Raymond Orbach

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Department of Energy

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Ray Orbach by David Zierler on May 5 and 13, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44543

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Raymond Orbach, professor of physics emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. Orbach recounts his childhood in Los Angeles, his early interests in chemistry, and his undergraduate experience at Caltech. He discusses his graduate work at Berkeley on integral equations and his research at Bell Labs and at Oxford where he worked on resonance relaxation. Orbach explains his research agenda at UCLA, including his work on magnetic resonance and the antiferromagnetic ground state. He discusses his work as chancellor of UC Riverside and his ability to keep up research while working in administration. Orbach recounts the circumstances leading to him becoming director of science at DOE and his “dual-hatted” work as Undersecretary of Science for DOE. He provides an overview of the state of high energy physics in the early 2000s and the long-term affect of the SSC cancellation. In the final part of the interview, Orbach talks about his research on energy issues at superconducting quantum interference devices at UT. 

Transcript

Zierler:

This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 5th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Raymond L. Orbach. Ray, thank you so much for being with me today.

Orbach:

My pleasure.

Zierler:

To start, can you tell me, on perhaps an emeritus basis or if there’s another affiliation, what is your current title and institutional affiliation?

Orbach:

Well, I'm now retired from the University of Texas at Austin, and this is a retirement, as my wife said, where I have failed retirement three times. Or four.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

And so though I'm not doing any teaching, I still maintain my research program. I have a grant from the Office of Science in the Department of Energy. I have a postdoc now working with me who just got his doctorate under my direction.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Orbach:

And I have a special status, a professorship (Professor-Modified Service), at the university, where I'm allowed to be the principal investigator of a research grant, even though technically I'm fully retired from the university.

Zierler:

Amazing. I don’t know what it is about physicists, but you all just never retire. It just never happens. You just keep going and going and going.

Orbach:

It’s because we're in love with the subject.

Zierler:

That’s right.

Orbach:

It’s something that I've been doing all my life, and the thought to stop doing it is not pleasant. And frankly, I'm going to try to continue as long as I can. I'm not a fool. I understand I'm getting older and probably less original. But as long as I can satisfy myself that I'm doing is significant work, I’d like to continue. Now, this is a competitive world, and whether my work will survive the competition with others remains to be seen.

Zierler:

Well, in this world of social distancing that we all find ourselves in, are you able to keep up pretty well from home?

Orbach:

In fact, very well. We have a machine on campus that we can operate remotely, and so my postdoc is actually running it from his apartment.

Zierler:

Wow. [laugh]

Orbach:

In addition, our library is wonderful, and I can get any journal electronically. They're very responsive. So I just print out what I need here at home. It’s not quite the same as being in my office, but it’s close.

Zierler:

That’s great to hear.

Orbach:

We are now writing up a renewal proposal for the grant, and we're writing a couple of papers. There’s another factor that has entered in, and that has to do with remote visual communications. I have a colleague in Madrid, Spain, who is working with a group in Rome, and we're all together on Skype. We interact on a weekly basis, and we're writing some, I think, fairly important papers together, which use their facilities and their insights at the same time as ours. So we're not only making do; I think actually it’s better than what we had before.

Zierler:

That’s great to hear. So Ray, let’s go right back to the beginning. Tell me about your birthplace and your family background and your early childhood in California.

Orbach:

I was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1934. My parents were born in the United States but my mother’s grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had moved to Binghamton, New York, where my mother was born, and then, like a lot of people, right after the end of the first World War, moved west, to California, in particular to Los Angeles, where my parents met. They were married and I was born a couple years after their marriage. I have a sister, who was born three years after me. And we lived in Hollywood, California, in a house that my parents had bought. I would call us, I guess, slightly lower middle class, but comfortable living.

Zierler:

What was your parents’ profession? How did they fare during the Great Depression?

Orbach:

Not well. That was a very difficult time. My father took jobs where he could. He worked for a dry cleaner, driving around. It was a difficult time for everyone, and especially for my parents. I was just born, and so I didn't really remember the difficulties that he had, but a company that developed at that time hired him as a shipping clerk, and he stayed with that company and in that position for the rest of his working life. It was a difficult one. He had to get up early, drive to work. He worked on the machine floor. He would come back smelling of oil and having to take a shower. But he was dedicated to the family. He supported all of us and never said a word about what he was doing. Just to jump ahead, I spent one summer working at that same company, and he wanted me to work upstairs with the people who didn't get their hands dirty, the engineers and the designers. He wanted his son to have a better life than he had on the floor.

Zierler:

Did he emphasize the importance of getting a good education to you?

Orbach:

He emphasized that, I would say, on an hourly basis.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

There was no question. He had left college in order—I should say he left high school, and never went to college—because of the Depression, and was working in a drug store. And above all, he wanted his children to have an education. To him, getting married was a disaster, because it meant that you had to stop your education, get a job, support your wife and family, and never could really progress. Things of course changed during my lifetime. But at that point in time, that was how he saw the world. And so he kept urging me, and my mother, too, to get good grades and think about education all the way. To them, a bachelor’s degree was the target. Neither of them had gone to college, and so they admired anyone who could get a degree, never even thinking about anything post-graduate.

Zierler:

Now, were you a product of public schools the whole way through, to 12th grade?

Orbach:

All the way through, I was at the public schools. Our children went to public schools. I'm a strong believer in public education. It has its problems along with everything else, but I firmly believe public education is an opportunity for everyone.

Zierler:

Sure. And at what point did you start to distinguish yourself in math and science? In junior high? In high school?

Orbach:

I think it was actually earlier than that. I became fascinated with the natural world. In fact, I started collecting snakes and lizards, wanting to see how they stayed alive, how I could feed them. I became very interested in chemistry. I started a little photo laboratory. My mother went nuts when I brought a rattlesnake home.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

But those days, you could trade rattlesnake for gopher and king snakes. And I liked snakes very much, and so I got into a habit of catching rattlesnakes alive. Because the whole point of their value was their venom. In those days, they didn't have a good antivenom treatment, and so they would milk the rattlesnakes and develop a venom antidote from that. So they were valuable medically, and I started collecting them. And there were a lot of rattlesnakes around in Los Angeles at that time. Then when I went to junior high school, I had a wonderful teacher of algebra. She was tough as nails. But for the first time, I really began to realize the power of mathematics, especially—I know this sounds silly—parallel equations. The fact that you could have an unknown and solve for it, to me that was a revelation. I had no idea one could do that. That was in the ninth grade. And from then on, I really fell in love with science and mathematics, and continued that when I was in high school, and obviously on into college.

Zierler:

Now, why did you choose Caltech?

Orbach:

Well, first of all, I was interested in science, and so I applied primarily to science universities—to MIT and to Caltech. For me, Caltech, though it was a private institution, represented the epitome. Remember, I was a kid [laugh] and I had never left California, and here in Pasadena, a short drive by automobile, was one of the finest universities in the world. And so I applied there, I applied to the University of California, and I applied to MIT. I was admitted to all three, and I got a scholarship to the two privates, MIT and Caltech. And in retrospect, I don’t really know why I chose Caltech. I think it was more comfortable, because it was a short drive from home. It was in California, and I was a California kid. I had an old car that I would repair and work on like other kids did at that time. And so it just felt right. Little did I know what I was getting into. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

My high school was one of the best high schools in Los Angeles—Fairfax High School—but when I went to what they called boot camp at Caltech, the meeting just before the freshman classes began—

Zierler:

Now was boot camp for everybody? That was the whole freshman class went to boot camp?

Orbach:

The whole freshman class went up to Lake Arrowhead, and I heard people talking about things I had never heard of before. They were so advanced in math and physics. I was terrified!

Zierler:

How could that be, if you went to such a good high school?

Orbach:

It was a public high school, and unfortunately in those days, the principal at that time did not believe in—how shall I say?—offering courses that were very advanced but would not be filled. And so there were a group of this—I think there were eight or nine—who petitioned him for a solid geometry course, and he turned us down. And so I didn't have pre-calculus. We went through Algebra II. But all of these other students at Caltech not only had pre-calculus; they had had calculus, and of course they were showing off their knowledge as new freshmen will. So it was a pretty terrifying experience. On top of that, Caltech had very limited quarters for freshmen at that time, and so I had to spend the first quarter of my first year living off campus all by myself. That was a horrendous experiment, because I was unable to talk to anybody. The work that we were given was very tough. I still remember the problems that our physics instructor gave us as being terrifying. [laugh] And in fact, I used them throughout my teaching career, they were so difficult. And I had no one to talk to. And so when I finally got on campus at the end of my first quarter, it was an opening. My grades went from a C+ average to an A average, and I had a wonderful time just in the social environment that college can provide.

Zierler:

When did you declare the major in physics?

Orbach:

You have to remember where I was coming from. Physics at that time really wasn’t part of our ken. My parents had idolized that upper floor that I was talking about, and so that was engineering. And so I started off in electrical engineering. In those days at Caltech, electrical engineering I found fairly boring. That isn’t true anymore, but at that time, it was not really what I was very interested in. And so after the first quarter or two, I switched to chemistry, because I had had a wonderful chemistry teacher in high school, a Mr. Toon. I still remember him and all of the things he enabled me to do. I was playing around with all kinds of experiments after class, and he was patient enough to help me during that period. So I decided to become a chemist. And so I majored in chemistry for the first two years, until I took some chemistry courses and realized that I was color blind. I had no idea! [laugh]

Zierler:

You didn't know you were color blind up until that point?

Orbach:

I didn't know I was color blind. . I remember titrating—apparently it was bright red, but I never saw it, and the instructor sort of lost patience with me. In any case, I had taken by that time two years of physics, and it was the one thing that I couldn't understand. It was the most difficult course that I had run across. I loved the mathematics. I loved the chemistry. It was very well-taught. Linus Pauling taught freshman chemistry. He was a magnificent scientist, but also a wonderful teacher. The whole freshman class started talking like him after his classes. [laugh] And so chemistry to me was very exciting. But physics had a fascination. As I said, it was very hard, and I couldn't quite make out the concepts. I remember when Oppenheimer came to Caltech, Caltech was just in the middle of the explosion of high-energy theory at that time. And he gave one of the most exciting lectures to freshmen that I had ever heard. And so I decided, OK, I needed to change. This did not go over well with the chemistry department, because by that time, I had been getting A-pluses in my scores.

Zierler:

They had high hopes for you, huh?

Orbach:

They had high hopes for me. So I took a plunge. I took a plunge into an area where I wasn’t sure if I could really compete. But I was fascinated by the subject.

Zierler:

Did you feel like the background in chemistry was advantageous for physics?

Orbach:

No, it was really the mathematics that was helpful. But it was the physics courses themselves. We had these incredibly difficult problems [laugh] for a freshman. They're not like the Cambridge Tripos, but they're close. We called them “Strong” problems after the man who put together the problems. They are now one of the volumes in the Feynman series. If you look at that series, there’s a problem book that goes along with it; those are all the Strong problems. And I use them now for graduate students, for freshman classes. They just span a terrific spectrum. And it was those problems and the excitement of solutions that really drove me. I guess it was a sense of discovery. I could do things that suddenly I understood something that I didn't before. That was very exciting. Remember, I was 18 or 19 at that time. And so I decided this would be it. I also knew that I might not succeed. It was a gamble, but I wanted to take it.

Zierler:

Now in terms of your exposure to experimental and theoretical-type physics classes, did you gravitate toward one or the other in any particular way?

Orbach:

Well, I was more towards the theoretical side. But at Caltech, you were required to do a senior thesis. And Professor Leighton, who was an experimentalist in high-energy physics, took me on. We were, in those days, looking at films. You may remember that the first tracks for particle physics were on films, and the little rods of plastic that they would put over the film to act as magnifiers. So I saw them do that every day, and I decided I did not want to do that. However, he asked me if I could figure out a way to enhance the tracks on films. And so I got into solid state physics by looking at conductive layers that were conductive for electricity but allowed you to see through them. And that led me then to looking at solid state physics for ways of finding compounds that would do that. And at that time, the very first volume by Kittel had just come out—a little, thin volume on solid state physics—and I read it like it was the bible. It was so exciting that you could go from atomic structure to functions, the way things actually worked. It was a brilliant document, of course. I think it’s now in the tenth edition. It became the standard for bringing people into condensed matter physics, as we now call it. But at the time, I was entranced by it. And so when it came time to apply for graduate school, guess what? [laugh] I applied to Berkeley, because that’s where Kittel was. Again, I had no idea what a chance I was taking. Because not only did I apply to Berkeley, but there were a lot of others who also admired Kittel and wanted to work with him. And he only—I didn't know that, at that time— took one student a year. So again, in complete ignorance, I decided that was where I wanted to go.

Zierler:

And you became that one student?

Orbach:

And I became that one student.

Zierler:

Wow! Wow. Did you apply anywhere else, or you put all your eggs in Berkeley?

Orbach:

I think I put all my eggs in one basket. I could have applied elsewhere, because I had done very well. I was the highest ranking student in physics at Caltech. I was third overall in the freshman class. So I think I would have been admitted elsewhere. But I really wanted to work with Kittel because of that book. And I remember at that time my girlfriend and I drove up to Berkeley to visit Berkeley and see what it was like—first of all, living away from home, and secondly, what the department was like. And the chairman of the department was wonderful. It was a Saturday morning. I had to go in between classes, and he took me around personally, and that impressed me very much.

Zierler:

Who was the chair back then?

Orbach:

I was afraid you were going to ask that.

Zierler:

[laugh] It’s all right. I can look it up. So this would have been the Fall of 1956, you started?

Orbach:

It would have been the Spring of 1956.

Zierler:

Spring of 1956, OK.

Orbach:

Because I had applied then. And I remember my other instructors. Anyway, he was a wonderful man. And what it told me was that they cared about graduate students.

Zierler:

I've heard that many times over that it makes Berkeley unique in that regard. That graduate students were really valued, there.

Orbach:

And that also impressed me very much. And so I had applied for an NSF pre-doctoral fellowship, which I was lucky enough to get. And so that paid my way. There’s a story, later on, if we want to talk about it. But Berkeley at that time was in a transition period. The fraternities and sororities were moving around, and there was a building that used to be a fraternity house, and they had turned it into an apartment, close to the campus. And my girlfriend and I put the down payment, and we were married that August, and then for our honeymoon, we went up to Lake Tahoe, and then to Berkeley. She had been an undergraduate at UCLA, was halfway through. She had finished her first two years. We had had wonderful times while I was at Caltech and she was at UCLA. She was on rally committee, so I got to go to all the UCLA football games. They were quite different than Caltech football games.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

We played in the Rose Bowl, and there may have been 30 of us in the stands. [laugh] And we had lost every football game—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

over my four years, except one, in my senior year, when we won, which was a cause of major celebration on the campus. Anyway, going to UCLA and see how football was really played was great fun. So we had a lovely romance together, and then of course our marriage. We're still married, and it’s now—that was 1956, so this summer will be our 64th wedding anniversary.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. Now, in terms of the transition from Caltech to Berkeley, obviously your vantage point is very different going from undergraduate to graduate, but I wonder if you had any immediate impressions when you got to Berkeley about how the physics department was different—the kinds of subfields that were sort of most highly regarded, the kinds of professors and the research that they were working on. Did you see any big changes at the structural level between the two departments?

Orbach:

Well, the big structural difference was Lawrence Laboratory. Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory was where the high-energy physics is done. And of course there was nothing like that at Caltech. So you had not only a theory program. And of course Caltech—remember Feynman and Gell-Mann-- was at the very forefront of the field. And indeed at Berkeley you had some very fine theoretical physicists. But you also had an experimental program of Nobel level going on, on the Hill, as we called it. And so the one thing that was different was that many students spent most of their time on the Hill, those in high-energy experiment. But in terms of the emphasis, there really wasn’t much of a difference, except for Kittel, and Kipp, and Portis, and others who were there in the condensed matter area. They had a very powerful program. Kittel was probably one of the leading theorists in the world. Kipp and Portis were superb experimentalists. Mike Tinkham was there at that time. So you had real leaders in condensed matter physics. At that point, Caltech really hadn’t ventured in that field]. In those days, it was primarily high-energyand nuclear physics that they focused on. So when I went to Berkeley, they also had tremendous power in those areas, but they also had condensed matter. When I first arrived, I found out that there was an exam, a qualifying exam that all students were supposed to take. And almost all of them took it in their second year. So they would take graduate courses at Berkeley and be prepared to take the exam. I didn't see any reason not to take the exam as a freshman. [laugh] I was getting in way over my head, but I didn't know it at that time. And of course I had never had a course in optics, and that was one of the topics, so I bought an optics book and read it. And I took the exam almost the first month I was at Berkeley. Little did I know that Kittel used the results of that exam to choose his students. And so the other students who had come in my class to work at Berkeley hadn’t taken the exam, but I had.

Zierler:

So working with Kittel was not already a done deal by the time you got to Berkeley?

Orbach:

By no means. He had many students who wanted to work with him. And I remember going into his office, terrified [laugh] and asking him whether he would accept me as a graduate student. And then he asked me questions about my background and so on, and then said, “Excuse me while I look to see what the results of your qualifying exam was.” I had no idea how I did on the exam, because they hadn’t told us yet. So there I was, sitting in his office. He went to the chair’s office. He looked at the results, I assume, came back and said, “You're on.”

Zierler:

Wow. So I guess you did OK.

Orbach:

So I must have done OK. [laugh] And in those days, he had a very large office next to his office which was where his graduate students lived. And so there was one from each year, so there were four of us. And you rotated around to the big desk when [laugh] it was your time to be the senior graduate student. But I had a desk, and I could work with Kittel. It was my dream.

Zierler:

What were some of the projects that Kittel was working on at that point?

Orbach:

Well, let’s see. This was in ’56, and so he was working on magnetism. The Ruderman-Kittel interaction had already been done. So he was looking at the impact of that. He spent a lot of time writing his books at that point. I remember he would go away for the summer, in this case to Hawaii, where he would focus on new chapters—I should say new editions—of his solid-state book. But also he wrote a book on statistical mechanics which was brilliant, and he used that actually in our courses for stat-mech in graduate school. So that was my first summer after my first year. And I wrote him asking him for a problem to work on. And so he said, “Well, Ray, why don’t you look at the ground state of the antiferromagnet?” Which I knew nothing about. [laugh] And so fine, I wandered in and quickly realized it was impossible. [laugh] The solution or the ground state had only been done in one dimension. And the two- and three-dimensional—there is an exact ground state solution in one dimension—were not to be found. The Ising model had been solved, of course, in two dimensions, but not the Heisenberg model where you had a free spin. And so I was somewhat at sea. But in those days, Berkeley was a hotbed of activity during the summer. I'll never forget—Freeman Dyson used to spend his summers at Berkeley. And so again, being a rather naïve graduate student, but knowing who Dyson was, I walked into his office and said, “I've been told to work on the ground state of the antiferromagnet. Can you help me?”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

And of course he knew all about it. And he said, “Well, why don’t you work on the linear chain?” And he gave me the references to Bethe and Hulthen. And he said, “See if you can absorb that.” And so I went to the literature and figured out that there was a problem that had never been solved, namely where you had anisotropy in the coupling between the spins. And I wondered out loud whether that could be addressed. So I went back to Dyson and I said, “Well, I’d like to try the solution, but with anisotropic exchange.” And he said, “OK, go ahead, and then let me know.” Well, it took me a month of detailed calculations using what we now call the Bethe ansatz to get a secular equation for the anisotropy. And so I went back and talked to Dyson, and I said, “Well, here’s my result. I think it’s the right form for the secular equation.” It didn't mean I had a solution, but at least I had a secular equation. And he said, “Well, let me check it.” And I don’t know. It may have been 30 seconds, 20 seconds. But he went to the blackboard and turned around and said, “Yep, that’s correct.” [laugh]

Zierler:

Wow. Wow.

Orbach:

I mean, he was so bright. And then he said, “Let’s see if I can find a solution for it.” I said, “No, no, no. [laugh] Let me do it.”

Zierler:

You wanted to do it.

