Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career

Barry Barish: The Avuncular Avatar

Barry Barish

2017 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves"

  • Barry Barish was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1936.
    • His parents moved to Los Angeles, CA when he was about ten years old.
  • Neither of Barry's parents attended college, so he didn't come from a strong academic lineage.
    • His father worked on cars and his mother was a housewife.
  • But Barry read a lot of science fiction as a kid.
    • This got him interested in astronomy early.
  • Barry grew up near Hollywood and was around a lot of storytellers.
    • Because he enjoyed reading and writing, he thought his life was going to be spent writing novels, not running scientific experiments.
  • When he was finally "cured" of trying to be a writer, he applied to the engineering schools at UCLA, Berkeley, and Caltech.
    • "And so I went to Berkeley, mostly because it meant leaving home and not going across town, and started in engineering school. In Berkeley, I had to take another test to be an engineer. And freshman engineering consisted of engineering drawing, which I love now because you can visualize something. But doing it then, I had this terrible course and as an excited freshman where I got criticized for my arrowheads and that turned me off." - Barry Barish
  • He was interested in gravitational waves and general relativity starting in the early 1960s.
  • But he didn't feel the techniques available to detect gravitational waves were good enough at the time.
    • The technique pursued at the time was called Weber bars.
      • The device consisted of multiple, large aluminum cylinders acting as antennae for detecting gravitational waves.
    • The idea was that this great big bar of aluminum would be excited by gravitational waves and incur changes in its shape during the process.
    • The bar, because it was made of a particular material, would always prefer some frequencies over others.
      • This is a property known as the resonance frequency.
      • For Weber bars, this frequency is roughly 1000 Hz.
    • "And the problem I always felt was: why would gravitational waves pick to be at a thousand hertz? You would want to search broadband." - Barry Barish
  • Barry was excited about an alternate technique that emerged later.
    • This technique used the interferometer.
    • Unlike the Weber bar technique, there is nothing about an interferometer that prefers one frequency over another.
      • Why is this important?
        • "So in our case, we work on the Earth's surface. And on the Earth's surface... we communicate with each other in what we call the audio band, where we can talk to each other. And that is because the Earth is much too noisy if you go to lower frequencies. Animals go a little bit lower but not much. The Earth also shakes too much. And at the highest frequencies you can’t sample very well. So, kind of like music, we go from 10 hertz to 10,000 hertz. And that’s the range where you can work on the Earth's surface." - Barry Barish
    • Barry then teamed up with others at Caltech to work on research and development towards the detection of gravitational waves.
      • This process went on for a decade or so as they competed with improvements to the Weber bar technique.
    • Barry then started work on the planned Superconducting Super Collider, but it was canceled in 1993.
    • At that point, Caltech was looking for new leadership at LIGO and recruited Barry.
  • Was it scary for Barry to change from experimenting in particle physics to experimenting with detecting gravity waves at LIGO?
    • "Invigorating. Why would it be scary? I think the only reason that things get scary is if you are just so comfortable in what you are doing, which probably means you aren’t pushing yourself or doing anything very interesting. So, I have always done different things." - Barry Barish
  • Looking back, does Barry feel this change was a serendipitous one?
    • "I think what you say is true in the sense that, at least I like to think that we detected gravitational waves when we did partially because of myself. That’s measurably true because this is in competition with Italian-French collaboration Virgo who were approved actually half a year before we were. And we were in a race to detect gravitational waves that took them three years longer than us, even though it took us a long time. And they are still not caught up." - Barry Barish
    • As an experimentalist, Barry thinks that general relativity is easier than quantum field theory.
    • He also thinks this in part explains the difference between CERN and LIGO after their big discoveries.
      • "If you remember the discovery of the Higgs boson, it had a very tiny effect... on a background but the background is very well understood by a lot of physics. It has been measured and so you can look to see a small effect and see that it has statistical significance over a physics background. And that’s comfortable in the sense that you understand what is there other than what you detect. But it is very limiting because the signal-to-noise can never ever be made any better than what happens. And that’s the problem they are dealing with now at CERN."
    • In LIGO's case, they are limited by how much the ground shakes and how much RF (radio frequency) pick-up there is.
      • "And it is the reason why we have done so much better than say CERN after a big discovery. Since the Higgs, they are really struggling to go past that. A lot of my colleagues work in that, that is not because they are not smart and they are not doing great technical things, but it is because there is a fundamental problem. They are limited by physics itself." - Barry Barish
  • When the Higgs boson discovery was announced, did Barry feel he made the wrong decision in switching focus?
    • He doesn't feel he made the wrong decision.
      • "I think what I do not like, and I know it is one of the things that you criticize in your book [Losing the Nobel], I think the experimental feat was a big one and the credit completely went to the theorist that did something sixty years ago." - Barry Barish
  • What attracted Barry to the work at LIGO?
    • "The attraction to the field is that I always thought that it represented a new way to do exploratory science. Basically, a new way to look at the sky using gravity instead of using photons. And that meant that we could look at the sky, in principle, to do a new kind of astronomy." - Barry Barish
      • Another attraction for Barry is the hope that, if gravitational waves aren't absorbed in the process of detecting them, we might be able to use the information to look back into the very early universe instead of just a few hundred thousand years after its formation.
  • Does Barry think that quantum mechanics and gravity need to be unified?
