Oral History Transcript — Dr. Pierre Meystre
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Interview with Dr. Pierre Meystre
Pierre Meystre; April 10, 2009
ABSTRACT: Family Background. Schooling in Switzerland. Post-doctoral work at the University of Arizona, Tucson 1974-1977. Theorist at the Max-Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, Garching, 1977-1986. Returned to Tucson, 1986. The Micromaser Strategies for organizing a Quantum Optics program — U.S. vs. German contexts. Quantum Optics' evolution as a discipline. Foundational problems in quantuum mechanics. Persons and institutions discussed at reasonable length: Marlan O. Scully, Herbert Walther, Sege Haroche, Roy J. Glauber, The MPI for Quantum Optics.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Meystre:My father, he was a metal worker. He was doing welding, metal work, and fixing tools and machinery, things like that.
Bromberg:And your siblings?
Meystre:My brother went through a whole lot of jobs. He started life in business and he hated it, so he became a special education teacher, and he kind of hated that too. So then he went back to college and got a degree in psychology, and now heís the general secretary of the city of Lausanne. Heís the guy who runs the non-elected stuff.
Bromberg:You say you were born in a place called Yverdon. Is that near Lausanne?
Meystre:Yes, itís about 20 miles. Actually I was born in Yverdon — thatís where the hospital was. But I grew up in a village about two miles from Yverdon, in a tiny little place. You know, Switzerland is very tiny.
Bromberg:So you went to college partly because you were very good at a lot of things in high school.
Meystre:Right. Well, my mother was extremely smart and in todayís situation she would, for sure, have gone to college and she would have become probably an MD or something like that. She was born in 1915, so in 1930 or so it was unheard of for girls from blue-collar families to go to college in Switzerland. Almost unheard of. So she became a nurse. To become a nurse in Switzerland, you donít go to college. You go to a nursing school or something like that.
Bromberg:Well that makes more sense, what you told me yesterday about how you wound up in physics, because you werenít coming out of a scientific family but a bright family.
Meystre:Yes, my mom was very, very smart. My dad on the other hand always said he could barely read, which he said to put himself down with some weird sense of humor. But my dad was very smart in many ways as well, and also extremely kind. He kept telling us that we should get an education because it is the only thing they cannot take away. He always said that. The great thing is that education is free in Switzerland, so they didnít have to pay anything to send me to college..
Bromberg:Thatís a very important thing it seems to me, in your biography.
Meystre:Yes, because my parents never had the money — they certainly couldnít have sent me to college on their own finances. But a funny thing is that when I was a kid — you know, I was really good in school. I was getting Aís and good grades, and in the Swiss schools they were having these folks who tried to tell you what to do with your life.
Bromberg:Oh, they sort of track you along?
Meystre:It was in a sense a very elitist system — not based on money, but on your abilities. I think theyíve kind of softened it a little bit. So basically I went to the village school until I was 10, and at 10 I took this exam and I passed it, and so they sent me to a secondary school, which was collecting kids from a whole little region. In Yverdon — we went to school there. Only very few kids actually went there from the primary school. From my class, I don't know, maybe 10%. I don't know the exact number, but very few. Then when youíre at 12, they make you take another test to try to guide you. The directions in which they would direct you were either scientific or classics or business or technical — I think these were the four divisions. I took this test, and then my parents had a conversation with the school people. They said, ďWell, he can go anywhere he wants.Ē But my parents told me I should actually become an engineer because then I could get a good job in a company, and they didnít have the money to get me started as a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. They did not understand at all how things worked. Itís very funny, actually itís not funny, but a little sad, and they just didnít understand how things work outside their social group. So they told me, become an engineer, and then you can get a job. [Laughs]
Bromberg:And in Switzerland, you needed money to set up as a doctor or lawyer?