Orbach:

[laugh] I wanted to do it. I could see the smile on his face. He clearly knew an analytic form for it. That was my first paper.

Zierler:

Was Dyson just being generous with his time, or would he come to Berkeley in the summers and sort of hang out with graduate students and do this kind of thing?

Orbach:

All of the above. He was very generous with his time. The superconductivity discovery by Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer had just come out. And he was entranced by that—I wouldn't call it a solution—that posit. What they had posited as a solution. And he didn't believe it. And so he was working on an analytic expression. It turned out, of course, that they were quite right. But in those days, there was a lot of skepticism about BCS theory. And so I think that was one of his foci while he was there. But he was wonderful to students. And as I said, I was a first-year student, walking in unannounced to his office, and he was very helpful.

Zierler:

During the regular year, how much of your time was in the labs, and how much was in coursework, for those first years?

Orbach:

Well, the first year was all coursework. But when you say labs, remember I was in the theory program of Kittel. And so almost every morning, there would be a little yellow slip of paper on my desk with an idea that Kittel had. He was so original, and just full of ideas, and he would pass them out to the graduate students to take a look at them. Sometimes I was terrified. I’d find a yellow piece of paper on the desk. But in retrospect, it was very lucky, because subsequently I was able to do a number of calculations based on his little yellow slips of paper.

Zierler:

How did you go about putting your dissertation topic together?

Orbach:

Well, in those days, the dissertations were really a linear combination of your papers. And that didn't turn out to be the case, in my case, for a reason that I'll come to. But my first paper on the anisotropic linear chain, I did numerically. Berkeley had just gotten a brand-new machine from IBM, and it only ran during the day. It was a 701. It was the first one to have symbolic assembly. And I found out that it was so new that people didn't really know how to use it. It was over in the Electrical Engineering department. And so they would start it up at 8:00 in the morning, and turn it off at 5:00 in the evening. And so after my frustration at trying to solve this—it turned out to be an integral equation that was a bear—I asked themif I could use it at night. And so my wife and I would come at 5:00, and it was ours. It filled an entire room, if you can imagine. This laptop probably has more power than that IBM 701 did. But it was the first time that they moved from a digital basis to an octal basis to symbolic assembly. And so I was able to program the integral equation, and we ran it. And in those days, the way you solved it was through iterations. And so for a couple of months, we would come and spend our evenings locked in the computer room until we got a solution. The solution turned out to be quite surprising. And indeed, there were many people who thought it would be quite different. I won’t go into the details now, but it was a very nice paper. And the integral equations came to be called the Orbach integral equation.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Orbach:

It was eventually solved by a theorist at Bell Labs analytically, but my analytic powers were not strong enough at that time to get a solution. So that was the first paper that I published. I published then, with another graduate student, Phil Pincus, a series of papers. And it looked like I had put a pretty good thesis together. And then the disaster happened.

Zierler:

Oh, no.

Orbach:

[laugh] Well, I had been at Berkeley for about three years. And I, because of that first paper and the subsequent ones, felt that—and I think Kittel agreed—that I had done enough for a PhD. I’d just simply put them all together and that would be my thesis. So I went on the grand tour. In those days, the grand tour was Westinghouse Laboratories, GE Laboratories, and Bell Laboratories. And my first stop was Bell Labs, and they were wonderful. They welcomed me in. They had dinner all planned for me. They gave Eva a tour of Murray Hill and that area while I was being interviewed. And then I gave my seminar. And it was a disaster. I just had not the spectrum or the background to really impress those at Bell Labs. To make a long story short, that was the end of the interview. [laugh] There was only one person, Larry Walker, who in fact ended up doing the analytic solution, who took me out to dinner. And when my wife Eva came by, she said she had never seen the look on my face, so desperate and sad, that I had.

Zierler:

So the Bell Labs people were really expecting more from a graduate student?

Orbach:

Yes. And indeed, they had every right to. When I think about it in retrospect, I was pretty green. And I remember the one question was why did I use the Bethe ansatz, why didn't I use the Wannier solution. And I said, “What’s the Wannier solution?” And of course Wannier was there sitting in the audience.

Zierler:

Oh, no. [laugh] So Ray, in terms of the grand tour, was that your trajectory? Was that really what you wanted to do? Were you thinking about pursuing a career in one of the labs, and not necessarily going into academia?

Orbach:

Well, remember in those days, it was academia. Those were pure research labs. You had fabulous laboratories—

Zierler:

Of course. The basic science was unparalleled. But I mean in terms of lifestyle, being a faculty member.

Orbach:

Well, I was a fresh graduate student, a fresh PhD, and so I knew that I wanted to do research before I would attempt a university position. Also, I had applied at that time for an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. Something happened halfway along, and you can guess what it is. Remember, I started in ’56. I got my degree finally in ’60. I'll come back to that. In ’58, something happened: Sputnik went up, and the United States changed. Suddenly, there was money for scientists. I'm sure that when my parents heard that I wanted to do physics, they felt that I would be like an artist. I would end up living off the dole for the rest of my life. They had no idea what a physicist did.

Zierler:

I've heard that so often about the impact of Sputnik. From your perspective, in terms of all of the new funding opportunities and all of the excitement, where do you think that came from? Do you think that came from an international security perspective? A real concern that the Soviets were going to beat the Americans? Was it more like the Soviets showed that this was possible so that we wanted to do it bigger and better? How did you understand how the funding changed as a result of Sputnik?

Orbach:

It was the former. Remember that we had tried—remember Vanguard? You're probably too young to remember.

Zierler:

I know of it.

Orbach:

We had wonderful names for our satellites. They had all failed. And here the Russians, as far as we knew it, the first time they tried, they were able to orbit. I don’t know if you ever saw the October Sky movie?

Zierler:

Yeah, sure.

Orbach:

That was how we regarded Sputnik. It was fantastic. And the United States was frightened, especially on the security side. Namely, we had—it was felt, I think, almost in our bones, that we had fallen behind, that the Soviets had eclipsed us, and there was no way that we would survive unless we caught up and surpassed them.

Zierler:

But isn’t there a basic difference between the scientific competition and the military competition? In other words, how easily does it translate that Sputnik is a success and so therefore, heaven forbid a general nuclear war is clearly going to go on the side of the Soviets. What’s the translation of Sputnik to a military threat?

Orbach:

I don’t think it takes much imagination. Imagine if they had a satellite with a nuclear weapon orbiting the earth that the Soviets controlled. They could drop it, or I guess drop it out of orbit, whenever they chose.

Zierler:

And the concept of a warhead being mounted on a satellite was technically feasible in 1958?

Orbach:

Absolutely. It wasn’t a hydrogen bomb, I don’t think, at that time, but you could do a lot with an atomic weapon. But it was more than that. It was also the display of the rockets, display of their technical competence. They had obviously an incredible scientific program. Landau was still alive when I was a graduate student. Kittel actually spent some time in his office and in his group and came back stunned by what he had seen. The quality and level of theoretical physics was remarkable. We were frightened. And I think that was a general fear that somehow the Soviets had, through their technical and therefore their scientific basis, eclipsed us. It was a frightening time.

Zierler:

Now I wonder, to foreshadow to your later career in the government, if this was the first time that you appreciated the ability, the capacity of the federal government to shape science and science policy based on funding decisions?

Orbach:

To be honest, I probably took it for granted. I didn't really think about a policy orientation. I simply realized that I had opportunities that I wouldn't have had before. The NSF postdoctoral fellowship was an opportunity to do things that I had never thought about before. And it was enough to live on. My wife and I had our first child by then. And so we had had a visitor from Oxford University who was very impressive. Roger Elliott was his name. And Walter Marshall spent the summer. Berkeley during the summer was just an incredible place. People from all over the world came and spent time there. It was a place where a graduate student could just really see the excitement of discovery and be there with people who were doing it. So I wanted to be part of that. And I had tried for a Rhodes scholarship when I was at Caltech, and I hadn’t made it, but they [laugh] were very sweet, and when I had the final interview, they said, “You will end up at Oxford one way or another.”

Zierler:

[laugh] That’s nice.

Orbach:

And sure enough, I decided that I’d like to go to Oxford to work with Roger Elliott, and I had the fellowship, and so off we went. Remember, all of my life I had spent in California, and suddenly there we were in Oxford. Also, Berkeley and Oxford in those days were very different institutions. Berkeley, as I described it, was just a cauldron of ideas and discovery and excitement and pressure to get things done. Oxford was a much more [laugh] casual environment. By no means the lesser of the two, but a completely different environment. And that was very helpful for me, just to slow down and start to think about [laugh] what it was that I was doing. So we were very fortunate. We had a house. We ended up—I should say that after my Bell Labs experience, of course Kittel heard about it. He was from Bell Labs. And so when I got back to Berkeley, he said, “Ray, you're not done yet. You better start learning some solid state physics.” And so he gave me another problem having to do with paramagnetic relaxation, and I worked on that. And it was essentially a second thesis. I spent about a year and a half. Remember, I had been ready to graduate after three years, and now it was four years, and that year was spent on that. Well, that turned out to be a wonderful background. As usual, Kittel picked a very helpful problem, and that was what I was armed with when I went to Oxford. And we did some important things there. But it was really based on the ideas that Kittel had given me to redo my thesis. [laugh] Or I should say, to write the thesis. So instead of cobbling together the papers I had written that I did, but also a huge section on paramagnetic relaxation and the relationship between magnetic moments and the lattice in which they are embedded. So that was my farewell to Berkeley. We left in January and arrived in Oxford in January. I won’t describe the crossing of the ship. [laugh] But it was—cold. And we moved into a house—I had never seen a lump of coal before. We had a coal-fired fireplace. And so I took one piece of coal and put it in the fireplace, and took a match, and nothing happened.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

It was a very cold winter for us. But we learned, and we survived quite well.

Zierler:

What was your game plan in Oxford? Did you want to refine the latter project that you were working on at Berkeley?

Orbach:

Not really. I came to Oxford with a fairly blank slate. This was an opportunity, as I said, to be a postdoctoral fellow, and open up, and see new opportunities. And so I was very lucky. Roger Elliott had some close colleagues, and I learned about what they were doing, and was steeped into their calculations. And then at the time, I also—

Zierler:

And what was the program? It was the Department of Physics at Oxford that you were attached to?

Orbach:

No, it was really the Clarendon Laboratory that I was housed in. There was a Department of Physics, but the condensed matter physics was all done at the Clarendon. The physics department was primarily high-energy physics. That’s all changed now, but in those days, that was where the condensed matter work was done. Roger, of course, was a very eminent, very powerful theorist. And on the other hand, they also had a huge experimental problem. Nicholas Kurti, others that are more—they were from the war period; they were refugees—had started some very important work. And so there was a man named Arthur Cooke who had a laboratory and a new faculty member there, a new lecturer named Werner Wolf], that was doing work in a laboratory, and another postdoc from the United States. So I kind of gravitated into that laboratory just to find out what they were doing. And it turned out that they were looking at ways of cooling. In those days, you had demagnetization methods for getting to low temperatures, and they were looking at various rare earths to see if they could perform in such a function. And one of them was cerium ethyl sulfate. That will mean nothing to you, but it was one of the examples they were looking at. And they were looking at this relaxation time. Well, that was what I had calculated for my thesis. And they got a bizarre result that I couldn't figure out. And so I worked very closely with them. I did a number of experiments.

At that time, also Robert (Bobby) Berman was doing transport theory, or transport experiments, I should say, on diamond and other materials. And again, that was helpful. I could be helpful, I hoped, because of my background in that area. So it was a nice way of coupling to experiments, where they didn't let me touch [laugh] the apparatus, because I would ruin it, but it was still a wonderful opportunity. To make a long story short, I figured out that the relaxation process for cerium ethyl sulfate involved a virtual excitation to an excited state. We called it a resonance relaxation process. That later became the Orbach process. And it really opened up a whole branch of dynamics for rare earth salts. I always admired the Royal Society, so I decided to see if I could write two long papers on rare earth relaxation for the Royal Society, and they were nice enough to allow me to do it. And those were the two most important papers that emerged from my time at Oxford.

Zierler:

How closely were you working with Roger during that time?

Orbach:

Well, I had hoped to work closely with him, but as I began to work with the experimentalists—I mean, we worked on similar things, but I became more independent, I would say. And that has marked my relationship with these very fine scientists over the years. I've tended to work on my own but listen [laugh] and absorb the wonderful things that they're doing. And so on this particular topic, I was by myself. And I must say at the time we published the first result, I was a bit nervous, because we were sticking our necks out. It was the first time that anyone had done this particular process that explained relaxation. Later on, it turned out to be very important for a whole spectrum of rare earth materials, and in fact, very important for rare earth lasers, because the occupancy of the excited state was crucial to their operation, and this played a fundamental role in that process. So it became very important.

Zierler:

Did you see at this time any potential industrial value to this research?

Orbach:

No. And I've never had a patent. [laugh] So I'm afraid I'm not very good at industrial applications. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh] OK. Now Oxford, was that meant to be a one-year program, going on?

Orbach:

The NSF was a one-year postdoctoral fellowship, and I applied for renewal, and they were nice enough to give me a second year. So I had two years. However, about halfway through, Harvard offered me an assistant professorship. And remember, I was from California, and so I had never been out of the state in the United States, and I thought it would be wonderful to try it.

Zierler:

And this was unsolicited, Harvard reached out to you?

Orbach:

I don’t remember. I think so. There were a lot of contacts back and forth, between Bloembergen and others at Harvard. And to be honest with you, I don’t remember exactly how it developed. I think I expressed interest in it when I was approached, but I don’t remember. Anyway, I ended up there in February of the second year.

Zierler:

So you cut short your second year to start at Harvard?

Orbach:

I cut short my second year and then spent a couple of years at Harvard. I was an assistant professor at Harvard, and in those days, assistant professors—well, they didn't last long. [laugh] And they tended to hire from outside. I knew all that. I knew that that was in the cards. But that was fine. That was an experience just to be at Harvard.

Zierler:

Meaning that your prospects to achieve tenure at Harvard were low. You recognized that from the beginning.

Orbach:

From the beginning. On the other hand, I hoped, as anyone would. And then I received an offer from UCLA, and this was about halfway through. At that point, Van Vleck was still alive and very active at Harvard. He was in the physics department. I was in the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics. In those days, solid state physics, with a few exceptions, was not regarded as part of physics. It was high-energy and nuclear. And so nowadays it’s simply untrue. They have a wonderful solid state program in their physics department .

Zierler:

Did you see that as a bureaucratic decision, or was there some hierarchical considerations baked into that layout?

Orbach:

I expect the latter. And high-energy physicists were pretty cocky—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

—and really regarded their field as the essence of importance. That was from the perspective of somebody in solid state, probably unfair, but nevertheless it was my perspective. [unrelated conversation]

Zierler:

We were talking about the hierarchy at Harvard in terms of solid state and high-energy.

Orbach:

Van Vleck was in the physics department, and so it’s not completely true that they were all high-energy. But certainly I felt that I was not part of the department. On the other hand, you had Bloembergen and others in the engineering—well, I think I said the title of it, but I've now forgotten it with this interruption. In any case, I started working with Van Vleck. And the irony was that the problem that we were working on was one that Kittel had written up and published. And Van (as we called him) was not sure whether it was really right. It had to do with yttrium iron garnet—which now is a very popular material—and what happened when you doped it with rare earths. Yttrium itself is non-magnetic, but because it’s yttrium, you can put almost any rare earth into it. And then the question was, what happens to the relaxation?

Well Van had a different idea, and he and I worked on it. And that was one of the nicest parts about being at Harvard, namely Van Vleck was there, and we got to be very good friends with him and his wife. That was a great experience. The rest of it wasn’t so great. [laugh] They were very nice. I was able to start a laboratory because there had been no work done there on spin lattice relaxation, which I wanted to pursue. To make a long story short, it was not a very happy relationship, for me anyway. And so when UCLA made an offer and I asked Harvard—again, the effrontery; I had been there for a year and a half—to make a decision about me, it was pretty clear what their decision would be. [laugh] And so we packed up and moved west!

Zierler:

Now, you came on to UCLA as an associate, or you continued on as assistant there?

Orbach:

As an associate. As a mid-level associate professor. By that time, I had done a fair amount of work, and the paper with Van Vleck was turning out to be very important, because YIG was—yttrium iron garnet—was the basis for lasers and using rare earths, and the spin lattice relaxation that I had worked on [laugh] turned out to be critical in that system. So I gave an invited paper at the January meeting—the so-called New York meeting—of the American Physical Society, on that work. It was a nice time, but it was time to move on. And at the same time that I was up for consideration, they had hired Henry Ehrenreich from GE, who was a brilliant theorist. And that was just the way they worked, and I understood that. I was part of a very distinguished group that did not get tenure, like Walter Kohn . And of course I would continue to make that point later on. Anyway, we moved to Los Angeles.

Zierler:

Did you feel like you were coming home?

Orbach:

Well, not really. In a sense, I felt almost homeless at that time, because I had been at Oxford, and then at Harvard. I mean, a physicist in those days moved around a lot. I had no idea how long I would be spending at UCLA. But I didn't regard it as home, particularly. The reason I went was that it was very exciting. They were very interested in building up the physics department, especially in condensed matter physics, and I would be part of it.[??]—

Zierler:

Who was the driving force at UCLA behind building up the department?

Orbach:

Well, it was the department itself, but also the administration at that time. UCLA at that time was headed by Franklin Murphy, who really built UCLA up as a counterweight to Berkeley. Within the University of California system in those days—this is back in 1962—Berkeley was preeminent beyond any question, and they frankly were not thrilled having a competitor in Los Angeles, especially in an urban area that was just booming with development at that time. Franklin Murphy really used every lever he had, and he had a lot, in Los Angeles and Southern California and through the regions, to develop UCLA as a major university campus. And so if you asked who was the driving force, I would say it would be he. On the other hand, the physics department also was headed by some wonderful people who wanted to see it developed as well, of course. That’s why they were there.

Zierler:

So you're saying that the physics department was part of this larger trend at UCLA.

Orbach:

Oh, yeah. And in fact, it was regarded as a key element. It had a cyclotron, but in those days, the cyclotron was sort of going out of business. Berkeley had eclipsed it with the Bevatron and so on. And so they had a wonderful background in acoustics with Knudsen. But again, acoustics was not really regarded—that kind of acoustics, architectural acoustics—as part of an exciting program in physics, although he did a terrific job in that. So they were looking to condensed matter physics and also high-energy—the full spectrum—to develop. So because of Franklin Murphy, there were resources available. People were hired of very high quality. And I was part of that buildup at UCLA. Coming across the country was somewhat of an amusing experience. At that point, Ford Motor Company Laboratories was doing some beautiful work. Overhauser was there. They were very good in research. And we wanted to get a car, and I didn't have a car. [laugh] Well, we had a car, but it was dying, in Cambridge, Mass. And so we took the train to Detroit, and the joke was that in order to give a seminar at Ford, I had to buy a Ford.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

So not only did I give the seminar, which was very well-received, on the work that I had done with Van Vleck, but also we got a four-cylinder station wagon, if you can believe it. No, sorry, a six-cylinder. But manual shift, because I couldn't afford automatic—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

—to drive across the country. And again, this was in the very cold spring. So it was quite an experience. By that time, we had three children. We had a crib in the very back for our youngest. But we made it across. And then suddenly we're in the land of sunshine and warmth. And that started my UCLA career.

Zierler:

Did you start taking graduate students from the beginning at UCLA?

Orbach:

Yes. I was an associate professor. I became a full professor very rapidly. And Phillip Pincus and I were basically the beginning of the theory program. We were very fortunate to get Ted Holstein to leave Westinghouse and come to UCLA, so we had a giant amongst us for theory. And then we tried to hire the very best people in the world to come to UCLA. The high-energy program at UCLA was also very good, and so it was a very dynamic time. Remember, however, what that time was. This was 1962, ’63. The Vietnam War was starting to escalate. The tensions within the University of California began to grow. And though I had always assumed that universities would live forever, suddenly you begin to realize how delicate they were, what could happen. And then of course in ’68, you had the riots at Berkeley. The university was shut down. The police came on the campus at UCLA and did some very violent things to students and faculty. I remember at the time looking around the campus and seeing nothing but motorcycles and policemen, and wondering if the university would survive.

