Norman Barnes.

Norman Barnes, in his lab at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, demonstrates how he can use fiber optical line to move a laser light in any direction he needs it to go. (Photo by Jeff Caplan/NASA Langley Research Center / March 25, 2014)

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  • Birth: April 27, 1942, in Cleveland, Ohio
    Occupation: senior research scientist for the Laser Systems Branch, NASA Langley Research Center
    Favorite sports team: Cleveland Browns
    First job out of college: Texas Instruments in Dallas, developing laser target designators used during the Vietnam War to allow smart bombs to locate targets
    Interests: Woodcutting and skiing
  • Capitalizing on science
  • Engineer crafty with a car, skillful with subs
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."