Robert Birgeneau

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ORAL HISTORIES

Courtesy of Robert Birgeneau, credit unknown.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Robert Birgeneau by David Zierler on April 3, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44451

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In this interview, David Zierler interviews Robert Birgeneau, Silverman Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Birgeneau recounts his working class childhood in Toronto and the unlikely circumstances leading to his enrollment at the University of Toronto. He explains his interest in physics from a mathematical perspective as an undergraduate, and he describes his graduate work at Yale, where he studied electron spin resonance spectroscopy. Birgeneau describes his involvement in the civil rights movement, and his postdoctoral work at Oxford and at Bell Labs, which sent him to conduct research at Brookhaven. He explains his move to MIT, and his work as both department chair and Dean of Science. Birgeneau describes his tenure as president of the University of Toronto, and the recruitment process leading to his tenure as chancellor at Berkeley. At the end of the interview, Birgeneau explains how important it was to retain a physics research agenda even while running major universities, and he describes the pleasures of returning to teaching physics after spending much of his career in academic administration.

Transcript

Zierler:

OK. Here we go. It is April 3rd, 2020. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Robert Birgeneau. Dr. Birgeneau, thank you so much for being with me today.

Birgeneau:

Glad to be here.

Zierler:

OK. For starters, can you tell us your job title and your affiliation currently?

Birgeneau:

Sure. So my job title is Silverman Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Zierler:

OK, let's start right at the beginning. We'll take a trip down memory lane. Tell us about your early childhood in Toronto.

Birgeneau:

Wow. That is really quite far back. For a physicist, I have a relatively unusual trajectory, in that I grew up in an ultra low-income family. In fact, in my extended family, no one had ever finished high school—not college, but high school—because it was expected that you would get a job when you turned sixteen Accordingly, my older brother and sister both dropped out of school at age sixteen and started working. I was then the next in line. Fortunately, the pastor of the parish church where I was an altar boy, Monsignor O’Connor, came to my mother when I was 12 years old and said, "This cannot repeat itself." He knew me and he knew that I was a strong student at the local parochial school, St. Helen School. Therefore, he said to my mother, “I want your son to go to an excellent private Catholic boys' high school, St. Michael's College School.” Furthermore, he went on to say that the parish was going to pay the tuition."

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Birgeneau:

Right. So this one act broke the chain of poor education in my family. Effectively, I was bused to St. Mike’s high school before there were busing programs. Thus, I was educated at a high school, which had very paternal, caring priests as teachers. You know, Catholic priests are subject to such bad publicity these days. You only hear negatives. Catholic priests actually saved my life, and you are interviewing me only because of the Catholic Church. So, I went off to this elite Catholic boys' high school. It turned out that already in ninth grade, the students were streamed. There was a stream for the smart kids and a stream for kids who were expected to be challenged academically. Because of the neighborhood from which I originated, I was put in the lowest class. Unfortunately, you know how cruel adolescents can be; kids in the smart class nastily referred to my class as "the dumb class."

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

So after I was put into the lowest stream, it turned out that I was the top student in the entire grade in the Christmas exams.

Zierler:

They moved you over.

Birgeneau:

Well, initially I refused to because I did not think that I would be comfortable with my classmates in the top class since nearly all of them came from privileged families. One of the issues of taking kids off the streets and putting them into these high level schools, is that no matter how smart they are it can be a huge jump culturally.

Zierler:

Yes. Your parents were from Toronto?

Birgeneau:

Yes.

Zierler:

And what did your parents do for a living?

Birgeneau:

My mother was a secretary and my father was in advertising, at least as long as he was able to work, but he had various issues coping with life.

Zierler:

Uh-huh. And it was mostly your mom that encouraged you to continue with your education, or your father as well?

Birgeneau:

Essentially, I didn't have a father. I was raised by my mother and that was complicated. I think that my mother would have been more comfortable if I had followed the track of my older brother and sister.

Zierler:

So then what was it that inspired her to get you into this high school?

Birgeneau:

The Catholic priest.

Zierler:

Oh, it was the Catholic priest going to your mother and saying—

Birgeneau:

Telling her she had to do that.

Zierler:

I see. I see. So do you remember this priest's name?

Birgeneau:

Yes, Monsignor O'Connor.

Zierler:

And so what did Monsignor O'Connor see in you? What do you think?

Birgeneau:

You know, I was really surprised when this happened. I remember it exactly even though I had just turned twelve years old. I had been an altar boy, and I interacted with him primarily just serving on the altar. Obviously, he picked something up in me. I presume that he asked about me at my grade school as well. By then, I had been accelerated by two years in school so I was two years younger than everyone else. Unfortunately, another feature of low-income neighborhoods is that the local schools simply do not know what to do with smart kids.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

They just do not know what to do. I mean, there most certainly wasn't any enrichment program or suchlike.

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

Instead they tend to accelerate students. Presumably, he had contacted the school before doing this and then found out that I was a strong student. He also knew that I was very young as I was eleven years old when I started eighth grade, turning twelve at the end of March. Monsignor O’Connor knew about my family situation because he had been involved with the debacle in my sister's life as she had dropped out of school at age sixteen to get married. This led him to urge my mother to send me to St. Mike’s with the church paying for my tuition. I might mention, that out of my grade school, I was the only one eventually to graduate from high school. This is how it was in low income neighborhoods in Toronto at that time.

Zierler:

Now, did you show any specific aptitude in the math and sciences? Or were you just strong all around?

Birgeneau:

I was reasonably strong all around. In fact, when I began university, I entered on a classics scholarship in Greek and Latin.

Zierler:

Really?

Birgeneau:

Yes. You may be amused by this fact. When I received this classics scholarship and decided to major in math and physics, my high school classics teacher, Father Tony Kelly, told me that he was really upset. He loved teaching the classics and he had put a lot of energy into me, personally. In fact, because of special tutoring from him, I came in second place in the entire province in classics. So when I told him that I was using this classics scholarship to study mathematics and physics, he said, "You know, anybody can do physics, but very few people can do classics as well as you can."

Zierler:

Was that compelling to you?

Birgeneau:

I was not going to go on in classics. Fortunately, I was a strong student in math and physics, and I was more drawn to these subjects.

Zierler:

So your schooling in math and physics in high school was pretty strong? There was a good educational component to it?

Birgeneau:

It was, in most regards, an excellent high school. However, my physics education did not start out well. By the time that I was in 10th grade I was in the top stream and in that stream there was no science. Sounds unbelievable but that was true. In 10th grade, I took Greek and Latin, French and German, social science, history and religion. However, in 11th grade, there was a switch over and we started taking physics, actually, physics and math together. However, physics was taught by the football coach.

Zierler:

Was he a good teacher?

Birgeneau:

He was a reasonable teacher. Fortunately, there was one other student in the class, Bob Cochrane, who also ended up later becoming a physics professor. As the year evolved, our physics teacher realized that we understood the subject better than he did and he progressively handed more and more over to us. In fact, he literally had us grade the final exam.

Fortunately, when I reached 12th grade, I had the good luck of being taught by an extraordinarily gifted teacher in math and physics by the name of John Egsgard. He was, at that time, a Catholic priest. He taught us mathematics in 12th grade and physics in grade 13. We also had a reasonable chemistry teacher in 12th grade, but it was this one great teacher, Father Egsgard, who played a critical role not just for me, but also for my friend and classmate, Bob Cochrane, whom I mentioned above in the context of our 11th grade physics class. Bob, by the way, spent most of his career as a Professor of Physics at the Université de Montréal.

Zierler:

Now, this was a boarding school, or were you living at home?

Birgeneau:

St. Mike’s had boarding students at the school for a peculiar reason, but almost all the other students lived at home, as I did. The peculiar reason was that our high school acted as a farm team for the Toronto Maple Leaf Hockey organization. The Leafs would bring in skilled teenage hockey players from rural Ontario who would board at our school and play on the school hockey team. Our high school hockey team did not play in a high school league; rather it played in a semi-pro league. In fact, the year after I graduated from high school, our team won the Junior Hockey National Championship. A number of the players then jumped from high school directly to the NHL.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

A very unusual set of circumstances.

Zierler:

Now living at home, you were already pursuing educational opportunities that were not available to the rest of your family. I wonder, were they supportive of you? Were there any resentments for what you were already accomplishing?

Birgeneau:

There were to a certain extent. However, my older sister was really, really proud of me. She was part-mother, part-older sister. My own mother faced various kinds of challenges coping with her life. She was, of course, supportive, but I think the cultural gap between my private boys’ high school and the world that she lived in was too large for her.

Zierler:

Yes. Yes. And so what year did you graduate high school?

Birgeneau:

That was 1959.

Zierler:

Nineteen fifty-nine. And as you were considering your college options, what were you thinking? Did you want to stay close to home? Did you apply farther away?

Birgeneau:

Well, the other conundrum that I have to explain is that even though I was at an excellent school with classmates whose fathers had major leadership positions in business and law, I had simply no concept of the nature or meaning of a university. The pharmacist at the local pharmacy where I worked as a delivery boy was the only person I knew who had a university degree. Once more, there was a major intervention in my life by a Catholic priest. After 11th grade, I had a summer job in a factory. Late in the summer, my 11th grade English teacher, Father John Ware, called me up and asked that I to come to see him, which I did. He asked me what I was doing for the summer. I explained that I was working in a factory and that it was a good experience. It was important for me because I learned that I definitely did not want to fall into the trap of people who spent their lives working in factories. I told Fr. Ware that I had an uncle who was an accountant and since I was good at mathematics I would become an accountant too. Then this high school teacher made a very insightful comment to me, "I can guarantee you that if you follow that track, you will live an unhappy life. You need to do something that's more ambitious. You have the ability to do something significant in life, and you need to figure out how to do it." I literally asked him, "What do I do?" He said, "Well, you need to go to university." So this happened when I was entering 12th grade and had turned 15 just a few months earlier.

Zierler:

So it had not occurred to you to go to university before this conversation?

Birgeneau:

It was not even remotely on my radar screen.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

Yes. This may be a more unusual interview than you were expecting. This is a little odd, in retrospect, since my adult life has been lived in such a privileged milieu. So it is a little bit strange.

Zierler:

Well, a privileged milieu within your academics, but certainly not from your family.

Birgeneau:

Yes, at the local high school in my neighborhood, everyone was already dropping out. In fact, only one person in this neighborhood besides me managed to finish high school. I'll tell you about that in a few minutes. So, during that fateful summer meeting, Fr. Ware basically explained to me what was involved in applying to university. The only possibility that I could imagine was going to the University of Toronto because I could travel there on public transportation. Also, because I certainly could not afford to live in residence at a university in another city, I applied only to the University of Toronto.

Let me now give you the aside. There was one other boy my age in my neighborhood, Freddie Morrison, who also managed to finish high school but I had lost track of him. However, one of my high school classmates later ended up at Yale doing a PhD in psychology at the same time that I was at Yale doing physics. Ironically, he once commented to me, "You know, there's another kid from your neighborhood who I ran into who's doing a PhD at Harvard in psychology and I think that his name is Fred" At that time, this just went right by me.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

Literally, in the context of doing another recent oral history, when the interviewer was asking me the same questions that you are asking, I remembered Freddie Morrison. So, I went on-line searching for a Frederick Morrison/psychologist. Sure enough, I discovered that he is a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

Yes, he is a chaired professor at Michigan who has had an exemplary career. So my joke now is that if you were not talented enough to get a PhD at either Harvard or Yale, you couldn't finish high school in my neighborhood.

Zierler:

That's setting the bar. So after this conversation when you were encouraged to go on to school did that light a fire under you? What was your reaction to this?

Birgeneau:

That was everything. It was just everything. Even though I was only 15 years old when I had that conversation with Fr. Ware, I remember, to this day, his statement that if I didn't go to university and do something ambitious that I would be unhappy for the rest of my life. That was incredibly important. It's sort of odd, in a way, that it mattered so much.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

That statement was what was incredibly important. Fr. Ware was my English teacher, so he did not know how strong I was going to turn out to be in math and physics; further, I had not yet encountered Father Egsgard, this great teacher. Thus, Fr. Ware was just saying that generically. I then caught on fire. A month later, I had the great benefit of having Fr. Egsgard for math and physics and my enjoyment of science began. I should add that after I had graduated from high school and was ready to attend university, my mother had a severe nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. It appeared that I was going to have to forego university and instead start working to support the family. In the middle of the summer, the Principal of St. Mike’s, Fr. Reagan, called me in and said that he had heard that my mother was ill and this meant that I would not be able to attend university. Fr. Reagan said that he would not let this happen and that instead the school would support my family for the next four years. I went to the hospital and told my mother about this. One week later, she was out of the hospital and a week after that she was back to work so we did not need the school’s help. This is why I have so much reverence for Catholic priests.

Zierler:

Now, the University of Toronto is not just a close school, it's also an excellent school.

Birgeneau:

Yes, I received a wonderful undergraduate education at the University of Toronto. As you know, I later became the president there, so of course I care about it and extoll its virtues. U of T had a good physics department and a world-class mathematics department. I felt that difference instinctively as an undergraduate, just in the way people carried themselves, if nothing else.

The University of Toronto had an unusual approach in its undergraduate programs. It is a luxury that universities, including U of T, cannot afford anymore. At that time in Ontario, high school was five years long and university was three years. There was an extra year of high school which was supposed to equal the first year of university. This originated from Ontario’s agrarian roots---people being able to spend four months working in the fields, picking the crops. That was changed later while I was president of the University of Toronto. The unusual feature at U of T was that if you were an especially strong student, then you typically enrolled in an honors programs which took four years rather than three to complete. So the reward for being a strong student was that you spent one more year before earning your degree. This is literally true.

Zierler:

[laughs].

Birgeneau:

In fact, this was a truly outstanding honors undergraduate program in which you started out in math, physics, and chemistry, equally, six hours of each. In addition, you took English and a humanities course. After the first year, you progressively narrowed down, that is, you dropped either one or two of them. Because I had a charismatic freshman chemistry teacher, I decided that I would major in chemistry. I do not quite know why since I was never particularly talented at chemistry. In any case, this showed the impact of a great lecturer. I went into the chemistry building to sign up for my classes at the beginning of my sophomore year and the unpleasant odor pervading the Chemistry building had an immediate effect on me. I literally turned around and walked out.

Zierler:

That's it.

Birgeneau:

I said, "I can never be a chemist." That is true. So then I went to the registrar’s office and changed my classes to a mixture of physics and mathematics.

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

I took some physics courses as a sophomore. However, it turned out that I thought that the math classes were better taught and I did not like the undergraduate physics labs. Hence, I ended up taking primarily applied math courses. This meant that I took E&M, theoretical mechanics, quantum mechanics and general relativity as undergraduate mathematics courses.

Zierler:

Now, I'm curious. I mean, it's an interesting thing. You have this strong background in math as an undergraduate. And just, sort of, fast forwarding for the rest of your career in physics, what were some of the benefits of having that strong of a math background? And what are some of the drawbacks of not having a physics undergraduate degree? If there were any?

Birgeneau:

Since I have spent my career teaching physics and I take pride in my undergraduate teaching, I ought to say there were huge drawbacks, but frankly, I cannot think of any.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

First of all, I think having a strong math background was only good. It made me self-confident.

Zierler:

Self-confident in your physics work?

Birgeneau:

In my ability to do complicated academic work, whatever it might be.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

Especially in Toronto, because the honors math program was so challenging there. I was on Toronto's Putnam mathematics team. In fact, we came in the top ten in North America, although certainly not because of me. So, I was a bona fide mathematician. At the same time, I learned E&M, I learned the mathematics of quantum mechanics, and even general relativity as an undergraduate.

Zierler:

But general relativity from a math perspective.

Birgeneau:

Correct. I learned basically almost everything that one needed to know to do physics graduate work. You might have said, yes, but you missed the lab work, and that was true. However, after my sophomore year, I had a summer job, at the National Research Council of Canada doing experimental physics in a lab for four months on a research project on the thermal properties of ceramics.

Between undergraduate and graduate school, I went to Chalk River and joined Bert Brockhouse's group. He had by then left for McMaster but there was still an outstanding neutron scattering group there. Importantly, they gave the summer students complete authority over their summer research projects. Specifically, they allowed us to do almost independent research. Ironically, for a very long time, my most-cited physics publication came out of that summer between undergraduate school and graduate school.

Zierler:

Really?

Birgeneau:

Yes.

Zierler:

What was the project?

Birgeneau:

Those were the early days of measuring phonon dispersion relations in metals. It was so early that many theoretical physicists did not believe that you could have short wavelength elastic excitations in a metal like a transition metal. So my summer project was mapping out the phonon dispersion relations in nickel metal and fitting them with a Born-von Karman model.

Zierler:

And you showed that that it could.