Meystre:No, but they just didnít get it. Because my parents have never had any debts in life ó they didnít know that you just borrow money to get a practice started. It was totally inconceivable for them and foreign to their way of thinking. So I went into the scientific division of the secondary school. There were six of us in the scientific division. Three of us became physicists, one mathematician, one civil engineer, and one chemist. Basically all we did, I think, we had two or three hours of math a day. When we were 12 — from 12 on, at least two hours of math every day. It was lucky because I was good at math, so I could get away with flunking German! [Laughs] Then when I was 16, then they put us all in Lausanne in another school. At 16 you would get a secondary school degree that was in most cases a terminal degree —- at least it was the case then. And once you got this degree, most kids would go on and do an apprenticeship somewhere. But it was the case back then that the ones that the school thought should probably go to college would go through these last two extra years of high school, and we were all in Lausanne for this reason. I was again in the science class. There were less than 30 of us for the whole canton, which is all. It was very elitist, this way. Basically all we did at that point was math and science and foreign languages and a bit of French and literature. But we did a lot of math; probably three hours a day, every day, with lots of homework to boot.
Bromberg:Then you go to the University?
Meystre:Yes, to the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne. The reason I went to the Ecole Polytechnique was that it was the closest university from home. In Switzerland at the time, and I think thatís still the case: you typically would just go to the college closest to home. At the time it was a very small school, which was very nice. It was about 1,500 students. When I started, it was still a state school for the Canton de Vaud, which is the canton (the Swiss version of s state) around Lausanne where I lived. But the canton could really not afford to run this school anymore, so it was taken over by the federal government while I was a student, and they made it the French-speaking counterpart of the ETH in Zurich, which is the other federal school, the EidgenŲssische Technische Hochschule — very famous school. Thatís where Einstein studied. Schroedinger, Pauli, Debye, and many of the giants of physics taught there. So the federal government took over the Ecole in Lausanne and they said they are going to make it also into one of these high-powered schools. And boy, have they ever! Itís incredible. Of course they pour an enormous amount of money into it, but they have been hiring fantastic faculty, built a brand new campus, and are rapidly turning it into an world-class school. Itís an incredibly impressive place now. It didnít have the reputation of ETH in Zurich when I was there, but it is now probably almost as good, and maybe just as good. So thatís kind of the story. But itís really funny, or maybe more sad than funny, my parents were so naÔve in many ways. They didnít understand that you donít need any money to become a doctor; you just borrow the funds you need to get started. And even though the University was free, it still cost some money for textbooks, food, housing, etc.. Of course there were some fellowships available. You just had to ask for them, and if you were in the right financial bracket you could get them easily. But my parents refused to ask for a fellowship at first, they were so proud and thought of it at begging. I donít remember exactly the details, but my dadís dentist told him at some point that he was stupid, and then took it on himself to call the university, and the university called my dad back and said he had to apply for a fellowship. So he finally agreed to do that, and then they gave me a lot of money — at least it felt like a lot of money to me! But the pride of this old generation is just amazing. My dad just said I can do it; I donít need any help. It was another world, I guess, right? Itís very interesting. ÖQuantum optics and all of optics are in a sense a very privileged place because itís not just a topic that you study for the sake of studying quantum optics, but itís also an enabling science. So a lot of people who donít do optics for a living still use optics, and use quantum optics for other things. I find that quantum optics is an extraordinarily interesting field to be in for that reason. If you look at what happened to quantum optics since I got into this business, when I started we were talking in a sense about very simple questions, like resonace fluorescence, like photon anti-bunchingóthese kinds of things that we were still struggling with at the time. The work of Glauber was really not that old then. When did he publish his papers, in the mid-í60s?
Meystre:Yes, so we were still learning how to deal with the description of light in this modern way, which turned out to be so powerful. And then the laser was here, so there were a bunch of people who were trying to develop new lasers and trying to find applications for lasers. This was really a very fun time. Actually life was simpler because the problems were in many ways much simpler, although at the time they looked hard. Then things changed a little bit because people started to study so-called non-classical fields. They went into squeezing. And this made a connection with people who are into precision measurements. So suddenly there were a whole lot of people who got interested in what these crazy quantum optics folks were doing. Then came all kinds of other things. For instance, the work on Bell inequalities that we talked about, which is not necessarily quantum optics by itself — Bell inequalities really are talking about the foundations of quantum mechanics, but the way to test them was quantum optics. This at the time sounded maybe like a nice little experiment that needed to be done, and which was done absolutely beautifully. It could have been the end of it, but instead it was the beginning of something now called quantum information science. So suddenly quantum optics branched into that, and folks like Alain Aspect, Anton Zeilinger, Peter Zoller, Dave Wineland and Chris Monroe and a number of others took quantum optics into this really exciting direction. At about the same time, laser cooling came in, and that led to Bose condensation. Then there were folks who said, ďWell, what happens if I put a Bose condensate in a periodic potential?Ē which you can do with light. And suddenly it was condensed matter physics people who got interested because of all this work on strongly correlated systems that they have been struggling with and have not been able to really test. Because in condensed matter you have what you have, and in quantum optics you can pretty much tune everything you want because you have so many knobs at your disposal. So suddenly there is this very strong connection between quantum optics and condensed matter physics.