Zierler:

How significant were the protests at UCLA in the late ‘60s?

Orbach:

They were very serious. It wasn’t as serious as Berkeley in the sense that we still had a campus. There were no fires or any of the physical damage. But it had a profound influence on the faculty and the students. It was so serious that a friend of mine actually—he turned out to be the ombudsman; at that time, he was one of the clergy on the campus—decided to see if we couldn't put a course together that would take some of the energy of the students and channel it into something useful. Because destroying the university was not useful. Many faculty were burned out by it. We decided to put together a course—and the administration was wonderful—called Science and Society. And we had a number of students coming together. We decided at that time to talk about nuclear weapons, and I had a friend in the political science department, Siro Zappo who taught it with me. And we were trying to get the students interested in things that mattered. So we had a very close relationship with RAND, at that time. I remember these were students who were very upset, and for very good reason. We had a first class meeting and I said, “How many of you would favor unilateral disarmament by the United States immediately? And everybody’s hand went up.

Zierler:

Wow.

Orbach:

And they were so angry, so hurt, by what was happening.

Zierler:

And a little naïve, too, I would have to say, in terms of what would happen with unilateral disarmament.

Orbach:

That’s what we tried to show them. We then had games that we played with the students at RAND. These were the RAND games, so they were very sophisticated. Students were involved in writing papers on disarmament and arms control. It was a time where we were trying to channel the students’ interest into doing something that mattered.

Zierler:

I want to ask, in terms of your expertise as a physicist and your vantage point, how you dealt with the issue of military funding in science, and specifically in physics, and how that particular issue was such a flashpoint for students in the Vietnam era?

Orbach:

Well, to be honest, I welcomed it. Remember that in 1962, the primary funding of research was the Office of Naval Research. They were the funders of basic research, and that model morphed eventually into the National Science Foundation. ONR was fabulous. So was the Air Force—AFOSR.

Zierler:

So clearly you were a beneficiary of this from the Sputnik years. I appreciate that. But I guess my question is, had that changed because of Vietnam? Was it more problematic to welcome military involvement in scientific research on campus? Or you did not see it that way?

Orbach:

I don’t remember that as an issue. It certainly never occurred to me. I loved ONR. They were a fabulous supporting agency. I could defend what I was doing. It was basic research. But it was never brought up by the students. It’s an interesting question. And all of the experience I had with students—and I was very much involved in the student movement at that time—no one ever brought that up. I think in retrospect, now, people may bring that up, but those organizations—DARPA is another example—funded very basic research.

Zierler:

So it was apolitical. It was largely an apolitical enterprise.

Orbach:

As far as I was concerned, it had nothing to do with politics. It had everything to do with scientific discovery. And if our government used it to protect us, so much the better. It never occurred to me [laugh] that it was an issue.

Zierler:

Ray, I want to ask a question that’s sort of broad, like all-encompassing from, say, when you became a full professor in 1966 up until when you became provost at UCLA. And that is, so far, based on all of the projects that you had worked on, and in all of the areas that you had worked on, I’d say it’s kind of hard to pigeonhole you within a particular subfield of physics. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how your identity as a physicist might have changed or solidified over these years, in terms of the kinds of projects that you took on, the collaborators that you worked with, the research endeavors that were most important to you. Were you most involved in the theory, experimental, the applied? How did you see all of these things working out?

Orbach:

Well, I never made a distinction between experiment and theory. I had learned both at Oxford and at Harvard how important experiments were. I was basically a theorist; I don’t pretend to be a very good experimentalist. But I would have an idea, and I wanted to try it out, and I would try and convince experimentalists to do it. But ultimately I felt the only way I could really change things was to have the experiments done myself.

Zierler:

Which is unique, I would say. That’s a very unique approach in terms of being so—I don’t know what the right words is—multidisciplinary, as a single person. Did you see it as doing this in a unique way?

Orbach:

I don’t like the word multidisciplinary, because it tends to stovepipe what people do. The difference in the physics and chemistry, or physics and biology, or—it’s still physics. Whether it’s experiment or theory, the two feed off of one another. If I have any way of describing what I do, or what I have done and what I'm continuing to do, it’s that nexus between experiment and theory. I like to have some control over the experiments, because quite often you'll find, when you're doing theoretical work, that you did the wrong experiment. You really should have done this. And so having a laboratory where I had some say [laugh] in what was being done would enable me to then go on and do that experiment and find out whether the idea was right or not. So I don’t really think of myself as being interdisciplinary. I'm a physicist and I do whatever I need to do in order to get a result. Very recently, I've been doing a lot of work with people who do simulations. And that’s another vehicle for scientific discovery. And there’s no separation between their simulations, the experiment, and the theory. They're all one and the same.

Zierler:

I wonder if you could talk about some research projects during those years that really illustrated your style of being comfortable and working in both realms.

Orbach:

Well, I was very interested in magnetic resonance, and in particular not so much in insulators, but in metals, namely what would happen if you had a magnetic moment in a metal. And because the rare earths preserve their moment, it would be possible to construct a system where you had a paramagnetic impurity in a metal and could do experiments with it, in particular magnetic resonance. And so I built up a magnetic resonance laboratory. We grew our own samples. And I had postdocs and graduate students who would work in the laboratory. At the same time, we were doing theory on what happens when you have a magnetic moment in a metal. Exchange narrowing, the hyperfine interaction. Lots of things that depended on the interaction between the local moment and the conduction electrons. And so that became a kind of hallmark for the first almost half-decade of my work at UCLA, almost a decade, where we started looking systematically at what happens to magnetic moments in a metal. It has turned out to be a huge field. The Kondo effect has changed things. But at that time, it was the first time that people had really tried to understand what happens microscopically. And by virtue of the experiments—and again I had my own laboratory, and I could work with them—I remember we did some things that suddenly opened up new areas—it was an opportunity to explore a region that hadn’t been looked at. And so that’s an example of your having to grow the crystals, you have to measure the crystals, you have to be able to figure out what’s going on using all of the tools that you had theoretically. So it was a morph of all of those things together. And I think it was fairly successful.

Zierler:

What about some other projects?

Orbach:

Well, one that I always liked, because it came back to my work at Oxford, was the puzzle of the antiferromagnetic ground state. When people had measured the magnetic moment by looking at the nuclear spin of an antiferromagnet, a bulk three-dimensional antiferromagnet, there was supposed to be a reduction because of zero-point motion. That is, the ground state of the antiferromagnet was not just an Ising system; it fluctuated. We knew that from the one-dimensional and two-dimensional solutions. And so what happened to it? Why wasn’t it there? Because when people measured it, they found that there was very little evidence for the zero-point motion reducing the magnetization. It was a quantum effort, and it was really a puzzling topic. And a theoretical graduate student and I, simultaneously with people at Oxford that I had worked with, actually came up with the idea of what we called the super-transferred hyperfine interaction.

It turned out that one magnetic moment affected the nucleus at another magnetic moment. And when you did that calculation, it was not a trivial calculation. But when you did it, you actually could subtract out that effect, and there it was. There was the zero-point motion reduction. And so I still remember that as arising from a very theoretical idea, namely the interaction between a magnetic moment, an anion, and another magnetic moment. We called it the super-transferred hyperfine interaction. Suddenly unraveling the mystery of what happened to the zero-point motion. So that was an example of all of my background [laugh] if you like, sort of coming together and attacking a problem that was really puzzling to everyone up to that point in time. The Oxford group quite independently had come up with precisely the same idea! And we ended up writing a big paper together. So again, the simultaneity of things always impressed me, but that was really impressive. I would say it was a matter of days, in the time difference between them and us.

Zierler:

You must have known you were really on to something given how simultaneous this was going on.

Orbach:

Well, we felt we were up to something, but at first, we were terrified, because we were afraid they had published it already. But then it turned out that it was simultaneous.

Zierler:

I wonder if you could talk about some of your most successful collaborations in terms of graduate students and postdocs during those years.

Orbach:

Well, those were 30 years of research at UCLA, and so there were a lot of postdocs and graduate students. I think it would be unfair to single anyone out in particular. I think one of the things that I liked best of all was the theory work that I did with Sudip Chakraborty. Sudip had come from New York, at SUNY—SUNY on Long Island—and had started a very powerful theory program. One of the issues then was the nuclear relaxation of a magnetic impurity. And I had a pretty good idea of what was required to calculate, but I didn't know how to actually do the calculation. And it was at the March meeting of the American Physical Society, and we were having a drink—a beer after the sessions late at night, and we had all the graduate students [laugh] around us, and Sudip and I started playing with it, and suddenly we realized that his work on many-body theory fit perfectly into what I needed in order to solve that issue. And so the first truly exact solution for the relaxation of nuclei was created in that environment. And that’s a paper I'm very proud of. We went on to get a Phys. Rev. Letter. And an exact solution for relaxation had never been done before. We even corrected some mistake of a factor of two that was there in the literature.

Zierler:

I wonder if you could talk about the circumstances leading to you becoming provost in 1982.

Orbach:

Well, this was an idea, the creation of the provost position, that the then-chancellor, Chuck Young, who was chancellor for 28 years at UCLA, had. The College of Letters and Science included biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. And it was a mess. It had 24,000 students and a thousand faculty, and yet it was headed by a dean, and all of the other programs—the business school and social welfare school and so on—were also headed by deans. But here you had this entity that was really the soul of the university, headed by a dean. And he had come up with the concept of a provost, and that is something that would elevate the College of Letters and Science beyond just another part of the institution. I think in the back of his mind he recognized that in order to increase the quality of the college, something had to be done. And so that was his idea. At the same time, he created a concept of a provost of the medical school. So the dean of the medical school, who’s very powerful, also had a number of programs that could be subsumed under that person’s leadership if he were called provost. And so he created two provosts positions.

Zierler:

So you were the inaugural provost?

Orbach:

Yes.

Zierler:

Had you served as department chair in physics?

Orbach:

Nope.

Zierler:

Did you see that as a leapfrog, in terms of administrative experience?

Orbach:

Well, to be honest with you, I never thought about it. [laugh] When we had the trouble—I call it the troubles, especially the Kent State shootings—I had been—because of that course that we had originated, I was appointed as assistant vice chancellor for academic change. So I was somewhat familiar with the administration. But that position was really one associated with the troubles. And after the troubles had subsided, it became institutionalized, and I didn't want to be part of an institution that would continue to offer those courses, so I stepped down. I was still a physicist. I was doing physics all the time that I was in the administration. And I was interviewed for the provost position, and I guess the interview went well. Because of that experience and also the fact that I was fairly prominent on the campus suggested that I might be a candidate. And they had interviewed me, and as far as I was concerned, that was it. And then we went on sabbatical to Paris. I was the Joliot-Curie Professor in Paris at a wonderful little college, the École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la Ville de Paris. That’s a long name. And Pierre-Gilles de Gennes was head of it. And of course I knew de Gennes, and he had invited me for a year. I then found out when we were there that I had been nominated by the committee to the chancellor. The chancellor happened to be in Geneva at that time, so my wife Eva and I flew to Geneva [laugh], had dinner, and he offered me the position.

Zierler:

Had you ever had any misgivings about accepting this position and the impact this might have had on your research and your teaching?

Orbach:

No. Because I fully intended to continue my research and my teaching regardless of what it was I was doing. And that, by the way, has continued, through the provostship and the chancellorship.

Zierler:

Still, though, that’s a tall order, right? To assume all of those responsibilities and to keep up your research and teaching.

Orbach:

I was pretty young. [laugh] It never occurred to me that it might interfere. I was careful with my time, and I wanted—

Zierler:

So how did you make it work? How did you divide your time?

Orbach:

It wasn’t a question of dividing it; it was a question of integrating it. There was no—I didn’t have an hour set aside for this or that. Whenever I could, I was in the lab. I did teach freshman physics, and so that continued, but I only did it once a quarter instead of every quarter. Just to keep my hands in teaching, and also to convince senior faculty that no one was busier than I was, so that they had no excuse not to teach freshmen.

Zierler:

What was your portfolio as provost? Were you essentially like chief academic officer?

Orbach:

Well, provost is more than that. A provost can act for the chancellor; a dean cannot. So I was in charge of the academic personnel process for the whole College of Letters and Science, which is one of the reasons I took it. Remember that Berkeley still felt that it was the preeminent campus, and like any good UCLA faculty member, I wanted to challenge that. And the only way I could do it, at that time, was to become provost and exercise the really powerful role. Not only could the provost act for the chancellor; the provost could also participate in the campus budget process. So I had an idea of where the money was going. And that has also been one of my very important responsibilities, namely budget. I'm a budget person.

Zierler:

Does this mean that you worked with the president of the University of California system, or even the legislature in Sacramento, at any point?

Orbach:

All of the above, but primarily the chancellor of the campus. But I was in Sacramento a lot. I had met—especially when I was chancellor—at Riverside, with the governor. But I was responsible for the health of the core of the campus. And so I would troop along to [laugh] Sacramento whenever we had a visit there, and met with our assemblymen and state senators. One of the things that I did was to elevate the heads of each of those four units that I talked about. Remember, if you have a dean of the college, then who heads the physical sciences? It’s an associate dean. And that was viewed as a part-time activity—and associate dean for the other three as well. And so I asked each of the associate deans to step down, and I had a search, then, for deans—full deans—of each of those programs. That’s a very important distinction, because those are huge units. You're talking about the humanities, the social sciences, physical and life sciences, and to have them subservient to the leaders of the other schools and colleges on the campus would be crazy. They're equal. They have the same responsibilities, frankly bigger responsibilities, given the size of their constituents.

And so we started the search for full deans. And that was a major change in the college, and changed the whole nature of the academic personnel process. Because now the deans were responsible for the quality of each of the departments—for their hires, for their promotions and tenure. They were no different than the deans of the business school or the deans of the architecture school and so on. So that elevated the authority of the College, which is exactly what Chancellor Young had in mind. But then something else happened, and that was I could act for the chancellor. And it meant that I was privileged to not only see the ad hoc committee reports on promotion to tenure, and for that matter all of the faculty advances, but also, I could read the individual letters, the signed letters, and work as a co-equal, in my view, with the committee on academic personnel, which is the faculty committee that would ultimately recommend to the chancellor actions to take.

And so for the first time, the College was responsible for the quality—entirely responsible—for the quality of promotions in the College. And to me, that was critical. The promotion to tenure decide the quality of the institution. Now, there’s something you may not know, but it’s very important for the University of California, and that is, there’s one academic senate. You had at that time nine campuses. Each of the campuses were a division of the academic senate. But it was the same academic senate. And the senate had been delegated responsibility for promotions, for classes, for graduation requirements and so on, by the Regents of the University of California. And that meant that I could use the same standards as Berkeley did for promotion to tenure, because it was the same academic senate. And that was a critical part of my responsibilities. So I read every dossier for promotions to tenure of every case in the entire College of Letters and Science. And the dean would make a recommendation after the department and the ad hoc committee recommendations. And then I would make my recommendations, and the Committee on Academic Personnel (CAP) would make its. And the condition was that I should never overrule the unanimous vote of the faculty. So if the department had recommended promotion, and the ad hoc committee recommended a promotion, and I disagreed, then if the Committee on Academic Personnel recommended promotion, I would lose.

So I spent hours arguing with the Committee on Academic Personnel over individual cases. And I mean literally they were hours. And sometimes they would flip, and sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes they would agree with me. But it became very important control over the quality of our tenure process. And to me, that was a critical issue associated with quality. And then, even when CAP would not come along and I would be overruled, that is, by the faculty, I would meet with the vice chancellor that advised the chancellor on promotions, and argue with him, even though I knew I’d lose. And he was a very fine faculty member from the School of Law, and we would sit there and argue for hours over the quality of the promotion process. [laugh] And the chancellor would come by at 5:00 and see us arguing. He’d come by at 6:00; we were still there. He’d come by at 7:00; we were still there. And then almost always I would lose, because of the condition I had set. And so it went to the chancellor. But I wouldn't quit. I would then go to the chancellor and argue against the action, recognizing it’s the chancellor’s decision. And of course in my view, I was always right. But I was overruled four or five times. That’s not bad, over a ten-year period.

Zierler:

In retrospect, how did UCLA change in these years with regard to your emphasis on promotions and the process that it should play out?

Orbach:

The quality increased immeasurably. And we had departments that were very comfortable that suddenly found themselves uncomfortable, and started—first, they were not very happy with me, but I was provost. Apart from getting me fired, there wasn’t much they could do. I did the best I could explaining to them why I did what I did. And the departments were not uniform. There were people in the department who were not happy with a particular case, and others who were. But it’s hard to vote no on a colleague that you've known for so many years. But there were other voices in the department that agreed with me. I think eventually, overall, the entire personnel process improved as a consequence. I think today—not from my doing, because I'm long gone—I think UCLA ranks quite equal with Berkeley. That was always my desire. Berkeley to me was the campus. Remember in California you have Caltech. You have Stanford. You have Berkeley. [laugh] You've got real competition. And Berkeley and Stanford were always competitive. I'm afraid now with the budget situation, that may not be true anymore, but it certainly was then. And so I regarded then, UCLA, as being comparable to Caltech and Stanford, if only we could. And the core of the university was the College of Letters and Science.

Zierler:

Given the rise in UCLA’s standing, the idea with you becoming chancellor at Riverside—were they looking for you to essentially do the same thing for Riverside that you had done for UCLA?

Orbach:

Yes.

Zierler:

But of course, Riverside would never be in a position—I mean, UCLA, it was always plausible that UCLA could be a balancing pole against Berkeley. But that really was never in the cards for Riverside? Or was it?

Orbach:

Well, that’s a pretty strong standard. I wanted the quality of the faculty and the students at Riverside to be comparable to Berkeley and to UCLA. I have to say that when I was first asked to be chancellor, I said no. Because, frankly, Riverside was not terribly attractive. I was very naïve, and I have to say, foolish, but that was the way I felt, at UCLA. I didn't really want to go to Riverside. And then I was approached by two members of the Board of Regents, and there was no way I could say no.

Zierler:

What was their pitch?

Orbach:

[laugh] Their pitch was that they were having problems at Riverside, that it was not regarded as a University of California campus of quality that UC requires. That may have been a little unfair, a little harsh, but that was how they felt. And the chancellor at that time was not highly regarded. They had had, in retrospect, fairly weak chancellors that hadn’t really done what they should have done. It’s hard to say. There was just an attitude—let me put it that way—about Riverside that I didn't find very conducive. But when you're asked by the Board to do something—and also frankly, it was a challenge—I decided, yes! [laugh] And so I agreed to do it. I remember going to Riverside. They also, I'm afraid, had somewhat of an inferiority complex, because that attitude was made known to them, and you can imagine how they felt, how unfair they felt it was. And here this kid from West L.A. who had a home in the Palisades from UCLA was going to be their chancellor. They were convinced that I would stay in our Palisades home and commute, do a part-time job, because really I didn't have any interest in Riverside. None of that was true, but that was the attitude on campus. So the then-chancellor convened a town meeting of everybody—students, faculty, staff—in the gymnasium. When I came to Riverside, it looked like a community college. It didn't look like a university campus. And so I was somewhat disappointed [laugh] and realized how much work there was to do. But anyway, we had a very lovely introduction from the then-chancellor, and I said what I wanted to say. And then it was open for questions. And the very first question in this packed gymnasium was “Where will you live when you're a chancellor?”

Zierler:

That matters. That’s a big deal.

Orbach:

And I didn't even hesitate, because I had seen what Chuck Young had been able to do living on the UCLA campus. And I always wanted to do that. And so I said, “In the chancellor’s residence, of course.” And the whole place burst into applause. It was at that point that I began to realize the issues that they were facing, the problems that they had with the rest of the system because of that. But it was just a stunning surprise. And from then on, everything went wonderfully. What didn't go wonderfully was that the then-chancellor had a stroke and died before I was to come to Riverside. And so suddenly in the middle of the spring, where we had looked forward to a gradual transition, they needed some leadership, and they needed it then.