Birgeneau:

We showed that it could. Furthermore, our supervisors, Gerald Dolling and Dave Woods, let us do the project completely on our own. They gave me and the other summer student, John Cordes, copies of Kittel’s “Introduction to Solid State Physics” , and said, "Teach yourself lattice dynamics out of Kittel," which we did in the first month of the summer. It was a four-month summer period. Then we were assigned a technician to help with the experiment and several key papers. The group had by then already measured the phonon dispersion relations in lead. They just had not done a transition model yet. So, the person that we were interacting most directly with, Gerald Dolling, said "Here's what we did in lead and here is a large single crystal of nickel metal. Go ahead and repeat in nickel what we did in lead and see what happens." So they let us do it from beginning to end. It was quite extraordinary. In retrospect, I do not think I have ever given any of my young students that much freedom. That summer in Chalk River was simply a wonderful experience. It shows the importance of summer research experience for physicists.

Zierler:

Right. Did you have a senior thesis as an undergraduate?

Birgeneau:

No. That was not part of the Toronto system. But I have to say, being on the university's math team for the Putnam exams was the functional equivalent of a senior thesis because there was so much work involved.

Zierler:

Now, you were thinking about graduate school immediately. You weren't thinking about taking any time off before pursuing a PhD?

Birgeneau:

Well, that decision was more complicated than I have indicated. Because the summer job I had in between the two physics jobs that I have described, was at IBM. In that IBM job, it turned out, we were trained in computer programing. In those days, some of the programming was done in machine language and FORTRAN had just been introduced. This shows how old I am.

The project that I was assigned to was basically an operations research project which involved using computer algorithms to control inventory—basically, just in time purchasing. We are suffering from that right now in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic because computer inventory control programs meant we did not have enough ventilators.

Zierler:

Yes. Right.

Birgeneau:

During that summer job at IBM, I started reading Forrester's pioneering operations research publications, and more generally, looking at applications of applied mathematics to business problems. I thought that this was totally fascinating. I enjoyed it a great deal, and I thought that this was a completely new field opening up. It was not like physics, which had been around for a very long time. This was something that was in its infancy at that time.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

I thought that perhaps that is what I wanted to do. Specifically, I thought about going to MIT to see if I could study under Forrester. Of course, I was still from an impoverished family so finances severely limited my options at that time.

Zierler:

You needed a scholarship.

Birgeneau:

Yes. Right. What I did instead is to go to my former manager at IBM and say, "I'd like to go to MIT and learn operations research. Would IBM pay for me to do this for two years?" I would come back and I could play an important role for IBM of Canada in leading this kind of operations research using computers. This prospectively could have been a very good business for them. In fact, my former manager agreed, but I would have to work for IBM for two years first. However, I did not want to delay my education, and I wanted to get married so I declined.

Zierler:

OK. So you said no?

Birgeneau:

I said no. A couple of important things happened right around the same time as well. One was that there was a young MIT nuclear theorist, Art Kerman, who came to give a physics colloquium at the University of Toronto. He must have been about ten years older than me. Art gave a great talk. I then thought, "This is someone who's not so different from me."

Zierler:

How do you mean? What did you identify with him?

Birgeneau:

Well, that he was a young Canadian and was now a professor at MIT. And it just clicked.

Zierler:

You could do this, too.

Birgeneau:

Yes, I could do this, too. This was not some remote thing and Art did not strike me as someone who necessarily came from a privileged background. So, it seemed to me that one did not have to come from a privileged background to be a professor at MIT. So this may actually be a possible career path for me. The second thing that happened shortly thereafter that was that Allan Bromley, who had by then moved from Chalk River to Yale, also gave a talk at the University of Toronto. I went to his colloquium, and afterwards introduced myself to him. I told him that I was interested in going to graduate school in physics and he was very enthusiastic. He said, "You've got to come to Yale." I ended up being awarded one of Yale’s prestigious graduate fellowships, almost certainly because of Bromley. So those two interactions turned out to be extremely important.

Zierler:

But did all of this hinge on you switching over to physics? Could you have made the same arrangement continuing on with math at Yale?

Birgeneau:

I would not have been a particularly good mathematician. I have to tell you two other things. One is what happened when I was on the Putnam team at Toronto which basically rests on one’s skills in pure mathematics.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

The Putnam team draws from the best of the pure mathematics undergraduates. There were three of us on the team who were seniors at that time. We were joined by a freshman, whose name I do not remember. After the third session, I realized that this freshman was so much smarter than I was and so much better at pure math. I could never do math at the level that he could. It was not part of my personality to want to go into a field where I knew I could never be as good as the people who were going to do really creative, original things.

Zierler:

But this is not to say that physics is easier than math. Perhaps you just had a more natural aptitude for physics.

Birgeneau:

Yes, correct. I knew that I could be good at physics, frankly, because intuition matters a lot in physics. I realized that if I was a mathematician, I could have a career in mathematics but that I was not going to be one of the people who played a leadership role. The second thing that happened was when I was sitting in a pure math class, one of my friends, who was an engineering physics major, leaned over to me and said, "You're never going to fit in with these people. They are different than you are." This was in November of my senior year. I then got up, left the room, and walked down to the registrar's office. It turned out the physics department had a very good year-long survey course covering atomic, nuclear, and particle physics. So I dropped my pure math class and I picked up the survey physics course. Of course, I had to go back and learn the material that I had missed but that did not turn out to be a problem.

Zierler:

Was your friend right? Did you feel more comfortable in that environment?

Birgeneau:

Yes completely. Then, a rather unexpected thing happened. Because I was now taking a key senior physics course, I was spending time in the physics library, looking up references. One day, the person who had taught me freshman physics, Prof. Scott, spotted me in the library, and said, "There's a national competition in physics, and no one in our physics graduating class wants to take it. So I want you to do it”. This was Canada’s National Physics Undergraduate Prize Exam. I asked him to explain it to me and, after having gotten the general sense, said, "Oh, that sounds like fun. I will do it." So I took the Physics Prize Exam and ended up being tied for second place in Canada without having majored in physics. So, it was clear that I had a natural aptitude for physics.

Zierler:

Now when your friend said, "Culturally, you just don't fit in here. Come over to physics." What does that mean? What are the cultural differences, and why was it so obvious to you that you fit in one place and not the other?

Birgeneau:

If you had ever been the dean of science, as I was at MIT, and had the physics department and math department both reporting to you, you would never ask that question.

Zierler:

So what's the answer from your vantage point?

Birgeneau:

Mathematicians deal with extremely abstract issues and are capable of deriving their emotional and intellectual rewards from things that are entirely disconnected from our day-to-day lives. One way or another, even quantum mechanics connects with our day-to-day lives.

Zierler:

Aha.

Birgeneau:

Color. Anything, right?

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

I admire pure mathematicians because of their ability to live in a world that's entirely intellectual. As for applied mathematics, I could have gone into applied mathematics and probably made some useful contributions. But I felt that if I was going to do applied mathematics, I should do the real thing, and the real thing is physics.

Zierler:

So your diploma says math, but really, you left Toronto as a physics student.

Birgeneau:

Yes. Correct. If there was a national competition in Canada in mathematics, and I had competed, I would have been one of many. In physics, I was second in the country after taking only a few courses specifically in physics.

Zierler:

Interesting. And so then you start up at Yale right away?

Birgeneau:

Well, as I described earlier, I had the summer experience that was critical at Chalk River where another summer student, John Cordes, and I did this sophisticated experiment on our own. I just loved it. I loved it. I knew, by the end of that summer, who I was professionally and what I was going to do. Let me describe the other important thing that happened. The importance of human interactions in physics is underrated. One of the problems in making the transition from being a math major to going to graduate school in physics was that, I had first assumed that I should be a theoretical physicist. But, first of all, I had no idea how good a theoretical physicist I would make. Second, as I just said, I really enjoyed my Chalk River experience as an experimentalist. Further, I had already figured out that it is much easier to make discoveries as an experimentalist than it is as a theorist.

Zierler:

Why is it easier to make discoveries?

Birgeneau:

Because you are asking nature directly.

Zierler:

As opposed to what?

Birgeneau:

As opposed to trying to dream it up out of nothing.

Zierler:

[laughs]

Birgeneau:

Well, there are some theorists, the Diracs and Weinbergs, et cetera, who do incredibly creative things, but generally, it's just much easier to make discoveries, to make advances in physics, as an experimentalist than it is a theorist. Just look at the history of physics.

Zierler:

What were your early impressions when you got to Yale?

Birgeneau:

Let me tell you, before I get to that, about an important interaction that I had at Chalk River with Dave Woods. When I grew up, because of our low-income situation, we did not have a car or any other mechanical devices. Therefore, except for these summer research experiences, I did not do the things that typical experimental physicists seemed to do like rebuilding the motor in their car, et cetera. Ray Weiss gives a wonderful colloquium in which he talks about his upbringing, where he loved to make gadgets.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

I never made gadgets.

Zierler:

You didn't have gadgets to make.

Birgeneau:

That just was not part of the world that I had lived in. One of my concerns about the transition between undergraduate and graduate school, was, since I did not really want to be a theoretical physicist, that I could not be the kind of experimental physicist who had grown up rebuilding cars or assembling stereo receivers and that meant that I might not be able to do experimental physics well. The head of the group at Chalk River, who had taken over from Brockhouse, was a wonderful man and highly accomplished physicist by the name of Dave Woods. At the end of the summer, because I had enjoyed the research experience at Chalk River so much, I thanked him and said, "This was really great." And I said, "But now I have a dilemma because I want to do experimental physics, but I do not seem to fit the mold." Dave immediately said, "You are completely wrong." He explained that experimental physics had changed in real time during his career, in that computers had been introduced as a major part of experimental physics.

Zierler:

Yes. Yes. Right.

Birgeneau:

So for a historian of science, I think that this transition in the nature of experiments hasn't been written about much.

Zierler:

Yes, that's interesting. Right.

Birgeneau:

That was very important. The ability that John Cordes and I had demonstrated in understanding the lattice dynamics theory, deciding exactly what needed to be measured in our nickel crystal, putting that information into a computer and having the computer run the spectrometer was exactly what was going to be needed. . The measurements were invariably followed by detailed numerical analysis, again carried out on a computer. Thus, just as I was beginning graduate school, computers entered experimental physics both running experiments and analyzing data in real time; this had opened up a whole new approach.

Zierler:

Because it made the research easier? Or it made the research possible?

Birgeneau:

Possible.

Zierler:

Interesting.

Birgeneau:

Both possible and easier. And it meant that you did not have to be a mechanical genius to do an experiment. You could have an electronics technician who could set up the stepping motor driver, and you could program the computer to talk to the stepping motor driver, which would in turn talk to the motor, which would move the spectrometer in the way that you wanted it to move. Then you would have some calculation that translated from moving the stepping motor to changing the energy and the momentum.

Zierler:

This had a lasting impact on you, it sounds like?

Birgeneau:

My whole career. For someone with my particular set of talents, I came along at just the right time in history, because a new kind of experimental physics opened up. That has turned out to be absolutely central in condensed matter physics, but even more generally.

Zierler:

Do you think other people, this was dawning on other people at the same time, or were you really ahead of the curve on this?

Birgeneau:

I was only twenty-one years old at the time when Dave Woods explained this to me, and I understood it instinctively, right away. You know that's a good question, which I have not thought about before. I was about to answer it too glibly. Honestly, I wasn't unique, but there were not so many people like me at that time, at least in condensed matter or atomic physics. Of course, research in particle physics is completely different.

Zierler:

Right. I mean, specifically at that part, I mean, really before you start your professional career. So you really begin at the birth of this.

Birgeneau:

Yes.

Zierler:

Which is quite a bit different than coming to this as, you know, somebody midway through your career in your forties. I mean, this is formative for you, right at the beginning of you forging your career.

Birgeneau:

Now, for my graduate students and postdocs, if I ever said to them, you have to write a computer program in which you are going to de-convolve this spectrum, and you have to write the program in code, line by line, they would look at me as if I had lost my mind. Everything is a package, right?

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

There's a MATLAB for this and there's a MATLAB for that. All of this has changed overwhelmingly. Going back to my early career, it wasn't completely like that. We were still in transition at the time. You had to design gas handling systems, you had to design sample holders, you had to interface directly with the machinists et cetera. There was still lots of real experimental physics, but nevertheless, you did not have to be a mechanical or electronics genius to make an experiment work.

Zierler:

All right. So getting to Yale, what were your impressions when you first got to Yale?

Birgeneau:

The first thing was that I discovered just how good my undergraduate education was because I took the Ph.D. general exams after the end of my first semester. Thus, I had all of my formal requirements out of the way by the Christmas break. That was primarily because of this extra year of high school so that my four year honors bachelor’s degree was more like a masters’ degree in the U.S. At the same time, after I had I taken graduate quantum mechanics from Willis Lamb, I understood the difference between taking quantum mechanics from a physicist and from an applied mathematician. That was quite important in my career development as well.

Zierler:

What were those differences?

Birgeneau:

Well, Willis Lamb just understood the physics intuitively. The Schrödinger equation for him wasn't just a partial differential equation. It had physical consequences. He could do the mathematics as well as most, if not all, mathematicians, but it was the physics consequences that he cared about and which he explained extraordinarily well. It turned out John Bardeen was visiting Yale during that semester, and I went to a set of lectures that he gave. Thus, I got to hear, one of the great physicists of the 20th century give his perspective on physics. Of course, there was also Lars Onsager in Chemistry at Yale. I found it exciting to be in an environment with a number of truly outstanding physicists. As I said, Willis Lamb stood out for me because of the depth of his understanding of quantum mechanics and his intuitive feel for it.

At that time, I was still playing with the idea of doing theoretical physics. Accordingly, I went around and talked to several of the theoretical physicists on the Yale faculty, including Willis Lamb. Then it turned out that a solid state experimentalist by the name of Werner Wolf a year earlier had moved from Oxford to Yale, and I talked to him. I felt an instant rapport with him; he was an exciting person and his talents seemed to be similar to mine. He understood theory well, he was an excellent teacher, and he did experiments that you could actually carry out yourself. In addition, he was building a group with strong postdocs and good graduate students. So I instinctively felt comfortable with him.

Zierler:

He was also not an American, like you.

Birgeneau:

Yes, that's also true; Werner was British. Half the professors at the University of Toronto were British as well, so, I probably felt comfortable with that. More importantly, I just really liked him and decided that it would be a privilege to be a graduate student in his group.

Zierler:

Now, how much of your time—what was your split between coursework and lab work at Yale?

Birgeneau:

Well, because I had passed my generals at the end of the first semester, I had no more required coursework.

Zierler:

So it was all labs after that?

Birgeneau:

Well, no, I didn't make the decision to join Wolf's group until the middle of the second semester. I mainly spent the second semester taking optional graduate courses. I took the second semester of quantum mechanics, a second semester of E&M and a course in the quantum theory of solids. In addition, I had become restless and wanted to do something that was more immediately socially relevant. Consequently, a fellow physics graduate student, John Norvell, who was from East Texas, and I joined together, and we became group leaders at Dixwell Community Center in New Haven. That was 1964. As I am sure you know, that was an extraordinarily interesting time in American history.

Zierler:

That's right.

Birgeneau:

Coming from Canada, I was shocked that you could walk six blocks from the Yale campus, which was an elite, almost all-white, privileged community and find yourself in all Black low income projects. In looking around, you realized that you were the only white person there.

Zierler:

Yes. But the campus itself had not really become politicized yet, right? I mean, were there marches going on as early as 1964?

Birgeneau:

No. but I didn't need someone else to tell me that there were serious injustices in American society

Zierler:

No, I'm saying, so you were really ahead of the curve on that.

Birgeneau:

Sorry. No, this was before there was major civil rights activism on most campuses. It was originally my friend, John Norvell’s, idea that we do something beyond physics, specifically, something connected with social justice. As I said, he was from East Texas which was part of the Deep South, so he was much more knowledgeable than me about racial issues. John and I went around to the different community centers in New Haven that served low income teenage boys. When we visited Dixwell Community Center, we realized that we were the only white people there and knew, right away, what we wanted to do. We signed up to be group leaders with a group of teenage boys at Dixwell Community Center where we both ended up spending a lot of time there.

Zierler:

And you were tutoring them?

Birgeneau:

Tutoring? No, not at all.

Zierler:

Mentoring?

Birgeneau:

Mainly, we organized them and participated in activities with them. We would play basketball, we would shoot pool, we would take them to museums, we would visit historical sights etc. We were trying to open up their worlds for them. In fact, one of the kids in the group with whom I played a lot of basketball ended up being a star in the ABA and NBA.

Zierler:

No kidding.

Birgeneau:

Yes. I played one-on-one with this 14-year-old. I do take credit for directing him towards university. He was on a different track. I was a reasonably good basketball player but, at 14, he was already better than I was. After I left Yale, I lost track of him, and one day I turned on the TV, and there he was in the NBA and was described by the announcer as “SuperJohn Williamson”. Sadly, he died young at age 46 from diabetes leaving behind a wife and four children,

So, that was my second semester. I should also have mentioned that I was going to become married in June so I was spending a lot of time traveling back and forth to Toronto. At the end of my first year at Yale, I went back to Toronto, got married, and returned to Chalk River. I spent the summer doing theoretical nuclear physics at Chuck River after my previous summer doing experiments. I thought that I should at least try doing research in theoretical physics.

Zierler:

That was your own decision? You felt yourself that you needed exposure to theoretical physics?