Bromberg:Itís too bad that QuattropaniÖ
Meystre:Well heís still around.
Bromberg:Now he knows both fields.
Meystre:Yes, but heís retired, in Switzerland you have to retire at 65. But he still writes papers. I was at a conference about a year ago in Switzerland where he and a whole bunch of people in Lausanne have turned the EPFL into this monster university, a beautiful university now, as we discussed. What this group did is to take a bunch of ideas from atomic physics and quantum optics and now do Bose condensation of polaritons in semiconductors. So Quattropani is also closing a loop there. Again, the beauty of quantum optics is that it is open to this kind of new areas. And then quantum optics has also taught people how to make these amazingly short pulses like attosecond pulses. An attosecond is about the time it takes an electron to make one orbit around the nucleus. I mean itís amazing! So suddenly you can test all kinds of crazy things that you could never see in real time before. Then you get into quantum control. Since you can manipulate the trajectories of electrons at their natural time scale, you can try to control chemical reactions in novel ways, which is called quantum control. So suddenly quantum optics is talking to chemists. Thatís the beauty of quantum optics, I think.
Bromberg:And it also means that Iím completely off when I even think of a quantum optics community. Itís not.
Meystre:Itís a very fluid thing, which makes it a great deal of fun. Thatís really what I like about it. This year Iím the chair of DAMOP, the Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics of APS. We are putting together the program for our annual meeting, and as chair of DAMOP Iím also the chair of the program committee. Itís fascinating to see the new trends in the field, because when I started to go to the DAMOP meetings, there was a lot of collision physics, and there was a bit of laser physics, and there was a little bit of quantum optics in the traditional way. But now you see a quarter of the talks are on quantum information, a quarter of the talks are on ultra-fast science, a quarter of the talks are on ultra-cold atoms and ultra-cold molecules, and a quarter of the talks are still the more traditional stuff. But you can see all these new things coming in. Itís fascinating to see that evolution. So I like the fact that this field keeps reinventing itself in this way. It makes it fun.
Bromberg:One of the questions I wanted to ask was when you got back to Arizona in 1986. Iím interested in how you set up the program. I think that thatís something that is going to be interesting to people who are working on education and the institutions of physics. You came back as a professor rather than a post-doc, so you had to organize your own empire.
Meystre:Well, Iíve never had an empire, but soÖWell, when I arrived, I had a start-up package, they gave me I think two post-docs and two students for two years. That was so that I wouldnít have to start from just an empty place. This gave me some time to try to get organized and to start writing proposals. Then several things happened. First of all, two of the old professors whom I knew when I was a post-doc were still here. Fred Hopf was still here, and Murray Sargent was still here, and Willis Lamb was also still active at that point. He was maybe not as active anymore, he was slowing down a bit and he was doing other things, but Fred Hopf and Murray Sargent were certainly still here. So what I needed to do was to somehow define the intellectual identity of the group that I was going to build. The question is how do you do that? Thatís what we talked about a little bit yesterday that one of the difficulties in this country is that they will only fund you if they think you are an expert on something. So the thing I was an expert on was really micromasers and cavity electrodynamics, and I had to somehow build on that. Now the problem, of course, was that I was no longer next to the experiment, so it made it more difficult and it looked to me like I had to eventually get out of that. I didnít quite know what to do, so I kind of explored a few things, and one of them was going into chaos and trying to see if there was a connection between micromasers and quantum chaos.
Bromberg:Does chaos have any applications? I mean you have this Joint Services Optics Program here, and I assume they are interested in things that may someday have an application?
