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Interview of Roman Jackiw by George Zimmerman on 2010 August 5, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/34449
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In this interview, Roman Jackiw discusses topics such as: his childhood and family background; undergraduate education at Swarthmore; graduate work at Cornell University; working with Hans Bethe and Kenneth Wilson; particle physics; David Gross; working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); John Bell; awards and degrees he has been awarded.
Okay, Roman. Where were you born and when? And how was your early education?
My name is Roman Jackiw. I’m a physicist and a professor at MIT, Jerrold Zacharias Professor of Physics.
I looked up your vitae, if you don't mind, on the Net. I saw you were born in Poland.
Yes. I was born in Lublinec, Poland. Lublinec has nothing to do with Lublin. It’s a small village and a lakeside resort. I was born right after World War II began, and my father was a businessman in Poland. He wanted my mother to be out of the action, and so he sent her and me inside her to this lakeside resort where I was born. We stayed in Poland until it became clear that the Russians and the Communists would be the dominant force there, and since my father didn't want to live under those conditions, we went to I think what at that time was Austria, although after the war it became Czechoslovakia. I’m not entirely clear. My father had a previous family and older children who were students in Vienna, and we moved from Poland to be near his other children south of Vienna, I think it was, some place in Czechoslovakia. We stayed there for a while, and then eventually went to Germany, and stayed in Germany until 1949, whereupon we came to the United States and I attended junior high and high school in the States. I was educated by monks, Xaverian monks in junior high, Christian brothers in high school.
Where was that?
In New York City. I enjoyed my middle school and high school education very much, and I think I benefitted a lot from it. But there was little science and little physics — well at least little real science — little real physics in the curriculum. On the other hand, I became convinced I wanted to be a physicist after reading Gamow’s One Two Three… Infinity, and he describes people doing things that sounded fascinating to me and I wanted to do them. It was actually an act of faith because I didn't get to do them until graduate school. College was at Swarthmore, which again offered an excellent education, but not super strong in science, or at least not in physics.
How did you get to Swarthmore?
By applying and getting in and attending.
I know, but what did you decide about Swarthmore especially as opposed to any other colleges?
Well because Swarthmore at that time was viewed as the best college in the United States, the best liberal arts college, and I thought I wanted to go to a liberal arts college. I thought I wanted to go to a small school rather than to a big school. I remember applying — I think I applied to Harvard and Williams and Swarthmore, and the application from Harvard wanted me to write essays and I didn't feel like writing essays, so I never did the application. Swarthmore wanted an interview, and so I went for an interview. I liked the campus and I liked the people and I liked the whole Quaker business, and so that’s where I went.
I think another faculty member, Ralph Ransom, also went to Swarthmore.
Oh did he? I see.
I believe. So that must have been a good school.
Oh, it is an excellent school, and I think these days it’s also excellent in science. But in my time it was excellent in humanities and in science, it wasn't — It was a college. It didn't provide the kind of depth of education in science the way a university does.
On the other end I see that the colleges usually take better care of their undergraduates than the Universities do.
Well, that’s right. That’s right. My children went to universities. Stefan, my youngest, went to Harvard, and he certainly wasn't taken care of as well as I was.
Then you went to graduate school. I see that — Oh, by the way, let’s go back over about when you were in Germany. Where did you live then?
We lived in a small town, kind of a fairy tale town, and I really loved living there. I was heartbroken to be leaving. It’s a town called Dingolfing, probably known these days to car buffs because BMW started in Dingolfing or had one of its original factories in Dingolfing. In fact, I went to school with the son of the factory manager, the name of a kid who I still remember called Fuchsl. The reason I remembered it —
What was it?
Fuchsl, little fox. And the reason I remember it is because he had a toy BMW and I didn't, and I was always admiring him for that.
I see. So you speak of course German.
Well, I haven't spoken German in a while, but when I go to Germany I speak German in a hesitant way.
Right. It takes about a week to get back. Do you still speak Polish or do you…?
I never spoke Polish; my parents were not Polish. They were Ukrainian ethnicity, and I speak Ukrainian.
Then after Swarthmore, you went to…?
Cornell. Swarthmore had a kind of “in” with Cornell. Lots of Swarthmore graduates went to Cornell, and so I did. At Cornell I made contact with Hans Bethe and with Ken Wilson. I had thought I might work with Bethe, but Bethe decided not to do particle physics but continue with nuclear physics, and I wanted to do particle physics. So Ken Wilson, who was a new faculty when I was there, took me on and I was his student. But I still had pedagogical contact with Bethe because Bethe asked me to help him write a textbook on quantum mechanics. That’s what he and I did, a book which is still in print and has gone through several revisions.
How was it working with Bethe?