    • "As scientists, it is attractive enough to think that you developed a theory that can describe physics and you don’t have two discrete ones that you can’t somehow make talk to each other. And so, it is attractive enough to think there must be a bridge between them. I think that it is worth pursuing. Can you really say that that absolutely has to be the path to truth? I don’t think so." - Barry Barish
  • Does Barry think that the Hubble tension will ever be resolved?
    • Barry thinks the Hubble tension will eventually be resolved with LIGO, perhaps within the next decade.
      • "I would say, to get enough data on our independent measurement of the Hubble constant to resolve that in a different way or get a third measurement, at the level that they are doing it and with the systematics that they talk about it, is a decade away. But doable in LIGO, not a future instrument." - Barry Barish
  • Barry believes that the peer review process has made science too conservative and has contributed to its slow-moving nature.
    • "A theorist can do anything they want and they throw it in the wastebasket, but you and I [as experimenters] can’t. We have to go and get some resources and we turn in a proposal and if it is offbeat it doesn’t get all “outstandings” in the reviews done by peer review. So, peer review is too conservative." - Barry Barish
  • Barry talks about LIGO's funding coming from the National Science Foundation (NSF) which means his research is answerable to Congress.
    • "When we had not discovered gravitational waves, the NSF would not let us spend a penny or even breathe that we were thinking about for the next generation. We just had to accomplish it." - Barry Barish
  • For science to progress, Barry believes we must be able to tolerate many more failures than we currently do.
    • "Experimentalists should be, basically, turned loose to follow our dreams. And I think science would move forward much more. Some of us would fail at things, but we’d have a lot more fun." - Barry Barish
  • How did Barry develop his keen managerial skills?
    • "Well, I think, anything that you do in life, you have a combination of whether you have the right ingredients to do it. I probably have both the personality, maybe the analytical ability, and so forth, to do it. But I am also humble. So, when physics started to require a fair amount of resources, I went and actually studied how you build a bridge and how you organize things and read the kinds of books that they have. It just does not take very long to understand that there is a kind of organization to building a bridge." - Barry Barish
  • Barry talks about his interest in Lockheed Martin's infamous Skunk Works.
    • The designation "skunk works" or "skunkworks" is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.
  • This type of organizing is particularly good at bringing people together to work with the freedom to pursue things off the beaten path, but it's wrong for the type of work physicists typically do.
    • Successfully managing a scientific organization is a three-fold endeavor:
      • First, you must have scientists, not engineers or managers.
        • There are many great engineers at LIGO, but it's ultimately a scientific organization.
        • Science experiments need scientists who understand the process, not managers that don't.
          • "With monitoring costs, for example, the important thing there is to make sure that that it is not done by a separate group of cost people, but that it’s the responsibility of the scientists that are running it... The guy that is responsible for making the laser has to be responsible for the budgets and it has to be translated to him in a way that he or she understands the budgets and it’s not just something that’s bureaucratic." - Barry Barish
      • Second is integration.
        • Integrating the wide array of systems and subsystems across the entire project in a legible way is necessary for cohesion.
          • "At LIGO, we had Albert Lazzarini. A very, very smart guy, very broad technically. And in anything where we had to bring two things together, like if you needed the controls and the laser to work together, he created the interfaces between those parts, which is just a bunch of diagrams. You always need somebody that is able to make sure that the two sides work together." - Barry Barish
      • Third, you have to do something to mute the change control system that exists in an organization to ensure timely progress.
        • Anything that takes a long time to build, like LIGO or CERN, requires that you stay up to date.
        • If you want to do something that will take several years to implement, you want to be able to be as current and forward-looking as possible at all times.
          • "Encouraging change and doing it responsibly is the opposite to having this big board that inhibits change and is great for making sure that the bridge you build comes in on cost and on schedule. - Barry Barish
  • Has Barry ever experienced imposter syndrome?
    • He still does!
      • "Winning the Nobel is intimidating, of course, to have this King give you this thing. But they walk you up at the very end, you go to the Nobel Foundation, and they take the official pictures of you and all this stuff. This is after the ceremony. I don’t remember whether it’s the same day, but you go individually. And I went in, and then they hand you this little book. And it is leather-bound and so forth. And they open it up to a page and ask you just to sign your name. So, I look back and I look back on the previous pages and there is Einstein's signature, Richard Feynman...How do I belong in this same page, same book, with a finite number of pages and signature? It's not like a telephone book or something. I think that I certainly have had it and I had it dramatically at that moment." - Barry Barish
  • What wisdom does Barry want to pass on to future generations?
    • "We’ve created a society where people have the curiosity that we all are born with killed at an early age in school. It is such a wonderful human factor. And so, we’ve got to do something about our education system to encourage, not kill, curiosity. And to me, that is the message that I think - anyone who is curious, it is wonderful, do it, you are not going to get killed." - Barry Barish
  • What advice would Barry give to his younger self?
    • "The big problem that I had, although it doesn’t show so much now, is being overly shy. Not shy in the way that you think of shyness but shy in every aspect of being a person. I was very reticent until I got enough confidence through success, I suppose, that emerged later in life. Somehow, I am very lucky that that happened, that I went down a path where I succeeded enough that I developed inner confidence. But otherwise, I think I didn’t have the confidence in me to do what I was capable of doing and that took a long time to develop." - Barry Barish
Chat with my AI Avatar, BriBot 🤖!


Subscribe on LinkedIn

Get in touch with me!