After 37 years, physics professor Barry Gilbert leaves the lab and classroom behind

Barry Gilbert
In physics professor Barry Gilbert’s Clarke Science office, there is a large blackboard with a bit of personality. At first glance it looks like a typical physicist’s worksheet with a variety of arcane formulas scattered across it, which to the layperson just seems like Greek (and some of it is).

Gilbert pointed out one formula relating to electric circuits, another to viscosity, and another – one of the more complex ones – to determining the charge on an electron.

“The board is always a compilation of things,” he continued and then singled out the most generally comprehensible notation there, “like [colleague] Peter Glanz’s phone number.”

But then he pointed to series of Greek letters, got up from his chair and spelled them out phonetically, with commendable native pronunciation: “ex-o-dus.”

It turns out that Gilbert learned to identify Greek letters through science, and on a trip to Greece, noticed those symbols on a door.

Now, Gilbert himself will be experiencing an exodus: He has chosen to retire after some 37 years of teaching science at Rhode Island College.

Originally from New York City, Gilbert first came to Rhode Island to teach full-time at Providence College, and like a lot of New Yorkers, did not know where Rhode Island was.

“Everybody in New York,” he said, “is a Providence College basketball fan and a Notre Dame football fan, though nobody really knows where Rhode Island or Indiana is.”

Then around 1972, he had the opportunity to teach a few physical science courses at RIC, and when a full-time position opened up here, he switched.

It is a decision he has never regretted, particularly because of the very high level of teaching within the Department of Physical Sciences and the collegiality there.

“We never have a vote,” Gilbert commented. “We all agree.”

Barry Gilbert demonstrates principles of electricity to
students at Henry Barnard School in a 1978 photo
from The Lincoln Cumberland Observer.
Still there was a lot to consider over the years. Since the physics program at Rhode Island College is an undergraduate one, research opportunities would be less glamorous than those at institutions offering graduate degrees, and private-sector research would be more lucrative.

So every five years, Gilbert and his wife would weigh the factors in order to avoid staying by default and later having regrets. Each time they decided to stay.

Gilbert did indicate that the physics program at RIC emphasizes undergraduate research, and that does provide ample rewards.

During his career at the college, Gilbert has directed several engaging projects in such areas as nuclear experimentation and holography, the latter at a time when lasers were first developed and holograms were receiving a lot of attention.

One of Gilbert’s later research projects turned out to be quite time-consuming and timely. The project was a response to a cancer scare in California involving power-line magnetic-field radiation. An elementary school in that state, which was located near power lines, noticed a high incidence of cancer in its students.

Although the project took 10 years to complete, it was relativity easy to set up.

“Creating a magnetic field is not hard,” Gilbert said, “and students would be able to do tests of biological or chemical reactions in the field and out of the field. If we had a result, it would be important; and we didn’t know what the answer was, so it was not like an undergraduate lab exercise.”

As it turned out, the national research found that the proximity to power lines was not demonstrably a health hazard. The incidence of the disease at the school could be explained statistically in that the numbers involved nationwide were so large that random chance would account for the increased cases of cancer.

The RIC findings, according to Gilbert, coincided with more involved and costly experiments at other places in the country.

“That’s part of the fun of science,” Gilbert stated. “You get to investigate things which you don’t know the answer to, and you don’t know to what it could lead.”

Although the physics program at the college is a small, it is a solid one whose graduates have gone on to advanced-degree study at Brown, Stanford, Dartmouth, the University of North Carolina and other notable institutions.

But Gilbert has helped spread the word about the challenges and rewards of science to younger audiences as well.

In 1989 he was part of an initiative to begin a Science Olympiad in Rhode Island. The Olympiad encourages middle and high school students in the pursuit of scientific knowledge through competitions involving testing and experiments at the local and national levels.

The first of the state’s Olympiads took place at Lincoln High School, and about 15 schools participated in what Gilbert called “an enormously successful day.”

Soon after, he spoke to then RIC president John Nazarian about having the college host the event. Nazarian agreed.

Today, the Science Olympiad involves around 700 students from 40 different schools. For some of those schools, the event forms a major part of the science curriculum, with students spending up to year preparing projects ranging from robots to projectile tossers.

“There are things that work in the basement and don’t work when they get here,” Gilbert noted. “The learning curve for new teams is very steep, but they come back.”

Gilbert emphasized that work on the event by the college’s faculty is all volunteer, and singled out other RIC faculty coordinators, Elaine Magyar, James Magyar and Paul Tiskus.

The program also provides an opportunity to bring students from urban schools onto campus and introduce them to some sophisticated science, which for Gilbert adds a valuable social-policy element to the Olympiad.

Gilbert’s social consciousness also displays itself in areas outside of science. For instance, he volunteers at Ronald McDonald House, which provides accommodations near hospitals for the parents of sick children, and he runs the organization’s local walk-a-thon, which this year took place at Roger Williams Park and attracted 1,500 people.

He also served several terms on the Lincoln School Committee, and wryly noted that he was elected by a landslide because he was president of farm league baseball in the town.

“Everybody in town knew my name because I was running a good league,” he said.

Another advantage of staying in Rhode Island, Gilbert feels, is that you can make a difference, while in New York “nothing you can do individually really matters.”

Gilbert is teaching another physics course this summer; however, the coming September will be different from ones past. He and his wife have tickets for Spain. All he knows is that he will land in Barcelona and leave from Madrid. What happens for a month in between is still undetermined.

That sounds a bit like applying the experimental method to travel. For Professor Gilbert, retirement may not be such a clean break after all.

Click here for the Providence Journal article on this year’s Science Olympiad.