Well, as I say, I didn't do research with Bethe. I did kind of pedagogical work, and he’s a very kind man, very patient. I remember I made some mistakes in the physics that I reported for our text, and he didn't berate me. He didn't make me feel like a fool that I was.
You were not probably, but…
And then of course he helped me in my post-graduate career by recommending me for a junior fellowship. Well, so did Ken Wilson, who himself had been a junior fellow.
At Harvard, yes.
Now Wilson was a particle — not particle, but he was a…
No. When he started, he was a particle physicist.
He was, okay.
And he remained a particle physicist through my time at Cornell. Then in doing particle physics, he stumbled across the idea of short distance expansions and canonical dimensionalities, meaning dimensionalities in engineering units. Then he realized, I think with the help of a referee, that in various solvable models like a Thirring model, these short distance expansions did behave in a scale invariant fashion, but with dimensions which departed from the engineering values into anomalous values. Then somehow — this was after my time at Cornell, so I don't know the history of it — but somewhere he made contact with people in condensed matter physics like Kadanoff, and at Cornell a chemist by the name of Widom and Fisher, and all these people who were interested in scaling phenomenon.
There was also a Frenchman or a Belgian, Broud.
Brout. He was at Cornell at one time. I don't know that he had any contact with Wilson. That I don't know. But as it happened, I did my work on anomalous behavior in quantum field theory just at the same time as Ken Wilson did his work, and he used the behavior of anomalous axial vector currents as a case study for his non-canonical behavior in field theory.
Of course right now I believe his greatest fame is in establishing the foundations of phase transitions, phase transition theory.
Right. Well, in particle physics, his name appears all the time still in things like Wilson criteria for confinement, Wilson loops.
Yes. The first time I worked at some of his phase transition work, I saw the origins of particle physics and all this kind of stuff. So it was very, very interesting. Any other stories you can tell us about Cornell, for instance?
Not particularly. I worked there. I did my thesis for Ken Wilson. It’s a thesis which… I didn't do what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to use the renormalization group to find the high energy behavior of form factors in electrodynamics. It turns out that renormalization group doesn't control that, but other approximations can be used to solve that problem and I did. My thesis was published and it’s still referred to, I’m pleased to stay in current spires.
You also told me that there was a choice of majoring in two…
Oh yes, I minored in history of science because one had to minor in two fields, and the canonical two fields for minoring were experimental physics and mathematics. But I didn't want a minor in experimental physics, so I minored in history of science in mathematics with a major in physics.
At about that time when you were there, one of my acquaintances from Yale came, David Lee. Did you have any — He is an experimentalist of course.
Yeah, I recall the name.
John Reppy, I guess.
I recall those names, but these are —
The low temperature group.
Yeah, the low temperature group was in a different building.
Oh, it was?
We were in the laboratory for nuclear science, I think was what it was called, just like at MIT, and the particle experimentalists and theorists were there, and the condensed matter people were in what was called Rockefeller. It was an old physics building, a real decrepit building, which was however given to Cornell by the Rockefellers many years ago. Then they built a new building called I think Clark Hall, which was mainly condensed matter physics. So I passed through it on my way to the particle physics lab, but I didn't really stop there.
I remember in 1958 or thereabouts, I drove out to Cornell in the winter. It took me about five hours to get there and two days to get back because we got caught in a storm.
It used to get cold in Ithaca, yes, sir.
And we slid off the highway several times and had to be towed. Not very pleasant. Then you came to Harvard and worked with or by yourself?
Well, no I worked a little by myself, but also with David Gross, who was a junior fellow at the same time as I was. He was trained in S-matrix theory from Berkeley with CHEW and I was trained in field theory by Ken Wilson, and that’s when I realized that David was smarter than I because we couldn't work with any of the faculty since they were not interested either in S-matrix theory or in field theory at Harvard. People at MIT were interested in S-matrix theory and David tried to make contact with them, but it was too difficult really to walk those several miles. So we fell on each other and it was either me learning S-matrix theory or his learning field theory, and I didn't learn S-matrix theory, but he learned field theory to much great success for him.
I remember looking at S-matrix theory. I never really — Well, I sort of understood the mechanics — I understood the concept but nothing else.
So I worked with David, and then after my work became a little more interesting, Sidney Coleman and I worked together a bit. Also sometimes with other people, with Caallan, with David, with… well, mostly those two. And then I went to MIT. I actually worked with people from MIT in my last year as a junior fellow.
Who hired you at MIT?
Well, Weisskopf was the Chairman, so he hired me, but I think the person who arranged that I be hired was probably Weinberg and/or Fubini, both of whom helped with my career a lot, and they were on the faculty at MIT at that time.
When you came to MIT, did you teach any courses or did you do mainly research?