Birgeneau:

Yes. My research in theoretical physics was assisting one of the theorists, Malcolm Harvey, with some shell model calculations. I just did not find the work very interesting. That helped cement in my mind that I really did want to do experimental physics. However, this meant that by the time that I went back to Yale in September I had real research experiences in both experimental physics and theoretical physics thanks to Chalk River.

Zierler:

And in Wolf's lab, what were some of the projects that they were working on?

Birgeneau:

There were two major thrusts, one on critical phenomena in model magnetic systems and a second on the microscopic magnetic interactions in insulators. Ironically, an important part of my research over my career has been in the former area of research but in Wolf’s lab I chose to work on the latter. Werner Wolf was far ahead of the community in recognizing the importance of studies of phase transitions in model magnetic systems. His favorite was a material called dysprosium aluminum garnet (DAG), which was a model three-dimensional Ising magnet. His group was doing extensive measurements of the thermodynamic properties of DAG. The other project was to try to understand magnetism at the atomic level in magnetic insulators. That project, which ended up being the central part of my thesis, was to look at the electron spin resonance spectra of pairs of magnetic ions in insulators; the basic idea was that you would thereby understand the spin Hamiltonian for single pairs of magnetic ions in incredible detail. You would then go from there to predicting the properties of the material as a whole. Thus, I did electron spin resonance spectroscopy on pairs of magnetic ions in insulators.

Zierler:

And was this the precursor to your dissertation?

Birgeneau:

That was my dissertation.

Zierler:

That was your dissertation.

Birgeneau:

Yes.

Zierler:

And what did you see as the primary contribution to the field with this dissertation?

Birgeneau:

We learned a lot about the microscopics of magnetism in insulators, atom by atom and pair by pair. This knowledge turned out to be important in many apparently quite different research problems that I have worked on in my career. We did some early work on understanding magnetic and electric multiple interactions, dipole-dipole, quadrupole-quadrupole, etc. Now, more than 50 years later, this has become central to understanding what are known as spin nematics, which have quadrupolar spin order, in Fe-based high temperature superconductors. We were already thinking about the importance of multipolar interactions more than 50 years ago.

Zierler:

But not using that term? You weren't using that term then?

Birgeneau:

No, we just called it electric multipole interactions. Now people talk about “nematics” in high-temperature superconductors; the term is borrowed from liquid crystal physics. As I said, we did a fair amount of work thinking about interactions beyond isotropic exchange and magnetic dipole-dipole interactions. I do not want to exaggerate the importance of my own personal work, but the development of this approach by Wolf, myself and others turned out to be important in many areas. For example, it is essential to understanding energy transfer in rare earth-based light emitting diodes. The same interactions that we were studying in these local pairs end up being the interactions that are responsible for excitations moving around in crystals, which then underly light emitting diodes. I later wrote two high impact papers on that myself, especially a paper on energy transfer in ruby.

Another area of importance was the phase transition problem. In order to identify the correct universality class in a magnetic phase transition, it is essential to understand the relative magnitudes of different kinds of spin anisotropies. Again, their origins are pair by pair but they end up determining the universality class. So these kinds of ideas ended up impacting the phase transition problem. There are many other examples such as “relaxors” which are disordered ferroelectrics but I will not discuss those here.

I was completely unsophisticated when I was a graduate student so I could not have imagined any of these future applications of the ideas that we were developing, most especially anything as practical as a light emitting diode. It is not that I am so sophisticated now, but at that time all we wanted to do was to figure out the spectra. That, by itself, was a challenge because the spectra were so elaborate. We first studied pairs of gadolinium 3+ ions; Gd 3+ has spin 7/2 so a pair has an incredibly dense set of energy levels. Consequently, one had an incredible array of spin resonances which you have to fit to a model Hamiltonian. Just figuring out how to do that was a significant challenge. Accordingly, the postdoc who worked with me, Mike Hutchings, and I were narrowly focused on just solving the problem of the spectra. My computer numerical analysis background deriving from my work at IBM turned out to be invaluable. It happened that I was relatively good at it, and therefore managed to figure out the spectra with the hundreds of lines relatively quickly, including both the energies and the intensities.

Zierler:

I'll test your memory. Do you remember the title of your dissertation?

Birgeneau:

"Magnetic interactions in rare-earth insulators."

Zierler:

There you go. Very good.

Birgeneau:

My dedication was to Dick Tracy.

Zierler:

Really?

Birgeneau:

Yes, I remember he said, "He who controls magnetism, controls the universe." [laughter]

Birgeneau:

That was a quote from a Dick Tracy cartoon. Because of my work in the Dixwell Community Center, I became involved in civil rights activities more broadly. By then we had come into the 1965 period in the civil rights struggle. Everything had changed; the politics had changed dramatically. So at that point, I decided to take a mini-break from my graduate research and take off part of the summer from my research to go to South Carolina.

Zierler:

Oh wow.

Birgeneau:

At that time, there was a pioneering program which originated from students at the Yale law school. Yale had a great law school with very liberal, activist students at that time. A group of Yale law school students had organized a program in which graduate students like me would teach for various lengths of time at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the South. This was constructive student activism at its best. One of my fellow physics graduate students had already gone to an HBCU in this program and had told me about his experiences. I thought that this was really important, perhaps more important than the physics research that I was doing at that time. This provided the opportunity to combine my knowledge of physics with my desire to help address the egregious racial inequalities in American society. So, I headed off to Benedict College, an HBCU in Columbia, South Carolina. Students from Benedict and its sister university, Allen University, had led the sit-ins at the lunch counters at Woolworths and other downtown stores in Columbia in the early 1960s.

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

This was in the exact middle of my Ph.D. research. I had been married for a year by then and my wife, Mary Catherine, was a social worker, working for a social work agency in New Haven. She was somewhat wary about this venture but she was game. So, I headed off to Benedict College to teach their summer undergraduate physics course. The whole experience was something that I could write a book about; it was absolutely fascinating. However, I want to be careful not to sound here like I was a civil rights tourist. One of the problems in the civil rights movement was that there were too many people who were doing it because it was the fashionable thing to do. I was not a tourist; I was quite serious about these issues of racism and inequity. The reality was truly shocking. That is the only way to describe it. It was unimaginable.

Zierler:

What was shocking? The poverty?

Birgeneau:

No, the depth of discrimination against black people and how isolated they were from the white world. For the students I taught there, I was the first, what I would call, normal white person with whom they had ever had a normal social interaction.

Zierler:

Where it wasn't a dominant and inferior kind of interaction, you mean, just people to people?

Birgeneau:

Yes. They viewed white people as being extremely warped human beings. They did not think that a white person could be normal, socially, like they were. This is not how it's usually discussed. Consequently, it was less about the Benedict students being concerned about white people being dominant than their perception that white people somehow were socially distorted.

Zierler:

I've never heard that before.

Birgeneau:

Yes it was an important part of my experience. I have explained this to a number of black people and they invariably have just laughed and said, "Oh, you figured it out." More recently, I attended an otherwise all-black event at Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s house where one of the attendees stated: "The only true American values are in the black community because white people are completely lost." I was initially taken aback by this statement but, as recent events have demonstrated, it is true.

Zierler:

And what were you teaching?

Birgeneau:

Physics.

Zierler:

Really?

Birgeneau:

Yes. Many of the students wanted to go to medical school, and they had a physics requirement but they often couldn't take physics at their colleges. Accordingly, Benedict had a summer program in which the students could take physics over the summer. The living circumstances at the college were dismal. I've never seen such large cockroaches in my life as they have in South Carolina. More disturbingly, one of our group was killed the month before I arrived.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

He was shot by one of the local white people. We were not welcome. That killing received almost no publicity. You hear about a few famous cases in Mississippi, but it wasn't just Mississippi.

Zierler:

Did you stick around after that?

Birgeneau:

Yes, and I brought my wife for part of my time there. I feel guilty to this day that I didn't tell her.

Zierler:

If you did, you wouldn't be there.

Birgeneau:

As soon as she saw the circumstances that the Black people lived in she would have insisted that we stay. In fact, one of the graduate students in our group was from Harvard. When his parents found out about the killing they came down to Columbia and dragged him back to Cambridge. They would not let him stay. Our group also included two of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement activists, so they were more radical. By their standards, I was quite middle-of-the-road but a middle-of-the-road person with a social conscience. Let me give you one anecdote which illustrates the insanity of racial relations in South Carolina at that time. One of the students I was close to had a violent stomach problem. This occurred on a Saturday; he went to the emergency room at a hospital near the college. However, he was told that this emergency room was only for white people and that he should go to the emergency room for black people even though that emergency room was closed on weekends.

Zierler:

Closed?

Birgeneau:

It did not matter how sick he was, he had to come back on Monday. This literally happened. So when people say that we have made no progress on racial relations I tell them this story. You simply could not imagine this happening in 2020.

Zierler:

Not that.

Birgeneau:

That's how it was in Columbia, South Carolina, in the summer of 1965. This student was extraordinarily upset but he survived. In addition, to show how complicated race relations were in the South at that time, let me tell you what happened the following weekend. One of my fellow teachers who was a Black woman from the Bahamas had a major health incident and so she immediately went to the white emergency room. Of course, she was asked to leave but she objected loudly. When it became apparent that she had a Bahamian rather than an American, accent she was accepted as a patient and treated.

Zierler:

Meaning that this might have a diplomatic ramification? Or that she was just worthy of being treated because she wasn't American?

Birgeneau:

Yes. The latter.

Zierler:

Interesting.

Birgeneau:

It was so complicated at that time. As soon as my teaching was finished, I came back to Yale to resume my graduate research. Amusingly, I recently had an exchange with my thesis advisor, Werner Wolf, about my Berkeley oral history. He said wryly, "In your oral history, you do not give me credit for tolerating your disappearance for much of the summer when you were at the peak of your research." He said, "Any normal thesis adviser would have said, 'You cannot do that.'"

Zierler:

Was that true?

Birgeneau:

And he said, "I just let you go."

Zierler:

Was he tolerant or was he supportive?

Birgeneau:

Well, he was from Britain. He'd only been in the US for two or three years, at the time and he had not become involved in social issues the way that I had. His focus at Yale was putting together a research teaching program. Thus, the right descriptor is “tolerant”

Zierler:

Now, clearly, you were on a very particular trajectory. Did you ever think of stopping and pursuing full time civil rights work?

Birgeneau:

No. It is too hard, much too hard. Physics is so much easier. Plus, in my soul, I am a physicist above all else. You know, when I hear physicists whine, I get angry. We have such privileged lives. I just gave you this story about my Benedict College student being refused treatment in an emergency room because he was Black. If that is your life, day after day after day, it is so hard. But doing an experiment in a lab? That's almost all pure pleasure.

Zierler:

Right. Well, you clearly have a very unique life perspective that many other physicists do not have.

Birgeneau:

Perhaps. But one that I think has been helpful. My professional life has been fairly straightforward. Not completely, but I've had the privilege of having a quite full life as a physicist. I've also been given the opportunity to lead major universities in Canada and in the United States. I would say that in both my physics life and especially in my academic leadership life, these early experiences were quite critical in how I approached my responsibilities.

Zierler:

Right. Right. So you defended the dissertation, and you decided to stay on at Yale for a year?

Birgeneau:

Correct. I was offered a position as an instructor in the Applied Physics Department at Yale. Our first child, Michael, was born that summer, just as I finished my thesis and a month later I started as an instructor. That was simply terrific.

Zierler:

You were teaching full-time? Or you were still in Wolf's lab?

Birgeneau:

I was still working in Wolf's lab, and was assigned a single course, a computer science course on how to solve problems with a computer. It was really a course on numerical methods, which I, by then, had fully mastered. My background at that point as a physicist halfway between a real experimentalist and a real theorist (or a tame theorist as I would call it today) proved to be invaluable. My course was taken by students from a broad array of majors, most especially the social sciences. This was all new at that time. In the course, I taught the students how to use computers, generally, and, specifically, how to use various numerical methods to fit data with mathematical models. I did that for one semester and then was off the second semester. I made the astounding salary of eight thousand dollars a year. Of that, $362 went into my defined contribution pension fund and today I receive an annual pension from TIAA of $1200 from that original $362 investment!

Zierler:

[laughs] But you could live on the eight thousand?

Birgeneau:

Yes, but just barely.

Zierler:

Now, did you have any dreams of turning this into a tenure track position at Yale? Or that was not really available to you?

Birgeneau:

No. It never came up as a possibility. Plus, I basically was doing what my thesis advisor was doing.

Zierler:

It was redundant.

Birgeneau:

There was not going to be room. It would have been completely redundant. Would I have liked to stay on? Yes, it would have been great. But then what happened next was that the recruiter from Bell Labs, whose name was Mickey Walsh, visited Yale. Mickey did electron spin resonance research himself so he understood what we had accomplished with our spectroscopy on pairs of magnetic ions. It happened that there were other researchers at Bell Labs doing closely similar research and we had done as well or better than they had. Thus, Mickey recognized that I was likely of Bell Labs caliber so he invited me to come down to Bell Labs to interview for a job. I have often said that Bell Labs had the best physics department in the world at that time so this was an exciting opportunity for me.

Zierler:

Right. And in some ways more purely academic because the scientists there could just do whatever they wanted.

Birgeneau:

Yes. Well, in fact, yes and no, as we can discuss later. To my surprise, I ended up being offered a permanent position rather than a postdoc---one of the regular staff positions at Bell Labs. I did not appreciate at that time what a privilege I was being given.

Zierler:

Yes. Yes.

Birgeneau:

Of course, I accepted a position at Bell in Peter Wolff’s group. Still, in the back of my mind, because my Ph.D. advisor, Werner Wolf, was from Oxford, and I was Canadian, I had a desire to go to Oxford, at least for some length of time.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

I didn't mention that I had a National Research Council of Canada graduate fellowship during my graduate studies at Yale. That, effectively, was converted into a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship, which you could take to England. Specifically, it was the Rutherford Memorial Fellowship so it had a higher stipend.

Zierler:

So you transferred the fellowship to Oxford?

Birgeneau:

Yes. In effect. But, as I said, it was by then a postdoctoral fellowship. For my new position at Bell Labs, I needed to learn optical spectroscopy. I then suggested to my group head at Bell Labs, Peter Wolff, that it would be beneficial for me to spend a year at Oxford learning optical spectroscopy before I turned up at Bell.

Zierler:

Was that the place to be? Was Oxford the place to be for optical spectroscopy?

Birgeneau:

It was one of them. It was a university where there was a whole variety of interesting research going on in solid state spectroscopy so it was one of the good places to go. Peter agreed, so I accepted the NRC postdoctoral fellowship and went off to Oxford. However, when I arrived at Oxford and spent some time with the professor with whom I would be working, I decided this was not a natural match. This meant that I had to figure out a new plan for my time at Oxford. The great advantage of coming with your own money is you can do whatever you want.

So I then talked to several different people including Mike Hutchings whom I had worked with at Yale and who was now at Oxford. After doing the rounds, I decided that there were two groups that interested me. One was a group doing electron spin resonance research similar to my thesis work. I both liked and respected the professor, Michael Baker, and I liked his graduate students. Michael was more than happy to have me part of his lab. He knew about my thesis work and thought well of it. As you may know, Commonwealth students tended to aggregate at Oxford. There was an Australian, John Riley, with whom I bonded right away. John was struggling a bit with his thesis research so I could be of immediate help to him. Then there was Mike Hutchings who had switched fields into neutron scattering and was working on his own. In fact, his research was closely related to what I had done in my summer research project at Chalk River which had worked out so well. He was carrying out his experiments at Harwell, a British equivalent of Chalk River. I talked to him for some time and realized that this would be a good opportunity to learn about neutron scattering generally. Mike was studying magnetic excitations rather than lattice dynamic excitations so it would be completely new. I asked Mike if I could join him and he was more than happy to have a postdoc work with him. Thus, I ended up spending my time at Oxford doing electron spin resonance, which was my Ph.D. thesis work, and neutron scattering, which I had done as an undergraduate.

While I was doing the neutron scattering research at Harwell, the High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at Brookhaven turned on. When I read the first paper produced from the HFBR, I knew immediately that this new reactor facility was going to make it possible to do experiments that no one had ever done before.

Zierler:

So what were the technological advancements at Brookhaven that made this possible? What exactly did they achieve that was so new?

Birgeneau:

It was the high flux combined with a remarkably low background. The latter, in some ways, was more important than the former. In addition, there were well-designed spectrometers. But I would say that it was more the people, and specifically, Gen Shirane. The increased flux and reduced background mattered, but it was really Gen Shirane, who was a genius at neutron scattering. In my view, it was shameful that he did not receive the Nobel Prize which he fully deserved. While I was at Oxford, I had not yet met Gen, but just reading his first few papers from the HFBR, I could see that the combination of Gen Shirane and the reactor was really special.

After I had been at Oxford for six months, I received an astounding letter out of the blue from Bell Labs. The letter said that a few of the new hires were going to be allowed do whatever they wanted to do. So even though I was hired to fill a specific slot in optical spectroscopy, I now could just come to Bell and do whatever research interested me. I read this letter several times in disbelief.

