When Norman E. Barnett (B.S. Physics, 1944, M.S. Physics, ‘47) passed away at the age of 96, he left a legacy that extended to all corners of the University of Michigan community.

Barnett included bequests in his estate plan to the three colleges at U-M that were influential in his work and remained close to his heart during his 78 years in Ann Arbor. The gifts, made to the Department of Physics in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (SMTD), will endow student support in each college.

Although he spent the bulk of his career as a professor in Taubman College, LSA’s Department of Physics was Barnett’s first intellectual home at Michigan. Beginning in fall 2020, the Norman and Mary E. Barnett Fellowship in Physics will support one outstanding graduate student in the Department of Physics each academic year.

Xiaoyu Guo, a second year Ph.D. student in the physics department is the first fully funded Barnett Fellow.

Xiaoyu Guo

Guo’s current research focuses mainly on two-dimensional (2D) magnetism. Funding from fellowships such as this enable graduate students to spend more of their time advancing the progress of their research. This year, Guo is especially grateful for the gift of time.

“Because the pandemic shut down laboratories during the summer, I was not able to conduct experiments and the progress was significantly delayed,” said Guo. “With the financial support by the fellowship, I do not have teaching duties this semester and as a result can devote more time to my research. From the beginning of the semester until now, I have made substantial progress and I believe I am able to catch up with the schedule in the future.”

“More importantly, the Barnett Fellowship also gives me valuable spiritual encouragements,” added Guo. “I am so thrilled that my efforts and achievements have been recognized by this prestigious fellowship.”

From Physics to Architectural Acoustics: A True Inter-disciplinarian

Norman Barnett

Norman Barnett loved Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. Long after his retirement, Barnett remained a recognizable fixture in the departments that represented his broad range of experience and defined his rich relationship with the university. But few knew the extent of his interesting life and truly multidisciplinary career.

Originally from a small town in New York near the Pennsylvania border, he arrived on campus in 1941 when he was just seventeen years old and never looked back. As an undergraduate, Barnett elected the most difficult math and physics courses and earned his B.S. in physics in just three years. He worked in the physics lab to pay his way through college while, somehow, also finding time to play French horn in the Michigan marching band under the direction of innovative and exacting band director William Revelli.

Barnett’s undergraduate research focused on infrared optics, but his graduate faculty adviser, prominent research physicist Dr. Paul Geiger, fatefully introduced him to the study of acoustics. It was a natural fit that combined his talents. When Geiger passed away unexpectedly, Barnett dedicated himself to completing his mentor’s research and life’s work.

Barnett’s career as a research physicist following World War II spanned interesting years during the early Cold War cloak-and-dagger era—he conducted government and industry research in applied optics, applied acoustics including machinery noise control and psychoacoustics, communications systems, hologram interferometry applied to vibration problems, soil dynamics, and remote surveillance issues. He was a recognized leader in controlling vibration to minimize ship and submarine noise, and co-authored a four-volume set of books on the topic for the U.S. Navy. He later developed electronic instrumentation in support of research in environmental technology and building energy.

Returning to U-M to teach in 1961, Barnett was first a lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He joined the architecture faculty at U-M in 1967 to teach architectural acoustics and architectural photography. He was promoted to associate professor in 1969, then to professor of architecture in 1976.

After spending so many years in research labs, Barnett was pleasantly surprised to find teaching and working with students particularly fulfilling.

Later, Barnett's love for teaching and the disciplines that both shaped and enriched his life and career would inspire him to establish the scholarships and fellowships that bear his name. Professor Barnett’s estate gift enables LSA, Taubman, and SMTD to provide students the opportunity to explore how their interests can make a difference in the world.

When asked about the importance of teaching the physics of architecture, Barnett noted that an architect needs both a strong understanding of the physical properties of materials and an interest in the artistic side of problems to satisfy a client’s needs.

Robert Metcalf, dean emeritus of architecture, once said that Barnett brought a crucial element to Taubman—technical expertise. “At a time when students were being exposed to a wide variety of theoretical approaches,” said Metcalf in 1997, “Barnett demanded that they also master the nuts and bolts so they could do work that was functional as well as beautiful.” Metcalf also noted that Barnett helped the school develop its leadership in environmental technology.

A Lifetime of Adventure

Though Professor Barnett had many interests—classical music, photography, fencing, and flying airplanes, plus annual trips to Saint-Barthélemy Island (St. Bart’s) in the Caribbean and the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario, among them—he remained nearly as active with the university after his retirement, in 1993, as he had been while teaching.

