It was summer 2018, and Stephen Bush was starting to worry. Months of research were about to go down the drain if he couldn’t convince a room of his colleagues that quantum mechanics was the future of cryptography.
Bush and his team at GE Research had been exploring using quantum mechanics — the confounding physics discipline that holds that electrons can sometimes be in multiple locations simultaneously — to help encode crucial data flying over the internet. He had prepared an application for a Department of Energy (DOE) grant that could award $3.9 million to make his team’s ideas a reality. But before he could submit the application, he needed a group of GE scientists to sign off on his approach. And in that moment, they weren’t buying it. “The idea of using quantum for security isn’t widely accepted, even by experts,” says Bush, a computer scientist at GE Research.
Luckily for Bush, he had a secret weapon: Jim Bray. A chief scientist, Bray has been at GE Research for 45 years. In that time, he’s worked with teams that have helped make magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines commonplace in hospitals, improved wind turbine technology and enabled hybrid vehicles to run on ever-smaller batteries. Bray holds 39 patents and has written more than 100 scientific articles. In the halls of GE Research, he’s a very big deal. And when Bray talks, people listen.
While the other scientists were getting heated, Bray calmly and clearly explained why it was crucial for GE to put money and time behind quantum encryption. Traditional forms of cryptography essentially hide encryption keys behind math problems so complex that even the most powerful computers in the world can’t decode them in any reasonable time frame. But adding the power of quantum computing to the equation makes that assumption wobbly.
Last year, for example, a group of scientists proved definitively that a quantum computer could quickly solve a math problem that would have been effectively impossible for a traditional computer. Bray suggested that quantum encryption was a sound idea to pursue. “They listened and agreed with Jim,” Bush says. “A natural reaction when people start criticizing your work is to fight back, but he didn’t do that.” The application went through, and Bush’s team was chosen by the DOE to work on the project.
Bray is too humble to share these kinds of stories. Ask him about his work at GE over the years and he downplays his management of brilliant scientists, saying things like, “Good management frees people up not to have to be bothered by bureaucracy.” And while management has been an important part of his job for many years, the people who have worked with him believe his contributions have gone far beyond saving them time and red tape.
“Jim is the sort of person who technical people love reporting to,” says Dave Torrey, a senior principal engineer in electric power at GE Research. “He’s able to understand the technology — he can go deep. But he’s also good at giving people freedom to explore in different directions.”
“He’s a good bridge between researchers and the people who have decision-making power,” adds Bush.
His fellow researchers aren’t the only ones singing Bray’s praises. This year the American Physical Society awarded Bray the 2020 George E. Pake Prize. Named after one of the founders of Xerox’s famous PARC research center (where laser printers, graphical user interfaces and Ethernet were born), the prize recognizes outstanding work by physicists with accomplishments in original research as well as leadership in managing research and development. It’s among the highest achievements in the physics community.
Still, Bray sees this career-spanning honor as one to be shared with his colleagues in the lab: “I’m not on the bench turning the knobs,” he says. “These things aren’t doable alone.”
Physics wasn’t Bray’s first love. As a child growing up in Atlanta, he excelled in debate and extemporaneous speaking, a dynamic, off-the-cuff public speech discipline. As a high school senior, he helped lead his team to a national championship. He considered careers in law, medicine and science. “Finally science won,” he says, “mostly because it was the most challenging.”
At the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bray focused on physics — which he considers to be the true bedrock of scientific understanding, its principles at work across a broad spectrum. Chemists observing molecular movement? That’s physics at work. Climatologists measuring human environmental impact? Physics. Spacecraft engineers? Beholden to the laws of physics. A pharmacologist examining structural variables in drug development? Physics again.
After earning a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics at the University of Illinois, Bray was recruited by GE to work at the research center in Niskayuna, New York. In 1974, at just 26, he walked into a lab that included Ivar Giaever, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on electron tunneling in superconductors. That work helped GE build its first full-body MRI.
Far from feeling intimidated, Bray was delighted to join the lab. He jumped in, marrying his love of science with his love of speaking. While other scientists can get bogged down in the weeds when trying to explain their research, Bray had the ability to see the big picture and explain it to people outside the lab. Within five years, Bray had been named a manager. He built a reputation as a leader who brought together scientists from many disciplines to work on projects like that first GE MRI. “They’re big achievements that require a variety of expertise,” Bray says. “That transfer of ideas … it can be illuminating. The best ideas happen between the disciplines.”
Bray’s reputation for clear thinking and straightforward explanations quickly expanded beyond the lab. In his video series “Stump the Scientist,” he answered head-scratchers from internal and external knowledge seekers: How does matter hold itself together? How do magnets work? When GE needed someone to meet with eminent scientists to discuss new ideas, they often tapped Bray. When he met with Linus Pauling, whose research into molecular biology helped pave the way for decoding DNA and who is one of only four people who’ve won two Nobel Prizes, Bray admits he was nervous — but excited to listen.
In 1989, when GE agreed to sit down with scientists at the University of Utah who claimed to have developed cold fusion, Bray was tasked with researching the claims. If cold fusion had truly been achieved, it had the potential to create more power than nuclear fission without the dangerous radioactive waste. “After a year and a half of hard work, we showed that the original claims were false,” Bray says. “We saved GE from making a poor investment.”
Though “emeritus” has now been added to his title, at age 72, Bray is far from retired. He’s pared back to about 70% of his full-time workload and now has time to do other things, like ski the mountains close to his Niskayuna home and do more public speaking. Bray regularly gives talks to interested groups about the complicated scientific principles that have dominated his life’s work.
“It’s required that I think of ways around these perhaps esoteric topics and bring out some bit of knowledge,” he says. “And you can tell from the audience’s looks and their questions — they get it. They’re actually understanding. I get a big kick out of that.”
This year, Jim Bray received the George E. Pake Prize from the American Physical Society — one of the highest achievements in the physics community. He's been at GE Research for 45 years. Images credit: GE Research.