Once again, a wedding ring is one of the most dangerous things in Norman Barnes' line of work.
Barnes is senior research scientist for the Laser Systems Branch at the NASA Langley Research Center and a recognized leader in the field of optics. He's also been married for 36 years, but you won't catch him with a ring on his finger when he's manipulating the fundamentals of light. Years ago, Barnes worked for steel manufacturer Republic Steel, where workers were cautioned not to wear jewelry while operating machinery. The warning gained added weight when a co-worker disregarded the rule and unwittingly got his ring caught in some machinery along with his finger. The accident put Barnes in the habit of not wearing a ring, and the wedding band that he now wears would actually still pose a risk in Barnes' work because it could deflect the powerful beam into his eyes.
"It's not quite as dramatic as having your finger torn off," he said, "but I have known several people who have impaired vision because of laser accidents."
That kind of off-the-cuff honesty has helped define a researcher who has helped pave the way for innovations ranging from making smart bombs more effective to monitoring the planet's atmosphere.
His candor grew out of a desire to distance himself from the science nerd stereotype, shaping him into a self- described cutup whose humor has occasionally caused problems.
Ironically, he got into science to find problems to solve.
Barnes' family lived on a small farm in Brunswick, Ohio, about 20 miles from Cleveland. He was born on April 27, 1942.
As a child, Barnes liked solving puzzles, such as word jumbles and crosswords. His father nurtured that interest by giving him a book about electricity, which the techie tyke used to build his own radio and other models to experiment with.
But being the only boy out of three children meant most of his time was spent doing chores like watching chickens and the family cow. In addition to his electronics pastime, Barnes found relaxation in science fiction novels such as "Starship Troopers" and "Stranger in a Strange Land."
It was around that time that Barnes' humor began to emerge. By high school, everyone knew he was into science- oriented activities, earning him the not-always- appreciated stereotype.
Smarting off was a way to cope, he said.
"I'm already sort of the 'science guy'" to other students, Barnes said. "It was kind of a way to become more human."
Not everyone appreciated the tactic.
Once, a high school math teacher was illustrating principal and interest using a mortgage as an example. The example, however, was a low-cost home that prompted questions from a fellow classmate about how great such a low-priced abode could be. The teacher responded that the house would come with the basics, like running water.
"I said, 'Yeah, probably because the roof is leaking,'" Barnes said. "It went over well with the class. It didn't go over well with the teacher."
By that time, Barnes had also met a fellow science enthusiast.
Richard Reznik, now chairman of the chemistry department at Asbury College in Kentucky, was a newcomer to Brunswick during Barnes' freshman year. Reznik had heard about Barnes' scientific know-how, Barnes said, and one day just showed up at the farm door.
Reznik's father had died, so Barnes' dad became almost a surrogate parent, Reznik said. He and Barnes became best friends.
"It was really nice," Reznik said. "We just had a lot in common in that there weren't that many people in high school who were good at math or science."
Barnes' father had told his son early on to save so he could go to college, and by the eighth grade, Barnes was spending his Saturday's helping a farmer deliver eggs from 4 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for five bucks.
In ninth grade, Barnes got the job he would keep throughout high school: part-time busboy for a greasy spoon that paid 75 cents per hour until his senior year, when it was raised to about $1.25--minimum wage at the time.
His hard work paid off. Barnes was going for a five-year nuclear physics program at Ohio State University, which cost about $100 per academic quarter. His savings paid for all but the fifth year.
It also wasn't long before Barnes met his future wife, Barbara. He had seen her near a bus stop struggling to carry a suitcase.
"She would pick up one side, walk for about 30 steps, set it down and then pick up the other side and walk for 30 steps," he said.
Barnes helped carry the load, and the two got to know each other during the walk. That was in 1962. At the end of 1965, they were married.
Barnes' interest in nuclear physics declined once he realized few jobs were available. At the time, laser technology was developing and the field caught Barnes' interest. By graduate school, he'd opted out of physics and into optics.
"There were always good problems to solve" in the new field, he said.
One of the problems that helped mold his career was the need to create laser sources that could be tuned to a particular wavelength or color.
Barnes was key in developing those types of tunable sources, and his first job was at Texas Instruments in Dallas. One of the projects he worked on was developing laser target designators that were used during the Vietnam War. The technology allowed smart bombs to get a bead on targets.
Later, he went to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where lasers were needed for a process called laser isotope separation. The lab was looking to produce a form of uranium that is better suited for nuclear power plants by using laser light and fluoride gas to extract the desired chemical.
His work at that lab brought him to the attention of NASA Langley, said James Barnes, now head of the Lasers Systems Branch.
"Lasers are a relatively young" field, said James Barnes. "We needed someone who had a national reputation, which Norman had."
The center was looking for a tunable laser for remote sensing and to monitor the planet using satellites.
Different particles in the air absorb different wavelengths of light. A tunable laser allows researchers to know how much of a particular particle is in the atmosphere; using a single laser on a satellite eliminates the need for several thousand ground-based stations.
Barnes has been part of a team responsible for the LITE project, which uses a laser on the space shuttle to measure the density of aerosols in the atmosphere; and the LASE project, which uses a laser from an aircraft to measure water-vapor concentrations.
It's that sort of work that earned Barnes a fellowship with the Optical Society of America, a professional organization.
"That's a big deal," James Barnes said. "The Optical Society is the premiere optical organization. Only the best in their fields get to be fellows of that society."
And along the way, Norman hasn't lost his sense of humor.
The two Barneses worked together on laser projects, and coworkers began referring to them as the Barnes brothers. But Norman is white and James is African American.
"We'd always say you could tell Norm from James because he's taller," James said.
Barnes' knack for building things has also continued. He's an avid woodworker, which came in handy when his three children were growing up.
"I've made over half of the stuff in our house," he said. "When the kids were growing up, the wife would come in and say, 'They need bunk beds,' so I'd make them bunk beds; then one day she'd come in and say, 'They need study desks,' so I'd make them study desks."
Just as important, he said, he feels like he's building a better world.
"Of all the jobs I've had, I think this is the most satisfying," he said. "It's the most complicated, it's the toughest problem to solve, but if we don't take care of the health of the planet, we're all going to be in trouble."
Michael Hines can be reached at 247-4760 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org