The Loomis Confessions: Barry Bradlyn

5/15/2022

Written by

The Loomis Confessions

 

 

These interview questions are inspired by the "confession album," a Victorian parlor game. It later became known as the Proust questionnaire after French writer Marcel Proust’s thoughtful and witty answers were discovered and published in the French literary journal Les Cahiers du Mois in 1924. We have named our “album” for Wheeler Loomis, Illinois Physics department head from 1929 to 1957. Loomis is revered for having hired the highest caliber early-career scientists and for diligently nurturing them, expanding the department’s research program and elevating it to world-class status, while putting special emphasis on good teaching. The collaborative, open-door “Urbana style of physics” emerged under Wheeler’s supportive and strategic leadership.

The Loomis Confessions: BARRY BRADLYN

Illinois Physics Professor Barry Bradlyn is a condensed matter theorist who also studies the spread of hate speech on social media platforms using machine learning and mathematical and statistical analyses. He is a member of the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory in Urbana. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Illinois Physics Professor Barry Bradlyn is a condensed matter theorist who also studies the spread of hate speech on social media platforms using machine learning and mathematical and statistical analyses. He is a member of the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory in Urbana. Photo by Fred Zwicky, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

If you couldn’t be a physicist, what career would you choose?

I think the thing that drew me the most to physics was the fun that comes from figuring out the rules of the game. We have what experiments tell us about the way the world works and use that information to build a model for reality. We then use that model to make predictions about things we haven’t observed. I think that if I couldn’t do physics, I would want to do something like history or archaeology. In those fields as well, the goal is to piece together a model for how life and society looked in the past from limited evidence. I’ve always been fascinated with the past, especially with trying to understand what life was like in the ancient world. Because I’m a theorist, I don’t think archeological fieldwork would be a good fit for me, so I’ll say that if I couldn’t be a physicist, I’d want to be a historian.

What is your favorite place?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to travel to San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain several times to work with collaborators there. It’s definitely one of my favorite places to spend time. It has great food, great beaches, and great people.

 What is the greatest scientific blunder in history?

I think the scientific racism that came to prominence in the nineteenth century was the biggest and one of the most damaging blunders in the history of science, as it was used to justify slavery, genocide, and discrimination.

 Who is/are your favorite artist(s) in any medium—painters, composers, authors, filmmakers?

I have a bit of recency bias here, because I just finished reading The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, and it was phenomenal. More broadly, I really appreciate the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the prose of Frank Herbert, and the music of the progressive rock band Rush.

Who is/are your favorite hero(es) in life or in fiction?

I like to think of heroes in terms of the question: if I found myself in a sticky situation and didn’t know what to do, who would I trust to help me figure it out? In that regard, I don’t think I could do any better than my wife Molly and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (from Star Trek: The Next Generation). If we are talking more narrowly about scientific heroes, then I’d have to go with my doctoral advisor Nick Read, as cliché as it sounds. The precision of thought that he brings to problems is something I aspire to.

Who is/are the villain(s) you love to hate?

The Daleks from Doctor Who.

What is your idea of happiness?

Coming home to spend the evening with my wife and pets after a long day of thinking about physics.

 What is your idea of misery?

Working a 9-to-5 office job.

What quality do you most admire in others?

Kindness.

What scientific question do you hope will be answered in your lifetime?

The origins of life, both on Earth and in the universe as a whole.


Share this story

This story was published May 15, 2022.