Zierler:

When you started at Riverside, were there any strengths there that you could take advantage of, in terms of building up your agenda and your program?

Orbach:

There was plenty of strength, and that was what was so unfair. There was a superb chemistry department, a good physics department, a wonderful humanities program, a good social sciences program. The biology program was very powerful. Remember that it had been an agricultural campus and had a very large agricultural component. And the biological sciences that circulated around agriculture were the best in California, as far as I was concerned. But they were limited by the resources they had available. Some of the facilities were awful, and that was one of the first things that I had to deal with. But it was also a very difficult time. On top of everything, the budget of the state of California was in trouble. And so there were budget cuts all over the state, including the University of California. So we were in real budgetary trouble.

Zierler:

This was at the beginning of your term, though. By the end of your term, it was much better, right? The budgetary environment in California?

Orbach:

California has a way of fluctuating in its budgets. There are good years, and there are bad years. And what I learned from some wise old heads that were actually construction types was that when things are bad, that’s when you invest, that’s when you build, so that when things get good, you've got this source, this resource, to work from. And so even though things were in the tank, I decided this was the time to build. Now, that meant the student body. We had at that time around 7,000 students. UCLA at that time probably had about 30,000. Berkeley certainly was in that same ballpark. Berkeley had decided not to grow bigger than 30,000 in order to maintain its quality. And so 30,000 was a kind of target. That has now been surpassed, but that was in those days the target, and here you had 7,000. So we were too small. We needed a critical mass. We had an engineering college that didn't exist. We had one department in the engineering college, electrical engineering, and a wonderful beginning dean, but with no resources.

So there was a lot of building to do, but the first and most important part was the student body. And so, one of things I did was, first of all, I made the campus look nice. It looked like a mess. We arrived on a Sunday one day—one month—and there were garbage cans that were overflowing. I took pictures—Polaroid pictures—of the garbage cans and pasted them on the door of the vice chancellor for administration. People got the picture. Eva and I would play tennis in the morning, and we’d walk with a plastic sack and pick up garbage as we walked. People noticed. And pretty soon the campus became clean. We ended up changing the position of vice chancellor for administration, brought a wonderful person from Irvine. We started making the changes that were necessary to develop the campus. I also felt a responsibility for our community.

We were in what’s called the Inland Empire. It’s two counties, San Bernardino and Riverside County, and at that time, they were having problems. They were almost impoverished. Crime was very serious. Crime around the university was very serious. You had places that were doing beautifully—Palm Springs and so on—that were all part of the Inland Empire. You had also a very large transplant community of people who had worked in the agricultural area. And they had children, and the children went to the schools, and they weren’t coming to Riverside. In fact, they weren’t going anywhere. And so we put together a program both in English and in Spanish, two little booklets, called “Keys to Your Future.” And we would go to high schools, and sometimes junior high schools, in the Inland Empire, and we would have simultaneous translations into Spanish, and we would have earphones so that the person who was doing the translation wouldn't interrupt the English but the people who spoke only Spanish could hear through the earphones the simultaneous translation. My Spanish wasn’t bad, but I was afraid to actually use it. And then what we recognized was that this was a poor area. The freeways were packed all going into L.A., where the jobs were. And I was famous for saying I knew I’d be successful when the freeway traffic congestion was reversed, and people were coming in to Riverside. That was a long shot, but anyway, that was my mantra.

So we went to these schools, and the last thing they wanted was debt. These were poor people, living from hand to mouth. And they had been taken advantage of, in borrowing and what have you, and they did not want to go into debt. So one of the things we worked on was a package that would take the federal government’s contribution, the parental contribution, and the university’s contribution, and then scale it to income. And so for those in the lowest economic class, their child could graduate in four years without debt. And this was something they had never imagined, because to them—I mean, and then, the tuition was pretty low, but it was still staggering compared to their income. But now their child could come. So the first thing was to convince them, in Spanish, that their child could make it.

The second thing was, I didn't want special action. I wanted their child to be University of California eligible. That’s, again, a very special thing in California—a set of standards, the so-called A through F requirements. I keep saying “we.” [laugh] The university has a set of standards, the A through F requirements, and you have to maintain a grade-point average that puts you in the top 12 and a half percent of the high school graduating class in those A through F classes. And you can imagine what they are. They're English, they're humanities, they're science, and so on. And so I said, “You're in high school. In order to meet the A through F requirements, you have to take Algebra I no later than the eighth grade. Because if you take it in the ninth grade, you won’t be able to take pre-calculus when you're a senior. And if you end up taking it later, you'll never finish with advanced algebra, and you'll have trouble in the A through F.” So these were students who had been streamed. They had been kept out of the college preparatory classes. And I knew that, and they knew that, but they felt powerless to change it. And so I would say to them, “If your child is not taking Algebra 1 by the eighth grade, I want you to go into the office of the head of the school, the principal’s office, and ask why your child is being robbed of a college preparatory education.” Period.

Well, usually the principal was sitting in the back of the audience [laugh] as were some of the teachers. And you could see on their faces—the principal was furious. The teachers, some of them would nod; some of them would look pained. It was clear that there had been streaming, especially in the Inland Empire, in the outer reaches, the areas that were not affluent, which is most of the Inland Empire. So I would go from school to school, as many as they would take me, and bring our two little pamphlets with us, and distribute them. Now, eventually, our enrollment did start to increase. But no budget. And what happened was that the teaching load of the faculty started to increase. And so I met with the faculty—that was part of the game. Remember that in bad times, you invest, and good times, you get the reward. And so I said to the faculty, “Times will get better. But it’s the only way that we can build up our campus, and we're doing it without special action. These students are all UC eligible. Yes, their English skills are not perfect. Yes, they're from poor families. That’s just fine. We're here to take the very best students regardless of background.” Well, the faculty would say, “But we'll never get the students that want to go to Berkeley or UCLA.” And I said, “Fine, but we'll get the best of this cadre. And who knows? They're smart human beings. We'll see.”

And so the faculty were nice enough—this was the academic senate—to go along with this. Well, we had also a wonderful relationship to the community, and my wife Eva played a central role in that. She opened the chancellor’s residence to the community. She was part of the Board of the Ballet. I was part of the Symphony Board. We tried to bring ourselves into sync with both the Riverside and San Bernardino communities as best we could. And as a consequence, these communities would go to Sacramento and meet with their representatives and with the Governor. And so I laid out to the Riverside group—they called it the Monday Morning Group; they met on Wednesday—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

—the Monday Morning Group what the plan was. The plan was just what I said. And so they went to Sacramento. The governor met with them. There were about 30 of us. And the head of the Monday Morning Group pointed out that the university was taking more students than it was getting funding for, and that these students were the lifeblood of the Inland Empire, which was all true. And I remember the governor looking at her. What I didn't see was his wink to his associates. And that year, the budget of the University of California was suddenly increased in the governor’s budget. And we started getting the faculty positions then that would match our student enrollment. It was exactly what the builders said—when things are bad, that’s when you build. And then when things are good, you can bring yourself into sync with the resources.

Zierler:

Sage advice.

Orbach:

And the campus grew. I don’t know, I think it was of the order of ten or twelve thousand when I left. But we had a student body that would justify the buildings that we needed, because the occupancy of the buildings depended on your student body. And so the first building that I wanted to build was a science library. And the main campus library was in terrible shape. It was an old-fashioned library. I wanted a science library. I wanted a library that would be a place where students enjoyed coming. And so we got an architect and we designed this thing, and went then to the University of California offices, and they said, “It’s too big. You haven't got the student body.” And I said, “But they're growing. We will have the student body. Why build a building that’s out of date as soon as it’s finished?” And they said, “Sorry, it’s on the basis of the student body you have.”

Well, I don’t know what happened afterwards. I think our friends in the Monday Morning Group and our legislators in the Inland Empire made a difference, because suddenly it was approved. And the science library, which actually is now named after me, was built. It’s a beautiful place. And I meant it—I participated in the design—to have a place where students would feel welcome. Where there would be rooms where they could talk, but they were sealed so nobody could hear them. They would have access to the stacks. It would be their home. And to this day, it has served precisely that purpose. That’s for the students. Then what about the faculty? The faculty—the chemistry department, which was excellent, had facilities that were so bad they couldn't hire people. Prospective people would come, and they'd look at the laboratory they would be given, and they said, “No way.” So we needed a chemistry building. But we had nothing! [laugh] It was terrible. So how do you build a building when you have no resources? So I went to the Regents and said, “I need a chemistry department. In order to have a chemistry department, I've got to have a building. I want to take the money that you give us for teaching, and use it to pay for the building.” It had never been done before. And in fact—

Zierler:

Were there legal problems?

Orbach:

Well, I had no idea. That is, I wasn’t worried about it. I just wanted the money. [laugh] And I said why, and why we needed a chemistry department of top quality. And so they allowed—it wasn’t a very big expenditure. It was about 14 million, as I recall. But the vice chancellor for administration and myself put what money we could get—because it was a direct increase of teaching load. The only way you could get it was to take money that went for teaching and build a building. But it kickstarted the chemistry department. They were then able to hire people who then became the leaders on the campus in chemistry and it turns out also to be the engineering area. And it was a beautiful building. And so it was the first one that we had to bootstrap the campus for. But mind you, all this was going on in the worst possible economic time. Another problem we had was the budget. Not only was it bad; we didn't have a budget office that I believed. So one day, I was in the red. The next day, I was in the black. And we were able to lure the head of the budget program at UCLA to Riverside, and she was a genius. And more importantly, the system respected her. See, all of this depends on your relationship to the system at large. And so that’s what happened. To make a long story short, UC Riverside now has over 24,000 students. They're shooting for over 40. Remember that number?

Zierler:

Over 30? They want to be bigger than Berkeley and UCLA?

Orbach:

Yep, they may well be. It’s up to the campus and the new chancellor. But they're beautiful buildings. We were able to hire in the entomology area the very best people in the country. I think Riverside now has the best entomology program in the country. That wasn’t true when we started. They were very good, but they didn't have a building. Again, they now have a beautiful building. We brought two really superb people from Michigan State University. Again, commitment on our part. The same thing was true of engineering. We created an engineering college with 20 faculty! And we were visited by ABET, the accrediting agency, and they said, “Twenty faculty, and you're trying to get accreditation?” And I said, “Well, let me show you.” And I pulled out the budget figures, and we had cut the budget for humanities, cut the budget for social sciences, cut the budget for physical sciences, and doubled it for engineering. I said, “That’s the commitment we're making.” To make a long story short, we got the accreditation almost immediately. And now the engineering faculty is close to 100.

Zierler:

Wow.

Orbach:

And beautiful facilities. And we hired a dean from Maryland who was terrific, built up the engineering program. It’s probably one of the strongest programs on campus. Right now, there are two Nobel laureates on the faculty. I think the campus is doing beautifully. And when I go back to it, which I do from time to time, it’s unrecognizable. It’s beautiful.

Zierler:

Now, Ray, during this time as chancellor, were you able to keep up with your physics teaching and research at all?

Orbach:

Absolutely. One of the conditions that I would accept it was that I would have a laboratory, and that also I would have one postdoc position that the university would fund. That was a condition that the Regents met. Also I had my grant at that time, from NSF. And so the combination of the two was enough to build a laboratory. We wanted the deepest, dirtiest, darkest room in the physics building, so we went into the sub-basement, because we had a quantum interference device called—a superconducting quantum interference device called a SQUID that can’t have any background radiation. And so by burying it in the ground, we had shielding. So they were delighted to give us [laugh] this room, with no windows, underneath the ground level. And actually probably the most important work I had done on the system I'm now engrossed in was done during those years. I also taught freshman physics, while I was Chancellor, which was very funny because I had office hours, and they would be in the Chancellor’s office, and students were very nervous about coming into the Chancellor’s office. So I kept up exactly what I did at UCLA. I had a postdoc and some wonderful students, both undergraduate and graduate. One of the interesting things was my first graduate student at Riverside was from a family that had emigrated from Mexico. Not only was he the first one ever to go to college from his family, but he was by far [laugh] the first one ever to go to graduate school, and in physics. And he was a wonderful student, and now he’s at General Atomics in San Diego heading a group. And I was just sorry that I was in Washington and couldn't attend his commencement. But it was just an example of the kind of quality that’s out there amongst everyone, if you're open to their participation.

Zierler:

Ray, I think that’s a good segue to talk about your next adventure in Washington. So I guess my first question there is, when did you—I mean, you're nominated to become director of science in December 2001. And so when do you first get word that you're being considered for this position?

Orbach:

Well, it happened in a rather unusual way. Again, I didn't apply for it. I was walking in the Cosmos Club, it turned out, after having lunch, while I was in Washington, and a group of physicists happened to see me and pointed. And that’s how it started.

Zierler:

What were you in Washington for?

Orbach:

Meeting with my grant administrator. I would come to Washington as often as I could.

Zierler:

So totally—had nothing to do with a possible position in the Bush administration?

Orbach:

Nothing to do with it.

Orbach:

OK. And the Office of Science had been without a director—it’s a presidential appointment, to be confirmed by the Senate. It’s very important. It had a huge budget. But they didn't have a director. They only had an acting director for the first year of the Bush administration. This is Bush 43. And so a group of people got together trying to find somebody. And they saw me, and they knew about my research. I had been nominated for various positions in the University of California during the years, so they knew me. And they said, “Ray, we would like to nominate you for this position.” Or, “—suggest you, for this position.” Well, the person who decides would be the undersecretary. Remember, I was the equivalent of an assistant secretary. And he had not yet been confirmed.

Zierler:

But who was this initial group that made this connection for you?

Orbach:

Oh, goodness. It was the head of the Berkeley lab; Don Langenberg, a friend of mine, Chancellor of the University of Maryland system. I don’t remember all of them, but I knew everyone. They were a rump group that was trying to help the DOE.

Zierler:

So there was a rump group that was essentially tasked by the DOE to—?

Orbach:

No, no, they weren’t tasked by anybody. They just felt that the Office of Science needed somebody.

Zierler:

Ah, I see. I see. So it had been vacant, and absent action from the administration itself, they took it upon themselves to identify a person and then—?

Orbach:

To suggest a person, yes.

Zierler:

And you had no inkling whatsoever either that this group existed or that they had set their sights on you?

Orbach:

That’s correct.

Zierler:

Huh.

Orbach:

And in fact, the only time that they set their sights on me—when we happened to walk by one another. [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh] At the Cosmos Club.

Orbach:

I don’t think they even had my name in consideration. I don’t know. You'd have to ask them. [laugh]

Zierler:

So it didn't even occur to you whatsoever. Like you were happy as chancellor. You were continuing on in that. A life in Washington was like totally off your radar. That was not anything that you were considering.

Orbach:

I didn't even think about it.

Zierler:

Wow. OK.

Orbach:

And then I met with the undersecretary. He had not been confirmed yet. And the one thing you learn is that until you're confirmed, you never do the duties of the office, because the Senate will then assume you're taking it for granted, and you're dead. And so we couldn't meet, technically. What we did was I burst into his office—he didn't know who I was—and fortunately, he was in Washington at the time, and we went down to the grungiest, dirtiest hole that he could find and we had a chat. And I think he liked me, and I liked him. And he then recommended my name to the Secretary of Energy, Secretary Abraham at that time. And this was in the spring of 2001. And I went back to Washington to be interviewed by the Secretary, and I flunked. The Secretary said, “Ray, if you become director of the Office of Science, what is it that you would do?” And I think what he expected me to say was, “Well, I’d do this. I’d do that. I have this plan for the Office.” Instead what I said was honest. I said, “Well, I would talk to people and find out what the issues are, and try to be helpful.”

Zierler:

Not the right answer.

Orbach:

And that wasn’t what I was supposed to say! [laugh]

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

He was very polite, but it wasn’t what I was supposed to say. [laugh] And I had the feeling it wasn’t a very successful interview, but I didn't know. And so I left.

Zierler:

I'm curious—at this point, in those early discussions, were you aware of what this position was? I mean, from your previous work? Did you liaise at all with predecessors? Did you have any idea what institutional and bureaucratic role the director position played in the DOE?

Orbach:

The answer is no. I was a child of NSF. All of my grants had either come from ONR or NSF. I vaguely knew of the Department of Energy. I knew of the laboratories, of course. But I had—the answer was no to all of your questions.

Zierler:

Did you have any idea if it was as a transfer coming from chancellor, was this a lateral move, would this have been a promotion, demotion? Did you think about those issues at all?

Orbach:

No. It never occurred to me that there was a ladder or any hierarchy involved. What did occur to me is that it was a huge responsibility, because it’s a big operation, as I later found out. But I didn't know at the time.

Zierler:

So then what happened after you flunked this interview, which clearly you didn't flunk, in the end?

Orbach:

[laugh]

Zierler:

This wasn’t Bell Labs!

Orbach:

Well, I think they tried to hire some other people. You know, I have no idea. We went to London for our usual summer trip. We own an apartment in London. And the phone rang. This was around the end of August—I remember the dates, because they're important—of 2001. And it was the Secretary, and he said, “Ray, I would like to ask you two questions.” They were very softball questions, which I answered. And he said, “Well, given that, I would like to nominate you as director of the Office of Science.” And I said, “Wonderful, thank you, and yes.” Again, not knowing very much, but by that time, learning a little more. Well, he sent my nomination to the president on September 4th. And you know what happened on September 11th.

Zierler:

Sure do.

Orbach:

So the whole country went into chaos as a consequence of that horrible period. And in the meantime, the president has me as the nominee for this office. Well, the first thing that happens is you're vetted by the FBI. Well, frankly, the FBI had rather more important things to do at that point in time! So nothing happened. I knew that the president had my name, but that was it. And in November, still Chancellor, I got a call from the FBI in the Riverside office to please come and be interviewed, because they needed a background check. They do that before your nomination goes to the Senate. And it’s not a nomination; it’s a request. The Senate has to confirm your request. So I went in. I didn't even know there was an FBI office in Riverside. And the fellow who interviewed me said, right off the beginning, “By the way, my specialty is organized crime, and you have to understand that the people who would normally interview you have a few other things to do.”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

And so he had a list of questions that he would ask. And the first question was, “Have you ever met with a person who is an officer of a foreign government?” And I said, “Of course.” He said, “That’s the wrong answer.” [laugh] He said, “Have you ever traveled behind the Iron Curtain?” I said, “Of course.”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

These are things that you do as a physicist! And so I gave all the wrong answers.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

He was very funny, because he said, “You're making my job very difficult.” And he would write down all the things that I said. And I'm a physicist; that’s what we do in life. We meet with other physicists everywhere, and we have interactions with them, in good countries and in bad countries. So that was the end of that, and I left figuring, well, I probably flunked again. And then in December, I learned that the president had forwarded my nomination to the Senate. And at that point it became public. Remember, none of this is public. And so here I was—I had been at Riverside for ten years, I loved the campus. My wife and I were part of the community. And we were going to leave.

Zierler:

It seems like being nominated in December, after September 11th, that still seems like a pretty fast timeline. I wonder, do you know if there was anybody that was pushing this process along internally?

Orbach:

I don’t know. By that time, the undersecretary, Bob Card had been confirmed. And I suspect he was probably pushing it, but I don’t know the answer.

Zierler:

At what point did you start sharing with colleagues at Riverside that—I mean, it wasn’t a done deal, obviously, for the nominating process, but I assume once it was public, you had to start explaining possible next moves.

Orbach:

Absolutely. The local newspaper was involved. The campus was involved. The faculty, the students. It was not a secret. However, I also indicated that I had to be heard, and that the Senate would decide. Fortunately, I was in Riverside and not in Washington, so there was no way I could be doing the job ahead of confirmation. I went back for a hearing. In those days, the Democrats were the party in power in the Senate, and so Senator Feinstein was the chair of the committee that interviewed me. She was lovely, and—

Zierler:

Had you had any interactions with her before, in your capacity as chancellor?