Meystre:Yes, but they look 10 or 20 years down the road, and not everything turns in to an application. So I was never asked to do something useful. None of the funding agents has really ever asked me, ďI want something that works tomorrow, or next year, or in two years.Ē The funding agents tend to be really bright people, and they understand that they need to have some research that is more long term. So this has really worked very well. Anyway, how did it work? I sent a proposal to NSF very soon after I arrived, and I donít think the proposal was really very strong, but I think based on my reputation that I had from Germany, they gave me some money. So that was really great.
Bromberg:Who were your graduate students? They were just people that were coming in who were interested?
Meystre:I brought students from Germany at first, because I had students in Germany, and when I told them I was leaving they said, ďNo you are not! We need to finish our thesis!Ē So I took them with me. One of them was a lady named Fabienne Marquis; another one was someone named Gerhart Rainer. He unfortunately died soon after graduating; he was killed in a bicycle accident. They had started with me in Germany, so they technically finished their thesis here, but did most of the work in Tucson. So we kind of hit the ground running this way, and that made it pretty easy. I also hired two post-docs. One of them was named Brian Kennedy, and he is now a professor at Georgia Tech. The other one was Craig Savage. He came to me from New Zealand and now he is a professor at the Australian National University. That was my group in the beginning, and we worked on micromasers and we worked a little bit on chaos, and we did a bit of nonlinear optics. I was kind of trying to, how do you say it in English, to find my sea legs — you know, trying to understand how to operate in this country. Also, Scully, who has been a great friend and a great mentor, had also introduced to me to somebody named Herschel Pilloff, who was a program officer with the Office of Naval Research, and he started to fund me right away, and really quite generously at the time. So basically I got funded right away. At about the same time in optical sciences, they started something called the Optical Data Storage Center, and in the beginning it was extremely well funded by industry. There were four major companies that were giving half a million each per year, as I recall. Siemens was one of them, and IBM, Philips. I donít remember the fourth company for sure, maybe 3M. So there was all this money available with writing very small grants, which was pretty easy, and I got a student to work on a project in optical data storage too. It was rather applied work, but you know, sometimes there is nothing wrong with applied work. It got me going. What was really nice is that I got funded right away, and managed to build a small group. Iíve kind of maintained the same size group at all times, about two or three post-docs, depending, and four or five students. Sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. Thatís the only group size I know how to manage. If it gets too big I just donít know how to do it. Then I worked a lot with Murray Sargent. We finished this book that we wrote together.
Bromberg:Yeah what induced you to do the Element of Quantum Optics?
Meystre:This is again a long story. When I was in Germany, working with Professor Walther, Springer Verlag desperately tried to get him to write a book. He was so busy he needed somebody to start working on the book with him, and he asked me if I would help. And it sounded like a good idea.
Bromberg:Were there no books at the time for training people?
Meystre:You know, we always think we can write a better book. [Laughs] So I started to think about this book. And Murray Sargent liked to come to visit Munich. His wife was German, and he was a good friend of Walther and he would spend the summers there. I started to talk to him about the book, and it kind of caught his fancy. So we started to work on this book together in Germany, and we only worked on it in the summers. Herbert Walther never found the time to do anything with it in the end, so it was started by Springer wanting him to write a book, and in the end he was not even on it. The writing dragged on and on, but when I came to Tucson, we decided to give it the final push, and so thatís how it got to be finished.
Bromberg:You do an awful lot of editing of books, donít you?
Meystre:Not really. Iíve edited a couple of books seriously and some not very seriously. Iím on the editorial board of the Springer series here, but I donít do very much work. Basically you try to twist peopleís arms into writing books. But Iíve not done a lot of editing of books. Iíve done a little bit.
Bromberg:I havenít been able to see your book on atom optics. Hopkins, in its great wisdom, seems to have stopped buying books.
Meystre:The only reason I wrote this book is there was no place where my students could learn the stuff, so I decided to write a book. I wrote it very fast. Basically every morning I would just spend two hours on the book before going to work. This is a book that has aged very, very fast and it is completely obsolete already, so it would need a complete rewrite, and I just donít have time. It canít be just edited, the field has moved so far and so fast from what I wrote there.
Bromberg:I was wondering if editing carries any benefits with it, or is it just a matter of satisfying a professional need. Iím talking about the edited books now.
