Sifting Through Stardust: Conversations with Astrophysicist Raymond Frey

The first thing that strikes you about University of Oregon astrophysicist Raymond Frey is his warmth: the light playing in his intelligent green eyes, accented by subtle laugh lines; the half-smile of a man who clearly delights in the good fortune of realizing his boyhood dream: spending his days studying the mysteries of the universe.

Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, Head of University of Oregon Physics Department Photo credit: Deanna Piowaty
Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, Head of University of Oregon’s Physics Department

“I’ve always been interested in learning how the universe, nature works. How it really works. I worked on elementary particle physics before moving to astrophysics,” says Frey, who credits his father, a navigator and officer in the United States Air Force, and former prisoner-of-war, for instilling in him the confidence that even as a young boy he possessed the power within himself to find creative solutions to vexing problems.

“I remember one time he took us on a hike, and I asked him, as kids do, how long he thought we had walked so far. And he stopped and looked at me and said, ‘Let’s break it down. How long is your foot? Now, how many foot-lengths do you think there are along this stretch of trail, and how long did it take us to walk it? Finally, how many times have we walked this far a stretch today to get here?'”

What’s most satisfying for him now as a university astrophysics professor, says Frey, is passing on this discovery to his students that they too possess the power within themselves for clever, out-of-the-box thinking, even as the scenarios they tackle are infinitely more complex.

Even when a breakthrough idea a student runs with may have initially begun as a germ planted by Frey during an office hours discussion, the astrophysicist says he doesn’t have his ego attached to receiving credit for new ideas. “If the insight eventually comes out in a graduate student’s thesis, that’s fine with me.”

Raymond Frey, head of University of Oregon's physics department. (Photo: Hendricks Park, Eugene, Oregon.)
Raymond Frey, head of University of Oregon’s physics department. (Photo: Hendricks Park.)

And never has there been a more exciting time to be in Frey’s field. His work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project is making history and gaining worldwide recognition for capturing the first ever evidence proving the existence of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The LIGO team earned recognition by Science magazine as Science’s 2016 Breakthrough of the Year when their highly sensitive, 2.5 mile-long installations detected for the first time minute ripples in space-time: gravitational waves caused by the merger of two black holes.

Artist rendition of merging black holes
Artist rendering of merging black holes

Then in 2017, the LIGO team earned Nobel prizes, and, for the second year in a row, the coveted Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, when they captured evidence of a binary neutron star merger, this time visible not only in gravitational waves, but also in gamma-rays, x-rays, visible light, infra-red light, and radio waves.

“It kind of puts a lot of pressure on us to see what new data we’re going to be able to gather next,” says Frey with a grin, “if we want to be able to make their cover again next year.”

There’s a delightful playfulness in the way Frey speaks about his work which underscores just how much fun he is having exploring ideas which have tantalized scientists for over a century, among them, topics and questions Ray has graciously agreed to address in a new column for Combustus.

Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, Head of University of Oregon's Physics Department (Photo: Deanna Piowaty)
Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, Head of U of O’s Physics Department (All photos of Frey: Deanna Piowaty)


~ Eugene, Oregon

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What an exciting time to be an astrophysicist!

Dr. Raymond Frey: I have been lucky enough to be involved in several landmark discoveries in physics. The first observation of gravitational waves is the most recent and probably the most exciting. Gravitational waves were predicted by Einstein in 1916 as an implication of his theory of General Relativity.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: I once read a description of gravitational waves as being akin to the fabric of the universe vibrating. Is that how you would describe it?

Dr. Raymond Frey: In General Relativity, gravity is manifest as curvature of space, as if space were a stiff fabric. The messages of gravity are transmitted through the universe as ripples in the fabric of spacetime. These ripples propagating through space and time are gravitational waves.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How important to scientific exploration and study is it to keep oneself in a perpetual state of awe?

Dr. Raymond Frey

Uncovering the workings of a fundamental mystery of nature is incredibly fulfilling. I use the term “uncover” rather than discover because these are phenomena of Nature that already exist, but were heretofore undetected by humankind. The trick is to develop the methods for detection. It is a process which combines creativity and technical know-how.  

Artist's rendering of a gamma ray burst.
Artist’s rendering of a gamma ray burst.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: My sense of you is that you have no intention of retiring anytime soon. What compels you most to carry on with your line of research? What do you dream of one day capturing?

Dr. Raymond Frey: Retire?  We have just opened a new window to the universe: gravitational-wave astronomy. I would really like to get a really good look through this window before retiring. I have worked on the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory since about 2000, so 15 years of hard work and development before gravitational waves were observed. So 15 years of post-discovery exploration seems only fair!

Deanna Phoenix Selene: In your classroom lectures and mentoring of younger colleagues, what do you hope to pass on or inspire in those just entering the field?

Dr. Raymond Frey

Mentoring of young researchers is about instilling in them the means to allow them to make their own discoveries and contributions. Teaching courses can have different rewards. My favorite is to find smart, capable young people who do not know they are smart and capable. Working with them to build that initial level of self-confidence, to where they are able to come up with a result on their own that they know is right, that can be a life-changing milestone.

Raymond Frey, head of University of Oregon's physics department. (Photo: Hendricks Park, Eugene, Oregon.)
Raymond Frey, head of University of Oregon’s physics department.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How about members of the general public? Is there a way to include the rest of us in these conversations and discoveries?

Dr. Raymond Frey: Many people I meet are very interested in science and scientific discovery, but have a hard time sifting through the information in the media to separate the legitimate from the purely speculative.

So, in his new column for Combustus, “AstroBlast: Science or Myth? Cosmic Ray Answers Your Questions About the Universe” Frey will take questions sent in by readers as we attempt to sort through the barrage of false versus accurate information swirling around us on everything from, “Is time travel really possible?” to “What is dark energy, anyway?” to “What are the limits of legitimate scientific inquiry?

Readers who would like their question considered for a future Astroblast column are invited to inbox us their questions on the Combustus Facebook fan page.

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Further Notes:

Raymond Frey (b. 1956) holds a Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside. He joined the University of Oregon faculty in 1989 where he currently, serves as head of the physics department. His field of research focuses on gravitational wave astronomy and experimental high energy physics and astrophysics.

For more on Frey’s work research in Gravitational Wave Detection and Astrophysics, please visit his website.

Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, Head of University of Oregon's Physics Department (Photo: Deanna Piowaty)
Raymond Frey, astrophysicist, head of U of O’s physics department

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe
to figure itself out ~ and we have only just begun.”

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

1 Comment

  1. […] Also enjoy my Combustus interview with Dr. Frey, “Sifting Through Stardust: Conversations with Astrophysicist Raymond Frey.” […]

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