Orbach:

Only through the agricultural part of the university. Actually, the other senator from California was very interested in agriculture. But I had met with both of them. We had had various dealings with Congress, with the Senate and with the House. You may not ever remember the glassy-winged sharpshooter. [laugh] It’s a strange name for a bug that nearly destroyed the wine industry in California. And because of our entomology program, we were Ground Zero.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Orbach:

It nearly wiped out the industry—the vineyard in Temecula. And there was a danger that it would propagate up through the State. So we found what we called biological control, a little wasp that would eat its larva, and we managed to control the insect. But in the process, I had to meet with the senators. Everybody was concerned about the wine industry in California. And we also got a new facility—again, a new facility—a Biosafety 3. Biosafety is now in everybody’s mind [laugh] but—not a Biosafety 4. That’s beyond us. I didn't want to touch that. But for plants. And so we were able to bring in wasps from around the world who were the natural enemies of this particular pest, and keep them in confinement. It was quite a facility. It was actually the first one in California. And so I had met with them because of those issues. In any case, it was, again, very funny. I had to meet with the members of the Senate committee, so I had a pile of papers and things. And they had no interest in this pile of stuff. They just wanted to ask me questions. So I came to realize—

Zierler:

In terms of preparing for the hearings, did anybody coach you on protocol or things to emphasize or how to manage the process? Or did you essentially just go in cold, and you just relied on your experience?

Orbach:

I had somebody from the Congressional office in DOE. Unfortunately, she didn't give me all the information she should have. But what she did do was to give me the testimony of my predecessor. And so I had the testimony, and so I knew what questions they would start off with. They were technical questions having to do with investments and so on. No, I think frankly I was on my own, more or less.

Zierler:

And in terms of doing your homework for preparing, did you reach out to any of your predecessors? Did you spend time learning the ins and outs of DOE bureaucracy and where the Office of Science fit into the larger picture?

Orbach:

No.

Zierler:

You just went in?

Orbach:

I was as green as you can imagine! [laugh] I had some idea of who my predecessors were, but I never spoke with them. And remember, I wasn’t allowed to do any business, so I couldn't very well come into the Department of Energy and start walking around. The word would get back to the Senate, and I’d be dead. No, I was about as isolated [laugh] as you can get.

Zierler:

How did the hearings go?

Orbach:

Well, the hearing went wonderfully. After all, I had saved the wine industry in California.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

And Riverside—we were the most diverse campus in the University of California, and we had the largest minority population of any campus, and that continues to today. And so there was a wonderful relationship with a local congressman who I still am very good friends with, and the California delegation. So I was then—what they do is they then vote, and I was voted out of committee unanimously. Things were very bipartisan in those days. But then it had to go to the floor. And the hearing was in February, and I had agreed to leave Riverside on March 1st. So I officially retired from the University of California on March 1st. That’s important, because I have to give up any relationship to the University that would be a conflict of interest. So on March 1st, Eva and I and our cat got in our car and started driving across the country. I had no position. [laugh] It was in March, which is still very cold. [laugh] I had not yet been confirmed. We had an apartment in Washington, but no job.

Zierler:

But had you read the tea leaves? Were you at all concerned that you would not be confirmed?

Orbach:

It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be. And so we drove across the country staying in horrible motels. You have no idea how bad the motels are [laugh] in Tennessee and in New Mexico. Anyway, we made it to the outskirts of Virginia when my flip phone rang. And a voice came over and said, “Mr. Secretary.” I said, “No, no, no. No, no, no. I have to be confirmed.” And the voice said, “You were confirmed last night.” I just assumed that one would get confirmed. Now, you can be held for a year or longer, and you're not allowed to work. It’s absolutely horrible. But we were confirmed. So by the time we arrived in Washington, I was confirmed.

Zierler:

Ray, I want to ask you a question that is going to touch both on how the nominating process worked out, and your first impressions on the job. And that is, when we say obviously September 11th affected everything, sometimes that’s an overstatement, but I think in your position, there clearly might have been some areas where there was an impact in terms of what role this director would play in the sort of new policy and whatever you want to call it—the War on Terror, the way that the war in Afghanistan was being prosecuted, the relationship between the Department of Energy and energy security writ large. I wonder if you felt, in any degree, that September 11th and its impact affected the kind of work that you would be doing.

Orbach:

Well, I don’t know if it affected the kind of work I would be doing, but it certainly affected my attitude towards the work. I came to Washington to help science. It was a privilege. It was hard work. But at the time, I felt it was also my contribution to the country. I know that sounds corny, but when you leave something [laugh] and go into this new environment, it has to be for a reason. And I was determined to stay in Washington until I got the job done. But I did not have any direct connection to the War on—attack, and terrorism, or any of the other things. I was very interested in nuclear weapons, because of my experiences way back when I was at UCLA. But the first thing to do was to get the Office of Science organized. Because it had been under an acting director, and very frankly, the way that Washington works is you have a wonderful group of civil servants who work with you, but the real changes that can be made are made through the President’s office, and therefore through the nominees that the President makes for the various positions. And so I had authority over a budget that I think was around three to three and a half billion at that time. And it was my job to represent the President, and through him, the Secretary, and through him, the Undersecretary, in terms of carrying out the administration’s hires, with regard to science. And I was given a carte blanche. We had some battles which I may or may not come to.

But by and large, I had complete freedom to do just what I said. And I did some things that were very controversial at the time, but nevertheless important to do, and that was in the climate area and the biological area. It was important that the Office of Science maintain its role. DOE had itself figured out how to sequence the human genome through use of computers and breaking down the genome into pieces. NIH did not. NIH had this terribly long program that would never have worked. And it was important that the DOE continued to add its expertise—computational biology to that program, even though NIH was eager to take it over, and as you well know, to claim authority in that area. So there were some things that I felt very strongly about. Also in the energy area, it was a time where the era of embargo in 1983 was still fresh in people’s minds. I know it was two decades later, but nevertheless, people were worried about oil and our ability to find a substitute. And so that was something else where I felt very strongly about DOE playing a role.

Zierler:

In terms of the line of communication and the centrality of the office of the President, who would you communicate to in order to get the information that you had and the policies that you wanted to enact into the office of the President?

Orbach:

The Office of Management and Budget. We had a person in that office who represented the President. Now, we were pretty far down the line in a trillion-dollar budget, but that person spoke for the President, and it was important that I understood what their priorities were and that that person understood what mine were, and that we worked together. So the President’s budgetary desires, if you like, are communicated through OMB, and of course also through the Secretary of Energy. Secretary Abraham was wonderful. He let me have complete freedom to do what I felt I needed to do. I think he had confidence in me. But I would spend hours talking to our person in OMB who was responsible for my budget, and we would talk and talk and talk about things that I found important.

Zierler:

Now, this person in OMB, what was this person’s background? Did this person have a scientific background?

Orbach:

Yes, he did, and also a business background. He was superb. And he went on to head up the OMB office for NSF. But we did some very unusual things in those early years, and without his support, it never would have happened. Because you can’t go against OMB. OMB is decisive. Another element that’s decisive is Congress. If you want to do things, you better have a good relationship with Congress, especially with the appropriations subcommittee. So I spent a great deal of time on the Hill, meeting with staff and members of our subcommittee on appropriations. Those two elements really controlled the nature of the programs that we did.

Zierler:

And they both had budgetary implications, both OMB and the Hill.

Orbach:

To say the least! [laugh] Without the appropriations, we had no budget.

Zierler:

No, but how did they work with each other, though? Was there overlap in terms of their authority, in terms of the decisions that they made?

Orbach:

No. At least technically no. Whether they spoke to one another, I don’t know the answer. But the President submits the President’s budget as a request to Congress, and then Congress decides whether to fund the request or not, and to add or subtract as it wishes. And so the first thing you have to do is to support the President’s budget. If you don’t support the President’s budget, you're gone. Another thing that you realize is that you serve at the pleasure of the President, and you can be fired within a minute. And that’s fine. I mean, people that complain about that haven't read what they signed onto. You work at the pleasure of the President. And I knew that. Nevertheless, I felt completely independent in terms of the science. I was never interfered with, with any scientific issue, regardless of what it was, in those seven years that I was—had I been, I would have resigned on the spot.

Zierler:

And that obviously would include, just to state the obvious, climate change and some of the more controversial policies that the Bush administration adopted with regard to climate change?

Orbach:

Well, for example, but I felt that they were reasonable [laugh] actually. But I could do the science that would underpin the policy that the President would enjoin. And also, remember, there’s a science advisor to the president, Jack Marburger at the time, who carries that scientific information into the policy channels. And I was very close with Jack. We also discussed things. We did some really major changes as a consequence of these interactions. When I first met with the Subcommittee on Appropriations, Energy and Water, I met with the Chairman who was called the cardinal. David Hobson, at the time. And he had been around Congress a long time. He was from Ohio, a Congressman. And he looked at me and he said, “Are you one of those types that come“—I've never forgotten this—“that come to Washington, gets confirmed so you have the title, and then leaves?” And I said, “No. [laugh] I came to Washington to do a job, and I can be fired.” He knew that, of course. “But I intend to stay until I've done what I've been able to do.” And he said, “Well, how old are you?” And that was a surprise. I said, “Well, I'm older than you are.” And he said, “No, you're not.” I said, “Oh yes I am.” And it turned out I was, by about four months. He was really peppering me. And then he said, “The trouble with you scientists is—” and I sort of gripped the chair, because whenever that starts, you know what’s coming next “—is you want everything.” And he said, “You never prioritize. And what are we supposed to do in Congress? You don’t like it sometimes when we do, but if you don’t do it, what do you expect?” Perfectly rational question.

Zierler:

When he said you want everything, what did he mean by that?

Orbach:

You want more money for every aspect of physics—high-energy physics, nuclear physics, fusion, biological sciences, computing, all of the above, that the Office of Science controls. Remember the Office of Science is the largest supporter of physical sciences in the United States, so it’s a big deal. And he said, “You want all the money for everything. You never distinguish between one section and another.” And I said—I don’t know why I did it—I said, “OK, if I prioritize across disciplines, will you support me?” I don’t know where those words came from, and in retrospect [laugh] it was astonishing that I asked that question. And for whatever reason, he was caught by surprise and said yes.

Zierler:

Meaning that you were not prepared to prioritize? That was just an on-the-spot kind of response?

Orbach:

Yeah, it never occurred to me to prioritize. And these are all important fields. So then the question was, how do you prioritize? And what I was talking about was large-scale facilities, which they have to approve. And so I went back to the office, and [laugh] my colleagues said, “What did you say?” [laugh] Another thing was that I was not supposed to talk to the Subcommittee on Appropriations. The Chief financial officer (CFO) of the department was supposed to be the formal link between the Department and the Subcommittee. And so I was supposed to talk to our CFO office who would then communicate that to the Subcommittee. It never occurred to me that they would know enough about science to be able to speak authoritatively with the subcommittee, so I went. Well, they found out about it, and were furious. So we agreed from then on that whenever I went, they would have somebody from the CFO’s office with me.

The members of the Subcommittee and especially their staff really liked talking to the scientist, because I could explain why it was we were doing what we're doing. And we had all kinds of ideas about things we would do, and there had to be a scientific rationale, and to have that filtered through somebody who knew no science was not very impressive. So we started something by going directly to the Subcommittee, with always a member of the CFO’s office with us, so they would know what mischief I was creating. When we got back, we started the prioritization. What we agreed to do was to prioritize all of the large-scale facilities of $50 million or more, among all the science disciplines. Now, there are two problems with that. First of all, who are we to make those decisions? And secondly, what about OMB?

Zierler:

Well, when you say “who are we,” who else would make those decisions, if not your office?

Orbach:

The Subcommittee on Appropriations.

Zierler:

And this was an opportunity for you?

Orbach:

Yes. That we had self-created. And we had a lot of work to do if we were going to bring it off. And so we had the Advisory Committees for each of the scientific disciplines, and we asked them—these are people from the field who then advise the Associate Directors of each of those programs—high-energy physics, nuclear, condensed matter (Basic Energy Sciences) and so on. And we had those Advisory Committees, and I said, “I want you to prioritize within your discipline the facilities that you want to build, $50 million or more, and give me a priority list in terms of their scientific impact and their time for building.” That is, some of them haven't been defined yet, and so those are in the out-years. And I wanted that over a 20-year period. Well, each of the Advisory Committees, I have to give them credit, did exactly as they were asked. In the meantime, OMB was appalled, because [laugh] MB—remember, I asked—I acts for the President. 20 years of funding, there was no way they were going to do that.

And I had originally planned it underneath an envelope which was our current budget plus a 4% increase over time, taking into account the fixed cost, and then I would fit into the gap between the fixed costs and the expected personal income increase—that’s where the 4% came from—that gap. So that I would not be prioritizing something that budgetarily was nonsense. But all that meant that OMB had to approve. And so what we finally decided was first of all, it would not be a budgetary plan. And it became known as Facilities for the Future. Secondly, I would have a bar graph which would be colored. The years of greater expenditure would be darker, and those of smaller would be lighter. And I would put for each of the facilities where each of them fell. Now in the meantime I would take the cost, which won’t appear on paper, and figure out how to mix and match. Well, to make a long story short, we did it. I was able to prioritize across disciplinary lines, based on the importance of the science—

Zierler:

How were you making these determinations? Were people lobbying you to say that this given endeavor is more important than that given endeavor? How did you make these determinations yourself?

Orbach:

I just made it. Remember that each of the Advisory Committees had given me their two-dimensional chart of scientific importance and dates. And so I had that information from each of the Advisory Committees, and I sat down at my desk and I made the prioritization. No one lobbied me. If they had, I wouldn't have listened. My job. Well, I then had to do something with this. [laugh] And the Secretary said, “Ray, I've got to make sure that people are supportive of this. I don’t want to put something out there and get bombed.” So again, you work for the Secretary, and it was his decision. So he said, “I want the ten laboratory directors who report to you to agree to this prioritization.” And so we set up a conference call to have all the ten lab directors on the phone and have a conference call about—they knew what the prioritization was and where things would fall. In the meantime, I had a physical exam, and my heart stopped. Fortunately, they got it started, but I was taken immediately into the hospital, into Sibley in Washington. And I'm lying there in the ER with wires all over me, and it’s the time for the conference call.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

And we had worked for a year on this!

Zierler:

Oh no, you took the call. [laugh]

Orbach:

And so I asked the cardiologist, “Can I take conference call?” You’re not allowed to have a phone in the ER. But I said, “Can I take this conference call?” And he looked me and he said, “You Type-A guys!” [laugh] And so I took the conference call flat on my back. I didn't say a word. And I had the phone, and it went on for an hour, discussion back and forth. And finally, they all agreed unanimously to write a letter to the Secretary saying they supported the prioritization. Because in fact it did make sense. Again, being a scientist—

Zierler:

Did you need that letter to present to the secretary?

Orbach:

No, they wrote it themselves.

Zierler:

No, but I'm saying, in order—if you were representing—if it was unanimous, could you have gone to the secretary yourself without that letter, and the same thing could have been achieved? Or was that vital to getting this done?

Orbach:

I don’t know the answer. First of all, I was in no position to [laugh] go to the Secretary. And secondly, it would be much better if it came independently.

Zierler:

What year was this?

Orbach:

This was in 2002.

Zierler:

OK, so right at the beginning.

Orbach:

Sorry, 2003. I'm off by a year. It was one year after the beginning. For example, I had, early on in the first year, 2002, recognized that our computing was falling behind. The Japanese had just come up with the earth simulator, and nothing—nothing—in our arsenal, including the weapons labs, could compete with it. And so I made a major announcement at the RAND Corporation graduation that we were going to go into high-end computing. We had chosen a vector machine. In those days, you had to choose between vector and scalar. And we were going to go big. That meant a facility. Never before had computing within the Office of Science been thought of as a facility. But I knew how expensive it would be, and so one of the top priorities was a high-end computer. So there were things in there that people hadn’t really thought about, in terms of budgetary issues. Well, right at the end of the call, I said, “By the way, I'm calling from the emergency room, full of wires, and thank you very much.” It was quite dramatic, I might add. [laugh] That started it. Eventually, when I got better, the Secretary made an announcement at the National Press Club, and we were on our way. And Congress was as good as its word and supported us within the budgetary framework that we had constructed. By the time I left DOE, our budget was around five billion. I always thought it ought to be roughly the same as NSF for the research area. NSF does a lot more things than research. And it was. And that continues today.

Zierler:

We haven't gotten to Sam Bodman yet. I wonder what your relationship with him was like, and if the fact that he had a scientific background was relevant in terms of how you worked with him.

Orbach:

Oh, it was wonderful. As I said, the two secretaries were very helpful, but Bodman was also a manager. He had run Cabot Chemical, so he knew how to run an organization. And, he was a scientist himself. And so the weapons labs, for example, were his responsibility, obviously, as Secretary. And the Directors of the weapons labs, the three labs, had written a letter for him to send to the president. The Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Defense both write a letter to the president signifying that our nuclear arsenal is safe and secure, and I've forgotten all the other aspects of it. But that’s a letter that his signature on. When he first became Ssecretary, he had 24 hours to write that letter. And the laboratory directors had given him a book about that thick of their run-up to that letter, and also a text of that letter. And he said, “Never again.” He did eventually sign that letter, but he had stayed up all night long reading that background material before he would sign. And so one of the things that he and I did was to take a look at the weapons labs. This especially was true because by that time, I had also been nominated and confirmed as Undersecretary for Science, and an Undersecretary can act for the Secretary. The Under Secretary of science has responsibility for the whole Department of Energy. And yet I was also—they call it double-hatted—the head of the Office of Science. And so I had a budget.

Zierler:

Was that your choice to keep both portfolios? Did you want to do that?

Orbach:

It didn't make any difference to me. Frankly, I enjoyed being the Director, and we had done all kinds of things. We went out to Germantown a lot. I liked very much—I appointed most of the people who at that time were the heads of the various subprograms. And then I asked Pat Dehmer, who was head of the Basic Energy Sciences program, which was at that time a billion-dollar operation, if she would come and try and reorganize the Office of Science. And she did a fabulous job. It was really more of a mom-and-pop shop, but when she came in, she turned it into a real organization. There were many changes that were made. The computers of the DOE were only accessible by people who had DOE grants or contracts. And I remember asking why, and they said, “Because they're DOE’s.” I said, “They're not DOE’s. They're national treasures! Everybody should have a chance.” That was really frowned on. But then because I was the President’s appointee, I said, “Too bad. We're opening it up.”

And not only did we open it up to scientists from around the world on a competitive basis; we also opened it up to industry, because they at that time were beginning to recognize the power of simulations for industrial issues. Boeing for the wing design. Procter & Gamble—this will amuse you—for the design of diapers. That may sound funny to you, but they're very sophisticated in how they're put together. And what we said was, “You have to compete against scientists from everywhere, but if you compete and the reviewing agency gives you priority, then we're going to allow you to use this at no cost.” And then of course I got, “Well, wait a minute, they're going to make a profit from it.” I said, “Yes, but they pay taxes just like everybody else. They have a right.” On top of that, just to make sure it worked, as Director, I took 10% of the machine time for me. And I said, that’s the bargain that we have. I'm going to support computing, but I want to make sure that there are opportunities that we haven't thought of. And sure enough, there were a number of times where right off the cuff, we could make times available and bring people in to use these facilities, but then improve their function enormously. So it was the beginning of what I think now is—I called it actually the third leg of scientific discovery—simulation, experiment, and theory.

Zierler:

I had a few specific questions intramurally at DOE. The first is, what kind of relationship did the Office of Science have with the applied R&D programs and the nuclear security programs? Did you work with those offices and programs directly, ever?

Orbach:

Very much. We weren’t always welcomed, because we were sort of interfering, sometimes. But what I tried to do as Undersecretary was to bring the talents of the scientific community to interface with the applied programs. Some of these applied programs are very serious. The cleanup program, for example, has very complex technical problems. And so for the first time, the last year I was Under Secretary, we actually submitted a joint request of that Program together with the Office of Science as part of the President’s budget. Now I understand that has continued, but we were threatening at first, because each of them had their own background in science, but I wanted to bring the full power of the Office of Science to the applied programs. There was a danger here. And that is that the priorities of the Office of Science could be switched into the applied areas, and that would diminish the basic sciences. So you have to manage it and make sure that doesn't happen. But I think, to be fair, we did a pretty good job, especially Pat, of managing that relationship.