Zierler:

Really?

Birgeneau:

Correct. I read it and reread it and reread it. I then just sent back a brief note saying, "Thank you." Those were the days of letters, not e-mail. I thought, "This is totally unbelievable." I decided almost immediately, because of the new scientific opportunities at the HFBR at Brookhaven, that I would probably want to do neutron scattering. Of course, one of the challenges that implicitly goes along with receiving a letter like that is that whatever research you do, it had better be important. I mean, you do not say to a physicist, “You are free to do whatever you want and, by the way, we don't care if it's mediocre."

Zierler:

Sure.

Birgeneau:

I took a break from my research, and literally went to the physics library at the Clarendon Lab at Oxford and started scouring the literature to see if I could figure out an experiment that would be highly impactful and where neutron scattering would play a central role. This was really out of whole cloth. I came across an article in Phys. Rev. by a Bell Labs theorist, Malcolm Lines, on magnetism in two dimensions which started me daydreaming. The year before, while I was an instructor at Yale, Michael Fisher, of Wilson-Fisher fame, had given a lecture on the phase transition problem. In this lecture, he talked about phase transitions as a function of the dimensionality of space. This had nothing to do with any research I was doing at the time. Importantly, sitting in the front row of Fisher’s lecture was Lars Onsager, who was in the chemistry department at Yale. Michael said, "In our field, there's only one definite result." And that was Onsager's exact solution of the 2D Ising model.

Zierler:

Aha.

Birgeneau:

I am sitting in the library at Oxford having read this article on two-dimensional magnets, and I said to myself, "You know, I don't think anybody has ever done an experiment with scattering techniques to look at the spatial nature of the magnetic fluctuations."

Zierler:

What did you see that the experiment could accomplish?

Birgeneau:

That it would document the ways in which phase transitions occur in a quasi-two-dimensional systems. I wondered if one could see true idealized two dimensional critical behavior in a real three dimensional material and compare the measurements to Onsager’s exact results. Because of my thesis work, I had a deep understanding of spin Hamiltonians in real materials. I knew about Heisenberg models and Ising models, et cetera. which very few people in the field of statistical physics understood at that time. Thus, my graduate training turned out to be invaluable. Then, after I had thought this through, I wrote to Peter Wolff saying, "I would like to start doing some experiments at Brookhaven. There are phenomenal capabilities there and I want to investigate the role that dimensionality plays in condensed matter physics."

Zierler:

So you were essentially asking for an extension on your research before coming back to Bell? By going to Brookhaven?

Birgeneau:

Well, I was asking that Bell support me to do research at Brookhaven.

Zierler:

And is this an out-of-the-ordinary kind of thing? Or did Bell engage in this kind of sponsorship regularly?

Birgeneau:

There was one person who did crystallography there, but this was quite unusual at the time.

Zierler:

And what did Peter say?

Birgeneau:

He said, "Great, great." And he said, "I'm going to contact the neutron group at Brookhaven and see if I can facilitate this to make it possible for you."

Zierler:

Now, I'm curious about this. Because obviously, Bell is a corporation, it's a for-profit enterprise. Is he authorizing you to do this because he sees that, essentially, it's going to affect positively Bell's bottom line?

Birgeneau:

No.

Zierler:

Or is this a purely scientific approach?

Birgeneau:

He really liked the idea that I wanted to start probing how physics changes when you change the dimensionality of space.

Zierler:

No, but I understand that. But I guess my question is—

Birgeneau:

I'm trying to answer your question by saying, it could not have been more esoteric. So Peter just liked the idea.

Zierler:

But how, as an employee of Bell, is he able to make this consideration that's totally divorced from economic considerations? I'm getting at, like, the culture of Bell and how science worked there.

Birgeneau:

Sorry, this was the amazing thing at Bell, which is, if you had a job in Area 111, that is, if you had three ones in front of your department title, you had incredible freedom in choosing your research subjects; it just had to be good.

Zierler:

That's it? Just good?

Birgeneau:

That was it. You needed the three ones, OK. If you had only two ones, there was an applied implication in your choice of problems.

Zierler:

I mean, you have to understand, it's like—you tell me the story about this unfortunate black student who was denied admission to the hospital. And you tell me about how science operates at a corporation. And it's like, kind of, both of them are equally hard to understand and appreciate. How far apart those worlds are from where we live today.

Birgeneau:

Yes, exactly. Right.

Zierler:

I mean, it doesn't exist. This doesn't exist today.

Birgeneau:

You can tell, therefore, that I've lived a privileged life. I have lived through incredible changes both on the social justice front and on the scientific front. At that time, it wasn't just Bell Labs, there was IBM, there was RCA, there was Westinghouse, there was Xerox. And now they are all gone. I mean, not completely; this statement would be insulting to a few people. But, basically, the industrial basic research enterprise that existed when I finished graduate school and was looking for a job has disappeared.

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

So this makes universities much more important than they were at that time. Now universities, plus the national labs, but especially universities, are entirely responsible for the basic research, especially in physics, that underlies our economy. This really has changed profoundly.

Zierler:

All right. So back to Brookhaven. So you get to Brookhaven.

Birgeneau:

First of all, I needed a crystal. It turned out that one other strength of Bell Labs was great crystal growers. This was because Bell Labs, well before U.S. universities, understood the importance of materials synthesis and gave reverence to people who could grow high quality, large, single crystals. That turned out to be a major problem in American universities around the time of the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity. I can explain this, if you are interested.

Zierler:

Yes.

Birgeneau:

This was because crystal growth was not part of the culture of physics departments in the US. Bell had a number of people including Howard Guggenheim, Joe Remeika, and Leo Van Uitert who were extraordinarily gifted crystal growers. Shortly after I arrived at Bell Labs, I went to Guggenheim and explained to him my ideas about 2-dimensional magnetism. He said, "Great." and immediately handed me a large single crystal of K2NiF4 which was exactly what I needed.

Zierler:

So what do you do? You asked for specs? You just tell him what the experiment is and he figures it out?

Birgeneau:

No, you typically had to tell him exactly what the crystal was that you wanted. That meant that you needed to figure out what material would encompass the physics that you hoped to explore. The crystal grower usually did not know that as his or her expertise was in growing crystals. Once I had the K2NiF4 crystal in hand, I went to Brookhaven and explained to Gen Shirane exactly what I proposed to do. Gen immediately understood the importance of my idea and thought this would be a great experiment.

Zierler:

Had you met Shirane before? Or this is the first time you met him?

Birgeneau:

This was the first time that I had met him.

Zierler:

What was he like as a person?

Birgeneau:

Well, he's—

Zierler:

Was he approachable?

Birgeneau:

Gen was a formidable person with extraordinarily high standards for research. He very much enjoyed working with other physicists who shared his standards. People who fell short sometimes found it challenging to collaborate with him. First and foremost, Gen loved physics. Physics plus his family occupied much of his life. Being in charge of the neutron group at Brookhaven was perfect for him and he had no ambition beyond that. I loved working with him.

Zierler:

How was his English?

Birgeneau:

Oh, fine. He was very visual and intuitive. He understood physics intuitively and loved plots of data. He loved data. He especially enjoyed the visual part of physics. I learned that from him, and it turned out to be very important for me, subsequently. His papers were always filled with a large number of figures. He was, at that time, the single best pure experimentalist in the world in the field of neutron scattering. He was an ideal person from whom to learn neutron scattering research. He and I got along quite well although he was challenging to work with at times. I had one clarifying issue with him, which happened early in my research collaboration with him. We had completed an experiment which we thought would likely prove to be quite important. The people in the photography department at Brookhaven had made some slides for him on the experiment. I remember sitting down at lunch with him in the Brookhaven cafeteria, and he said, "Oh, would you mind going over to photography and picking up my slides for me?" I recall vividly sitting there, at the age of twenty-seven, trying to decide how to respond. I looked at him and said, "Gen, I came here to do research with you. I did not come here to pick up your slides."

Zierler:

Wow [laughs].

Birgeneau:

I said, "If you want someone to pick up your slides, then you have to find someone else."

Zierler:

How was that received?

Birgeneau:

He apologized.

Zierler:

OK.

Birgeneau:

That turned out to be critical.

Zierler:

You set the tone.

Birgeneau:

Pardon?

Zierler:

You set the tone.

Birgeneau:

I set the tone, and forevermore he treated me with respect and never asked me to run an errand for him again. The other kind of complicated interaction that Gen and I often had was more amusing. We would be doing an experiment together and at a critical point, Gen would become really excited. Then he would suggest that I might want to take the afternoon off. Invariably, in these situations, I had the same instinct but with Gen not me taking the afternoon off. This happened when we were doing an experiment together and we both realized that we were on the verge of making an important observation. Who would get the pleasure of the first discovery? Both of us loved the discovery process. So it was great to work with him. We worked on a wide variety of problems together. In our early work together we focused most especially on magnetism in one, two, three and, ultimately, fractal dimensions. As I said, my skill as an experimental physicist was honed by these interactions with Gen. He stood out as a senior person who was at the spectrometer with you, figuring out which scan you should do next.

Zierler:

So you learned process from him, mostly?

Birgeneau:

I learned how to do experiments efficiently. What we did best together was what I call pivoting. When you do an experiment, it usually is motivated by some theoretical idea. For example, when we were first studying K2NiF4, we thought that it was going to be a realization of the two-dimensional Heisenberg model, at least over some range of temperature. In most cases, you start doing an experiment with some idea from existing theoretical models about what is supposed to happen in the measurements. After going through the preliminaries, you begin taking data. You look at the data and realize that it is not at all what you expected. The data just do not fit your preconceptions. Usually, you assume that you made some mistake in setting up the experiment. But you only have seven days of spectrometer time, so you have got to figure out in those seven days, what is right and what is wrong. So, imagine yourself sitting at the spectrometer saying "OK, what have I done wrong?"

What Gen was really efficient at, which was a skill I acquired from him, was doing consistency checks to determine very quickly whether or not your execution of the experiment is wrong, or your understanding of the theory is inadequate, or the theory itself is wrong. Gen was very skilled at what we call consistency checks, that is, quickly figuring out what is right and what is wrong. I call the next step pivoting, because if you then come to the conclusion from your data that the theory which had motivated your experiment cannot be correct, then you have to pivot to a completely different strategy in how you pursue the experiment. Because then you have to figure out what the correct physics is. What set of measurements do you need to do to elucidate the physics? Gen was a master at that, and I learned how to do that from him.

Zierler:

So its problem solving, it sounds like.

Birgeneau:

Yes, it is problem solving, but it is also experimental strategy evolving in real time informed by the data that you are collecting. It is learning how to be flexible on a very short time scale, a scale determined by your allotted beam time. This the nature of research at national facilities where you submit proposals and, if they are successful, you are then given a definite time slot on a spectrometer to carry out your research.

Zierler:

So where did you take this research next?

Birgeneau:

We looked at a whole variety of different low-dimensional systems. We did work, first of all, on quasi-classical one-dimensional magnetic systems. Then, we did some pioneering experiments on one dimensional quantum spin chains. Both the classical and quantum spin chains had exact results which we could compare to our measurements in real physical systems. Then we did some work in amorphous ferromagnets. There seemed to be an infinite number of different kinds of model magnetic systems which came to the fore at that time. Gen and I explored these various interesting model magnetic systems for about seven years. At that point, I made the decision to leave Bell and to move to MIT. Basically, I am an academic in my soul. Although I loved the freedom in my physics research at Bell Labs, I wanted to be in a university, I wanted to teach, I wanted to have graduate students, and I wanted the flexibility to pursue issues in the social justice arena that are more difficult to do in a corporate environment.

Zierler:

Now, 1975 at Bell. This is well before the decline of Bell. This is still its heyday.

Birgeneau:

It was still a great place. I'll give you two illustrations of the fact that being in Bell Labs’ basic research lab was not the same as being in a university; indeed, earlier, you were asking about Bell and the corporate culture. One example is quite dramatic. A group of us, led by Tony Tyson, the astrophysicist, now at UC Davis, became very upset when we understood how deeply involved Bell Labs was in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) research, and we started raising issues about that concern.

Zierler:

I mean, someone has to pay the bills for Bell, right? They have to be for profit somehow, right?

Birgeneau:

Well, this was not for profit. In fact, I do not know if they made any money out of the research that they did for the Defense Department. They were doing it for national service and to have the goodwill from the federal government which they needed, as a monopoly. In any case, Bell was doing a great deal of defense work at their lab in Whippany including designing the ABM system. A number of us who had come out of the universities in the '60s were very unhappy about this and began protesting. No matter how liberal Bell Labs was in physics, they were not ready for protests from 60-something types. At a certain point, a group of us put together an advertisement for The Washington Post saying not everybody at Bell Labs supported the ABM.

Zierler:

Bold move.

Birgeneau:

Yes. Right. Then it turned out the famous political prankster, Dick Tuck, for some reason, acted as the intermediary with the Washington Post, and he changed the title from something like "These employees object" to "Who opposes the ABM? The scientists who are supposed to build it, that’s Who!" even though we were all in basic research. So there we were, Tyson, me, and a number of other names that you would recognize from their contributions to physics. It appeared as a full page advertisement in The Washington Post. Needless to say, this was not happily received by AT&T headquarters in Manhattan. In fact, they peremptorily fired us all. We had crossed a black line. When you asked me, "Could you do anything?" the answer is, No, we could not do anything. So we were all fired. Meanwhile, my wife and I had two children by then and no financial safety net so I needed a regular salary. When Al Clogston, who was the director of the basic physics research division at Murray Hill, was told this by the AT&T executives in New York he said, "You cannot do this. You will never be able to convince a creative scientist ever again to come to Bell Labs. So, you will have to fire me first." I love Al for this as he was on the conservative side politically, so this must have been very difficult for him.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

AT&T is a well-enough managed place that they understood Al immediately and rescinded our firing. Except for Al, it could have turned out very differently.

Zierler:

That's amazing.

Birgeneau:

Yes. Yes. Al Clogston never got credit for that happening. In Fred Wiseman’s great documentary “At Berkeley”, I told the same story so that is one place where it is in the public domain.

My second example is quite different. All of us liked to tell ourselves that being in basic physics research at Bell Labs was indistinguishable from being in a university physics department. One day, I called one of my good friends, who was a superb squash player, at one o’clock in the afternoon, and said "Let's go over to the Summit YMCA and play squash." He immediately responded, "I cannot play squash until five o'clock." So I said, "But you're always telling me that we're in a university environment." He had come from Princeton. And I said, "When you were at Princeton, if I called you up, and it was one o'clock, and I reserved the squash court at two, wouldn't you come?" And he said, "Yes." So I said, "So, I thought you told me that we were in a university." He responded, "I cannot play squash until five o'clock."

Zierler:

There's your answer.

Birgeneau:

So that was my answer. The reality was that Bell labs, even in its most fundamental research laboratory, was not a university.

Zierler:

Gives you an idea.

Birgeneau:

One way or another, we all knew that we worked in a corporation and for the long term, I wanted to be in a university. So then I left to go to MIT.

Zierler:

And when you got to MIT, were you ever concerned that the level of the lab work that you were doing at Bell could not be replicated at MIT?

Birgeneau:

No, but before answering that question in any detail let me make another observation. There is one aspect of an academic career in physics for experimentalists, and presumably theorists as well, which is quite different from that in almost every other field If you do an experiment at a young age which has a major impact, perhaps starting a new field, you are set for the rest of your career. Because of the set of experiments that Gen and I did on one and two dimensional antiferromagnets, while I was still in my twenties I was recruited to tenured positions at a number of top universities including, in due course MIT. In theory, I could have gone to one of these universities in my early thirties and have done nothing afterwards. Our field, and mathematics as well, give extraordinary credit to people who do some highly impactful research at a young age.

Zierler:

And this is unique even among the sciences? You're saying that this is not true in biology or chemistry?

Birgeneau:

It is rare in chemistry and biology whereas it is not uncommon in physics. As I said above, because of my work with Gen, I was receiving invitations to give colloquia at a wide range of universities and these talks were often followed by inquiries about whether or not I would be interested in a tenured faculty position. This was, at some level, confusing for someone who still hadn't reached the age of thirty. Also, none of the universities which were most aggressive had a physics department competitive with my department at Bell Labs. At one point I went to Al Clogston for advice, the same Al Clogston who earlier had saved my job at Bell Labs. He said, "Don't rush." He knew that ultimately I wanted to end up in a university. He said, "Just wait. Wait until you get an offer from one of the very best places." So I said, "Fine."

But there was an issue. At that time, almost no university-based solid-state physicists had research programs centered on national facilities. For most universities, their concept of a solid-state physicist was someone who set up a laboratory in the basement; this was particularly true for low-temperature physicists. They could tolerate their particle physicists going off to CERN or other major facilities but most university physics departments felt that they needed on-campus research and that's what atomic and solid-state physicists did. This turned out to be particularly so at the top research universities. Therefore, I had interest from a number of places, but the range of places at that time was not as broad as it is for my students and postdocs today. Now, every university wants solid-state physicists who use national facilities.