Meystre:Iíve not really done really much of that. I can think of a couple. I did the conference a long time ago, which actually was a very nice conference. I think it was the first conference that brought people doing gravitation theory and measurement theory and quantum optics together.
Bromberg:Was that the one in Bad Windsheim?
Meystre:Exactly, yes. The brain behind this conference was Marlan Scully, but I did a lot of the footwork. It turned out to be a great meeting because a lot of things got started there; a lot of work on squeezed light and things like that. And it was a time when I got to meet some of the real giants. Wigner was there, Wheeler was there, Glauber was there. I edited that book, and I did learn a lot doing that. I was very young and very green. Then I edited a book with Dan Walls, a collection of what we thought were important papers in quantum optics. But otherwise Iíve not done a whole lot of editing; nothing that I would consider very serious. I donít find that to be especially useful. Itís a service you do once in a while, because once in a while you have to do service, you have to pay back. Then things got to be a bit different in Arizona because Fred Hopf died very soon after I came back. He had lung cancer that killed him in a few months. It was very tragic — he was 40 or something, he was very young. Then Murray Sargent, who for some reason had a real hard time getting funded, went to work for Microsoft. Heís a computer genius, and Microsoft had tried to attract him for many years, and at some point the offers were just too good. So he went to work for them. So basically this whole original group was gone, which was kind of interesting, because what had made quantum optics theory so great at Arizona was suddenly gone. But other things happened. When I left Munich, the whole theory group that I had around me left too, because thatís the way it works. One of the post-docs I had in Munich, who was very, very smart, came to Tucson, but not to work for me. He came to do a second post-doc with somebody named George Stegeman, who is a world leader in nonlinear optics. He was doing very different things from my group. He was doing nonlinear optics in fibers and things like that. At some point George moved to Florida and I heard that he just retired. But anyway, this post-doc was named Ewan Wright. He is Scottish. Now he is a full professor at Optical Sciences. They kept him, which was a very smart move. Ewan is a great guy, and I still love collaborating with him, which we do occasionally. Javanainen went to do another post-doc in Rochester with Eberly, and now heís a professor at U. Conn. He is quite a character. So suddenly I found myself alone doing theory around here, which was interesting because it used to be such a powerful collection of people, and suddenly everybody was gone. Alone doing this kind of theory, anyway.
Bromberg:It sounds unpleasant.
Meystre:Well, no, it never was unpleasant. But it is also the time when I finally found my new niche, these cold atoms, which I had started to study by looking at radiation pressure. This whole field of cold atoms exploded and it turned into Bose condensation and all these things. Suddenly because of the history I had of doing radiation pressure and understanding quantum optics and understanding nonlinear optics, I was in a very nice position there. If you look at the people who do cold atoms, they came from all kinds of different corners. But I had a unique twist at the thing, and that allowed me to do a lot of work at a time when it was still easy to do them, before a lot of people started to work on them and all the easy stuff would be done. We were able to pick a lot of the low-lying fruit, which was really nice. It is especially nice when you are in a small place like here because I donít think that one can compete head-on with MIT or Harvard or Max Planck.
Bromberg:For this work, you got citation for nonlinear atom optics.
Meystre:Right. Thatís because, as I said, I knew all these things. Ewan Wright was on the paper, and I had a German post-doc at the time, and I remember telling them, ďLetís do that. Itís going to work.Ē Itís another paper that took maybe a few weeks to write. I remember telling my students, ďProbably everything that we have written in this paper will be proven wrong, but the name will stay.Ē [Laughs]
Bromberg:Was it proven wrong?
Meystre:It was not proven wrong. It was proven to be maybe over-simplified. But thatís okay. Thatís this low-lying fruit that you can get at the beginning of a field. Thatís the way I think one has to operate in a university that is not Harvard or Stanford. You have to be smart enough to pick topics before they catch everybodyís fancy.
Bromberg:Thatís very interesting, and I think thatís going to interest people. Iíd like to go back to Munich for my next few questions, because I don't know anything about how the micromaser started. Iím asking you, even though you were in a theory group, who picked the equipment, or if you have any memories of how the equipment developed.