In the nuclear area, I played a pretty direct role. I was not welcomed—and in fact, the first time I went to a laboratory which shall remain nameless, they treated me as somebody off the street, and gave me a dog and pony show. And I went away and said, “That’s terrible way of looking at security of our weapons.” I came back for a second visit and I said that, and they said, “Well, that’s because we didn't really go into detail.” And so they went into detail. I said, “But that’s wrong. I happen to know something about non-linear systems.” And I said, “That’s wrong.” And they said, “Well, we know it’s wrong. [laugh] But this is the way that we can make it understood by people.” I said, “But it’s wrong!” [laugh] And so I then met with the people who actually designed the weapons, who are brilliant people, and we eventually worked with one of them to actually test the reliability of the weapons through computer simulations. And it was rather funny, because I was doing my own calculations at the same time. And somehow, they got word of it, and so I was read in to these top-secret programs, and I was no longer able to communicate with any of the people that I had been talking to, for my calculations. So it was one way to keep me quiet. But it was also a way where I could influence some of the decisions. These are terrible weapons, and their reliability and the danger of terrorists gaining control and doing things is really serious. So it wasn’t a joke, but it was a way that I got involved with that. So in fact, I was read in to some very important programs as a consequence of that.

Zierler:

Now, the creation of the National Nuclear Security Administration was prior to you joining DOE, but it was just prior to that. So I wonder, was there a transition that was still ongoing by the time you got to DOE?

Orbach:

No, it had already happened in detail, and the head of NNSA was equivalent of an undersecretary. However, there hangs a tale. When I went to the various Senate offices before my first confirmation, I went to the staff of Senator Domenici’s office, and met with a wonderful guy who actually became Deputy Secretary of the DOE. And he said, “Well, what do you think about DOE?” And I said, “Well, I thought the creation of NNSA was the stupidest thing they ever did.” And he said, “Oh, that’s interesting. It was my idea.”

Zierler:

[laugh] Oh, dear.

Orbach:

You see what a naïve soul I was?

Zierler:

Why did you have such a strong opinion about the NNSA?

Orbach:

It was the same thing that I felt badly about at NSF, when they created the condensed matter group and broke it apart from the physics program. To me, the science behind our nuclear weapons was terribly important and should be part of the DOE in a systematic and—to the degree it can—open and collaborative fashion. Obviously there’s security issues involved. But I really wanted to bring in some of the very best scientists and the very best science, into conjunction with our nuclear program. I felt that separating it out was antithetical to that relationship, which by the way it has been. Fortunately,they have very fine scientists at the laboratories, the weapons labs, but you know as well as I do, nobody has a corner on all of science, and still in my view, there should be a closer relationship of the nuclear weapons program with the Office of Science. That’s a personal belief—

Zierler:

But as a semi-independent agency, NNSA—certainly there were opportunities for DOE to be involved in what they were doing, and I'm sure you exploited those opportunities.

Orbach:

Indeed. But in some ways, I had to force myself into it. And also, it tended to be just me and one of my colleagues. I really—I don’t know. Maybe I'm naïve, but I would have liked the fabric of the scientific community to be part of the fabric of our nuclear weapons program. Now, as I said, there’s security issues, and that’s not an obvious relationship. Part of it—and you should talk to Clay Sell; he'll tell you much more than I know. But initially there was a danger that the NNSA Program would be shifted to the Department of Defense, and this is because of some of the very unfortunate things that happened at Los Alamos—the Wen Ho Lee business and so on. And it was felt that the DOE wasn’t doing its job. I have different opinions, but that was the attitude out there. And so in order to protect the very important civilian control of the weapons program, Clay Sell and Senator Domenici created this concept within DOE of NNSA. It didn't just pop out; it was there for a reason. And to the degree that it has kept a civilian control of our weapons program, which I think is essential, within the Department of Energy, I think it has been very successful. But there’s a cost, and the cost is its separation, in my view, from the scientific establishment.

Zierler:

Moving a little bit beyond DOE, I'm curious, did you have a working relationship with John Marburger at OSTP?

Orbach:

Very close. I respected him enormously. He spoke to the President so that I was able to find out whether I was off-base or not. Remember that computing initiative I spoke about?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Orbach:

At the time, it wasn’t clear whether the money—and there’s a lot of money—for high-end computing should come from a big central machine or from a collection of computers distributed across the country that all would be coupled together and would solve scientific problems. And there was a clear choice between the two. Nobody had ever thought about latency, obviously [laugh] when they thought about the latter but we had. And so I had to convince the administration, OMB, the Science Advisor, ultimately the President, that big iron was the way to go. And it wasn’t by any means obvious. Britain, for example, went in the direction of distributed computing, and has since realized the errors of its ways. But at the time, it wasn’t clear. Part of that was because there really wasn’t a big computer in the civilian area. All the big computers were at the weapons lab. Now of course we have this huge complex, really, of Oak Ridge and Argonne and Berkeley, each of whom has a very important role to play in high-end computation. Our dream of an exaflop computer, which is about twice the power of your brain, is now coming true. In two or three years, we will have an exaflop machine at Oak Ridge. These are dreams. And the power and the importance of this accomplishments is not to be understated.

Zierler:

I wonder if the fact that Marburger had come from Brookhaven, if you sort of spoke the same language, or you had a similar world view?

Orbach:

Well, not only did he come from Brookhaven, he also came from SUNY Stony Brook, and so there was a very close relationship between the laboratory and the university. And that helped a huge amount. Because he wasn’t just a laboratory person; he was also a scientist from a university, and a very successful one.

Zierler:

Sure. Now, he talked publicly, as I'm sure you know, about Congressional earmarks and the burden that they placed on science programs. I wonder if you felt that same burden in the Office of Science—the issue of earmarks.

Orbach:

Of course. Of course. Because they used us as a vehicle. Congress has no way of funding something. They fund the earmarks through the agencies. So they don’t give us extra money. They say, “You will spend such and such on this particular subject.” I never felt that that was terribly important for our program. For the applied programs, it was quite different. There, you found Congress with very strong limits on what they could do, which is really unfortunate But in the science area, they more or less respected our integrity. There were a couple of conventional earmarks that we expected each year, but by and large, it wasn’t a major issue in science.

Zierler:

The next topic I wanted to discuss was international fusion energy experiment. And the question there is, the Securing America’s Future Energy Act, what did this do with respect to fusion and what did it not do?

Orbach:

Well, it made it possible. That was a very [laugh] important act. You'll recall that I had done the prioritization, and number one, ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, it’s a huge multi-billion-dollar fusion experiment. Now, people ask me, why did I put fusion number one? And I said, “We're an energy agency. That’s our job. And if we're ever going to have an environmentally benign energy source which is unlimited, it’s going to be fusion. If you can think of something else, let me know. But right now, that’s all that I have on my plate.”

Zierler:

Now, were these long-held views you had about civilian nuclear energy? Or were you thinking about these things in a significant way for the first time in this role?

Orbach:

No. When I was at UCLA, the precursor to ITER was—actually, it was called ITER then, too—was under development at UC San Diego. And I was familiar with it and we had a fusion program at UCLA of very high quality. And so I was aware of what they were doing. I wasn’t intimately involved in it, but I knew about fusion and what they were doing and how difficult it was. I knew about General Atomics and the DIII-D concept. And so I was aware of the plans. It ultimately came to nothing, because the United States decided that it had gotten its money’s worth and then dropped out. That was I think in 1998. And so it was kept alive by Japan, at that time Russia, and the European Union. But it was on life support.

Zierler:

Now with regard to the 2002 Snowmass workshop and the sense of priorities within the fusion plasma science community, were they behind ITER? Did they feel like this was a good thing to support? Or did they feel like with regard to domestic work, there was a danger there?

Orbach:

Of course there’s a danger there. Remember I said I went out to each of the committees that advised the programs?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Orbach:

Well, fusion energy had an advisory committee, and that set up the Snowmass meeting, and I wasn’t there. But what I was told was that people came to that meeting with exactly that question, and that at the end of that meeting, it was unanimous for ITER. So what I got in the Office of Science was a unanimous endorsement from that advisory committee for ITER. So it therefore was able to rank along with the top priority of the other areas. Had they not, I couldn't have done that. Now, there was also some other steps that had to be taken for ITER, and that was the National Academy. This was a big deal, and the Academy was approached to pass judgment. And we didn't have much time, because the Snowmass meeting was in July, and we had to—I wanted a Presidential announcement the following January in the President’s budget. But the trouble was that the [laugh]—the Academy takes a long time to do its studies. And so I asked the Academy in September, “Please, can you give me at least an informal up or down on ITER by December?” December is the last time you can affect the President’s budget. Actually not. You can do it in January, but that’s heroic when that happens. The time when you can’t touch the budget is when it goes to the printer, but other than that time, everything is available, except if you don’t want to do it. In any case, I remember the report in December. They were willing to come up with an interim report. And I'm not a sensitive person, but I almost cried. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful, down the line, supporting ITER. So with that support and the Secretary’s support, it found its way into the President’s budget. And so everybody played a role. The Snowmass group, the Academy, and ultimately the President.

Zierler:

What about international negotiations? What kind of a role did you play in the international negotiations?

Orbach:

That was a long and difficult process. The first thing was that we didn't want a treaty. A treaty of the United States takes ten years. And we wanted to build this thing. And so the only other alternative is a presidential agreement. The EU representative was just awful. He said, “How can we trust you? You left ITER before. How do we know that a presidential agreement will be honored? It’s not a treaty.”

Zierler:

Is that not a fair question?

Orbach:

I thought it was a very fair question. Fortunately, I had at my right hand—somebody from our State Department’s legal office pointed out that never in the history of the United States [laugh] has a presidential agreement been negated. That if you looked at past practices, it was quite good, and that the delay of ten years would kill the project before we had approval. And when you have an agreement like that, you have to consult with Congress anyway, which we did, of course, so that there is a kind of, how shall I say, understanding that it will be approved. Of course the Paris accord is an argument to the contrary, but this was well before that. And so we didn't have to worry about our track record. In any case, the question—the siting question was really the big issue. ITER is a big machine, and—they're called the PF coils—the coils around the outside are huge. And it turned out that the EU choice, which was in Cadarache France—would require moving these huge coils over tiny roads that lead to the site, or having to build a factory and having them wound on site. And I had learned from the Korean experience how important it was to actually use industry to design and build these coils.

South Korea has a fusion machine which would have failed except for the industry being able to actually figure out—Hyundai Heavy Industries—how to actually put the coil together, in a very sophisticated way. I didn't want to have to reinvent the wheel. And so the Japanese site in northern Honshu was perfect. It was a port. It was also a very poor area of Japan. Believe it or not, there are very poor areas. And it would have been a huge improvement in the standard of living for that area. And also Japan could be trusted to support it. Well, we split three and three of the countries, where Cadarache was the site for the EU and for Russia and for China, and it was Japan for Korea, the United States, and of course Japan. This is before India had joined. And so that was it. It was split. And the vitriol was really strong. In addition to not trusting us, they said that it was inappropriate and—the arguments were awful. I had a colleague who worked on the negotiations, and he went to Japan and almost walked out of meetings in the negotiation. Todd Harding is his name. And he was really responsible for the success of the negotiations.

The State Department was critical. Because here you had an international agreement. And I didn't know how to write an agreement, but the representative from State did. And she was very knowledgeable, and she sat with us at the various negotiating sessions. Anyway, we finally determined that we gave up on the siting; it’s really up to the EU and Japan to decide on the siting. And so the so-called broader agreement was eventually reached by them. Japan agreed to have it built in Cadarache for certain benefits that they received from the EU, and I made it clear that the United States would support whatever decision was reached. And so that’s how they ended up in Cadarache. I still am sorry in a way that it wasn’t in Japan, because all the things I worried about have come true. Namely, they had to build a factory, and still not sure whether the thing will work the first time. Had, for example, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries built it, put it on a barge, and sent it to the Japanese siteit would have gone from the manufacturer to the site without any trouble. But that’s the way it is, and we're working on it, and so far I have to say that it looks very promising.

Zierler:

The next topic I want to hit on is high-energy physics. I want to talk a little bit about the long reach of the superconducting supercollider decision from 1993, and the impact that this had had between HEP and other physics fields. What was your sense of the relationship between high-energy physics and other physics fields as a result of this decision?

Orbach:

Well, it turned out I was head of Presidents of Universities advisory committee that was there when the SSC decision was being considered, and so I know a lot about the decision. There were people in the condensed matter physics community who argued that the SSC would serve as a giant suction cup, taking money away from all the other programs. Having been for seven years in Washington, I don’t believe that. I don’t think that when one program goes up, others go down. That’s my personal belief. So they felt that if the SSC were killed, there would be more money for other programs, because that money would then come to other programs. Just the opposite happened. If you look at the budget of the Office of Science pre- and after the SSC decision, it went down, and it took years to recover. Because once you make a decision like that, money is money. There’s lots of things that it can be used for, and there are lots of calls on it. And it wasn’t obvious that the SSC money would gravitate to anything else, and in fact, it didn't.

So in my view, it was a very counterproductive argument. I really believe that science covers all these fields, and that the quality of the science is what determines the funding. I know that sounds perhaps Pollyannaish, but I really do believe that. And so as long as the quality of the science is maintained across disciplines, they will get their fair share. And this business of one competing against another I think is counterproductive and ultimately in the long run will be destructive. That’s why the prioritization was so important, because we did compare across disciplines and base it on the quality of the science. And the only complaint I heard from high-energy physics was that the international linear collider was in the second group. That is, it had a timeline further out than the first group. And that, by the way, has turned out to be quite true. Namely, its design is finally in hand, but this is 2020, and that was 2003. It took 17 years [laugh] for that design to emerge. So we weren’t wrong.

Zierler:

So on the topic of prioritization, how did the P5 process come together?

Orbach:

Well, the P5 process is a part of the high energy physics Advisory Committee (HEPAP). It’s not the advisory committee; it’s the subset of the advisory committee in high-energy physics. And so they are given the responsibility by the advisory committee to come up with prioritizations.

Zierler:

And in terms of who among the high-energy physics community were pushing what should be prioritized?

Orbach:

Oh, I have no way of answering that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there when they were making those decisions. I assume P5 had very strong input, but I don’t know any more than that.

Zierler:

Sure. What about the 2006 National Academies report on elementary particle physics? Did that play a big role in high-energy physics?

Orbach:

Yes, indeed. And in fact, our participation at CERN was supported by that. Very unusual for Congress to send money abroad. And indeed, we had that problem with ITER as well. But when I was in office during that period, there were about 750 Americans at CERN, and a lot of us believed that their detectors would not have succeeded without the American guidance and initiative and construction. Now the leader of CERN at that time was not terribly friendly towards Americans, and actually at one point squelched the spokesman position for one of the big detectors when the detector group nominated an American. I didn't like that, and I was at CERN a number of times to maintain the American presence at CERN. Because without the SSC, as good as Fermilab is, and they've done a great job in responding, we didn't have anything that compared. And so it was very important that the Americans be treated as equals at CERN. So, yes, we went there often, and that review was critical to Congress’s attitude towards CERN.

Zierler:

What about the considerations and your involvement that led to the shutting down of the Tevatron that was recommended in 2008 and happened in 2011? Were you concerned or were there other concerns that Fermilab was not going to have a mission if this happened?

Orbach:

Of course I was concerned. Fermilab set itself up as a remote operating of CERN, so they kept their hands in CERN. But they were looking for a lifeline. They were looking for something they could do that would be fundamental in physics. And the neutrino experiment has turned out to be that. The long baseline. And at the time I was there, it wasn’t clear whether that would be big enough and important enough for the laboratory. But the theory and experiment now have evolved that it’s a major program, and one that looks very good indeed. When we looked at the shut-down of the Tevatron, we were looking at all kinds of things. Could you build an electron machine or something that would be American to make use of the tunnel? And on and on and on. Ultimately, it came down to an input for the neutrino beam.

Zierler:

Well, Ray, I think at this point, at the risk of you losing your voice, I have—there’s so much more that I’d like to ask. I wonder if you'd be amenable if we can take a recess and pick this back up later today, if you have availability.

Orbach:

OK. Could we possibly do it on another day? Because I don’t think my voice is going to recover.

Zierler:

Let me cut it here. [End 200504_0092_D] [Begin 200513_0109_D]

Zierler:

OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 13th, 2020, and it’s my great pleasure to be back with Dr. Ray Orbach for round two of our discussion. Ray, thank you so much for being with me again.

Orbach:

Thank you, David. At the end of our discussion last time, I was talking about ITER, the creation of it, and I was a little confused [laugh] actually, because my memory wasn’t very good, about the nature of the Agreement. When you send money and commit money of this sort, you need to have a formal structure within the U.S. government. And we had decided right off the bat that it would be difficult to have a treaty, because a treaty requires ten years of consultation, and this is a scientific experiment, and we wanted to get started. The problem was that there wasn’t really a vehicle for what we wanted to do, and so we actually created one. We called it the Congressional Executive Agreement, and it is a morphing of the presidential executive agreement with Congressional approval. It was very important to have Congress to agree. It was authorized in law by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. And Section 962 stated that the final ITER agreement must be submitted to Congress for a 120-day period, for review. And we were not allowed to spend any funds on ITER until we had the 120 days elapse. And so it was a situation where Congress could object, but they didn't have to approve. And this was built into the law, as I said, under the Energy Policy Act. We were very fortunate to have that language. In the event, Congress did not object, and so it was an implicit blessing to go ahead with the ITER and negotiate.

And so it was approved in the United States, and we signed it in Brussels. It was approved in the sense that the Congress didn't object. We signed in Brussels on May 24th, 2006. And the final approval was signed at the Élysée Palace. It was a beautiful ceremony in Paris on November 21st. And in that period between November 21st and May 24th, the 120 days had elapsed. On November 19th, President Bush signed the executive order, establishing ITER as a public international organization under U.S. law for the purposes of our participation and funding. So technically it was a very complex process if you don’t go through with a treaty, but it was one that the Energy Policy Act had anticipated and gave us the ability to move forward on a major research project.

Zierler:

What were some of the lessons learned from that policy process for you?

Orbach:

Well, it was first of all that you couldn't have a project of this magnitude without Congressional approval. If you have a presidential executive order, that’s fine, but Congress has the purse strings. So you needed to have Congress and the President on board. And that’s what a treaty does. A treaty enables you to do that. But to wait ten years before you start a research project [laugh] just was not in the cards, and it would have been dreadful. And so we had to come up with something that would allow us to go forward. And in a way, it was a kind of mixture of the two. It wasn’t a full treaty, and it wasn’t just an executive agreement. It fell in between. So it was very different, for example, than the Paris accord, which was in fact just a presidential act, and Congress did not act. And indeed, that has caused trouble down the road. But in order to get funding for this, we had to go a different route.

Zierler:

Just to orient ourselves in the narrative, of course now we're covering your tenure in the DOE, and the conversation that we're having now has a more topical approach to it. And so the next item I want to touch on is high-energy physics and your impressions of the state of affairs from your vantage point in the DOE. And so the first question I want to ask is, first, how closely attuned were you to the big SSC narrative to 1989 to 1993? Were you paying attention to those issues? Were you thinking about how this might impact physics generally and your research as it was happening?

Orbach:

As I said last time, I was the head of the Presidents Organization for Universities, and that was right at the time that the SSC was on the dock, if you like. It was a time when I started that position, so I was very familiar with the SSC. I started that position at a rather late date, unfortunately. We did get a unanimous statement in support of the SSC from the presidents of universities, and that was sent to both the White House and the Congress. In the event, it failed. The SSC was killed. And it was certainly right on the top of my agenda. I was hancellor of a University of California campus, and we had a very strong and powerful high-energy physics program. And so not only was it in my view of international importance that the United States build that machine, but it was also terribly important just for me as the chancellor of a campus and responsible for the function of the high-energy physics program.