Thus I was one of the very first solid state physicists in a top-ranked department whose research base was at national facilities. It took universities a while to get used to this idea, but fortunately not MIT.

Zierler:

So who got it. Who got it at MIT?

Birgeneau:

Peter Wolff, the very person who had hired me at Bell Labs. He had by then left Bell Labs and was hired by MIT to build up solid-state physics. I was not the first, but one of the first, people that he hired. He did not care where or how I did my experiments; he just wanted me to do good physics.

Zierler:

And what kind of budgetary commitment did this require on MIT's part?

Birgeneau:

Well, the Brookhaven part required zero dollars because their budget was covered in its entirety by DOE. But, of course, Peter wanted me to set up a lab at MIT which I also knew would be necessary. By then, Peter Eisenberger had set up a terrific x-ray scattering program at Bell Labs. Importantly, he was doing mainstream physics with x-rays rather than crystallography. I was sufficiently taken by this that I asked Peter if I could collaborate with him on one of his projects. He graciously agreed and we ended up doing a very nice experiment together; this also meant that I acquired valuable experience in x-ray scattering. At about the same time, Bill McMillan, the theorist (!), started carrying out x-ray scattering experiments in smectic liquid crystals using a home-made spectrometer that he had put together at Bell. I went to talk to him in his lab and realized immediately the potential for high resolution x-ray scattering studies of ordering processes in liquid crystal systems. As a result of these two interactions, I decided that I would set up at MIT an x-ray scattering facility that would look like a neutron scattering spectrometer and would do what one did with neutrons, except that it would use x-ray photons rather than neutrons. This was a completely new approach to x-ray scattering at that time. This meant that I would need a start-up package from MIT that would enable me to buy the appropriate x-ray equipment. My intention was to use the same software as we used in our neutron scattering experiments at Brookhaven but, of course with many technical differences in the spectrometer itself.

Zierler:

So because it potentially had a dual use, did you actually share the facility at all?

Birgeneau:

No. It was my own. Occasionally, fellow faculty members who had graduate students working on projects where our kind of x-ray measurements would be useful, would collaborate with me. Sometimes, if I was not actively interested in the research issues that they were addressing, I would just let them use the equipment. But ninety percent of the research that we did in my x–ray laboratory was doing our own experiments.

Zierler:

Now, one of the challenges, I assume, in the lab is you're working with not your peers, but you're working with postdocs and graduate students.

Birgeneau:

Yes, which I loved. I just absolutely loved working with graduate students and postdocs. In fact, if I had not gone off and become the President of the University of Toronto and the Chancellor of Berkeley, I believe that I would be best remembered for the many excellent graduate students and postdocs from my lab who went off and established outstanding research programs at universities and national laboratories around the world. I worked well with graduate students and I particularly enjoyed the process of teaching graduate students how to do research.

Zierler:

Who were some of your real standout students at MIT?

Birgeneau:

Well, it is dangerous to name individuals because you inevitably will leave out people who deserve recognition. One of my students became the first woman and first African-American Dean of Harvard College. Another is the President of the Korean version of the Max Planck Institute. A third is head of synchrotron facilities in Switzerland. A fourth is an associate director of Brookhaven and head of the National Synchrotron Light Source, I have a long string of former students and postdocs who are professors at major universities around the world including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stonybrook, Penn, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Minnesota, Toronto, McGill, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, Edinburgh, Stuttgart, Fudan, Shanghai Jaio Tong, Nanjing, Sun Yat-Sen, and so on. I am particularly proud of the fact that after I stepped down as Chancellor of Berkeley and returned to full-time physics, recent products of my group have joined the faculties of Rice, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, Wisconsin and BYU.

The move to MIT was healthy in many ways. I really enjoyed the interactions with students, and it turned out that establishing an x-ray laboratory at MIT was invaluable because it expanded my research horizons beyond magnetism. It is not that there was anything wrong with magnetism, but it started me pursuing completely different kinds of research problems. When I turned up at MIT, Dave Litster convinced me to start using x-rays to study phase transitions in liquid crystals, As I noted above, Bill McMillan had started doing some low resolution x-ray scattering studies of liquid crystal before he left Bell to go to Illinois. However, no one had done in liquid crystals the kind of sophisticated scattering experiments that we were doing with neutrons on magnetic systems. Importantly, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes had opened up the field by identifying the many novel broken symmetries that are realized in the various smectic phases of liquid crystals. On a completely different research track, we figured out how to use x-rays effectively to study the phase transitions of monolayers of rare gases on the surface of graphite. This opened up studies of two-dimensional melting, two-dimensional commensurate-incommensurate transitions, re-entrant melting and layer-by-layer crystal growth. At some level, the necessity of starting a lab at MIT opened up some completely new research horizons for me. This probably would not have happened if I had stayed at Bell Labs. Instead, I would have ended up in management.

Zierler:

And so when you were named chair in 1988, were you ever concerned that the bureaucratic responsibilities were going to pull you too far away from your research?

Birgeneau:

I was never going to allow that to happen. So I wasn't concerned.

Zierler:

And were you successful in that?

Birgeneau:

Yes. Well, you can judge for yourself. You probably wouldn't be interviewing me if I hadn't been successful. When I was chair, I was still able to participate at a level not so different from when I was a regular professor. However, when I became the Dean of Science at MIT, I underwent a phase transition myself, a transition from someone who did experiments to someone who administered experiments.

Zierler:

And what does it mean to administer? Do you provide funding? What does that mean?

Birgeneau:

I was actively involved with the students and postdocs in the research, but I did not spend day after day at a national facility sitting at the spectrometer trying to decide what scan to do next. Let me give you an example of the difference. I remember well one of the discoveries that I made in the rare gas on graphite field. It was the first observation of reentrant melting, the process where as you lower the temperature the solid melts. That discovery in the krypton on graphite system had a major impact because it turned out to have analogues in many other systems. This experiment took place at SSRL before I went into administration. I remember dramatically sitting at the spectrometer doing this measurement. It was on a Sunday morning and I was by myself. I lowered the temperature of a monolayer of krypton on graphite which was in the solid phase. Suddenly, the diffraction signal became that of a liquid. I was certain that I must have made a mistake.

Zierler:

Yes. Right.

Birgeneau:

Right. I was sure that I had made a mistake. So then, I did what I had learned from Shirane, that is, doing a whole range of quick cross-checks. First, I thought that there must be something wrong with either the cryostat or one of the stepping motors or something less obvious was malfunctioning. After two hours, I concluded that no, the measurement wasn't wrong, and this solid really had melted as I made it colder. As I said, I was completely alone and I was completely joyous. You cannot reproduce that pleasure any other way. You have to be at the spectrometer carrying out the measurements, perhaps with a collaborator, but you must be an active participant. It is a completely different and much less fulfilling experience if a graduate student comes to you a week after the experiment and says, "Look at these plots." It's just not the same pleasure. You have to be sitting at the spectrometer yourself and have something that's totally astounding and completely unexpected happen. Then, you need to be responsible for figuring it out yourself in real time. This is what ended during my time as Dean at MIT.

Zierler:

So, I wonder if you could talk—you have a solid quarter-century of perspective at MIT. Nineteen seventy-five to 2000. In what ways over the course of your tenure there had the physics department changed? And in what ways had it remained the same?

Birgeneau:

It's a great physics department. I would say, first of all, one important way that it changed was that solid-state and atomic physics became very important. MIT was not a serious player in solid-state physics in the 1960s and early 70s.

Zierler:

Who was at that time? Who was the big player in solid-state physics?

Birgeneau:

Illinois. Stanford. Berkeley, and Cornell in the U.S, Cambridge, Tokyo and the Max Planck Institutes internationally. Of course, none of these matched Bell Labs.

Zierler:

And was MIT self-consciously thinking about entering that league? Was that part of it?

Birgeneau:

No, they were encouraged to by a visiting committee. Guess who was on the visiting committee? None other than Al Clogston, who was an MIT graduate. This was the same Al Clogston who saved my job at Bell Labs. The visiting committee said, basically, "You are being left behind. There are so many exciting things happening in condensed matter physics, and you are not part of it." Viki Weisskopf, who was the department head at that time, reacted strongly and positively to this. He was an outstanding physicist and he loved both physics and MIT. His first step was to hire Peter Wolff from Bell. He gave Peter a number of faculty slots and asked him to build up condensed matter physics. Peter, in rapid succession hired Marc Kastner, John Joannopoulos, me and Toyo Tanaka. He also shepherded Dave Litster and Tom Greytak through the tenure process. Subsequently, we hired Patrick Lee and Xiao-Gang Wen to provide the core of the condensed matter theory group. George Benedek was there, also, but he had moved into medical physics by then. Thus, Peter Wolff, basically starting from scratch, created a group in condensed matter physics that rose rapidly to be among the top few in the country. This was an incredible accomplishment by this one person, Peter Wolff.

Zierler:

And so then what were the circumstances—what was the connection leading you to the presidency at the University of Toronto? How did that go down?

Birgeneau:

So that happened in three steps. As background to this question, I always like to quote my friend Mark Wrighton. Mark, who was an outstanding chemist, was a fellow department head with me at MIT. When Chuck Vest became President, he appointed Mark as Provost. I remember Mark saying to me "When you find yourself suddenly in a senior management position, like being provost, you discover parts of yourself that you did not even know existed." This was particularly true for lab scientists where the non-technical parts of you may not be tested.

You can see his pithy comment stuck with me. Let me tell you about step number one. It turned out that Herman had hired an unusually strong group of young people not just in solid-state physics but in nuclear, particle and astro-physics as well. The latter include people like Wit Busza, Ernie Moniz, John Negele, Bob Jaffe and Claude Canizares. At a certain point, these mid-career faculty became restless and felt that it was time for a turnover in the leadership in the department. Amazingly, the senor people including Francis Low, Herman Feshbach, Viki Weisskopf, and Jerry Friedman graciously agreed to step aside. Frankly, I think that they were relieved to be able to hand over administrative responsibility to the next generation. Thus, this happened as smoothly and cordially as you could imagine. I played a role in engineering this transition so when we were discussing this and collectively said, "OK, now we need a department head." The group all pointed at me! Of course, there was a standard search for the new department head, but I was basically committed.

Up to that point, I had done very little administration, almost none. Then I found myself head of one of the largest and most complex physics departments in the country. At that time, junior faculty at MIT in physics were responsible for covering a third of their academic year salary out of research funds and the senior faculty were responsible for half. As a practical matter, for most of the faculty, DOE was paying the requisite fraction of their academic year salary. However, the federal research budgetary situation changed dramatically in real time, shortly after I became head. It became clear that that MIT could no longer sustain this oversized one hundred and five faculty member department. Consequently, this was a really challenging time administratively which I had to manage as department head and later as dean. This required the department to be much more strategic most especially in our hiring. MIT had a very low tenure rate, so, in the past, people who did not work out simply did not receive tenure. However, once you start providing start-up package in the $1M to $2M range for junior faculty members, you do not want to then have to abandon them six or seven years later. Thus we had to become much more strategic in essentially all regards. I should have added that after I became head of the department, there was an equivalent generational turnover in the heads of the individual divisions, with people drawn from this younger group. In a way, we transitioned the administration of MIT physics from a buddy system into a modern, strategic approach.

It turned out that after I had been head of physics for about 2 1/2 years the Dean of Science position opened up and so I was asked to be dean. At that point, I became quite worried. It was the question that you asked before--would I be able to sustain my science? I simply decided that I was not going to compromise. I would make sure that I allowed enough time to do research even if I could not do experiments myself anymore. In fact, I did try to go to Brookhaven and NIST, in particular, for experiments during my first two years as dean. However, it did not work out because there would be constant interruptions and I simply could not focus on doing the experiment myself. Fortunately, I had really outstanding graduate students at that time including Bernhard Keimer, John Hill and Martin Greven, each of whom have had spectacular careers since then. So having really good graduate students and postdocs made a big difference. As an aside, one of the young people who worked with us on the synchrotron experiments was Tom Rosenbaum who is now the President of Caltech. Apparently, we did okay at mentoring!

So, by necessity, I changed the way that I participated in the research process. I was the Dean of Science at MIT for almost a decade. It was clear to me that I was unlikely to progress administratively at MIT beyond the level of dean. MIT is a corporate place and I did not fit that mold. I was a physicist and physicists tend to say what they think; they do not practice corporate talk.

Zierler:

What do you mean corporate? How was it corporate?

Birgeneau:

MIT could not be more different than Berkeley, where we have shared governance. It was structurally very hierarchical. The MIT Corporation acts in many ways like a corporate board. Thus, it was clear to me that, if I wanted to continue on in administration, MIT was not going to be the place for my personal style and my personal interests.

Zierler:

And you did want to go on in administration?

Birgeneau:

I didn't know. I wanted to keep doing new and stimulating things but I did not know where they would lie.

Zierler:

You didn't know.

Birgeneau:

I did not know. But if I did, it was unlikely to happen at MIT unless, of course, I simply wanted to return to the faculty as a regular professor. The one thing that was definitely true was that after I had been dean for seven or eight years, I was restless in the dean's position. It's not that I didn't like it. It was probably the most intellectually challenging job that I have ever had. If you are the dean of science at MIT and one of your faculty is up for promotion to tenure or full professor, the dean has to present their research case to Academic Council.

Zierler:

So you have to know what they're doing.

Birgeneau:

You have to understand their contributions to research in their fields. This means that you have to have a reasonable understanding of biology, neuroscience, the earth sciences, chemistry, mathematics and, of course, physics. I have to admit that I could not manage pure mathematics, even though I had been an undergraduate math major, but then even the applied mathematicians had trouble explaining what their pure math colleagues were doing. Presenting these varied research cases was an incredible but enjoyable challenge.

Zierler:

Who were you presenting the research cases to?

Birgeneau:

All your fellow deans, the provost, and the president. You have to convince them that the faculty member’s research is sufficiently important that the person deserves tenure, or deserves promotion to full professor. In this regard, this was a stimulating time period in my life. Some other major things happened then, as well, most famously, the MIT School of Science Report on Women in Science where I played a central role. That was my social justice bent coming back. Nevertheless, I was restless in that time period. Oddly, my physics research was going well. In 1998 we published a seminal paper in the field of high temperature superconductivity which, to this day, is my most cited paper and I had played a critical role in the research.

What happened next was quite serendipitous. Rob Prichard, who was president of the University of Toronto, found out about me through my wife's brother, Jim Ware. Jim had been captain of the University of Toronto football team when it won the national championship so he was a prominent alumnus of the University of Toronto. Did you ever play Trivial Pursuit?

Zierler:

Sure.

Birgeneau:

That was literally his company. Thus, he was a distinguished Canadian and a prominent graduate of the University of Toronto Law School. Therefore, he was invited to many university events. At one particular event, he was in a conversation Rob Prichard and casually commented that his brother-in-law was the Dean of Science at MIT, and was a Canadian." About a year after this conversation, Rob decided to step down as President of the University of Toronto. He correctly decided that to move the University of Toronto to where he wanted it to be, the next president should be a Canadian who had been in a leadership position at one of the great American universities.

Zierler:

And lo and behold, here you were.

Birgeneau:

And here I was. Rob invited me to come up and talk to him, which I did. I forgot to mention that a year earlier, shortly after his conversation with Jim, Rob had called me offering me the position of dean of arts and science at the University of Toronto. I said, "Rob, I am the Dean of Science at MIT. In one of the units reporting to me, a quarter of the faculty have Nobel Prizes. Why would I ever leave that?"

Zierler:

So you're thinking a lateral move is not going to do it?

Birgeneau:

I had no interest. I would rather be a physics professor at MIT than a dean somewhere else. Then the position of President of the University of Toronto opened up. Meanwhile, by the way, I had been aggressively recruited for the presidencies of several other universities in the U.S., quite good universities, actually. But my criterion for any presidency was that I would not leave MIT to be the president of a university unless that university had a physics department as good as MIT's.

Zierler:

And Toronto did that for you?

Birgeneau:

No, Toronto did not. Berkeley did.

Zierler:

Berkeley did that?

Birgeneau:

Yes. Toronto was different because my wife and I had been undergraduates together there and both her and my families lived in or around Toronto. Before Toronto came along, there were a couple of universities, whose names you would well recognize, who aggressively recruited me but they didn't meet that criterion. I was also recruited by Caltech, which did meet that criterion but I did not meet Caltech's criterion.

Zierler:

Which was what?

Birgeneau:

Well, they hired someone who had a Nobel Prize, namely David Baltimore. That was fine. In fact, I would have made the same decision if I was leading their search committee. However, I knew at that time that if Caltech had offered me their presidency, I would have taken it. So, I was restless; I had been dean long enough. I do not believe any administrative position should be a career position. People should not stay too long in them. You have something to contribute and after you have made your contribution, you should move on. I felt by the end of eight years as dean of science at MIT that it was time for someone else.

Zierler:

And what was your contribution? Big picture, what did you feel like you had accomplished?