Meystre:Yes. It was definitely Prof. Walther. I donít recall exactly, but Iím sure he had seen some of the earlier work of Serge Haroche, who was putting Rydberg atoms in cavities. The way I recall that things happened is that Walther said this is really a direction we should go to put these Rydberg atoms in cavities. The beauty is that Rydberg atoms have this really strong dipole coupling with the light field, so you can get a big effect with very few atoms. He knew that. But I think where he really did something that the French had not done is that he realized that if he had really good cavities things would become very interesting, and then instead of going with a very large number of atoms, as the French were doing at the time, he could go to one or a few atoms. He knew somebody who was building superconducting resonators for particle accelerators, and he somehow convinced these people to build a cavity for him. They were superconducting cavities, and the big advantage of superconducting cavities, they are so much better, and suddenly he had these cavities where the photons would stay for a very long time before they escaped — close to a second in the end, and this was the key. The key was that he knew how to prepare and observe Rydberg atoms, and he was smart enough to know that Rydberg atoms because of their strong dipole moment would interact very well with the field. Then he was smart enough to realize that superconducting cavities were really the way to go, and he had the right contact. And to this one needs to add the superb physical intuition that told him that building a maser field one atom at a time, and with basically no noise present, was bound to teach us a lot of interesting things. Plus of course at Max Planck you have the technical support to build these very complicated experiments. This is another key point. A lot of experiments that can be done at the Max Planck Institute cannot be done in too many other places. If you look at the typical American universities, for instance, a lot of the lab equipment is put together by students. They go to the workshop and they put things together. At Max Planck you have professional, highly skilled technicians, mechanics and electronicians who will build things for you. So you can do much more ambitious experiments in many ways, which is great. Itís great if you have leaders like Walther who realize that they have this unique advantage, and then they can do stuff that nobody else can do.
Bromberg:Thatís interesting. Stefen Osnaghi with Zeilingerís group worked with Haroche for a while, and he also told me that there the knowledge that they have of how to use this very complex equipment was somehow unique and built up within the group. I don't know what their technical capabilities are.
Meystre:Thatís true, theyíve been working on this for a very long time — we were talking yesterday about the incredible experiments they are doing now. But they started in the í70s, so itís not something that came overnight. This is a lot of experiments, a lot of mistakes, a lot of know-how, a lot of redoing things over the years. Now Haroche has incredible superconducting cavities. I don't know who builds them for him; he told me once, I donít remember. But these are very complicated experiments, and it takes incredible skill. Have you been in Harocheís lab? This is something else! These guys are good. And of course, Haroche also has an advantage compared to most of us because he is at the Ecole Normale, and the Ecole Normale picks the best and brightest students every year.
Bromberg:Because a lot of his students just stay — they become professors, like Raimond.
Meystre:Thatís right. I don't know the number of students that are accepted from all over France at the Ecole Normale per year, but I think in the physical sciences itís 40 per year — thatís all they take from all over France. At the Ecole Polytechnique they take about 200 people. (somebody from ENS once told me jokingly that Ecole Polytechnique takes just about anybody!... yes, rightÖ) So they are absolutely the best and the brightest students. In my opinion, for the kind of physics that we do, the Ecole Normale group is probably one of the five best groups in the world. There is Harvard, MIT, and JILA in the States, and then there is the Max Planck Institute in Munich. Not in any particular order, but these are for me the top five groups, more or less.