Zierler:

What would have been your response to people who said, “Well, this is something that CERN is going to do anyway, so what’s the big deal? Why do we have to build one domestically?” What would have been your response to that?

Orbach:

In those days, that was not the case. CERN had built LEP, the electron collider, but they had not gone forward on the hadron collider. And I think had we gone forward with the SSC, they probably wouldn't have. And in fact at CERN, there was some controversy over shutting down the electron collider, because it had proven very productive. They just went ahead—not knowing what their arguments were, it just seemed to me that they went ahead because we killed the SSC, and there was no competition, therefore it was their possibility, and I should say their delight, at going forward for a hadron collider.

Zierler:

I want to ask how long a shadow that the SSC decision cast with regard to your time in the DOE, as it relates to the high-energy physics community. Was your sense that the high-energy physics community had oriented itself pretty well after this decision? And what was the relation between high-energy physicists in general with physics at large?

Orbach:

Well, I can’t answer the first part of that question, because I don’t know what the feeling was. I can tell you what my feeling was, and that is I was very fearful for the whole high-energy physics program. Because it was a big program. My memory is it was about $800 million a year. And would Congress continue to support a program without a large collider, without a large machine, and even worse, in the face of a machine that was being developed abroad, and being developed very successfully? Remember that the United States was not a member of CERN. We were an associate member. And so we did not have a voice on the CERN council. We could advise, we could comment, but we could not vote. And so we were at a terrible disadvantage. Namely we had zero leverage except for our expertise and the quality of our science, which ultimately turned out to be decisive. But just technically, we were not able to affect the CERN decisions. As a consequence, I was very worried that we would be treated as second-class citizens by CERN, and I went a number of times to CERN to make sure, or do the best I could, that the American contingent—we had over 700 Americans there, working on the big detectors—that the American contingent was given equal responsibilities and recognition to those who were from the member states.

Remember that CERN is not an international organization. The E stands for “European,” and there are European members that are contributing according to their GDP. If the United States were to become a full member, just taking our GDP into account, it would have cost us $250 million a year to be part of CERN. At the time, I thought that was very unlikely that Congress would ever agree to a relationship like that. That was a third or a quarter of the total high-energy physics budget in the United States. So we had to somehow navigate the situation where it was terribly important for the future of high-energy physics in the United States, but we were not a full member of CERN, and in some sense, served at their pleasure when we sent people there. It was not an enviable position. In terms of the United States itself, I think there was—first of all, the death of the SSC had terrible impact in the high-energy physics community. I remember the arguments of some at the time, some very powerful voices, that argued—I think I said this before—that it would take money away from other parts of the physics program. When the SSC was killed, the sum of the other parts of the budget went down. It hurt all of physics. Everything, not just high-energy. And so it just wasn’t true. So we had to deal then with anger of the high-energy physicists in the rest of the physics community, because frankly they felt that that negativity weighed on the President’s and Congressional decision. And it may well have. I don’t know. But it certainly didn’t help.

So there was an antagonism there that in my view would have been very destructive for all of physics. And I worked very hard in the Office of Science to make sure that everything functioned as a unit, that high-energy physics could prosper and continue. We had a wonderful—we have—a wonderful tradition in high-energy physics, and even though I'm a condensed matter physicist, it’s still very important to me. Indeed, the boundary between the two quite often is fuzzed, because a lot of the techniques—renormalization group, for example—you really can’t tell whose field it belongs to. It’s everybody’s. And so I really believed in a unity of physics, and therefore it was very important that high-energy physics continued and prospered. Now, what happened at CERN was a very complex story. You may remember that a technician was killed because of an electrical incident. And one of the things that I had pushed very hard, and indeed both Secretary Abraham and Secretary Bodman had pushed, was safety in our laboratories. And should that have happened to one of our labs, we might well have shut it down. And so here you had 750 Americans and a death at CERN. So what do you do? And frankly, I told the director of CERN that if they didn't come up with a real investigation and a path forward so this would never happen again, I would pull the American scientists out.

Zierler:

Wow, wow.

Orbach:

Because I felt I was responsible for their safety. As I said, had it been an American lab, there would have been the devil to pay. There’s no difference, now that high-energy physics was focused on CERN. I should also say that the people at Fermilab did a wonderful job. They set up remote operations for CERN. Now, they couldn't actually change things in place, but when CERN was running, they could actually run the experiments remotely. And so that gives you an idea of the support that CERN received. Of course, the magnets themselves, we played a large part. They were wound, in large part, at Fermilab, and then shipped to CERN. So we played a large part at CERN not only for the people there but also for the equipment that made CERN work.

Zierler:

In broad terms, I wonder at the time how you assessed the meaning of the fact that the SSC was killed. I guess the question is, how big of a factor was the end of the Cold War in these considerations? Was the peace dividend that the Clinton administration was trying to pursue—did that make funding the SSC kind of a binary choice? Either it’s going to be SSC, or maybe the funding should go to something like NASA? Did you see it in those terms?

Orbach:

I did not, but remember that I was not a party to those discussions. To me, I wanted both. Now remember, at the time I wasn’t in Texas; I was in California. And so the Johnson Space Center wasn’t on my radar, but the SSC was. I think that there was an unfortunate choice between the NASA center in Houston and the SSC. I don’t understand why the two were pitted against each other. The money is the same. I don’t know what the politics were. I've heard all kinds of rumors. But in my view, they were very unfortunate. They were not either/or; they were and. And it was, I thought, a tragedy for us. Now, there was a problem with the SSC, and it was something that I faced in the DOE as well, and that was there was a redesign of the SSC about halfway through. They had already started on the tunnel. The tunnel was almost finished. But they redesigned the size of the aperture, which would have meant completely redoing the magnets. It increased the cost quite substantially. That’s a no-no. It sends up red flags everywhere. And I don’t know whether that was decisive in the final action, but we had situations at the spallation neutron source where the director of that project wanted to change the specifications right in mid-stream. And to be honest, we let that person go, and we kept the original specs. Because otherwise, the price would have escalated. Furthermore, it’s a tricky scientific decision. Do you go forward with a machine where the director has suggested a change and hope that it can still do the job? This is something that you hope that the initial investigation and design was sufficient. I don’t know the details of the SSC and why there was a move to redesign it, but it certainly did not help in the final decision.

Zierler:

I want to move on to another item, the 2002 Barish-Bagger Long-Term Report. Its top recommendation was a U.S.-based international linear collider. What were those prospects as you understood them at the time?

Orbach:

Well, remember that I just came in, in 2002. The linear collider, if you look at my Facilities for the Future document, was the highest priority for high-energy physics for a big machine. And the idea was that CERN was working with a proton collider. But from our experience at SLAC, an electron-positron collider produced some fantastic results. And so could you build a linear collider, electron-positron collider, which would be of an energy comparable to that of CERN? That is, to look at the same energy spectrum? At the time, the issue was, how do you accelerate the electrons? That is, do you use cold? Do you use hot? Do you want to just upgrade or make bigger the linear collider at SLAC? So the design was not determined, and so it was very difficult [laugh] to then put forward what we call a CD-0, a first-order proposal to build a collider, if you don’t know what the design is. And at the time, there were all kinds of problems. I don’t remember them specifically.

But there were stability problems; there were acceleration input problems. I'm sorry; it’s very technical, and I just don’t remember. But there were design problems associated with the linear collider. And so what I did was I made that a high priority. I think it was number six or something like that, out of the total prioritization. But I put it in the second category. It is not in the first five or seven years, but say in the middle of that 20-year period. In the event, it’s still, just now, as I understand it, designed to a point where they can go forward. And so this is almost 20 years later. There was lots of technical issues, which as I understand it, have been solved. At the time, it was clearly the thing to do. But what was it? And I remember going to HEPAP, the High-Energy Physics Advisory Committee, and saying, “Come up with a design so we know what we're getting into.” The cost, roughly. Very roughly. The physical dimensions. Where you're going to put it, and so on. As I understand it now, the feeling is that it should be built in Japan, and that we're waiting for the Japanese government, as I understand it, to issue an approval that it’s willing to take it on as its high-energy physics machine. And to my knowledge, they have not yet done so. It will be a very expensive machine, probably comparable to CERN. And so it’s a big expenditure, and we'll see what happens. But it was clear to me that with the death of the SSC, there needed to be a machine—initially, I thought it might even be at Fermilab—that would be an electron-positron collider and give the United States a comparable stature, just exactly as SLAC did with the electron-positron collider.

Zierler:

Let’s move on. I know why it’s called P5; it’s a mouthful. Particle Physics Projects Prioritization Panel.

Orbach:

You got it. [laugh]

Zierler:

The first question is—again, I know you're coming in in 2002, so you're inheriting some of these things. Did you understand the 2001 Snowmass meeting to be—was the intention to feed into this panel?

Orbach:

Well, I don’t know, to be honest with you, what happened in 2001. I do know that I relied on P5 very heavily, because they were the ones who reported to HEPAP, our advisory committee, for approval or not, and really set the stage for facilities in high-energy physics. They were a very important and very reliable group, and I more or less told them, “If you want a linear collider, let’s define it.”

Zierler:

And was your idea that—was P5 intended to be a decadal survey from the beginning, or was it more like an annual kind of review?

Orbach:

For my purposes, the latter. That is, I saw it as a continuing function of the subcommittee of HEPAP. I don’t know technically if it was. But they were the ones that thought about these issues and had the expertise to figure things out to the degree they could. And so I relied on them and HEPAP to advise me on their priorities. And I like to think of that as a continuous process.

Zierler:

Right. And who were some of the leading voices within the HEP community who were really pushing P5 and trying to make it central to the mission?

Orbach:

My memory is very poor, and I would have to go back to my notes. They were a very distinguished group. The head of Fermilab was involved, and people in accelerators from all over the country. I really can’t answer. I don’t remember.

Zierler:

But P5 was on your agenda. It was a big part of your portfolio.

Orbach:

Not only a big part; it was the primary source of prioritization for facilities in high-energy physics, assuming that HEPAP would go along. And in my memory, they did.

Zierler:

Now about the HEPAP consultation process, I wonder if you can comment on the National Academies report in 2006 on elementary particle physics. Did the Academies have a major role to play outside the HEPAP consultation process?

Orbach:

Absolutely. It gave you a completely independent assessment of the field, and its advice was terribly important. And we read it and tried to incorporate it into our own decisions.

Zierler:

I'm just sort of curious overall, from your vantage point at the DOE, did you have direct contact with the National Academies, or would you read their literature like any outside observer would?

Orbach:

[laugh] Oh, no. I would go to their meetings. I would talk to the head of the Academy. I would talk to the people who ran the various programs. No, it was very important. We had a very close relationship. I did that with not just the Academy, but also the other organizations that are there—the Mathematical Society, the Geophysical Union. They were very important, because we first of all funded a great deal of their activities, and secondly they were the experts in their area, and it was important that I had a feeling for what they were up to, what their difficulties were, and what their priorities were. No, it was very important to be plugged in across the scientific spectrum. And fortunately, most of them had offices in Washington.

Zierler:

Right, right. So continuing on the question of national laboratories and existential questions, what did you see were the main considerations leading to the shutdown of Tevatron at Fermilab?

Orbach:

Again, that occurred before me. I don’t know the answer. My guess is—I mean, I wasn’t there when the decision was made. My guess is that the advent of CERN and the power of CERN for proton-proton collider made the Tevatron—which was a magnificent machine, but it was one tenth the energy of CERN. And I think it made no sense to try to—I don’t know how to put it—to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with a machine that could not compete. Nevertheless, they did find the—as I remember—the top quark. And it produced some very important results. But in terms of the frontier, in my view, where the new discoveries would come, CERN was a very potent comparative machine, and I don’t think we could compete.

Zierler:

I've heard often the comment that with the closing of the Tevatron, that almost left Fermilab without a mission. Do you think there’s legitimacy to that line of thinking?

Orbach:

That was our fear. I think it was unfounded. I think they had very powerful theoretical strength, and they were looking for a mission, and the neutrino issue came forward. And I think they've done a terrific job as a national laboratory to find a niche for themselves in the long baseline experiments with neutrinos. It’s terribly important. It’s a very funny kind of accelerator because [laugh] you have this huge machine, and you're looking for the tunnel, and it’s a cement wall. And the detectors are 500 miles away, I think in Minnesota, as I recall. So it took a little while to figure out [laugh] what you meant by a machine that looked something like that. But they knew what they were doing, and it turned out to a very important experiment. They also, remember, had very great technical strength in superconducting magnets. The magnets for CERN were wound and tested at Fermilab. And so when you look at the laboratory as a whole, you think of their tremendous theoretical strength, and their—you can call it machine shop strength—but their technical strength in that respect. The only other piece is, is there an accelerator present? So the neutrino filled that gap. So I think they've come out very well.

Zierler:

And so you see that narrative—that there’s a clear connection between how the ILC project lost momentum and how that caused the rise in the emphasis on neutrino physics at Fermilab?

Orbach:

Yes, I do.

Zierler:

And how do you think that that has played out since your time at the DOE?

Orbach:

Well, I haven't followed it terribly closely, but everything I've read indicates that it has done very well. They also got involved in the underground laboratory in South Dakota. It was initially an NSF and DOE project, and actually I went down in the mine [laugh] in South Dakota. It’s quite a facility, actually. Again, a neutrino observatory, if you like, deep underground. And so if you like, they're looking at it both ways—from an accelerator perspective and from the equivalent of a cosmic ray facility. It’s probably from the sun that they get their primary source of neutrinos. But it’s a very nice complement. Not to mention the Chinese reactor experiment, which also helped.

Zierler:

The next item I want to move to is Basic Energy Sciences. Now, over the course of your tenure, you have the Basic Research Needs Workshops, and then the Grand Challenge report. And so my question is, how well-coordinated was BES when you arrived, and how had that process changed over the course of your tenure?

Orbach:

Well, I think it’s a continuing process. If you look at the number of workshops they've had, they stretch continuously from before I was there, during the time I was there, and then afterwards. So it has been a tradition within Basic Energy Sciences. And it’s not an exact comparison, but as I said again last time, you can think of NSF as being proposal-driven, and the DOE as being project-driven. And so what those workshops did was to outline the opportunities and the importance of new fields as they were being developed. So it gave the Basic Energy Sciences, and frankly the whole Office of Science, a—I wouldn't call it a road map, but an indication of where funding might want to go given the scientific opportunities that those workshops create. I've been a particular beneficiary of the one on what’s called the mesoscale, and that’s intermediate between nano and macro. And it was a very important workshop. I think it was in 2013. So it was well after I left DOE. But it was a very interesting workshop and indeed my own research right now relied heavily on that workshop report.

Zierler:

Now I wonder, in terms of the emphasis on being project-driven, if there was a concerted effort during your tenure to make BES more practical in general?

Orbach:

Not within the Office of Science. I suspect that there were pressures from outside. As again I said last time, it’s a very tricky relationship, and one that has to be managed. You don’t want to become subservient to applied programs, because frankly, basic research moves into areas that are undefined, and the new discoveries are the ones that fuel the applied programs. On the other thing, the applied programs, in my view, could profit greatly from the quality of research that is done on the basic side. And so what I saw was a need to make sure that the applied programs were built on the strongest basic research foundation, but to keep the Office of Science at the forefront of basic research, not to undercut it by pretending that it was feeding, and therefore responsive to, applied research. Another problem is that I don’t make a distinction—[laugh] the boundary between basic and applied is so blurred. Applied research quite often gives you wonderful ideas for basic investigations, and vice versa. And so to me, I tried not to make a distinction. On the other hand, it was important to keep—how shall I say—the integrity of the basic research program intact.

Zierler:

And if I could just comment editorially, your perspective on that sounds very similar to your broader perspective on the relationship between experimental and theoretical physics, generally. That you are a—there’s a term in history; our historians, they're either lumpers or they're splitters. And you're definitely a lumper in physics, where you tend to see these things working together. So that’s just an editorial comment on my part.

Orbach:

That’s a great compliment. I will remember being a lumper.

Zierler:

[laugh] Yet another issue that not only you inherited but the Bush administration inherited was the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Of course this is coming from the Clinton administration. So my question for you there is, how committed was the Bush administration to this initiative, given that it had originated in the Clinton years?

Orbach:

It made no difference who had originated it. It was a forefront field of physics, and we were committed to it regardless of whether [laugh] it was a Democrat or a Republican President. The formal initiative I think was approved during the Bush administration, and the politics like that played no role. I never can remember anyone suggesting that because it was initially proposed by a Democrat or a Republican, we should take some action on that basis. Science is science, and the National Nanotechnology Initiative made sense as a frontier field, and we supported it very strongly. There was a number of meetings that Jack Marburger called on that topic to bring together not just NSF and DOE but also NIST, also NASA and the other research agencies in DOD, for example, into a national initiative on nanotechnology. And sure enough, if you look at who supports that science now, it’s across the spectrum. It’s every agency that I know of that supports scientific research.

Zierler:

What were the mechanisms for determining where the nanotech centers were going to be constructed and how many of them there would be? Did you see that as generally a top-down process, or was it more like a model of the national laboratories that propose their own projects?

Orbach:

I can’t remember. I'm sorry to say that I just don’t remember the arguments. It’s not just nano centers. There are some, of course, that have been very successful. The one at Berkeley, for example, is a good example, at LBNL. But it also pervaded our basic science. Again, [laugh] there’s no boundary there. Nanotechnology is everywhere. It’s really a study of length scale, and you don’t need a laboratory or a specific place to do that. The facilities, especially the first microscope that was built at Berkeley that looked at the atomic scale—that’s essential. And those are expensive, and they're groundbreaking. Now you can buy them, but at the time, the aberration-corrected electron microscope was a new concept. It enabled people to work at the nanoscale, but they could do lots of work at their own labs as well. There’s no distinction, in my view, as to where the nanoscale science begins or ends.

Zierler:

The BES facilities’ 20-year road map from 2003, do you know where that originated from? And what did you see as its long-range influences?

Orbach:

As I said last time, it originated from a conversation I had with Congress with our supporting subcommittee. David Hobson asked me, “You scientists want everything. Aren’t you able to prioritize?” I've gone through that. No, we created it. We created it because of the need to get Congressional support for large-scale facilities. We're talking about billion-dollar class machines. And that’s what keeps the United States in the leadership position. We just talked about the failure of the SSC and what that caused. Well, just imagine if some of these others—the spallation neutron source—wasn’t built here but would be built somewhere else. And the synchrotron radiation facilities. And on and on and on. The thing about the 20-year facility was that we redefined what a facility was. For example—

Zierler:

What was it defined previously as?

Orbach:

Well, for example, high-end computation. I mean, OK, it was in the weapons labs. These were big machines. But you had to think of them as a facility, just like you thought of a light source. And when I first came, as I said, computing was limited to people—DOE machines—who had DOE contracts or grants. So they weren’t user facilities in the sense of our light sources or other facilities. And so what the 20-year facility outlook did was to create a different kind of concept. And indeed, high-end computation was one of them. It was—I can’t remember—the second- or third-highest priority. Because we needed to build, if you like, big iron—there’s no iron in it—but something of major scale, in order to stay competitive and to do discovery. In a sense, ITER was also like that, because up to that time, you had some wonderful machines. DIII-D. You had the MIT machine. You had other small machines. They were not actually all that small. But they're not—you had the Princeton TFTR. But they weren’t big enough to actually ever become a generator of energy. They used energy. There’s something called Q, which is the ratio of power out to power in. And the number is five. You need a Q of 5 in order to get the same amount of energy out that you put in. And the Q that we were getting was 0.1, 0.2, things of that sort. So ITER, which promised a Q of 10, was again a major redefinition of a field.

We want to make fusion energy like high energy or like nuclear energy. We wanted to give them a machine that would enable them to do discovery. So to me, that’s what the facilities outlook was like. It created new areas—high-end computing is my favorite—where they didn't exist before, as thought of as a facility. And so that sprung out of the various advice that we had received from the advisory committees. It was clear that the advisory committee for computation really wanted something that they could compete with when it looked at other facilities. For example, the Japanese Earth Simulator, that’s a huge machine. I mean, no one would ever build it now. But at the time, it was world-leading, and we had nothing that was as efficient as that. So these things were definitive in my view, of new fields. And as I said, they were suggested and reinforced by the advisory committees to the Office of Science.