Birgeneau:

Well, first of all, I helped keep the sciences at MIT among the best in the world. That's not trivial; it is very easy to become complacent and slip. One of my most important accomplishments was bringing neuroscience into the School of Science. MIT was not a presence in neuroscience before I became dean and now it is among the world leaders. When you are the dean of science, it makes you ask yourself, what really matters in science? In the early 1990s, as I was thinking about science more broadly, I started reading about neuroscience and came to understand that it was an important frontier area of science but not one where MIT was among the leaders. We were not players and we needed to be. I also had David Baltimore and Phil Sharp telling me how important neurobiology was and I listened to them. But, as a physicist, I quickly came to the conclusion that neurobiology was important, but it was important in neuroscience in the way that chemistry is important in high temperature superconductivity. That is, it provides important input, but it does not solve the essential problems. I talked to both cognitive scientists and molecular biologists to develop a broader view of neuroscience and quickly came to the conclusion that MIT could play a major role in this field. So, Phil Sharp and I partnered to figure out a strategy for creating a neuroscience department within the School of Science at MIT and, importantly, how to raise funding for it. It took almost a decade, but this initiative was successful beyond anything that we could have hoped for. Probably the second major contribution was the women in science study.

Zierler:

And this is both recruiting women and promoting women, both?

Birgeneau:

Well, first of all, admitting that women were not treated appropriately in the School of Science. The primary threshold to get over was to admit that there was serious gender inequality in the sciences in academia. There was gender inequality at MIT, but this was a much broader phenomenon. I will tell you about the revelation that I had. I knew every woman faculty member in the School of Science. I also knew, one by one, particular issues that they were facing.

Zierler:

Because they would come to you directly? Or you heard through the grapevine?

Birgeneau:

Mostly directly. Plus, the School of Science at MIT is small enough that if you are a good dean, you get to know every single faculty member as a person, of course, some better than others. In general, I paid more attention to the women faculty, in part because there were only sixteen of them. During the summer of 1994, I had gone to Brookhaven, to do an experiment; in fact, I managed to do one largely on my own. At one point, I saw on my calendar that I had a meeting in mid-August with the senior women faculty in the School of Science. This meeting had been set up by Nancy Hopkins, a professor in our biology department who previously had expressed some concerns to me about the treatment of women in her department. Almost immediately after I returned from Brookhaven to MIT, this meeting took place in the dean’s conference room. I walked into the conference room and there were fifteen out of the sixteen School of Science tenured women faculty were there. (The sixteenth was a physicist who said that she had issues but they were no related to gender.). I sat down at the conference table and asked Nancy to lead the meeting. Nancy simply asked each of the women to tell their stories. They went around the table, explaining the challenges that they were continuously facing in their careers at MIT. The challenges were different, person by person, but overall it was simply overwhelming. Then I understood immediately that this was not any individual faculty member’s problem, it was systemic.

Zierler:

It was systemic.

Birgeneau:

Yes. I knew that as Dean, I simply had to address this issue. It was the same instinct that had motivated me to go to South Carolina many years earlier. The first thing that I did was to go to the department heads and explain this revelation that had come from the meeting with their women faculty. We had a serious problem in the School of Science, and we had to solve it. This generated a near-revolt of the department heads.

I explained to the heads clearly that I was not going to back down because we had a serious systemic problem. It was simply obvious. So I listened to their counter arguments and concerns and finally said, "We need to set up a committee to study this issue and make recommendations on how we should move forward." Initially, the heads simply refused, in part because they could not agree on what the charge should be for such a committee. So, I literally had to set up a committee to set up the committee. I deliberately put on this first committee two of the department heads who were quite negative and a third who was positive plus a former physics head, Jerry Friedman, the co-discoverer of the quark. As you may know, Jerry is an incredibly kind, fair human being whom everyone respects. In addition, of course, there were several of the senior women faculty. This committee met for six months, and, as I expected, the negative department heads were converted once they looked at the information.

Zierler:

It was inescapable.

Birgeneau:

It was inescapable that there was a serious issue, in fact, not just at MIT but broadly for women in science. So then we set up the formal committee. I immediately had a challenge because the women wanted to have only female senior faculty on the committee. They simply did not trust the men. I said, "This would be an incredible mistake. If we set up the committee that way, no one will believe you." "We need at least three men whom everyone respects." So I added two of the department heads, one of whom initially had been negative and a second who was neutral, plus Jerry Friedman. We also needed someone from the math department but there were no tenured women in math at the time. I then went to Bonnie Berger, who was a junior faculty member at that time, and asked her who the senior professor was that she trusted the most in the math department. She named the person and he happily joined the committee. The committee started to work and quickly uncovered a wide variety of issues some quantitative and some qualitative. Salaries were the easy issue.

Zierler:

Because that's just quantitative?

Birgeneau:

Yes, it's quantitative so addressing it is easy. On the other hand, changing the culture so that the women do not feel marginalized is much harder. Among other things, I realized that we simply needed to bring in more senior women and the more accomplished they were the better. As part of our strategy for moving forward, we started systematically recruiting to MIT outstanding women science faculty who were at other universities. You can say that this is wrong because it is just rearranging the chairs but it was important for MIT and these people welcomed the opportunity to join our faculty. In most cases, this involved quite generous start up packages. We've already got two hours of work.

Zierler:

We're going strong. Keep going. We're good.

Birgeneau:

Yes, as I said, we hired a significant number of impressive senior women faculty members. In fact, we ended up with more, percentage-wise, National Academy members who were female than were male. The 1995 report by the committee that I set up has never been revealed publicly because we guaranteed confidentiality. The real report says things about some individuals that we would not want said publicly. Several years later, a faculty member in the business school, Lotte Bailyn, said, "This is important for the entire country, not just for the School of Science at MIT." So Lotte produced a sanitized version of the report, and that was what came out four years later in 1999. Most people think of that report, the sanitized version, as the report. It wasn't at all. The morning after Lotte’s version of the report was released, I had Dan Rather's crew in my office.

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

Yes, that was totally amazing. If we had ever released the real report, it would have been revolutionary. But even just this sanitized version had an astounding impact. The critical thing was that the President of MIT, Chuck Vest, signed on to the report. Chuck basically said, "Yes, as a result of this study, I now understand that at MIT women have not been treated fairly."

Zierler:

What about the board of trustees? Did they get involved in this?

Birgeneau:

No, nothing. This was entirely a School of Science phenomenon, almost all the way through. Chuck was supportive of me throughout the whole process, but he delegated it to me. He trusted my judgment enough that I would do this in a way that would not embarrass MIT and would get to the truth. He entered in the second stage but in a way that was critical. This ends my narrative on my second important contribution. Of course, there were others, like hardening faculty salaries, but they were more in the nuts and bolts of academic administration.

By the late 1990s, I was getting restless. I thought that perhaps I would return to full-time physics. However, as I mentioned earlier, just at that time Rob Prichard decided to step down a President of the University of Toronto and so a search committee was set up. Rob advised them to contact me which they did. The leaders of the Toronto President search committee were hoping to find a Canadian who was in a leadership position at one of the great universities in the world and that this person could move the University of Toronto into the top tier. Of course, Toronto was already very good but it was not in the top twenty-five at the time. By their charter, their President had to be a Canadian citizen. The reality was that there were at most ten people in the world who were both Canadian citizens and had been in major leadership positions in one of the world’s top universities.

Zierler:

Yeah. Right. That's a short list.

Birgeneau:

I sometimes joke that the other nine were not interested so they were left with me. So, I was intrigued by this opportunity. The physics department did not satisfy my criterion, but it was still quite good. The city of Toronto had changed dramatically since I grew up there. It was now multicultural, cosmopolitan and exciting, in good part because of emigration to the greater Toronto area from around the world. The University of Toronto faculty looked more like the city I had grown up in, not the city that it had become at that time.

The student body was as multinational as the city. Thus, you had a culturally and racially diverse student body while the faculty was remarkably homogeneous. The challenge was clear and I knew that the University of Toronto could not move up into the top echelons until it started recruiting its faculty from the entire population. I saw this as an interesting and worthwhile challenge. My mother-in-law was turning ninety as well and needed her daughter in Toronto, not in Boston, so there were a number of motivations. I believed that I understood the magnitude of the job. At the same time, I was sufficiently realistic to understand that being the dean of science at MIT and a lab physicist did not prepare me fully for running a mega-university with three campuses, twenty-one hospitals and more than 70,000 students.

Zierler:

This is a quantum leap.

Birgeneau:

It was a quantum leap, correct. It turned out to be more of a quantum leap than I had anticipated.

Zierler:

Did you harbor any hope that you'd continue physics work at Toronto? Or you let go of that?

Birgeneau:

I'll tell you about that too; I'm happy to keep going but I need to take a five-minute break.

Zierler:

Take a break. That's fine.

Birgeneau:

I'll come back in five minutes.

Zierler:

No problem.

Birgeneau:

All right, so.

Zierler:

I'm here. I'm back.

Birgeneau:

The answer is that I had no intention of giving up physics when I went as president. As I said, first of all, I underestimated how challenging the job would be, so I was naive about it. But the second thing was that, frankly, that physics department needed me as a physicist.

Zierler:

You mean they needed you to raise their profile?

Birgeneau:

Yes. In fact, they did a full-blown tenure case for me as a physics faculty member. They solicited sixteen letters, some of whom said, "Why is he leaving MIT?" The solicitation letter did not hint that it was because I was coming as president. Unfortunately, some number of letters saying, "Well, I am unable to understand why Birgeneau would leave MIT to come to Toronto, but given that he is—"

Zierler:

"We're happy to have him." [laughs]

Birgeneau:

The field of high-temperature superconductivity was still extraordinarily exciting at that time and our group was making valuable contributions. Plus, I had just started some new research in liquid crystals in partnership with one of my colleagues, Carl Garland, at MIT, where we were able to use liquid crystals as a model system to probe some deep questions in disordered solids. We believed that we could do better experiments in liquid crystals than we could do in solids as model systems. I did not want to give up that new research direction. Thus, I had strong physics motivations to want to keep my physics going at that time. As part of my negotiations with Toronto, I said, "I need a lab and you need to provide me with a scholarly allowance large enough to support two postdocs." So when I was hired, it was understood that I was going to do serious physics. I think that this was shocking to the search committee because this had likely never happened before in the history of the university.

In any case, I was quite adamant about my desire to continue my research program. Then it turned out that I had very good luck. The year before I came, the federal government had created both the Canada Research Chair Program and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI); the latter provided significant funds for universities' science and engineering research infrastructure. That was remarkably enlightened. It was Martha Piper at UBC and Rob Prichard at Toronto who led the effort to convince the federal government to create these programs. The Canadian government, unlike our situation in the U.S., not only was not in debt, they had a surplus and put it into science. It was astounding.

Zierler:

Amazing.

Birgeneau:

Yes, it was wonderful. And a lot of this new funding went into physics. The year before I arrived, the University of Toronto had hired as a Canada Research Chair a wonderful physicist by the name of Louis Taillefer. He had come from Grenoble to Toronto. I partnered with Louis to put together a CFI infrastructure grant for three million dollars for crystal growth, materials characterization equipment. cryostats, et cetera. Further, funding goes much further in Canada than it does in the US because of the low overhead rate. Three million dollars then would be like getting six or eight million dollars here at Berkeley in 2020. I also was awarded an NSERC grant right away. Astoundingly, the National Science Foundation renewed my MIT NSF grant after I had committed to go to Toronto, so I could keep my group going at MIT long enough for my PhD students to finish.

Zierler:

So they didn't have to follow you.

Birgeneau:

Right. Although the postdocs came with me, two really good postdocs, Shuichi Wakimoto and Paul Clegg, both of whom have subsequently had great careers. Consequently, I turned up in Toronto with two ambitious, talented postdocs with me. There were also a number of graduate students who were looking for advisors, and they were willing to gamble that I would be able to provide them with proper supervision even though I was the President. Paul Clegg and one of my Toronto graduate students, Chris Stock, are now both professors at University of Edinburgh. So I had the good luck of having talented people in my group right from the beginning. Plus, I reconnected with Chalk River from my days in the 1960s.

Zierler:

Full circle.

Birgeneau:

Full circle. Correct. All these years later, I started collaborating with Bill Buyers at Chalk River. So, I had a robust research program at U of T. However, I have to say that the challenges of running a mega-university like the University of Toronto were incredible. I sometimes say that I had my apprenticeship there and that Berkeley profited from it. I mentioned very early in this conversation that there were five years of high school in Ontario, compared to four almost everywhere else. Exactly the year that I came to the University of Toronto, the provincial government decided to switch from five to four years. This was referred to as the double cohort. This meant that universities in Ontario had to absorb an entire extra high school class in a short period of time. Toronto at that time had three campuses: the downtown campus which was the historic campus, and two small satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga. The double cohort meant that we had to convert the satellite campuses into almost independent universities. We had to do that in real time since over two years we increased our student body by 15,000 undergraduates. During my time as president, we were the second largest builder in Canada. So, as a practical matter, I was running a huge construction company. In addition, we were in the middle of a major fundraising campaign. Finally, there was the complex of 21 affiliated hospitals. It was an incredible challenge. I could have done better and perhaps I should have done better but I did learn progressively on the job how to manage such a large complex organization.

Zierler:

Who did you turn to for advice?

Birgeneau:

I mean, where do you go from there? The prime minister of Canada? I mean, who are your confidants?

Birgeneau:

Yes, that was part of the problem. It was politically complicated because in the city of Toronto, the socialists were completely in charge. The provincial government had a Trump-like conservative government, and the federals were liberals. My personal politics matched most naturally with the liberals. Thus, I had to learn how to deal with the far left, the center and the far right. Here, my civil rights experience was helpful. You not only had to learn how to deal with people who had very different perspectives and you had to figure out how to knit them together. In retrospect, I think that this is what I did best. I had more difficulty dealing with some internal issues within the university, most especially the complacency. Within the Canadian culture, if you grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan and had become a professor at the University of Toronto you were successful beyond your dreams. Many U of T faculty did not welcome someone coming from MIT and asking why the University of Toronto isn’t as strong as Berkeley or Oxford.

Zierler:

Right. Right. You've made it.

Birgeneau:

You've made it beyond your dreams. Then, this physicist from MIT comes and says, "That's fine, but the University of Saskatchewan is not how we are measuring ourselves. We are measuring ourselves by Harvard and Stanford and Cambridge, and how are we going to hire and retain faculty who are as good as theirs"

Zierler:

Were you regarded as an outsider from MIT, or were you regarded as a native son?

Birgeneau:

No. An outsider from MIT.

Zierler:

Really? Being from Toronto was not really an asset to you?

Birgeneau:

Being a product and coming in off the streets? No, I was an elite outsider from MIT.

Zierler:

Was that surprising to you? Did you think you'd be able to draw on that?

Birgeneau:

When I realized how I was being regarded, I addressed that in part by talking about growing up on Dundas Street, about how the University of Toronto saved me, etc. But it took a while for me to figure out what I needed to do and start doing it. Over time, I was solving these problems and simultaneously learning how to manage such a large, complicated enterprise. As the suburban campuses grew, they each ended up with fifteen thousand undergraduates. They were larger than MIT or Harvard. However, the governance structure treated them as if they were still small satellites. Thus, we had to reimagine the governance structure of the University and, in the end, modernize its constitution. There were many challenges like that that had to be addressed.

There were nonstop problems with the hospitals simply because it is difficult to manage hospitals, especially with socialized medicine. Their budgets are always a challenge. Fortunately, most of the hospitals were excellent. The single most difficult challenge when you come in from the outside is to change the culture. I did have some significant successes. I elevated equity and inclusion to the vice-presidential level so it became central to the university’s mission, in addition, the University of Toronto now regularly appears in the top twenty-five in meaningful world ranking of universities. I did not do that on my own, obviously, I am not that naive, but I did start them on that track.

Zierler:

Was twenty-five the number that was bandied about? Did people really talk about top twenty-five, or that's your number?

Birgeneau:

Yes. If you look at standard ranking lists, they usually have one to twenty-five, twenty-six to fifty, fifty to one hundred etc.

Zierler:

Right. OK. Top tier.

Birgeneau:

Right. So there's typically a top twenty-five, and the University of Toronto has entered that group most especially in ranking systems which serious academics recognize as providing an appropriate measure. Importantly, the University of Toronto started measuring itself by appropriate international standards. After all, Toronto is a wonderful city, the setting of the downtown campus is fantastic, and Canada is a rich country. The fact that U of T wasn't in the top twenty-five was cultural. It was just culture. In fact, when I first came to Toronto I found myself sitting beside Michael Ignatieff on an airplane. He was at Harvard at the time. He turned to me and said, "Well, how does it feel to have moved from a culture of excellence to a culture of the very good?"

Zierler:

Brutal.

Birgeneau:

Yes. indeed. Ignatieff said it in a really stark way. He and I ended up having a long conversation about this important cultural difference between Canada and the United States. The fact that Canada has a culture of the “very good”, which is still true today, is why it is such a pleasant place to live. It's not cutthroat. The challenge then is, how to combine a culture of the very good with a university that is truly world class? And how do you motivate people to want to achieve at an international level?

Zierler:

But when it's looking at excellence, is it always south of the border? Is it always looking to the United States as a standard bearer of excellence? I mean, what about McGill, for example, where is McGill in this?

