Barry Barish, Caltech's Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus, and Subra Suresh, a Moore Scholar and former visiting professor, have been honored with the National Medal of Science. Awarded by the president of the United States, the medal is given to researchers who made outstanding contributions to physical, biological, mathematical, social, and behavioral sciences, or engineering.
Barish was honored "for exemplary service to science, including groundbreaking research on subatomic particles. His leadership of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) led to the first detection of gravitational waves from merging black holes, confirming a key part of Einstein's theory of relativity. He has broadened our understanding of the universe and our nation's sense of wonder and discovery."
Suresh was honored "for pioneering research across engineering, physical sciences, and life sciences. A transformative educator, he has advanced the study of material science and its application to other disciplines. His commitment to research and collaboration across borders has demonstrated how science can forge understanding and cooperation among people and nations."
"During difficult days, President Biden took the time to honor the individuals who make America a land of possibility through their scientific discoveries and leadership and their technological innovations," says Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, who attended the ceremony. "We are very proud of Caltech exemplars Barry Barish and Subra Suresh and join in celebrating their achievements."
Barish is one of the driving forces of the LIGO project, which, on September 14, 2015, made the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves, subtle ripples in space-time. The waves LIGO found had been created 1.3 billion years prior, when two black holes collided. Additional gravitational waves detections occurred on December 26, 2015, January 4, 2017, and August 14, 2017.
Albert Einstein had predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century earlier and believed them too faint to be detected. Decades of subsequent technical and theoretical physics work led to the possibility of finding these faint ripples in space and, finally, to LIGO, a joint Caltech–MIT project eventually funded by the National Science Foundation. Barish, along with Kip S. Thorne (BS '62), the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, shared one-half of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery; the other half was awarded to MIT's Rainer Weiss, professor of physics, emeritus. The detections ushered in a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy: scientists can understand objects in space not only by studying light but also via the waves in space and time.
"I am particularly honored to receive the National Medal of Science because of my long dedication to science research and education in our country," Barish says.
Barish was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1936 and spent his childhood in Los Angeles. He attended John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, where a nearby intersection was recently named Barry Barish Square in his honor. He received his BA in 1957 and his PhD in 1962, both from UC Berkeley. He began a long affiliation with Caltech as a research fellow in 1963 before becoming assistant professor in 1966, associate professor in 1969, professor in 1972, and Linde Professor in 1991.
Barish dedicated his career to working on some of the most ambitious detectors in physics. He developed the first high-energy neutrino beam experiment at Fermilab and helped to lead an international collaboration that searched for magnetic monopoles; if discovered, magnetic monopoles would help to confirm the Grand Unified Theory that seeks to unify the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces. That experiment, known as the Monopole, Astrophysics and Cosmic Ray Observatory (MACRO), did not find magnetic monopoles, but it set the most stringent limits on their existence. Barish then led the design of one of the two detectors planned for the Superconducting Super Collider, a large particle accelerator to be built in Texas, until it was canceled in 1993.
He joined LIGO in 1994 and used his science megaproject expertise to guide the group through the project's enormous technical and logistical challenges. He led LIGO through its final design stages while securing NSF funding. He oversaw construction of the two LIGO facilities from 1994 to 1999, and then the installation and commissioning of the initial LIGO interferometers from 1999 to 2005. He then led the development and approval of the next phase of LIGO, called Advanced LIGO, that was commissioned and built between 2010 and 2014, and that would achieve the historic detection. Crucially, Barish expanded LIGO from a small group in the 1990s to its modern incarnation, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC): a collaboration of approximately 1,200 scientists and engineers at 100 institutions in 18 nations.
Suresh, professor at large at Brown University, was director of the National Science Foundation from 2010 to 2013, and has served as president of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and president of Carnegie Mellon University. Suresh has longstanding ties to Caltech, having served as the Clark B. Millikan Visiting Professor at the Graduate Aerospace Laboratory (GALCIT) and a Moore Scholar in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS). The Subra Suresh Distinguished Lecture in EAS, which welcomes leaders in multidisciplinary science and engineering, is also named in his honor.
Suresh's research has focused on the properties of engineered and biological materials and their implications for human diseases and technologies across a broad spectrum of industries and applications. He has authored three books, more than 300 research articles and 35 patent applications, and has co-founded two technology start-ups.
During his time as the NSF Director, Suresh created the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which is now regarded as one of the most impactful initiatives in translating scientific discoveries into commercial practice. He also established the Global Research Council, an annual to connect and coordinate the activities of the heads of all the major research funding agencies from around the world. He is among a rare group of researchers elected to all three branches of the U.S. National Academies: National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine. Suresh has also been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Inventors, and to leading science and/or engineering academies in China, France, Germany, India, Spain, Singapore, and Sweden.
The White House honored Barish and Suresh on October 24 at a ceremony during which President Joe Biden also announced the winners of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. They join 64 other Caltech faculty, alumni, and former postdocs, living and dead, who have won the National Medal of Science.
The National Science Foundation administers the National Medal of Science and its companion, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, on behalf of the White House. Nominees are selected by a committee of presidential appointees based on their extraordinary knowledge in and contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences.