Nobel physics winner for gravitational waves sends ripples through Purdue

Event Date: 10/17/2018

More than 700 people were perfectly silent and still in Purdue University’s Loeb Playhouse as Nobel Prize winner Barry Barish played audio footage from the famous LIGO detectors during his presentation, “The Detection of Gravitational Waves from Colliding Black Holes.”

The audience — a mix of students, faculty and the community— were eager to share in the thrill of hearing a short, high-pitched chirp that is the signature of a gravitational wave passing through the detectors.

As the audience listened during the Ideas Festival event “What If We Could Hear Gravity?” on Oct. 17, one could imagine being a part of the scientific team during the historic moment in 2015 when gravitational waves were detected for the first time. Barish shared his experience of that moment.

“Rather than ‘Eureka!’ my reaction was panic,” said Barish, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for his role as the lead investigator of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, project. He explained his fear that he and the team of scientists could be fooling themselves or something could be fooling them as a false signal in the detector.

The observation was real. The international team of researchers had successfully detected the gravitational waves Albert Einstein predicted 100 years before in his general theory of relativity.

The ability to detect gravitational waves opens the door to “an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge,” the Nobel Prize organization stated.

Barish, the Linde Professor of Physics Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, took the audience on Purdue’s campus through the history of the theory of gravitational waves, the decades of work to build instruments sensitive enough to detect them and the future of the project.

“This is a big science opening up and we’re just at the beginning of it,” Barish said as he discussed the possibilities for going beyond astronomy based on the electromagnetic spectrum and the potential power of multi-messenger astronomy, where an event is simultaneously observed through electromagnetic radiation, gravitational waves, neutrinos and cosmic rays.

Students lined up to ask questions during the presentation, and Barish stayed 30 minutes after the conclusion of his talk, answering questions and posing for photos as he was surrounded by a crowd of excited students.

“It is very inspiring to talk to him and see that he is a normal person,” said Manuela Gonzalez, a junior studying physics, who attended the event and had met Barish when he spoke to Purdue’s Society for Physics Students earlier in the day. “It gives hope that one of us could go on to do something important.”

Later in his visit, Barish said that he was pleasantly surprised by the number of students who asked questions during the Q&A portion of his public talk.

“There were a lot of important Purdue people (at the event), starting with the president, the deans and so forth, and yet these young people felt completely — as far as I could tell — uninhibited to come up to the mic,” Barish said. “They were mostly all questions asked by young people … and maybe I’m extrapolating more than I should, but that to me says something good about Purdue.”

The presentation was only one part of Barish’s two-day visit to the University.

His schedule was filled with discussions across campus, including meetings, lunches and dinners with students and faculty in small and large groups. He met with undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences; and the College of Engineering’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He shared his expertise and discussed science with faculty from across campus, and gave a technical talk for the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Hubert M. James Memorial Lecture on Oct. 18.

David Koltick, the professor of physics and astronomy who led arrangements for the visit, said Barish made a big impact on campus. “I think he was a real catalyst for bringing together faculty whose research could connect,” Koltick said. “There was a lot of excitement in the room about the different possibilities.”

Koltick also noted Barish’s kindness and humility, as he met with everyone from freshmen to distinguished professors. “We can sometimes isolate people in their ivory towers, but this is a man who is very capable of interacting with everybody at their level, and he leaves behind information and excitement in his wake.”

Barish’s visit aligned with Purdue’s Giant Leaps sesquicentennial celebration as part of the Ideas Festival theme, Giant Leaps in Space: Earth, Exploration, Economics. The Ideas Festival, which has four themes in all, is the centerpiece of the campaign and connects world-renowned speakers and Purdue expertise in a conversation on the most critical problems and opportunities facing the world.

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