Birgeneau:

Well, because McGill has been starved by the Quebec government because they're an English-speaking university, it has slipped significantly. So, unfortunately, no. I would say in Canada, more focus is on Oxford and Cambridge.

Zierler:

More so than Harvard and Yale?

Birgeneau:

Well, they looked with admiration at Harvard and Yale, but the names that came up first would be Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, in sensible rankings, Oxford and Cambridge are up there with MIT, Harvard and Berkeley. In general, I found that Canadians knew rather little about the American publics. They did not understand the level of excellence of the University of Michigan, UCLA, and Berkeley. If they had, there would have been no excuses for not achieving at an international level because they are all public universities. I spent four years at the University of Toronto and, perhaps surprisingly, my physics went quite well.

Zierler:

Really? How did you carve time out of the day for that?

Birgeneau:

I just did, and I had really good postdocs as I said.

Zierler:

And you gave the postdocs the attention that they needed?

Birgeneau:

They were very independent and they have proven that in their subsequent careers. As I mentioned earlier, I had one graduate student, Chris Stock, who was spectacularly talented, and I used him to renew my connections with Chalk River. I would say, however, I wasn't as successful there in my physics research as I have been at Berkeley. But then, I have had a string of really excellent postdocs here at Berkeley and I have been more adventuresome in my research. Coming back to Toronto, it was really challenging all the time that I was there. The press was unbelievably, nonstop vicious. They never stopped.

Zierler:

To you personally, or to the university generally?

Birgeneau:

Both. They were unrelenting. This was particularly upsetting to my sisters. The press here in San Francisco can be difficult but generally it is not personal.

Zierler:

So four years is a relatively short term, at least relative to your predecessor.

Birgeneau:

Too short, actually. My wife still regrets it. Meanwhile, I must have been doing a reasonable job because after I had been there less than three years, I was recruited to be a candidate for the President of the whole University of California. Someone, apparently, had identified me as a possible new President. This, by the way, is not known publicly

Zierler:

And this is unique because any other move to another university is a lateral move. But because California's a system, it's a promotion, essentially.

Birgeneau:

Yes. In any case, I actually had no interest in that position. My wife would have just refused. I mean, just would not have allowed me to accept it, for many reasons. In any case, Bob Dynes, who was my good friend, was at that time Chancellor of UC San Diego and doing a very good job. I did indeed meet the committee at a hotel near Oakland Airport and said, "You should just hire Bob Dynes. Why are you talking to me?" I told them about how Toronto worked and what the challenges and opportunities were there. Of course, I also talked about my experience at MIT. I did not interview in a serious way and, frankly, I did not think that they regarded me as a serious candidate even though I was one of four finalists. But I did go through the interview process because I thought that UC was the greatest university system in the world and understanding how it worked would help me in my administration in Toronto.

Zierler:

And you knew Dynes from Bell Labs?

Birgeneau:

Yes, and we had played on a baseball team together, too. There's nothing like bonding through sports. You really get to know a person well. So I knew Bob from Bell Labs and he is a fellow Canadian. He also is an outstanding experimental physicist. As I indicated above, when the recruiter came to Toronto to the president's house to talk to me about the UC presidency, my wife was very unhappy and correctly so.

However, what happened next is that nine months after that, I was called by the same search consultant, Alberto Pimentel, who was now working for the search committee for the chancellorship of Berkeley. This time, I simply said, "No." and I refused to participate in the recruitment process.

By then, I was making genuine progress at Toronto. I could see that departments were getting better. I literally understood the system well enough to figure out how to raise tenure standards and we did that successfully. Fortunately, I understood enough about how the American tenure system worked that I was able to implement it properly in Toronto in a way that would stand up to legal challenges. That was the most important feature of the system that I introduced. Previously it was all random. Consequently, when someone was denied tenure, they would sue, and then the faculty member would receive tenure no matter how undeserving he or she was. So I managed to put in a rigorous tenure system and to have it hold.

Then, suddenly, things started to change. It turned out that the department chairs were quite happy with this. They could turn someone down for tenure who didn't deserve it and hire someone who was better. So, in some odd way this may be my most important contribution to the university, certainly in terms of helping the university overall strengthen its faculty. I also helped change the culture of the university in terms opening the doors for a more diverse faculty.

Zierler:

But had you stayed longer—you felt like you were really turning a corner. It really would have gotten to where you wanted it to go?

Birgeneau:

Yes. I was just turning the corner, and the presidency was finally starting to become satisfying. It was such a struggle up to that point. Partly, it was my own learning curve, of course. But partly it was just figuring out what I needed to do in order to carry out why I was hired as the President in the first place. For that reason, when I was called up by the search committee at Berkeley, I declined to be a candidate. Plus, my physics research at Toronto was also going well. In particular, the collaboration with Chalk River was working well and our highly speculative idea of studying liquid crystals embedded in gels actually worked. In addition, I was attracting some of the best of the graduate students. So everything seemed fine. However, back in California, for whatever reason, the search process for the next Chancellor of Berkeley was not working.

Birgeneau:

Identifying people who can manage the complicated politics of Berkeley and have appropriately high academic standing simultaneously, turns out not to be easy.

Zierler:

It's another short list you were on.

Birgeneau:

It's another short list. Well said, except that I had refused to be on the short list. The then-chancellor, Bob [Robert] Berdahl, was quite definite that he wanted to step down. He was definitely going to leave his position no matter what. I encountered Berdahl at an AAU meeting in April, a month before the Berkeley Chancellor search committee process had to name his replacement. Bob happened to be in the breakfast room by himself and asked me to join him. He ended up practically begging me to be a candidate. This is already not a good sign, right? [laughter]

Zierler:

Right.

Birgeneau:

If someone is begging you to be a candidate for their job, you know that there is a problem. That's literally true.

Zierler:

Was he honest with you about the problems that he was facing?

Birgeneau:

Yes. Well, I knew it already. Managing Toronto was challenging enough. Berkeley has this whole radical politics side to it. I knew that Berkeley would be Toronto plus radical politics. At the same time, Berkeley competes one-on-one with MIT and Harvard on a starvation budget; this makes the leadership position at Berkeley unusually challenging. At the same time, Berkeley is the only public university in the United States that truly has a faculty equal to those of the very best privates and it has an outstanding physics department.

In any case, I listened to Bob Berdahl and then proceeded to discuss it with my wife who was not happy with the idea of leaving Toronto after just four years. In addition, her ninety-four year old mother was a Toronto resident and she was reluctant to leave her as well. The deadline for the search committee was a Friday morning in the middle of May. On Wednesday night, two days before the deadline, my phone rang, and it was my longtime friend, Bob Dynes. I had not been part of the search process at all up to that point. A search committee will normally take a year, researching people carefully. This is certainly true for the presidencies of Harvard or MIT; it can be an endless process. I explained to Bob why I had refused to be a candidate. He said two things, both of which were quite perceptive. He said, "You think that you are changing the academic culture in Canada, but you cannot change cultures. The minute that you leave, it is just going to revert." He said, "You're fooling yourself if you think you are making progress." Fortunately, that was not quite right but it had enough truth in it that it was upsetting. Remember, he was from Southern Ontario so he understood Canadian culture well.

The second thing that he said is, "This may well be the best possibility, in terms of the caliber of the institution, that you are going to have, if you are ever going to leave Toronto". He went on to say, "Given your age, certainly at Berkeley this opportunity is never going to come again. We are going to hire someone, and then the next time around you are going to be too old." So I thought about that and said, “I am not willing to be a candidate, but I will come and talk to the committee."

Zierler:

That was your game plan? You were really not ready to accept the job. You were willing to talk to them.

Birgeneau:

Well, yes and no. Those are the words that I said. I will tell you how it evolved though I cannot tell you what I really thought deep in my psyche. I then told my associate chancellor, Beata Fitzpatrick, that she was sworn to secrecy. I was going to take a plane the next day to San Francisco. They were doing the interviews at SFO airport. Beata could not tell anybody, of course, because this would have been a disaster with the way the press criticized me all of the time. They resented my focus on equity and inclusion and they disliked the fact that I suggested that the University of Toronto was not the best university in the world. Even worse, I had come from the US and therefore must have lost my Canadian soul. They were unrelenting. I should mention that they also resented the fact that I was the first and only practicing Catholic to be President of the University of Toronto. There was still intense anti-Catholicism in Toronto. (As an aside, I might note that the University of California, in its entire history, with more than a hundred chancellors and presidents, has had only two practicing Catholics in those positions, myself and Karl Pister at UC Santa Cruz. That's a whole separate story, which I will not dwell on here.)

During the Thursday afternoon, I went on-line and printed out whatever I could find about Berkeley. I took a pile of paper material to read on the plane while flying to San Francisco. Interestingly, not long before this, I was on the shortlist to be president of MIT. A few weeks earlier, I had gone through the interview process at MIT and it was a disaster. By then, I had become committed to public higher education. Toronto, in that sense, was transformational for me. First of all, I already had been giving increasing importance to issues of social justice, most especially in equity and inclusion. However, at Toronto, I began to understand the essential role that public universities play in society. When you ask people about great American universities, they invariably tell you about Yale and Harvard and Stanford, et cetera. By then I had come to understand that those are boutique places largely educating the elites in society. The institutions that really matter in American higher education are Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio State, Texas, Minnesota etc. etc. because that is where the vast majority of high quality students from all kinds of backgrounds are educated. So I had come to appreciate the importance of having world-class public research universities that educate large numbers of people.

Zierler:

Because the social impact, there's just no comparison.

Birgeneau:

There's no comparison, correct. I changed my thinking about what universities should be doing and what I wanted to do in a university. When I interviewed for the MIT presidency, I knew in advance that because of the corporate structure I was not going to be a serious candidate. Nevertheless, they had to interview me because I was president of a major university and had been a successful and impactful dean of science at MIT. In my opening statement to the search committee, I explained how, if I was president, I would change MIT to make it more socially relevant if I was President.

Zierler:

Did not go over well?

Birgeneau:

Hah! You can imagine. This was one of my more interesting life experiences because the interview was supposed to last two hours and we were still going at almost three hours.

Zierler:

But these are your former colleagues. They know you.

Birgeneau:

Yes, but they did not get it. MIT is very insular. I knew, walking out of that interview, that MIT and I were going in different directions. I had told them exactly what I thought. In retrospect, I believe that MIT would be better off if it had hired me, given what has happened recently with Jeffery Epstein and his penumbra. If I was president, the scandal surrounding Epstein never would have happened because I would have changed the culture, or, alternatively, they would have fired me. In any case, MIT did not hire me back.

A few weeks later, I flew to California for the “conversation” with the Berkeley Chancellor search committee. The committee had scheduled me as the first interviewee at eight in the morning. The interviews took place at a hotel by SFO airport. I walked into the interview room and we went through the usual introductions. Bob Dynes seemed to be in charge of the meeting. The search consultant, Alberto Pimentel, who had talked to me the year before about the UC presidency was also there. We started the conversation, and in my opening statement I talked about my vision of what a public research university should be, its role in society, et cetera. The experience could not have been more different than my MIT interview. I mean, they just loved it. This was Berkeley. They loved it. After I was an hour into the interview, one of the faculty members on the committee, Bill Lester, who was a distinguished African American theoretical chemist turned to the group and said, "These are not just words. He really means it; if he comes to Berkeley, things will change."

Zierler:

It's conviction.

Birgeneau:

"So you better understand what you are doing if you hire this person."

Zierler:

He means it.

Birgeneau:

He means it. It is not just words. I have hired more than a hundred people in my administrative career who have told me about their commitment to diversity. In my experience, only about ten percent actually mean it." This happened after about an hour. I thought to myself that the interview had started well, I liked what Lester had to say, and thought that I had an ally on the search committee. We talked briefly after that and then, suddenly, the chair, an alumnus, Dick Barker, said, "Thank you." I was shocked, wondering what had just happened.

The members of the committee, except for Dynes, had never met me in my life, I had not been part of the search process and after an hour and a quarter they simply cut me off. I thought that I was not what they were looking for and that I must have just misread the committee. Meanwhile, Mary Catherine had flown from Toronto to Boston as we had kept our house in a suburb of Boston. It was 9:15 AM and there I was sitting in a hotel at SFO with the interview just ended. I knew that there was an 11 AM United flight to Boston, so I did an immediate pivot, checked out of the hotel on the spot, and caught the flight to Boston. I also called Hertz to reserve a Hertz rental car at Logan Airport. Of course, I called Mary Catherine, letting her know that I was coming to Boston that evening. I told her that I had this strange interview, which ended abruptly. I thought that it had gone well but I guess I had read it incorrectly. I landed in Boston at about 7:30 at night, and proceeded to board the Hertz bus.

The bus was moving along and suddenly my cell phone rang; it was Alberto Pimentel, the search consultant, calling me. I thought that he was calling to thank me for coming and to proceed with the usual comments that one receives after an unsuccessful interview. Instead, Alberto said something which I couldn't understand and which did not make sense. He seemed to be telling me that I was being offered the position of Chancellor of Berkeley. I then asked him to repeat himself as I could not make out what he was saying with all the Hertz bus background noise. Again, I could not believe what I heard so then, Alberto repeated it for the third time and this time it was clear to me what was happening.

Zierler:

What can you possibly have to tell me right now?

Birgeneau:

I told him that I had not been to the campus in the context of this search, that the committee knew essentially nothing about me, and that they saw me for an hour and a quarter and then cut me off."

Zierler:

What's there to talk about?

Birgeneau:

This did not make sense to me. However, he proceeded to reemphasize to me that I was being offered o the chancellorship of Berkeley. As I had by then arrived at the Hertz office, I told Alberto that I would sign off and talk to him the next day. I then got in my rental car and drove onto the Mass Pike with my head swirling.

Zierler:

And you had no inkling of this at the end of the interview?

Birgeneau:

I felt that I had connected with the committee in a way that I had not with the MIT presidential search committee, but that is not a surprise, given Berkeley's politics. But after being cut off after an hour and a quarter, I thought that the committee chair must have decided that this was enough and it was done.

Zierler:

But really, it's like, they didn't need to hear anymore. You're their guy.

Birgeneau:

That turned out to be the case. This was the allotted time for each candidate and they simply did not tell me. Normally, if you are seeing someone for the first time, you would want to know more than you can learn in an hour and a quarter. You might think, for example, that they would like to meet my wife. In any case, I took the ramp onto on the Mass Pike, picked up my cell phone, and called my wife. My very first words were, "Guess what? We are moving to California." I just knew in my gut that I was going to go to Berkeley.

Not surprisingly, she was upset, to say the least, about this. But she is a loyal wife; I am very fortunate in that regard. Also, she is very sophisticated socially, which turned out to be invaluable in my service as Chancellor. Of course, I then had to do the usual negotiations with Bob Dynes and his business VP. There were the standard issues with salaries, benefits, pension, et cetera. I asked for a scholarly allowance from Berkeley to support my Toronto postdocs because I did not want them to be abandoned, and for possible future postdocs at Berkeley. But that is all that I requested. I did not ask for a start-up package for my physics research because I decided that I was unlikely to set up a lab. This time, I really was going to ramp down my physics research. I felt that I could not start a research group from scratch again and I was by then sixty-two years old. My thesis advisor stopped doing research in his late fifties which is typical for experimental physicists. I thought to myself, I had a good career as an experimentalist and leading Berkeley was going to be a full time job. Unfortunately, the Berkeley offer leaked and the press found out. They were vicious beyond belief. My older sister was furious at the editors of all the major Toronto newspapers.

Zierler:

I figured they'd be—with all the negative coverage, I thought they'd be happy to see you go.

Birgeneau:

Interestingly, the people who were most unhappy to see me go were the union leaders. They liked me, because I treated them with respect. If you talk to faculty at Toronto, they are now typically quite positive, partly because of my success at Berkeley.

I accepted the Berkeley position and came here on Sept 12, 2004. As I said, I did not think that I was going to have a significant physics research program except for the carryover from Toronto. I thought that this was going to be the end of my physics research career. However, I should have understood myself better. After I had been here at Berkeley for less than a year, I realized I was not going to survive psychologically as Chancellor if I did not have a research program in physics.

Zierler:

Personally, you mean.

Birgeneau:

Yes, personally. I wasn't going to survive psychologically.

Zierler:

And what year did you come to Berkeley? What year was that?

Birgeneau:

2004. So by 2005, I became self-aware enough; in retrospect, I should have realized this right at the beginning.

Zierler:

You needed physics.

Birgeneau:

I needed physics; doing research in physics is just so deep in me that I was not going to be an effective chancellor unless I had a physics research program. However, I soon realized that I had a problem. The problem was that I could not ask the chancellor for a startup package because I was the chancellor. I could not ask the provost because the provost reported to me, etc. so I had to figure out what to do? You probably know the name Pat Dehmer.

Zierler:

Sure.

