Theory of Everything: GE Labs Oracle to Illuminate the “Un-Googleable” on Reddit
April 25, 2013
If people are judged by the company they keep, Jim Bray is doing just fine. Bray, a theoretical physicist at GE Global Research and a YouTube celebrity, counts among his colleagues and mentors two Nobel Prize winners, including John Bardeen, the only person to win the Nobel in physics twice: first for the transistors and the other for superconductivity. But here’s the thing about Jim: he’s just as happy to kick it on Reddit, where he will be taking questions on the IAmA open forum on May 2 next week, as he is hanging out with Nobelists.
Bray, whose laconic Southern drawl has weathered decades of upstate New York winters, has long been something of an “oracle” to co-workers. In a campus packed with PhDs, he was the one who seemed able to unify all of the diverse fields of scientific knowledge. “I guess I got a rep,” he says.
These days, Bray answers science questions in front of a chalkboard in his office for the biweekly Stump The Scientist YouTube feature. With his willingness to break down complex concepts into everyday language, he’s like a real-life Wikipedia.
Bray’s team seeks out questions that are “un-Googleable,” or at least difficult to search. What, for example, you would see in the rearview mirror if you were in a train traveling faster than the speed of light? (Answer: nothing). Or what started motion? (Answer: the four forces – gravity, electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force).
So here’s another question: How did a physicist who studied with Bardeen come to work at an industrial lab?
In part, it was a restless quest for more knowledge. Despite flirtations with medicine, law, and mathematics earlier in life, Bray wrote his doctoral thesis in the early 1970s at the University of Illinois on “condensed matter” physics, since at the time its problems were “the hardest things to think about.”
When it came time to find a job in 1974, Bray traded Bardeen for another Nobel laureate in physics, Ivar Giaever, who researched superconductivity and electron tunneling at GE. A large part of GE’s appeal was that it didn’t limit his options. “Rather than just focusing on one specific topic to become the absolute world expert on that topic,” Bray says. “I’m more attracted to learning many things about many different disciplines.”
Bray worked with Giaever and Charles Bean, another influential researcher in superconductivity and magnetism, then supervised R&D on everything from electronics devices to the Six-Sigma quality program. Typically understated, Bray notes: “There are a lot of very smart people here that I have gained a lot of knowledge from.”
But this is not to say he can’t be stumped.
“Once in a great while, you get a question that stumps not only this scientist but also scientists everywhere,” he says. This was the case when a reader asked about the mass of the Higgs Boson – the elusive elementary particle that helps explain why matter has mass. The only hitch was that the particle had been theorized but not yet discovered by the teams at the CERN Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. (The particle, tentatively confirmed in March 2013, has a mass of about 126 billion electron volts).
Like any smart scientist, Bray knows that the quest for knowledge begins with the admission that we don’t know many things. But listen to Bray for a little while and you will want to know more.