September 18, 2019

Q&A with Barry Barish on His Nobel Prize — and Why He Never Wrote That Novel

Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity in 1915. But it would take the work of a soft-spoken Jewish physicist and Caltech professor from Santa Monica to help prove the most significant implication of that theory.

In recognition of the discovery, Barry Barish, 81, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics on Oct. 3, along with colleagues Kip Thorne of Caltech and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their accomplishment: observing gravitational waves, phenomena that Einstein predicted in his 1915 theory. Scientists say the discovery has changed how they study the universe.

Jewish Journal: What’s the significance of your discovery?

Barry Barish: After 100 years, we have for the first time shown that one of Einstein’s main predictions is true — that there are gravitational waves. Einstein had two new predictions from general relativity. One was that light would bend. That was tested in 1919, and basically, he was proven right. The second prediction was gravitational waves, which took us 100 years to prove. The theory itself, which is thought by most to be rather obscure, you use every day, probably. Your GPS on your cellphone wouldn’t work without general relativistic

JJ: How so?

BB: The satellites are high up, so the gravitation field where they are is about a quarter of what it is for us on the Earth. And they’re going at a reasonable fraction — about a quarter — of the speed of light. So, basically, there are general relativistic corrections for that. If you didn’t make that correction and you started on the road, you’d drift off the road within a minute or two.

JJ: How is your discovery going to change the way we study the universe?

BB: Everything we know about the universe is studied by using telescopes or other instruments that look at visible light, infrared, ultraviolet or X-ray — different wavelengths of electromagnetic interactions. Only 4 percent of what’s in the universe gives off electromagnetic radiation, so we don’t have any handle on the rest. Now, we have a new way to look at the universe, looking at gravitational effects instead of electromagnetics. That’s the long-term future.

JJ: Your son, Kenneth Barish, is also a physics professor. Is he upset that he has bigger shoes to fill now?

BB: No, he’s thrilled. He works in a different field of physics, teaching at UC Riverside, so I think for him it’s all very good. I don’t think all of a sudden my shoes have gotten too big for him.

JJ: When do you go to Sweden to accept the prize?

BB: The Nobel ceremony is always on Dec. 10, no matter what day of the week it falls on. And you have to go about a week early because they have an infinite number of events. I have to wear coattails and all that kind of stuff.

JJ: Is there part of you that would rather just have a quiet ceremony and get back to work?

BB: You’ll have to ask me afterward. At this point, it sounds overwhelming. I have a hand-me-down tux that I’ve used, but I never bought one. I never have owned a suit until now.

JJ: Would you rather just be left alone to do science?

BB: Well, look, if it goes on too long, I think it will get tiring. I mean it’s tiring anyway — it’s so much. But it’ll take time to tell. Right now, it’s kind of stimulating. I’m happy to ride the wave at this point.

JJ: What keeps you busy when you’re not in the laboratory?

BB: I live on the Santa Monica Beach and bike up and down almost every day. I like exercise, and I like literature a lot and plays and things like that. When I was really young, my ambition wasn’t to do science. I didn’t really know that I could. It was to write a great novel.

JJ: Did you ever start writing it?

BB: No. Too busy doing science.