Brynle Barrett BSc'05

Brynle Barrett during a parabolic flight on the “Zero-G” Airbus A300
Photo credit: ESA - Anneke Le Floc'h Brynle may not yet be able to add space travel to his long list of accomplishments but the 30-year-old scientist – and Saint Mary’s University 2005 BSc grad – can claim the next best thing. He has experienced zero gravity during a parabolic flight on the “Zero-G” Airbus A300.

Zero Gravity

Barrett, along with a team of researchers from the Institut d’Optique at the Université de Bordeaux, has been taking part in the European Space Agency’s parabolic flight campaign – best described as a series of rapid roller coaster rides that mimic the experience of zero gravity, without ever leaving Earth’s orbit.

“It’s not like any other feeling I have to compare it to. It’s very disorienting, but at the same time, splendid,” says Barrett, about the experience of what many call the “vomit comit.” Participants are given special anti-nausea medication and very specific instructions on how not to get sick.
During each parabolic flight, the aircraft thrusts upward at a 45-degree angle for about 20 seconds, before going into free fall for another 20 seconds, following by 20 seconds of “pull-out” from the descent. Each of these 60 second cycles offers about 20 seconds of microgravity, and there are 31 of them per flight. Researchers can squeeze an enormous amount of scientific data out of a campaign that involves three flights over three days. These data help them discover more about the effect that micro-gravity has on their experiments, or on equipment destined for space.

Researching Einstein and Learning French

Barrett’s own research is focused on Einstein’s equivalence principle, which deals with “the universality of free falling bodies, or why a feather in a vacuum would fall as fast as a hammer,” as Barrett puts it. More specifically, he is part of an experiment that is trying to establish if Einstein’s famous principle is still valid for “quantum bodies”, like two different atoms.

It was Barrett’s PhD work at York University, completed in 2012, which lead him to the postdoctoral fellowship with the French space agency (Centre national d’études spatiales) and his work at the Université de Bordeaux.

It couldn’t have worked out better if he’d planned it. “This is rare and interesting work,” he says.

The only minor glitch is the language. Not a fluent French speaker, Barrett says he still finds himself struggling at times – not at work, where English is the common language in the laboratory – but out and about in Bordeaux, France, where he lives with his wife, also a Canadian. “In the beginning, I found the most basic stuff hard, like ordering food in a restaurant. I’m fortunate that my wife is fluent, she helped make the transition easier for me.”
Unlike the extreme ascent and descent of the parabolic flights he’s been on, Barrett’s career path would seem to be on a steady upward trajectory. He extends appreciation to SMU, where he took an Honours Degree in Physics and Math, for those early formative educational experiences.

“I received a lot of help from some fantastic professors, not only in the physics department, but in math and computer science as well,” says Barrett. “They really encouraged me and helped me develop my skills.”