Well, I did mainly research. I suppose I taught, but I didn't have a heavy teaching load and I don't remember what I taught, probably just sections of courses.
Now one of your great papers is the paper with Bell.
Yes, that was the middle year of my Society of Fellows stay. My first year I stayed at Harvard continuing as I said working with David, and just David in the first year. Then in the second year I went to CERN, and I worked by myself a lot, but I also discussed tremendous amounts with John Bell. Not his famous work on quantum mechanics; I didn't even know he was doing that. He didn't force his ideas on anybody, so he never told me about it. But I discussed current algebra a lot with him, and then we fell into the problem of the decay of the neutral pion into two photons, which was a puzzle at that time, and we studied the properties of the axial vector current and discovered the axial vector current anomaly, and wrote a paper, which is my most cited paper and also John Bell’s most cited PARTICLE PHYSICS paper in fact.
It is. I went on the Net and that was one of the most cited things that I found. My acquaintance with the particle theory people was that I was scanning emulsions at Yale a long time ago, just when the mesons were being discovered. [Yes.] There was a young man I guess who came in and said, “Well, we heard that you discovered the — not you, but somebody in the department discovered the psi particle. Can I see it, please?” Well of course you can't see it. He was quite naïve. So you have been at MIT for how long?
Well, I joined in ’69 and I’ve been there ever since except for sabbaticals. So 69+40 is 109, so 41 years.
41 years. What are you working on now?
Well these days, what has happened — What I’ve always liked is to do work which seems obscure but interesting, and then decades later it catches on, and this has happened several times for me. Most recently, work which I had done with Rebbi and also Rossi, behavior of fermions in the presence of defects, has been picked up by people who do topological effects in condensed matter physics. Topological insulators, topological superconductors, H states, zero modes of the appropriate Hermitian operator, all of those features which were mathematically established without any particular reference to actual physical systems by Rossi, Rebbi, and me have now seen physical realization, and that pleases me a lot, and I contribute to that these days with collaboration with people at actually BU, Chamon, So-Young PI, and also my colleagues at MIT.
How did you meet So-Young?
I used to go to Rockefeller University a lot when their physics department existed in particle and mathematical physics, which it no longer does, and at that time, she was a post-doc there and I got to know her through my visits. Then she came to be a post-doc at MIT and I got to know her even better then. That’s how we met.
I see. So you commuted from Cornell to the Rockefeller?
Not from Cornell. I didn't commute because I wasn't there on a permanent basis, but I was a frequent visitor. I mean I traveled, but I didn't commute.
You traveled, right.
Right. I traveled to New York. My main reason to go there was because it’s a very nice place, Rockefeller University is and it’s nice to go to New York.
Now was your family — You came to the United States —
No, my family — 1949.
To New York.
Yes. My family all died. My parents were old when I was born, especially my father, and he died when I was in college, and my mother died when I was in graduate school. All my siblings who are much older than I — I knew them more like aunts and uncles rather than brothers and sisters — they have since that time also died. So I really wasn't…
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
I had one brother and two sisters, Siblings. They’re children of my father but not of my mother.
I see. So your father married twice. [Yes.] What were they doing?
My brother was a physician. My older sister was an economist by training but a housewife in the United States. And my younger sister (as I say, not younger than me but younger than the older sister) was a pharmacist by training but a housewife in the United States.
Let’s go back a little bit more. During the war, of course you were a baby, and then you were in Austria and then you went to Germany?
Yeah. It might have been Czechoslovakia. I don't know. It was right in that area, in fact. The place that we lived was on the route where the expelled Germans after World War II walked, and they walked in fact in front of our house and I watched them; that made me feel kind of weird.
Right. I can see that. I went to Bratislava several years ago and I was there during World War II, and when you look across the Danube, that was Austria and now it’s Slovakia.
I have been to Bratislava. I’ve had some contacts with Slovak physicists, which I made not in Slovakia; I made them at CERN.
What kind of physics do you think they do there?
Well, the people I know do kind of mathematical physics, just exploring of various physical applications of mathematics or mathematical applications of physics. I don't really know. Names I remember are Pisut [?], who also was in politics. Noga [?] and his wife Nogova [?] did mathematical physics as I recall. There might have been others, but those are people that I remember.
Let’s see, anything that you would like to talk about yourself?
Not particularly. I mean I like doing physics. I like doing physics which as I described is mathematically intricate and also in a very clear sense intriguing and beautiful, and I appreciate it when it is done without an application in mind and then an application presents itself later.
Oh really? Because I think being an experimentalist, it works the other way around essentially: you see the application and then you are looking for an explanation.