Bromberg:Another question is that in your papers there are some hints about doing this micromaser theory and I just wanted to check on those and whether we should pay attention to them. In some of these papers you talk about the Rochester meeting on instabilities, and these just show up in the papers, and I wonder if these wereÖ
Meystre:I do not remember this instability too well. But I was very interested in the collapses and revivals for two reasons. One of the reasons is that I had actually the collapses in my thesis, and I told you I had the revivals, just barely, but we never published them. And of course Joe Eberly understood them and did some beautiful work on that later on, which is interesting because it got me back into this business, too. There were some questions as to whether they would be able to see the revivals. The collapse I thought would be reasonably easy to see. The revivals would be harder because the system does nothing for a long time, and then you get these revivals. In the meantime you have decoherence and dissipation and all these things. And you had to go to very small photon numbers to see the revivals. But they did see them, and they did publish their results. Then the French group saw them too a bit later, much more cleanly. I think they now have the cleaner results by far. But again, it doesnít take anything away from the fact that the Max Planck group saw them first. It was more difficult to interpret, but I wrote a paper with Ewan Wright where we talked about that and we discussed these revivals. But certainly Joe Eberly played a significant role. Joe Eberly is a very senior theorist, and he was a very good friend of Walther, and Walther had an enormous amount of respect for what Eberly would say. If Eberly would tell him you should go after these revivals, which was good enough for Walther. So this was one of the great things at the Max Planck Institute, and why I probably never should have left, we had this permanent flow of incredible visitors — I mean the best and the brightest. It was a place where everybody would stop in the summer. So Eberly would stop just about every summer. He also got one of these Humboldt fellowships, and at some point was on the advisory board of the Max Planck Institute. Bloembergen would show up regularly. Glauber would show up regularly. Ron Shen, a professor at Berkeley, heís more of a nonlinear optics person; he was there all the time. Then Letokhov would show up. Tony Siegman was there often. So we had all these regular visitors who would be there all the time, and it was a great deal of fun. It was also sometimes a great deal of, not stress; stress is not the right word. But I remember we would work through the winter, and we would joke with Herbert Walther, he would say, ďMarlan Scully is coming next month. I wonder what the problem of the year is!Ē And Scully would kind of get everybody to work on the problem of the year. But it was fun to have all these people coming and exchanging ideas. Walther was very smart — he realized that having these visitors and a lot of young post-docs was the way to build his institute, and he made this institute from scratch into one of the greatest places in the world to do this kind of work in a very short time, really.
Bromberg:Iím assuming that when he came to Munich, it was already with the idea that if the laser project group worked out, that they would be going on to the Institute?
Meystre:Iím sure that they had told him that would happen if there was success, and I donít think he ever doubted that it would succeed. Walther was a man of very few doubts. [Laughs] He was incredible. He knew how good he was, and he knew he could do it. And he didnít seem to need any sleep. He was an amazing guy.
Meystre:In my present research I can put condensates in cavities, I put them inside micromasers. Itís all kind of coming together, which is interesting, actually, because Iím kind of putting 35 years of physics all together, which is fun.
Bromberg:I want to ask you something about when you came back to Arizona. When you came back here, Scully was gone. What was the situation — why did you decide to come back here?
Meystre:Now this is a very good question [laughs], and sometimes especially these days I wonder if it was a huge blunder. So why did I come back here? It doesnít make sense, does it, because I was in scientific paradise at the Max Planck Institute, and I left pretty much at the time when they hired Ted Hšnsch, which was stupid of me. And why did I come to Arizona? Iíve always liked the Southwest. A lot of Europeans love the Southwest. Iíve always had fond memories of my postdoc days at Arizona. They must have liked me because they always bugged me to come back, and I always said I donít want to come back. I remember exactly when they called me once more. I was just back from a ski vacation and I was back in gray Munich for another three months of fog, because in Munich you get under the fog from November through March — you donít see the sun. They called me and they asked me if I wanted to come for an interview, and it seemed well, it doesnít cost anything to go for an interview and get in the sunshine for a few days. When I got on the plane, I decided I donít really want to go to Arizona, so Iíll make just completely outrageous demands. So I arrived and I gave a talk and went to see the VP for Research, and I made completely outrageous demands, and they said yes. So I was really stuck! [Laughs] This is the only time that Herbert Walther got furious at me. For two months he didnít talk to me when I told him I was leaving. So I left and I came here. He told me, ďOh, weíll get you back. Donít worry.Ē Then I had a few opportunities to go back to Europe. The first serious one was to go back to Germany, but I was divorced then and I had just met this lady who had a daughter in high school and she didnít want to go. So you know what you do for ladies sometimes [laughs], so I stayed here and wound up marrying this lady, so this was clearly the right decision I had a few other opportunities later on, but now Iím too old, of course, they wouldnít give me a job in Europe, mostly because of retirement issues. But I think that five years ago I would have gone back because I couldnít stand Bush. I just couldnít stand Bush. It was becoming impossible for me to live in this country, but not for scientific reasons. Now of course the university is bankrupt here, so itís a bit difficult and complicated. But Iím 60; Iím almost 61, so I donít think thatÖ
Bromberg:Do you still have the kind of wonderful group of collaborators that you had when you were a post-doc here?
