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Barnes, John
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Barnes, John

Monitoring Particles in the Air

John Barnes, Ph.D., is a physical scientist and station chief for the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory's Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Barnes' specialty is lidar (light detection and ranging), often referred to as laser radar, which he uses to identify and measure particles in the atmosphere. He is one of the few scientists in the world whose work station is on the slopes of an active volcano. 


Why does your research matter? 

My main research involves atmospheric particulates (airborn particles we call aerosols). Particulates can affect our climate, health, and air quality. They are also often tracers of different dynamic mechanisms in the atmosphere such as the dispersion of volcanic eruption plumes, breaking waves on the coastline, boundary-layer changes, and transport of dust and pollution.

What do you enjoy the most about your work? 

My work is mainly on the experimental or measurement side. I get to conceive, design, and build instruments, and then work with them to make useful measurements. It means I have to use a lot of different skills like, machining, computer programing, and electronics but the variety keeps things interesting.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies? 

We mainly do long-term monitoring at Mauna Loa Observatory, so I make a weekly drive up the mountain to run a laser radar (lidar). But I have been developing two new instruments which require lab measurements. I also spend a lot of time in front of the computer analyzing data.

"I get to conceive, design, and build instruments..."

What in your lab could you not live without?

The computers, lasers, and detectors are certainly necessary. I do a whole lot of work in spreadsheets. I remember the first time I saw a spreadsheet program and I immediately recognized an application that was going to be really useful.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why? 

A polar nephelometer. This is an instrument that measures the way light is scattered from particulates. The amount of light scattered forward and backward from particulates varies a great deal with the size, composition, and shape of the particles. A lot of information can be gained by the measurement. I am currently developing an instrument to do this, but it is not quite ready to put out in the field.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science? 

I remember when I was around 10 years old I got really interested in science. I had visited the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and was fascinated by all the displays. I also starting reading Science Digest magazine.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science? 

I don’t have anything specific; I would just go with what you are interested in. There are so many wonderful books at various levels  that are published. If you don’t particularly like one, or it is at the wrong level just look for another one. I am also a big fan of science museums.

And how about a personal favorite book?

One that comes to mind is The Code Book by Simon Singh. He has some great examples of codes, code breaking, and how they were used all the way up the present era. It is just the right mix of details about the codes and their historical importance.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing? 

I give a lot of tours of Mauna Loa Observatory to visiting scientists, school groups, and tourists. It is a good opportunity figure out ways to communicate scientific concepts and issues to the public. I also didn’t expect to be working on an active volcano.

Do you have an outside hobby? 

I like to bike and play soccer. I also play folk music on guitar and banjo, and in the past have taught contra dancing.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist? 

I have always been interested in how cities and communities work. In how they can be planned to run efficiently, but still be nice places to live. For the past 50 years we have been designing around automobiles, to our detriment I think. There are some great ideas on how to change that and come up with more efficient and more livable spaces.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why? 

Enrico Fermi. He was quite brilliant in a few areas of physics, but he was also a great generalist. He could incorporate concepts from various areas of science and engineering to solve little practical problems and come up with calculations explaining everyday occurrences as well as scientific problems. It was like a game to him which he pursued all his life.


John Barnes has been a scientist at the NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory since 1993, and has been director since 1998. He graduated from St.Mary’s University in Minnesota with a double major in physics and mathematics. He later received a master's degree in physics from Colorado State University and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota. He then spent five years working at the University of Michigan and has also worked in the aerospace industry on electric propulsion and the space shuttle.

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