He maintained an office at Taubman, where he worked on developing architectural acoustics teaching software, Acoustic 2D and Acoustic 3D, that the college uses today.

A lifelong physicist-at-heart, he devotedly attended the physics department’s Saturday Morning Physics lecture series. Barnett passionately encouraged less scientifically-inclined acquaintances to attend so that they could understand the importance of considering how physics impacts the world around us every day—not in a vacuum but in concert with other disciplines.

Riley Sechrist recieved an award from the Barnett fund as a first-year graduate student in the physics department. She studies photosynthesis using a technique called ultrafast spectroscopy. Sechrist also served as president of the Society for Women in Physics (SWIP), a student-led group that aims to create a supportive and inclusive community in physics.

“I'm very grateful for Professor Barnett's generosity, and that the physics department believed my work was promising enough to justify supporting me. My first year at Michigan was full of challenging courses,” she said, echoing Guo's sentiments on the topic of how graduate student awards represent so much more than financial support. “But knowing that I had been chosen to receive this funding helped to reassure me that others in the department believed I could succeed in the program.”

“I enjoyed meeting Professor Barnett, who was genuinely interested in my work. We talked at length about the classes I was taking and our respective fields of research,” recalled Sechrist. “His enthusiasm for physics was infectious.”

Brad Orr, U-M’s associate vice president for research, science, and engineering, and former chair of the physics department, enjoyed seeing Barnett at Saturday Morning Physics.

Barnett also enthusiastically served as an acoustic consultant for the 2003 renovation of one of the university’s most treasured performance spaces, Hill Auditorium (a monument to perfect acoustics resulting from a collaboration between architect Albert Kahn and noted acoustical engineer Hugh Tallant). Speaking of the renovation, he pointed out that even the upholstery on the seats could affect the sound absorption and overall acoustic quality.

"I remember him discussing Hill Auditorium with the awe and respect that only both an architect and acoustician could have," said Orr. "Norm was the rare individual who combined his love of science and art into a lifetime of adventure."

Monahan’s Fish Market (2013) by Ann Arbor artist Sarah Innes (BFA 1979; MFA 1989).

"Identifiable by his small stature, erect bearing, and tweed cap, [Professor] Barnett was a fixture at iconic Ann Arbor locations for more than seven decades,” noted Janice Harvey, Director of Development and Alumni Relations for Taubman College, in the Spring 2019 issue of Portico. “He is immortalized in a mural hanging above the display case at Monahan's Seafood, where he is depicted [far right, in cap and plaid scarf] choosing his Friday evening supper." 

The mural, Monahan’s Fish Market (2013), is by artist Sarah Innes (BFA 1979; MFA 1989), who was struck by Barnett's "distinguished air." The original hangs at Casey's Tavern in Ann Arbor, and was commissioned by Bill Martin, owner of Casey’s and former U-M athletic director. A print can also be found hanging at Monahan's in the Kerrytown Market.

(Image published with permission of the artist, Sarah Innes. Web: Sarahinnes.net; Instagram @scinnes54)

Research Spotlight: Xiaoyu Guo

Xiaoyu Guo, 2020-21 Recipient of the Norman E. and Mary E. Barnett Fellowship

My current research mainly focuses on two-dimensional (2D) magnetism. The field of 2D physics, which studies atomically thin materials, sprung up since the first isolation of monolayer graphene, a single atomic layer of graphite in 2004. Despite the many discoveries in 2D materials, 2D magnetism has been long sought for but was only realized for the first time in 2017, and the understanding of 2D magnets is at a very elementary stage. I set off my research in 2D magnets using 2D chromium triiodide (CrI3), one of the first 2D magnets realized in 2017, as an archetype and applying sophisticated optical techniques to study the interplay between 2D magnetism and structural changes in 2D magnets.

The Barnett Fellowship enables me to carry out the research project in a more comprehensive manner. Thanks to the fellowship, this semester I am able to devote more time to studying the coupling between magnetism and lattice structure from two approaches which are complementary to each other. The first approach is to study phonons, or lattice vibrations of the crystal using optical Raman spectroscopy. We successfully resolved the intimate interplay between the structure and magnetic phase. A manuscript is in preparation and I will also present the results in the coming APS March Meeting, the largest event for the condensed matter community. The second approach is to use nonlinear optical techniques to probe the ground state of 2D CrI3. This project is still on-going, and I am working on the construction of the experimental setup.

In the future, I plan to explore more of 2D magnetism, including other materials apart from CrI3, their heterostructures and other intriguing phases in them. The Barnett Fellowship will surely boost my confidence and reinforce my enthusiasm along the way to the ultimate goals.