that correct?

That’s correct.

Where?

A small village near there. But the names of the villages have changed. My grandparents came to the U.S. in the 1900s.

And you went to school in Omaha?

My parents moved from Omaha to California when I was 10 years old.

How did it happen that you got interested in physics?

I didn’t know what physics was when I was a kid and my parents neither went to college.  I didn’t have a mentor or somebody who guided me. The first real interest I had that I knew was an interest was that I loved to read and write. At school, I was the editor of the school newspaper. And I just read good literature when I was twelve or thirteen. And until sixteen, I thought that I would be a writer but not a physicist. I thought I would write novels because I like storytelling. I liked reading a lot and was going to write novels. But that interest ran away when I was in high school. I became more interested in using mathematics. And when I went to university I thought I would be an engineering student.

Did any novels influence you at that time?

I have always loved Russian novels.

For example?

Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, and Solzhenitsyn.

Was Dostoevsky hard to read?

No. The book that gave me trouble wasn’t Dostoevsky. I like Dostoevsky. He always tells a good story and I could understand it all. But there is a novel that might surprise you that I read and pinpoint and I decided that I didn’t want to write. It was Moby-Dick. It’s a great story. As a reader, you have to understand it. But as a fifteen-year-old, I just couldn’t understand it well. I could only understand that a whale is being born. There is a chapter in Moby-Dick that is maybe 100 pages long describing in great details this white whale. For me, that was incredibly boring at that time. Reading it later when I was, maybe, 40 years old I understood metaphors and why it is a great novel.

 

But there is a novel that might surprise you that I read and pinpoint and I decided that I didn’t want to write. It was Moby-Dick. It’s a great story.

 

And why is it a great novel?

Well, because it is a very wonderful use of the human struggle metaphorically. Just seeing someone struggling mentally you see him struggle physically. And metaphors are really powerful instruments but it is not the power of the instrument that a young kid can understand. I can understand the struggle between two people in a Russian novel which is always there.

And Moby-Dick?

It’s about the man who had lost a part of his leg determined to get this whale that damaged him before. And the whale, on the other hand, is determined to get him. So it’s about two people, him and the whale, another person, and the struggle between them. Anyway, if I had to pick a point at which I convinced myself that writing wasn’t really for me that was reading Moby-Dick as a high school student.

And then?

Then I didn’t really know that I could do physics. I started as an engineering student at the University of California, Berkley. In physics, they were discovering all the new elementary particles. That was a lot more exciting than engineering. So I transferred after one semester to the Physics College. The rest is that I fell in love with physics. The rest is history.

Can you remember your first experiment?

When I was an undergraduate I had an academic advisor in physics. His name was Owen Chamberlain. I didn’t understand very well but he had been one of the two people who had discovered the antiproton on big particle accelerators in Berkeley. About a year before, he was my advisor. A few years later, he won the Nobel Prize. During the time he was my advisor he was extremely busy.

You couldn’t catch him?

I couldn’t catch my own advisor. Berkeley has a campus and all the instruments above the campus called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. I was sent up to do research with him. And I was going up to the Radiation Laboratory. Typically, he was too busy to see me. I used to wander around the Laboratory because I was already there and met the older man who ran what was called 184 Synchrotron. And he talked to me when I was an undergraduate. And since the physicist Chamberlain was too busy I talked to this man who turned out to be a very important person in the early development of the atomic bomb in Berkeley. But I didn’t know it at that time. Much later, I saw his picture. I thought that he was just a technician but he wasn’t. So we became friends – from my point of view – because he had talked to me, I guessed. They wanted to change the energy in the synchrotron. Many things seemed to be mysterious. And I started a real dialogue with him about the diagram that he did, control systems and so forth. So I spent a lot of time around this machine. I learned physics and read papers on the experiments. And I more or less figured out what I wanted to do for my graduate thesis. And I did my own experiment. It worked and I put it on paper. It wasn’t a great experiment but it was OK.

 

And since the physicist Chamberlain was too busy I talked to this man who turned out to be a very important person in the early development of the atomic bomb in Berkeley.

 

In 1994, you were appointed LIGO Director (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), organized its construction and oversaw the first gravitational waves searches. Why did you do that?

I think the reason #1 was science potential which I realized.

Was it a dream?

No, it wasn’t a dream. It was an opportunity. A lot of people had worked toward this. I knew how important science was. I spent some time trying to convince myself whether I could do it. I couldn’t convince myself that I could do it but I couldn’t convince myself that I couldn’t do it. Basically, because I couldn’t convince myself that I couldn’t do it and it was important for science I said, “Well, just try it. It could be a spectacular thing if you could succeed.”

What did your wife say about this?

She has always been very supportive. I think it’s OK to try things and sometimes not succeed.

The first detection of the merger of two black holes was made on September 14, 2015. How was it for you?

Some of my colleagues had an immediate eureka experience. I didn’t. I worried a lot about whether we could be misleading ourselves. I was concerned that operators could give us something that could be a mistake. Secondly, I was concerned that a devious person might have gotten our data and put a fake in there. In both cases, it was possible to test that in detail but it took about a month. And after a month, I was convinced.

 

Some of my colleagues had an immediate eureka experience. I didn’t.

 

Once you said that gravitational waves couldn’t be detected 30 or 50 years ago since there was no sufficient equipment. May we hope that with more advanced technologies we can explore more than just 5-10% of the whole universe in 5-10 years?

I don’t know about 5 or 10 years. What I do understand is that this is not the best detector you can build. We know how to make it better. And the opportunity is there.

Is there a question in astrophysics you would recommend to take on to a young physicist?

You can never anticipate when discoveries are made. Sometimes, you believe that everything is going to happen in the same year. I worked a lot in my life with neutrinos. The neutrinos were a kind of tools for studying physics about 50 years ago. People who won the Nobel Prize first discovered the neutrino. The second Nobel Prize was awarded 15 years later for understanding the burning cycle of the Sun because neutrinos revealed that. The third Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery that neutrinos have some mass and they change identity. So there have been generations. When you open the field that is rich and promising there is a future for large discoveries. I believe that’s true here.

 

You can never anticipate when discoveries are made.

 

If you could speak with Einstein who assumed that gravitational waves exist what would you tell him?

I would tell him that he has great foresight and thank him for coming up with the motivation for us to look at them.

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