Upcoming Barish lecture appeals to scientists, non-scientists alike

Karah Kemmerly

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Dr. Barry Barish, a leading member in the field of physics, is coming to Whitman College on Thursday, Sept. 30 to give a lecture on general relativity. Members of the Department of Physics believe that the presentation, titled “Einstein’s Legacy and Our Best Description of the Universe,” will be beneficial for both science and non-science majors.

Barish is the Linde Professor of Physics, emeritus at the California Institute of Technology. He is also director of the Global Design Effort for the International Linear Collider, a important project in the field of particle physics.

The lecture will be the starting event at the 12th annual meeting of the American Physical Society, a group of over 150 students and faculty from research labs and colleges throughout the Northwestern United States and Canada.

The conference itself is not an open event, but the lecture is open to the public. It will consist of both Barish’s presentation and an audience question and answer period.

Dr. Mark Beck, professor of physics at Whitman, summarized the main focus of Barish’s presentation.

“The lecture will help you learn a little about general relativity and how physicists understand the universe: its structure, space and time, and gravity on a fundamental level,” he said.

Barish will also discuss some of the research on gravity he did as the director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (L.I.G.O.), a laboratory operated by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that centers around gravitational wave research.

Beck briefly explained that L.I.G.O. focuses on observing gravity waves. Though the existence of these waves is an important prediction within the field of general relativity, no one has actually seen them. He also feels that Whitman students have a specific reason to take interest in L.I.G.O.’s work.

“This is particularly applicable to the Whitman community because the L.I.G.O. research is in Hanford. It’s only about an hour away,” he said.

Several Whitman students are looking forward to the lecture.  Junior Matthew Logan, a physics major and math minor, has an interest in the general field of physics and already has background knowledge on the subject.

“Physics has always been an interest for me. It has everything I like about math. It’s doing math and drawing pictures,” he said. “And I’m currently doing research focusing on gravity. It’s part of one of the most interesting and least understood fields in physics.”

Logan pointed out that understanding gravity is important in order to understand the universe.

“We study four different fundamental forces in physics. Of these forces, gravity is most prominent in shaping the universe. The others act on a small scale, not a broad cosmological one.”

Junior Alexe Helmke, a physics and astronomy major, is interested to hear Barish discuss Einstein’s influence.

“This summer I worked at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The featured exhibit was on Einstein, so I do have some background information,” she said.

Both Logan and Helmke believe that all students will find something interesting about the lecture. He believes that the lecture will expand on topics that students may have heard about before but never fully comprehended.

“Anyone interested in space, the stars or the universe would benefit from the lecture,” said Logan. “People have heard about bending space-time. It’s an intriguing concept. And it might sound ridiculous, but it’s happening. This lecture is about investigating phenomena like that.”

Helmke agrees.

“I’m really interested in general relativity,” she said. “It’s mind-bending in the best possible way. It makes you think in a different way than you’ve ever had to. And regardless of whether or not you’re interested in physics, it’s still worth going. This is about the world around you and how the universe works. It’s interesting to know why all of this happens like it does. The lecture is beneficial for anyone.”

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