UC Berkeley alumnus Barry Barish awarded 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

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UC Berkeley alumnus Barry Barish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for detecting ripples in spacetime and thus establishing further proof of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Barish was awarded the prize for his work on a machine called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. LIGO is the first machine ever to detect these ripples, also known as gravitational waves. Barish shares the prize with his colleagues Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne, who also worked on the project.

LIGO achieved its objective of confirming Einstein’s theory of relativity in 2015, according to Berkeley physics professor Holger Müller. Einstein’s theory posits that space and time weave together in a continuum. LIGO tests this theory by measuring the gravitational waves that are emitted during “violent cosmic events,” such as the collision of two black holes. According to Müller, these violent events in fact create faint waves, or distortions, between space and time.

Barish has been involved with LIGO for 23 years. He was appointed its director in 1994 when the project was in danger of losing funding because of poor management, according to Michael Witherell, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Witherell attributes the project’s eventual success to Barish’s reorganization and expansion of LIGO.

Barish emphasized that the creation of LIGO was a long and complicated process. The first iteration of LIGO was built by his team over a span of five years. These complex machines did not work, so the team created six more improved versions over a period of 10 years, according to Barish. This undertaking resulted in two long L-shaped tubular machines about 2.5 miles long, located in Louisiana and Washington.

“This work is something you don’t do if you need instant gratification,” Barish said of the process.

Müller, who applied to work in the LIGO lab in 2003, describes Barish as not only a scientist but a community-builder who succeeded by giving others a great deal of freedom to work on projects they were invested in. Witherell likewise praised Barish’s ability to coordinate groups of people to build machines to solve “big, important problems.”

“Barry is the ultimate experimental physicist,” Witherell said.

Barish, however, said he doubted himself when LIGO first registered wave distortion.

“You think you’d believe it and have a eureka moment immediately,” Barish said. “But I didn’t have that. My team spent months seeing if we had all been fooled.”

When Barish received a phone call at 2:32 a.m. Tuesday announcing his laureate status, he said his emotions were mixed — he was thrilled but also humbled.

“We have opened a new way to look at the universe using gravitational waves, but there’s still a huge amount of science to do,” Barish said.

Contact Rachael Cornejo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachaelCornejo.