Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Four questions to a Nobel Prize winner
Together with his colleagues Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne, Barry Barish (83) won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 for the discovery of gravitational waves. He became world famous overnight. Was his life turned upside down? And: what would be his best tip for ambitious students? Barish gave the key lecture at the Opening Academic Year.
Where were you when you heard the news?
“I was just out of bed. I’d set the alarm at 2:40 AM because, if the Nobel Committee called, it would be just before noon in Sweden, which is three at night in California, where I live. Rainer, Kip and me had the idea that we were serious candidates. We thought that our discovery of gravitational waves was deserving, but on the other hand, it was a recent discovery, in 2015. Most Nobel prizes are granted after a decade or more. Because of possible leaks, the Nobel Committee doesn’t inform you days ahead, but like half an hour. When I woke up, no one called. So I said to my wife, ‘I guess they gave it to someone else.’ Then, two minutes later, my cell phone rang. It was the president of the Nobel Foundation. After a three-minute conversation, he asked: what is your reaction? I said, ‘I can’t think of a single word, but I’m humbled and thrilled at the same time.’”
Was it genius or hard work?
“No one would say it was genius. I hate the word, but yes, it requires a lot of imagination, a lot of developing new ideas that you would need to make the detector [called LIGO in the United States] sensitive enough to measure the waves. The main ideas arose in the nineties, and in 1994 the National Science Foundation funded us. In the first ten years we didn’t observe any gravitational waves. The most important thing was to isolate ourselves from the ground so as to not be disturbed by the shaking of the earth. That wasn’t a matter of genius, but of pushing technology. And of hard work as well. Not in the sense of many hours a day, per se, but solving hard problems. In the end, we are not limited by nature but by ourselves.”
What happened to you after winning the prize?
“A lot more people bother me. I have to be much more diligent about how to use my time. For the rest, I’m still doing science, I still prefer to be around scientists. A point of concern is, at least in my country, that scientists don’t get the attention they deserve. At the same time, society has become more and more technological and influenced by science. The most pressing example might be global warming. In essence, that’s not a political but a scientific problem. In US Congress, there is only one PhD on 535 members. Most of them are lawyers and businessmen. These are smart people, but in the decision making you have to take science and technology into account. This is a long answer to your question, but that after winning the Nobel Prize, I notice that people pay much more attention to what I’m saying. At least, they listen. As a consequence, I feel a new responsibility I never had before.”
What would be your best tip for ambitious students?
“The trouble is: at the age of like 23, they’ve been set back. I’ll tell you why. Somehow our educational system is basically wrong. It kills the curiosity that five-year-olds display. By the time they enter university, they’ve lost this fundamental quality. I’m not an educator of young kids, but we seem to pay too much attention to learning, passing exams, et cetera. Try to stimulate the inherent things like curiosity, fantasies, imagination – all that beyond just learning. In my case, they didn’t kill it. For some reason I was neglected enough.”
The past and future of gravitational waves
He tried to make his speech for a laymen audience, says experimental physicist Barry Barish, Nobel laureate and professor at the California Institute of Technology, at the beginning of his keynote speech during the opening of the academic year. Nevertheless, he lost some listeners on his journey through the past and future of detecting gravitational waves.
It started, of course, with Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. There are ripples in space-time. When objects move, the curvature of space-time changes and these changes move outwards (like ripples on a pond) as gravitational waves. It is difficult to measure those ripples. “Space has a structure and if you think of it as a material it’s very stiff. So the effect is tiny.”
In 2015, however, after years of technological developments and fine-tuning, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US detected gravitational waves very clearly. “This is the only experiment I’ve ever done in my life where you didn’t have to do any data analysis. It was an astounding thing to see as a scientist.”
So what’s next? Barish is currently interested in very heavy black holes. Too heavy to have come from a collapsing star. So why are they so heavy? “Maybe they come from a region in the universe where it’s very dense, maybe from a part where there are a lot of black holes and they eat each other or maybe they originated from the big bang itself, which I think is the most exciting option.”