Meystre:What happened is that Scully left, Hopf died, Lamb just died, but Lamb had not been as powerful intellectually in the last ten years. Murray Sargent went to work for Microsoft. So itís not what it used to be, thatís for sure. But this has never bothered me too much because I have friends all over the world, and these days you can get on the phone or you can email or you can travel. What bothers me more, and these are kind of external things, but what bothers me is that the state of Arizona is so anti-education that I find it hard to live here sometimes. It just drives me nuts. Then the university budget has been literally slaughtered. But hey, thatís life, right? Itís been a good ride so far!
Bromberg:One thing we didnít talk about is your bringing the micromaser to bear on chaos theory.
Meystre:Yes, and this never did much.
Bromberg:You were suggesting this was a wonderful site for experimental work.
Meystre:Right, and it never happened, really. There are two reasons I think why it didnít happen. The first reason is that I donít think that I ever put enough effort into looking into that. I had a post-doc who was working with me, and then he left, because post-docs move on. But the other reason, and probably the key reason, is that the people who build these micromasers are precision people. They are spectroscopists, they are high-precision measurement folks, they are people who really like to stabilize everything. To tell them to do stuff that looks like noise, they seem to have a psychological hang up with that. Itís very interesting, actually. If you try to tell a John Hall to make a noisy laser, he will probably not like you very much, right! Then the fad of chaos kind of disappeared, and then I moved to cold atoms, which has been a great ride, really, and weíve learned a lot of physics.
Bromberg:I was looking at it from a slightly different point of view, because there was a couple of years, I think in the late í80s for example, when you were really looking at a whole bunch of different fields in terms of the micromasers, in terms of insights that the micromaser could throw on different things.
Meystre:Thatís right. Probably unconsciously I was looking for the next place to go, because you cannot do the same problem forever. I had arrived in Arizona in the late í80s, I moved here in í86, and when youíre in the States you have to organize the way you do science a bit differently from the way I did it at Max Planck. At Max Planck I never had to write a proposal; money just came my way — isnít it wonderful! And here, I learned very fast that you need to get funded, first of all.
Bromberg:Yes, you need to be the Scully of your group in some way, donít you?
Meystre:Yes. To get funded, you have to be considered by the funding agents first as the expert in your field; and second, they also have to decide that itís an interesting field. You have to have these two aspects. One of the things that I find a bit difficult in this country because of the way funding is organized is that itís very hard to change fields because you are only going to be funded for what you are a so-called expert on. So I was kind of looking around for a way to move adiabatically to something else.
Bromberg:And you were an expert in micromasers. [Right.] Did the micromaser turn out to have a really important impact on physics? Is that what you were telling me when you said that Harocheís group was doing these really gorgeous experiments?
Meystre:Well, it has for many reasons. First of all, I think that it was one of the few cases where people were really forced to think very carefully about what they are measuring and how they are measuring it, and what does it mean in physics to look at a single system instead of a large number of letís say atoms. Youíre no longer looking at 1023 atoms, youíre looking at just one atom. The other reason why I think itís been important is that itís really a textbook example. Itís sufficiently simple that you can teach this stuff to students. And it has a lot of wealth; it has a lot of beautiful aspects to it. So it is a textbook example to teach all kinds of things to students. And also, itís a great example that is, again, reasonably easy to understand, to put your finger on some of the difficulties of quantum mechanics. People like Haroche now are using it to test things like entanglement and quantum gates and things like that. So itís also a playground to learn a lot about quantum information. I don't know if youíve seen Harocheís recent book Exploring the Quantum.
Bromberg:Yes I have.
Meystre:Itís a wonderful book. He makes this point very beautifully that cavity QED is a great place to get started. So I think it will stay in textbooks for a while. But if you look at the experiments, they are not simple. There are only a few groups in the world that can do experiments with micromasers, which is really a serious limitation because itís always good to have more than two or three groups. If you look at for example at Bose condensation, I don't know how many groups do experiments, but itís a large number. Itís very healthy to have this kind of situation.
Bromberg:So there is the Haroche and Rempe group really?
Rempe doesnít really do much of that anymore. He does a little bit. I donít even know where the Garching micromaser is now. I thought it was going to move to England, but I don't know if it has.
Session I | Session II