Birgeneau:

I had done an incredible amount of public service for DOE, including chairing the Synchrotron Committee, which was critical for the Department of Energy--the much heralded Birgeneau-Shen report. I literally picked up the phone and called Pat Dehmer, who was then the associate director of Basic Energy Sciences. I explained my situation to her and said, "Pat, you know, I'm stuck. I know that it is an odd situation to have the Chancellor of Berkeley calling you and saying that he's stuck and wants to start doing physics again in your domain. Do you have any suggestions?" She immediately responded, "You do not need to write a formal proposal. I will send you a quarter of a million dollars through LBL immediately to get you started."

Zierler:

Wow.

Birgeneau:

It was unbelievable. I love Pat Dehmer. I loved her before, but even more so afterwards. She did indeed send the funds through LBL. This was illustrative of the great benefit of having LBL tightly coupled to the campus. So now I had enough funds to get started. The next step was quite fortuitous. One of the early receptions that I hosted at the university was for minority students and there I met a young physicist by the name of Byron Freelon. Byron was an adviser for our Black undergraduates and he was just finishing up a postdoc at LBL. We were standing in the back garden in the chancellor's residence and he came over to me and said, "I heard a rumor that you want to start up a physics program. My postdoc at LBL has just ended, and I am available." So I said, "Good, let’s talk." I liked him and I was able to figure out quickly that he was a really good experimental physicist. So then I said, "Great, Byron. Here we go." Since Byron had been a postdoc at LBL and quite savvy, he understood how to work everything at LBL. Further, it turned out that he was an absolute pied piper for students. So, my Berkeley research program was ready to be launched.

The first task was for Byron to set up my lab on campus. Fortunately, I had negotiated a substantial scholarly allowance from Bob Dynes and I had made sure that it would continue indefinitely. Therefore, I was able to hire a second postdoc. I also obtained matching funds for equipment through LBL. So, basically, my research program was launched. Initially, my research program was a direct extension of what I had been doing at Toronto and MIT. I managed to carve out enough time to do research but not truly research that was on the cutting edge although we did do some experiments that were satisfying.

Byron Freelon and I worked together on smectic liquid crystals embedded in gels; this system is a realization of the 3D XY model in a random field. This idealized model had historically been very difficult to study quantitatively in real physical systems in spite of its broad importance. We were able to obtain beautiful data in our liquid crystal-gel system over an order of magnitude in length scale so, this was one genuine success. We also continued research on the copper oxide high Tc problem. By a stroke of good luck, in 2007-08 researchers in Japan and China discovered superconductivity in a completely new class of systems, Fe pnictide and Fe chalcogenide “bad” metals. This was completely unexpected and involve entirely new physics issues. One of my postdocs, Jun Zhao, who was Chinese came to me, and said, "You have me working on the copper oxides. However, back in China, everyone is working on this new class of materials, which are iron based superconductors." Further, he said, "The copper oxide problem," which was unsolved and is still unsolved, "was your generation's problem. Here we have a chance to work on my generation's problem, and I would like to switch." In fact, because of another postdoc, Costel Rotundu, we had already started to work on these new superconductors but after this conversation I decided to reorient my research program completely and focus on these materials. This turned out to be exactly the right thing to do.

Thus, in the middle of my services as chancellor, I launched a research effort on a completely new class of materials. Fortunately, I managed to hire a string of exceptionally talented and hard-working postdocs, many of whom have gone on to excellent faculty positions in the U.S. and China. I might mention that we made this transition in our research program at the same time that I was trying to manage for Berkeley the devastating effects of the state disinvestment in higher education in California. It happens that last August the set of us at Berkeley involved in studying quantum materials had a 3-year review of our joint research programs by DOE. From all the reviewers, the one phrase that was common was “world-leading”. That obviously was not just because of me but my group’s research was an important part of the overall program. Needless to say, I am gratified by that recognition. If I was doing the review myself, I would have said that there were five or six groups that were among the best in the world (us, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Rice and possibly one or two others) and we were among them. If I had not made the switch in research direction, my group would not be described as being among the world leaders.

Birgeneau:

Now I am at the tail end of my career. Ironically, my research funding is the best it is been in a long time.

Zierler:

You're in a happy place.

Birgeneau:

I am in a good place, now. I am not sure that I am ever truly happy. On returning to the regular faculty, I decided that I wanted to do serious undergraduate teaching. The one thing that I never did at MIT was teach one of these mammoth undergraduate core physics courses. I have taught recitation sections in these kinds of courses, but I was never the prime lecturer. Of course, I often taught graduate courses and senior undergraduate courses for physics majors.

I spent a lot of my time as chancellor giving speeches in which I said, "Students should choose to come to Berkeley because here research active faculty teach our core undergraduate courses.” When I came back to the department, I said to myself, I really have to teach undergraduates to set an example. To the total shock of the person in charge of the physics teaching program, I volunteered to teach the sophomore gateway course for engineers, which is thermodynamics and electricity and magnetism. I co-teach this course with Alessandra Lanzara. It is taken by six hundred and sixty students who are split up into three groups of 220. Thus for the last five years, I've been doing serious core course undergraduate teaching.

I have been teaching this in a novel way. In fact, this is probably a good place to finish up. One of the social issues that I discovered when I moved out here to California is the problems that high-tech firms in Silicon Valley have with diversity. Specifically, there is endemic disrespect of women and minority employees by some white male technical employees in firms like Facebook and Google. I soon discovered that the single biggest source of those employees was Berkeley. Alessandra and I discussed this and we concluded that, "We must be doing something wrong. We are teaching basic physics to almost all of our science and engineering majors and then some number of them go off to Silicon Valley and proceed to disrespect their female and minority colleagues."

Zierler:

And that's where they go.

Birgeneau:

Yes, that's where large numbers go. So we decided that we would change sophomore physics to be "physics as a human enterprise." Let me give you one example; since you are a historian, you may know this already, but almost no one else does.

Most of us think that we invented affirmative action in the 20th century. However, this goes all the way back to the 19th century. Johannes van der Waals, of the van der Waals equation of state, was the eldest of ten children. He grew up in a working-class background; specifically, his father was a carpenter. Like other working class students, he went to a school of “advanced primary education” which he finished at age 15. He then became a teacher’s apprentice in an elementary school. Because he went to a school for working class children, he was not allowed to go to university in Holland at that time. Of course, it was not specifically stated that you cannot go to university because he/she is from a working-class family. Rather it was said that a student had to have the prerequisite education in Latin and Greek to attend university. Of course, this option was only available to those from privileged families.

Zierler:

Which was the same as saying—

Birgeneau:

This was a surrogate. This was just straight class discrimination. So van der Waals self-taught himself physics and started doing research on his own. Somehow or other, the minister of science in the Dutch government heard about van der Waals and the minister literally ordered Leiden University to admit him as a student even though he was not qualified because he was not fluent in Greek and Latin. This was the ultimate in affirmative action. Van der Waals passed the qualification exam in physics and mathematics and was admitted directly into the doctoral program. Four years later, he had his Ph.D. and we had the van der Waals equation of state.

I tell the students about this, and say, "van der Waal's grandson, Chris Vanderwal, is a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of California in Irvine. This one act of affirmative action in 1869 by the minister of science in Holland did not just change the life of van der Waals. It changed the lives of his children and his grandchildren. Because of that minister of science, we now have a great chemist whose last name is Vanderwal, here in the UC system."

Zierler:

That's great.

Birgeneau:

Yes. That is the best of the stories, but there are many more of them. In classical thermodynamics and E&M, the major contributors are all white males, so you cannot address issues of race and gender but you can address religion and class. As an example, currently, in the world I live in, especially here at Berkeley, evangelical Christians are not exactly at the top of anyone’s list. However, both Faraday and Maxwell were evangelical Christians. In fact, Maxwell as a graduate student, converted to evangelism and it appears that their evangelism was at the root of their scientific creativity. Boyle of Boyle's law was a theologian. He did research in physics because he felt that it was a religious obligation to understand the universe that God had created.

Clearly, Alessandra and I teach sophomore physics in an unconventional way. As many as half of the students dislike it. They think that we are completely wasting their time. They are the ones who will go to Silicon Valley and mistreat women and minorities. The other half love it. I have been trying to interest physics book publishers to redo core course physics textbooks in this vein.

Zierler:

To insert some humanism in there.

Birgeneau:

To put some humanity into them, because we physicists are not automatons. I do not tell the students about my personal background, but I make it clear to them that no one knows where good scientists and engineers are going to come from.

Zierler:

That's right.

Birgeneau:

If you grew up in a family in which no one had graduated from high school, you inevitably have a certain level of anger because society is not just, I was incredibly lucky because I was picked out by our parish priest when I was 12 but my older brother and sister were not so lucky. My older brother died in his late thirties from a poverty-related affliction and my older sister had an incredibly difficult life for a long time. She eventually made a better life for herself but this required an incredible effort on her part. So, I was very lucky.

During my time period at Bell Labs, I became good friends with one of my physics colleagues who came from a Boston Brahmin family. I always thought that he had a silver spoon in his mouth his entire life. He knew some but not all of the details of my upbringing. One night, we had a dinner party and I was in the kitchen with him. He said to me, totally seriously, “I wish I'd grown up like you. You had to overcome so much to get to where you are. Now you can deal with anything." He further said, "If you had grown up the way I did, where everything just came easily, then each time you faced a new challenge, you would wonder how you were ever going to overcome it."

I later had the complementary interaction with the president of MIT, who also came from a privileged background and whose father was a mathematics professor. In my Yale, Oxford, and MIT years, I never talked about myself at all. All that people knew about me was that I had gone to a private boy’s high school, then to the University of Toronto, Yale and Oxford. I was walking down the hallway near my dean’s office at one point along with the President and he was describing a friend whose background was almost identical to mine. I wondered if he was trying to tell me something. It turned out that he was not. He related some terrible thing that had happened to this person and then said, "In the end, people from these types of backgrounds always fail."

I just kept silent. So that is the perception that many people have. If you come from a nontraditional low income or minority background, in the end, you cannot be successful. So part of my mission in life has been to convince people that the opposite is true.

Zierler:

It's the opposite of that.

Birgeneau:

Yes, but there is a threshold you have to overcome. My mother was literally more excited when I graduated from high school than when I got my PhD from Yale. That's absolutely true. Of course, she could not understand what a PhD from Yale meant, but she did understand clearly what it meant for someone in our family finally to graduate from high school. So, that is my story.

Zierler:

I have one final question for you. What's left? What's left for you as an educator and as a physicist?

Birgeneau:

Well, if I could solve the problem of high temperature superconductivity, I would die a happy person.

Zierler:

OK. Is that within the realm of possibility?

Birgeneau:

Not by me, perhaps not by anybody because the problem is so complicated, especially with these newly discovered iron-based materials. I do believe that if and when it is solved, the answer will be simple and, hopefully, elegant. I adopted this viewpoint from our research on the iron-based materials which are much more complicated in their details than the copper oxides. All the d-electrons play a role and that results in another kind of ordering, known as nematic order. This means that the competing ground states are more elaborate than they are in the copper oxides, but, overall, the phase diagrams look similar. They exhibit superconductivity at very high temperatures. Ironically, this suggests to me that there must a simple answer because increasing complications in the details do not seem to matter. The simple answer has to be connected with the fact that the systems which exhibit high temperature superconductivity all seem to have many competing ground states, one of which is being a high temperature superconductor. An essential part of the physics is the challenge the material has in choosing between those states. This is what these two apparently quite different materials systems have in common. This suggests that there will be an elegant solution as there was for the fractional quantum Hall effect. So far, however, no one has come up with such a solution. Of course, it would be incredible if I did this myself in the same way that Dave Litster and I solved the century-old problem of the nature of the ordering in smectic-B liquid crystals.

Zierler:

So this is not a matter of technological or funding limitations. This is a matter of imagination and thinking.

Birgeneau:

This needs a creative genius. This needs someone who can do what Bob Laughlin did for the quantum Hall effect which is to think differently than everyone else. It is not just a matter of IQ; you have to be intelligent, but that is not enough.

Zierler:

It's beyond that.

Birgeneau:

That's a necessary but not sufficient condition. I believe that this requires a fresh, new insight, of the sort that people like Einstein had so often. I will be very disappointed if there isn't an elegant solution, that is, if the solution is in the details. I believe that, ultimately, physics is elegant, beautiful and simple. That is why people like me do physics. It may turn out that the fact that superconductivity occurs at high temperature is not important but rather what matters is the competing ground states. It may be that organic superconductors, the newly discovered bilayer graphite systems, and heavy fermions superconductors all should be lumped together with the copper oxide and iron-based high temperature superconductors. Then, we would have at least five different superconducting systems that are characterized by competing ground states, two of which exhibit superconductivity at remarkably high temperatures. In my ideal world, the ultimate solution would integrate all five material systems and it would be elegant and beautiful.

Zierler:

And as an educator, what's left for you?

Birgeneau:

As an educator? I am not sure how much longer I can keep teaching this massive undergraduate course. It takes an extraordinary amount of energy and this may be even more so in the era of covid-19. On the research education front, I have been doing well with postdocs. I have had a remarkable string of exceptionally talented postdocs and we have worked well together. I should note that I stopped taking on graduate students because the time commitment is too long, and I think it would not be fair to the graduate student. Postdocs have a shorter time horizon. Every single one of my postdocs wants to go on from my group to a faculty position. Fortunately, I have been doing very well with on that front. As I have said, I have enjoyed my interactions with postdocs. Having a research group composed of postdocs and one or two undergraduate research students is a new style of research for me, and I hope to keep it going as long as possible.

Let me give you one final story which connects my research to my interest in social justice. We did not talk at all about undocumented students. A small group of us, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, myself, and several others played a central role in making it possible for undocumented students to receive state financial aid here in California. I put a large amount of energy into this effort. Incidentally, if you ever want to get hate mail, just come out publicly advocating on behalf of undocumented immigrants. You will receive vile hate mail at a level that you cannot imagine. For me, this was counterbalanced by the pleasure I gained from meeting so many undocumented students and their selfless supporters. Let me now refer back to my research group. One of my former graduate students, Bernhard Keimer highly recommended a phenomenally talented graduate student to me named Alex Frano. I invited Alex to visit Berkeley and to give a research seminar. Within fifteen minutes of meeting him, I knew how special he was and offered him a position as a postdoc in my group on the same day as his visit.

Alex accept my offer on the spot but then he told me that there was a complication, namely that he had been an undocumented Honduran and was banned from working in the United States for 10 years. I decided that I would take my chances and make him a formal office and try to see if we could solve the work permit problem. Alex went back to Berlin where he was doing his research with Keimer and applied for a visa at the US consulate. Of course, nothing happened. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization process is basically a black hole. Then I tried to figure out a strategy to convince the INS people in Berlin to move forward and give Alex a work visa. He had done magnificent experiments as a graduate student on resonant inelastic x-ray scattering, looking at charge density waves in high temperature superconductors. At that time, you could not do that experiment in the United States because Germany had much better instrumentation at their synchrotron facility in Berlin. With help from two lawyers, I wrote a national needs letter explaining that inelastic x-ray scattering was a critical new frontier area of research that was totally undeveloped in the United States, and that we had a unique opportunity to hire one of Europe's experts who happened to have previously been in the U.S.as an undocumented Honduran. We sent this off to the US consulate in Berlin and for months, we heard nothing. By then I was getting to the point where I had to spend the postdoc money. This meant that I was going to have to pull the offer to Alex and apologize. However, a week before I was about to do that, Alex received a call from the US consulate very casually stating that his visa was ready. This is literally what happened.

Zierler:

No communication prior.

Birgeneau:

Nothing. Zero. As I said, the INS is a black hole. Alex then came here to Berkeley and he was just as talented as I had hoped plus he had a great personality. I got him involved in my physics undergraduate course as soon as I could. He was an unbelievable guru to our Chicano and Latino students and our students who were undocumented just flocked to him. Alex is now on the faculty at UC San Diego, has a green card and is married to an American woman whom he had dated when he was in California earlier as an undocumented immigrant. His career is now launched; I understand from my friends at San Diego that he is a guru there as well. Further, he just received a Sloan Fellowship which is awarded to the 20 best young physics faculty in the United States. This may be the best thing that I have done since I stepped down as Chancellor.

Zierler:

And what will his grandchildren and great-grandchildren be because of this?

Birgeneau:

Exactly. One of them could be the President of the United States, hopefully.

Zierler:

There you go.

Birgeneau:

We are going to have a Honduran president of the United States someday.

Zierler:

Dr. Birgeneau, it was an absolute delight spending time with you today. Thank you so much.

Birgeneau:

To conclude, let me tell you about something that happened this afternoon which makes me feel that I got being Chancellor of Berkeley just right. I walked into the washroom on the first floor of Birge, our Physics building here at Berkeley. As I came in, one of the custodians, a middle-aged Chicano whom I had never met, was just walking out. As he got to the door, he turned to me and started to talk. He asked me if I was retiring and I responded, no, I thought that I had a few years left in me. He then went on to say that he and his fellow workers were so sorry when I stepped down as Chancellor and that they missed me. He said that I was a decent person and that I treated everyone with respect. Then he turned to me with his hands together as if he was about to pray, nodded with a smile, and then walked out the door. This meant more to me than many of the awards that I have received throughout my long academic career.

Thank you.