Yeah. Well, that's also — but I’m a theorist. I can imagine in abstract. I like to do things that theory leads to, and I know experimentalists like to do things that are independent of theory as experiments, and the theory should then be stimulated by it.
And vice versa, I guess. Experiments should be stimulated by theory.
And for me, it’s the other way. That’s right.
I’ve had two bodies of work sort of generally speaking, one of the type that I just described with mathematical investigations which fit Dirac’s criterion of beauty and have physical application because they are beautiful, like Fractional charge phenomenon that I mentioned earlier, and like the anomaly phenomenon, like the Chern-Simons terms which I introduced with the help of Deser and students and later explored with So-Young Pi. But on the other hand I’ve also done kind of methodological investigations, which weren’t necessarily original but applied existing schemes to new context. Like for example, figuring out how to do quantum field theory at finite temperature and relativistic quantum field theory at finite temperature, taking over what they do in condensed matter physics and non-relativistic quantum field theory approach to condensed matter physics at finite temperature. Also how to do collective phenomena in relativistic quantum field theory, and those are very successful investigations. The first one was done in collaboration with a student, and the second one was done with Mike Cornwall and a student. Both are highly useful.
You have gotten all kinds of rewards and recognitions. What are the ones which are the most memorable or most valuable?
Most memorable I guess are — Well, valuable, none of them are valuable in a financial sense. I haven’t gotten the Nobel Prize or any of the big money awards.
Oh even that isn’t all that much money.
Well, it’s more than the prizes than I got. Well, I have the Mathematical Physics Prizes of Dirac and Heinemann. But I’ve also enjoyed getting honorary degrees, and I have honorary degrees from various institutions.
Well, let’s see. I have one from Uppsala University. I have one from Turin. I have one from Kiev. I have one from Montreal. And I think that’s it.
Kiev is an interesting one. That's in the Ukraine, right?
That’s in Ukraine, right. I’ve been there both in the Soviet days and the post-Soviet days, and it’s an interesting place to visit.
How did things change, or did they?
They changed when people became freer. It’s just clearer how much freer they are, and also I think the standard of living has increased. Certainly in Kiev it has. Kiev is a much jollier city now than it was in the Soviet days.
I visited Minsk in ’91.
That I don't know if it’s a success. It’s a different world.
It’s sort of a different world. But still I think Kiev was in the Soviet Republics and they have had a tough time sort of recovering. I see that the remnants of dictatorship are coming back. Did you feel any of that when you were there?
Well, no. When I was there, there was the very west-oriented — In the post-Soviet days it was a very west-oriented government that was in power when I was there. It was there not in power with the present government took over. I’m not clear that it’s a retreat to dictatorship. I mean it’s friendlier to Russia —
Oh, Russia has — Russia has retreated back into, right.
Well Russia perhaps has, but I think —
Right, and Belarus, of course.
Yeah, it never left.
Well, it did for a very, very short time. When I was there I was asked to look at some of their industries and how they can be converted to commercial use — this is military industries — and they had no idea of free enterprise. Then they reverted. I was always accompanied by somebody when I was there. I was the guest of the Powder Metallurgy Institute. So unfortunately they did revert. So the Ukraine is moving west.
It’s moving west, or at least it’s keeping its distance from Russia, even though it’s more pro-Russian. I think that its role in the world should be between Russia and Western Europe rather than completely allied with Western Europe.
I always thought that the expansion of NATO eastward was an irritant to Russia.
Right. It’s an irritant to Russia and —
And is unnecessary.
That’s the way I feel about it, too. Expansion of the European Union [???].
Well, it’s different.
But having a military alliance which was founded to confront Russia or to confront the Soviet Union, I think it’s maybe impolitic to drag all this poor sentiment.
It was. People have very few sensitivities about that. Let’s see. Anything else? Since your son is so famous in music, did music play any role in your household?
Well, as a child I enjoyed music a lot. My parents always listened to music and they also schooled me in appreciation of music. My parents and my oldest siblings were all great lovers of Austria and Vienna and the cultural life thereof. As I said, my father’s children were students in Vienna in fact during the War, so they loved Vienna. They loved the music of Vienna, and they appreciated it.
Did you experience any kind of being an outsider in Vienna, having come from—?
Well, I wasn't in Vienna; they were. I don't know what they experienced.
Right, but — Okay. Well, you were…
I didn't go to Vienna until I was a professor at MIT.
It’s really an imperial city.
It is. I was in fact a Schrödinger professor in Vienna a while ago.
One of the most imperial cities I have — more than London or any of the others. Well, I guess that’s about it if you want to say anything.
Very good. Thank you very much.
Oh yes, if you don't mind so that I can send this over to the AIP, I would like to have a release, essentially, and that I can —
Do you want to do this on film?
No, why don’t I shut it off.