Nobel Prize Laureate speaks to full house at Isabel Bader Centre

Prof. Barish talks gravitational waves, black holes and Einstein

Prof. Barry Barish lectures at the Isabel Bader Centre.
Photo by Greg Black

On Monday, both levels of the Isabel Bader Centre’s auditorium were filled in anticipation for a lecture by Nobel Laureate Professor Barry Barish. 

The lecture was hosted by the Canadian Particle Astrophysics Research Centre (CPARC) and the Queen’s Department of Physics as the first installment of an annual lecture series called the George & Maureen Ewan Public Lecture Series. The series was made possible by a $100,000 donation from George and Maureen Ewan. 

As a professor emeritus of physics at the California Institute of Technology, Barry Barish became a Nobel Prize winner in Physics in 2017 for his contributions to the observance of gravitational waves. Specifically, Barish received his Laureate for his involvement in the advancement of the Laser Interferometer 

Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and understanding the relationship between space and time as predicted by Einstein more than 100 years prior.   

Barish began the lecture by drawing attention to a sequence of graphs depicting the first recorded gravitational waves. “I have a single task tonight, and that is to get you to understand the figure on the right.” 

Early on, he told the audience that he was aware “not everyone has a physics PhD” and structured the lecture so “anyone can understand the relationship between gravitational waves, black holes and Albert Einstein.” 

Over the course of an hour, the lecture incorporated the history of the study of physics, specifically in regards to gravity and Einstein’s predictions of a space-time phenomenon that creates disturbances in space now known as gravitational waves. 

He also lectured on the LIGO, which is a massive physics experiment stationed in the United States. With two stations — one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana — the LIGO collects data on gravitational waves when they pass through the planet.  The purpose of the experiment is to combine the data to prove the disturbances recorded at each station are, in fact, a single gravitational wave.  

Despite the complexity of science behind his work, the conclusion he drew at the end was simple. Barish explained the disturbances felt by the LIGO stations occurred when space and time were altered. These interferences are caused by the collision of two black holes which produce a ripple-effect in space when they merge. 

At the end of the lecture, Barish revisited the same graph he presented at the beginning. Recorded on Feb. 6 2016, the image bore a stark resemblance to Einstein’s prediction that, when mapped alongside the data, they would overlap. 

Following the lecture, Prof. Barish spoke to The Journal about his field and experiences through researching the phenomenon of gravitational waves.

When asked how his field has evolved, he said “it’s completely changed, because there was no field.” 

“The idea that there has been such phenomena has been there for a long time,” he added. “But the actual creation of the field has just begun with the first observations we made just a couple years ago. It’s evolving and different people have different visions about how it will evolve in the future.”

For Barish and his team, the overwhelming challenge they experienced during their research was technical. “It wasn’t like we had a new idea, but more getting a sensitive enough instrument was a huge challenge,” he said. 

Barish hopes the lecture inspired individuals to engage more in science and new discoveries that are significant to the discipline. 

“Einstein thought that gravitational waves would never be detected,” he said. “Not because they didn’t exist, but because he couldn’t foresee modern lasers and optics. He had the idea, and now we have the technology.”  

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