Zierler:

Another one in the ledger of approvals—the National Synchrotron Light Source Institute at Brookhaven. This was the first in an ongoing series of light source service upgrades. What was your sense of the process leading up to that approval?

Orbach:

I know that extraordinarily well. [laugh] What had happened was that NSLS I—[laugh] it didn't have a one after it, because it was the first one—was the first really breakthrough of synchrotron radiation facilities. Others followed. But what had happened was that it began to be eclipsed by the machine at Berkeley and the machine at Argonne. But what really worried me was Diamond, the machine in England. That machine was just beautifully designed. Stable and accurate, in order to do biomedical research, but it also of course did all kinds of other research programs. But we had nothing like it. And the first decision was, are we going to compete with Diamond? I guess if you like, the SSC history was in the back of my mind, where it looked like we were going to be eclipsed. I don’t know if that was what drove me at the time. But Pat Dehmer and I—she was my executive assistant—sat down and really looked at Brookhaven. What was the future of the laboratory? And it was clear that NSLS was a thing of the past. It was a wonderful machine, but it was being eclipsed. So what do you do? And what we decided was we didn't want a machine that was identical to Diamond. It would be much cheaper to buy airplane tickets and send people to England [laugh] than it would be to build a machine.

We wanted something that was a cut above it. And so Pat and I thought about it. I came up with a concept which I then felt very strongly about as justifying a billion-dollar facility. It was a little bit less, but that was the order of magnitude. And that was, could you build a light source—remember, these are photons—that would rival the energy sensitivity, the energy accuracy, of neutrons, and also the length scale of neutrons? That is, could you find a way of building a light source that would enable you to look at length scales of the order of ten angstroms, and energy resolutions of the order of a degree kelvin? Now at the time, there was no machine in the world that could come close to that. And when we first talked to the people at Brookhaven, they had suggested something that looked a lot, to me anyway, like Diamond. So what I said to them was very straightforward. I want a machine that can do that, namely length scale and energy scale of that magnitude. [laugh] The first comment I got back was, “It’s impossible.”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

So we played a little game. It was clear that we wanted to do something. So I said, “OK, forget it. No machine.” And frankly, had the machine died, Brookhaven would have been in real trouble, its very future. So to be fair to the lab, they got the whole lab together—the high-energy group, the nuclear group, the condensed matter group, and they sat down and designed a machine that would accomplish both of those limits. It’s magnificent. That became NSLS-II. You can call it an upgrade, but it’s really a completely new machine. And with that in hand, I said, “Wonderful. Let’s go to it.” And then I could sell it. I could sell it to Congress. I could sell it to the administration. Because it could do something that nobody else in the world could do.

Zierler:

So you saw it as paving the way for all of the future light source upgrades.

Orbach:

I wouldn't call them upgrades. This is a machine that is special. It can be called NSLS-II, but it’s a new machine. Really new. And it would, in my view, set the standard for all new light sources. Now, the other light sources have changed. There have been upgrades, I understand, at both of them that have made them wonderful facilities. But this one is special. This one is looking at a competitive machine to neutron scattering.

Zierler:

So in terms of emphasizing how special it is, can you point to specific ways that it has pushed the needle in terms of discovery?

Orbach:

I can’t help you on that, because frankly I'm somewhat out of the loop. When I proposed it, it was not in the initial prioritization. But we made clear that NSLS-II—that any facility in terms of its timing would depend on its design. And so they were able to come up with a design that actually fit it in to the near-term funding. There was some pushback about, “Well, look, it wasn’t at the top.” But we went ahead and did it anyway, because it made sense.

Zierler:

Moving back one year to 2006, you have the completion of the spallation neutron source. Initially, as I understand it, there was an initial move to go straight to the second target station, but that this was abandoned. Was there pressure, and where did it come from, to maintain momentum with that initial facility before building out the first target station?

Orbach:

Well, I don’t quite understand the question. The machine, when it was turned on, worked beautifully. The issue for me was the neutron scattering reactor at Oak Ridge is very expensive. It has a cold tunnel, but it’s incredibly expensive to run. And so the second target stage I thought—and I think it’s true—would be competitive to a nuclear reactor for doing very low-energy neutron scattering. So to me, the second target stage was very important. The problem is the physical damage that’s done with the beam on the target that produces the neutrons. And my memory is at that time, we didn't really have a design. There’s a bubbling problem. It’s a very tricky issue to get a beam of neutrons that’s stable and of a fixed energy. So the second target stage needed development and work. But it was always there. I never thought of it as somehow being pushed aside. No, it was really a question of timing. When could you come up with a design and then when could we fund it? Because of budgetary issues.

Zierler:

I wonder, regarding reactor-based facilities, what was your general sense of the situation there? The Bush administration did try to revive nuclear power, and I wonder if that had any bearing on the research reactor issue.

Orbach:

Not that I know of. The research reactor—HFIR is what it’s called—at Oak Ridge had a tunnel that would generate low-energy neutrons for scattering. That of course was one of the great strengths of Brookhaven and Grenoble. And it was very delayed in getting it to work. That was one of my frustrations. Also, HFIR, as I said, is very expensive. I think they're having to rebuild the entire machine. The lifetime of the shield, as I recall, was getting close to zero [laugh] in recent years. The question was, does it make sense to rebuild HFIR, or could you do it with a second target stage? So that was the issue that I was looking at, namely coming up—if for whatever reason they decided to shut HFIR down, what are we going to do? Where do we have our low-energy neutrons? And the second target stage was the only thing I could think of. There is work at NIST, but it’s a small reactor. It doesn't have the fluence that you need for very large scale investigations.

Zierler:

Next question is on the Grand Challenges BESAC study in 2006. What were its origins, and what were you hoping to get out of this study?

Orbach:

Well, plan for the future. That is, the linear collider was part of that. I wanted to have some idea of what the priorities were in that field. And that was one of the sources for that.

Zierler:

How did the study come about? What were the origins of the study?

Orbach:

Oh, goodness. I don’t remember that. I can’t help you.

Zierler:

Now let’s move on to just more broadly legislative accomplishments and policy initiatives. So there’s the Energy Policy Act of 2005. What was its formulation from where you sat, and what was its impact on your office?

Orbach:

It had a phenomenal impact. The budget for the Office of Science was projected to double over a certain period. I think it was seven years, something like that. And so for the first time—remember it was authorization—we had a plan that was in law. And OK, it wasn’t appropriation, but what I could do is to remember that envelope under which I put the new facilities and all of our ongoing research programs—I could fit things under an envelope that wasn’t just [laugh] my creation. It was suggested by Congress. It also gave us an opportunity to think about research programs for the future that would otherwise have just been blue sky. So it was unbelievably important for us. We've already talked about ITER. In fact, it enabled ITER to happen. So I think it was Senator Domenici that pushed on that, and I was very indebted to him. He was a tough taskmaster, let me tell you, [laugh] but he did wonderful things.

Zierler:

We touched on the dual-hatted nature of your work in the middle of your tenure in the Office of Science. But when did it become clear to you that you were going to be taking on the undersecretary for science role? And then when you had that role, did that have any specific bearing on your work in the Office of Science?

Orbach:

Well, first of all, it had been talked about by Secretary Abraham as a possibility, but Congress was very reluctant to create yet another undersecretary in the Department, so there was a certain amount of pushback from Congress over the creation of an undersecretary. I can’t speak for him, but I think that Secretary Abraham recognized the need to bring basic science into play with all of the DOE programs, which is ultimately what an Undersecretary for Science can do. And I think he recognized that. But for whatever reason, it just wasn’t a time when it could be carried through. When Secretary Bodman became secretary, things had changed, and I think part of it was the success of the Office of Science. The Facilities for the Future I think was quite an important document. If you look at what has been built over the last 18 years, 17 years, it’s not very different from what we thought would be built back in 2003. So the predictions of the advisory committees have really turned out to be right. So Secretary Bodman pushed on it, and it was finally agreed to by Congress, and in 2006, I became double-hatted. It enabled me—first of all, an Undersecretary can act for the Secretary, and that’s very different than an Assistant Secretary. It gave me license to, if you like, work my way into the applied programs and also into NNSA.

I was quite concerned over our nuclear weapons and whether the basic research component that supported them was sufficient. I had already seen that the computational methods were very inefficient when I first joined as director of the Office of Science. So it was very important to me that the basic science behind the weapons program be nurtured and supported in any way I could. The Office of Science supported research at the weapons labs. And indeed, there was a close relationship with Sandia and Los Alamos for work outside the fence. That is, you didn't need to go into the classified area—in fundamental science. And that was supported by the Office of Science. So we then were able—when I say we, I mean the Office of Science and myself—to start talking in real terms, budgetary terms, to the applied programs. And I worked very closely with EERE, with the nuclear cleanup program, with the NNSA, with the electrical program—I can’t remember its formal name—across the board, at trying to help deal with some of their fundamental problems. If you look, for example, at the waste issue, and look at Hanford, Washington State, you have a terrible problem of nuclear waste entering what they call the vadose zone, which is the zone just above the water table. The water table of course feeds into the Columbia River. And so you've got a real issue on your hands, if it should ever propagate down there.

Is there any way to fundamentally change the nature of that percolation? And that’s the kind of thing that I thought the Office of Science could really help with. Another was—didn’t turn out too well, but the Vit plant, the way that they dealt with radioactive material by incorporating it in a glassy material. What is the physics of glasses? You're expecting this thing to last for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. Is glass a liquid or a solid? Is there any chance that that would happen? These are fundamental issues where I thought the Office of Science could play a major role. So that’s just an example of where I played a role. Ultimately I think I was able to get into the budget a joint—it was very small, but it was sign—a Presidential request for joint funding between an applied program and the Office of Science.

Zierler:

I'm curious, in your capacity as undersecretary, if you ever participated in any cabinet-level meetings.

Orbach:

I never participated at a cabinet-level meeting, no. I did, at one point, talk very high up in OMB. We had a situation at Oak Ridge where the Battelle Corporation offered to build a building, a facility, that they would then lease to the government. And they were able to build it—they were a private enterprise—much quicker and much cheaper than the government can build, for all kinds of reasons. And that set the stage for the high-end computation machine that ultimately was built at Oak Ridge. Without that building, it never would have been possible. Now we wanted to explore other means for doing that, but there was great resistance. That one, I don’t know it crept through, but it somehow made it, and we didn't get any flack on it. But OMB then started raising questions about private-public mingling of funds—because that’s what it was—and the dangers that could come. And they were real dangers. We had set out what I thought was a pretty careful relationship to allow it to happen, but it was basically new, and it wasn’t all that clear that it would work in the long term. So we went right to the top of OMB. I remember meeting with the head of OMB, who was a very distinguished person, and arguing for it. By the way, I lost.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

I thinkultimately, we were able to do it, but the issues of separation of government and private are very important and very complex. Ultimately, it worked, but it was a difficult meeting. That’s about as high up as I ever went.

Zierler:

Looking decade to decade, in the 1990s, there was a major push in biomedicine and we saw that the NIH budget had essentially doubled during the ‘90s. So I wonder, during your tenure, if there was a similar self-conscious push to refocus attention on the physical sciences for the 2000s. If you saw things in those terms.

Orbach:

No, I didn't. And in fact I wanted to continue the biological program. And so we had a—one of our programs, Biological and Environmental Research, BER—it was a program just like high-energy physics, and the Office of Science—the Basic Energy Sciences in the Office of Science. It was very important, because you probably don’t remember, but the issue of fuel and fuel from organic materials, from plants, was first and foremost at that time. And if we didn't have a strong biology program, we couldn't pursue that. And so that was the beginning of the Bioenergy Research Centers. And so it was terribly important to be strong in biology. We also supported Craig Venter on his work on the human genome. Because after all, it started in DOE, and it was complementary to what NIH was doing. It was, I thought, a very positive competitive situation, where you had NIH and DOE both pursuing the human genome issue. And frankly they were competing with one another. And I thought that was an excellent thing to do. We started—actually, we expanded the sequencing facility in California. The DOE sequencing now I think can sequence a base pair in a genome for a hundredth of a cent. It used to be a dollar per base pair. So that’s a factor of ten to the fourth in cost. [laugh] Again, because DOE had the power and the technical strength to do something like that. So no, biology was very important, and I tried to pursue it as much as I could.

Zierler:

Another question about National Academies literature. In 2005, they came out with a very dramatically titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” I wonder what your understanding of the origins and impacts of this report, and what did you understand as the Bush administration’s views generally about its recommendations?

Orbach:

First of all, I participated in that. They were nice enough to invite me in to the Senate hearings on that, so I was very familiar with it. I already mentioned NSLS-II. And that particular report was terribly important for getting attention being paid to basic research and to the directions we would go. The Senate played a very key role in pursuing that. It was a very exciting time. We had people from both the private sector and government coming together to talk about the importance of research and its support. And things don’t happen in government instantaneously, but if you look at what has happened since that report, you will see a steady increase in the funding of basic science. Our program—I think Basic Energy Sciences now is well above $2 billion. That's almost a doubling from when I was there. And indeed, people now talk about doubling the basic research budget of DOE, just as they do for NSF. So I think what that report did was to galvanize attention on the importance of basic science and the need for the United States to start supporting it even more strongly than it had.

Zierler:

A year later, in 2006, President Bush comes out with the American Competitiveness Initiative. And I'm curious if the Office of Science had a role in the creation of this initiative.

Orbach:

It was primarily Jack Marburger in the OSTP, but we played a role, if you like, at the edges. That is, we supported the projects that would improve competitiveness, and they were contained in that initiative. Two examples come to mind. The first is high-end computing. We opened that up to the—as I said earlier in our previous conversation—to the private sector, for competitiveness. And indeed we even announced it [laugh] at the Council on Competitiveness. That was an opportunity to make it public. So in terms of our facilities and opening them up, making sure that the private sector had access, we played a major role. Another example is our light sources. The biotech world in the United States uses those light sources almost more than any other group.

Zierler:

Interesting.

Orbach:

And indeed, NSLS-II has some—and also, now that I think about it, Argonne has beam lines that are actually purchased and operated by biopharmacy facilities, by pharmaceutical companies. So it gave the private sector opportunities to do things at a scale that the private sector could never afford. So we were part of it, an integral part really, in bringing together the resources of the Department to support that initiative.

Zierler:

Now there was a major piece of bipartisan science legislation in 2007, of course—the American Competes Act. And it was not mostly focused on DOE, but it did authorize ARPA-E. So I'm curious, what were your perceptions of this legislation and the process leading up to it?

Orbach:

Well, ARPA-E has turned out, in my view, to be a really wonderful idea. At the time, I was concerned by it. And the reason was that it wasn’t clear—first of all, its funding, where the funding would come from. I was afraid that it would be subtracted from the DOE budget for science, so I was partisan like any other head of a program. But what worried me was the definition of it, because it wasn’t well defined, and I couldn't figure out whether it was applied or basic or whatever. As things developed, it has become a very important tool for very practical issues associated with energy, and it has supported, over a short period of two to three years, programs that are very applied but have a strong research base to them. And so I think it has turned out to be very fine. As I said, at the time, it wasn’t well defined, and I just wasn’t sure what it would end up supporting. Would it be competitive to EERE? Would it be competitive to the Basic Energy Sciences? Would it take some intermediate position? I think what they did was they found a niche that was very important, namely enabling—I hate to use the phrase “shovel-ready” concepts to go forward over a fairly short timeline. And that I think turned out to be brilliant. And so I'm actually very pleased with what has developed with ARPA-E. And you now have other forms of it, for intelligence—ARPA-I, et cetera. Because people have recognized its success.

Zierler:

Getting to 2008 and the rapidly darkening budgetary picture, I'm curious, how did you handle the inevitable cuts that were coming your way in the Office of Science? How did you try to stay ahead of the curve in that regard?

Orbach:

Well, I did the best I could. First of all, I worked very closely with Congress. The President’s budget was very tough. I supported the President’s budget. Congress takes pride in the things that it supports, both in the appropriation and in the authorization committees. So I tried to work very closely with the staff in both to point out what we were doing, why it was important, and to hope that they would support us in this very difficult budget period. In fact, they did. The budget held up reasonably well. But it was really a difficult time for everybody, and there were obviously tremendous pressures, especially in the appropriations area, of competing interests. So my job was to indicate as best I could the advantages of supporting basic science and really the science programs in DOE. I think ultimately we came out of that fairly well. It wasn’t too bad. And then since then, I think the Department has really prospered.

Zierler:

Of course thinking about the crash in the Fall of 2008, the economic crash, there’s always opportunity in crisis. And so I wonder if you could specifically comment on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and any projects that you might have thought at the time might have a real opportune moment in light of this legislation?

Orbach:

First of all, remember the year. It was 2008. And I knew I was going out of office in 2009. [laugh]

Zierler:

That’s my next question. So we'll get to that.

Orbach:

[laugh]

Zierler:

But you can lay the groundwork.

Orbach:

Well, we did. And to the best we could, to the transition team, we laid out what we thought the opportunities were. And I think it’s fair to say that the subsequent administration more or less followed up on that. Not because we recommended it, but because it made sense. So that was the feeling we had, namely, “It’s a transition period. We have a new president coming in and a very difficult budget period. What would we recommend for the future?” We talked about the structure of the Department, which actually was ignored by the first term of President Obama, but then took place in the second term. [laugh] I don’t think it was because of our recommendation; I think it was because it just made sense. But that’s not for me to decide. So we were looking forward to a new administration, and we tried to give the best argument we could. At that point in time, I think it’s fair to say, the Office of Science was held in pretty good regard in Congress. And that was very important for the future.

Zierler:

So of course you preempted my next question, and that is obviously in 2008, you know a new administration is coming in. You don’t know if it’s going to be a McCain or an Obama presidency. So I'm just curious, had McCain won, were you entertaining any thoughts about staying in Washington or staying on in this position?

Orbach:

The answer is no. [laugh] Not because I didn't want to, but because it just doesn't happen. [laugh]

Zierler:

Even when a Republican succeeds another Republican, that opportunity would not have been made available to you.

Orbach:

I don’t know. Who knows. But remember that I was there for two terms. And at the end of the first term, the end of Secretary Abraham, I just assumed I would go. Indeed, most of the assistant secretaries disappeared. There was a huge turnover in the Department of Energy. And I didn't know whether I had a job or not. Because when a new Secretary comes in, that Secretary wants his or her own team. That’s their right. That’s their responsibility. And I had no idea whether the new Secretary would consider me part of that team or not. I remember my first meeting with Secretary Bodman, and it was a wonderful meeting. It was very late in the afternoon. He had just come in to the—remember, he had to be confirmed. He had just been confirmed, and he met with the heads of all of the programs. And for whatever reason, mine was really late. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon, maybe 6:00. He came into my office, and I had never met him before, and he didn't know who I—he knew who I was, but he didn't know me personally, and the first thing he said to me was, “Dr. Orbach—” Remember, he’s a professor from MIT. [laugh] “Dr. Orbach, I don’t want to bother you. You can continue doing what you're doing. Just continue and we won’t bother you at all. We'll leave you alone.”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

So it was really a wonderful statement. There had been a review of my office previously, a few months earlier, and it had come out very well. I hadn’t seen it, but I was told that it was very positive. And my answer was, “No, I don’t want to be isolated. I want to be part of the Department.” It’s very important to me that—

Zierler:

That’s why you were so effective to begin with.

Orbach:

Well, I don’t know how effective I was, but I wanted to be. [laugh] I wanted to be able to help the applied programs as best I could. And I think he understood immediately what I was saying, and we had the most wonderful conversation. I still didn't know if I would be replaced. And then a couple days later, nothing happened, so I was still there.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

Once you're confirmed, you're there until the President tells you to leave. Now, when the President leaves, you leave. So had there been a new President, there would have been a new Secretary, I just assumed there would have been a new team, and that would have been it. Now, whether I would have been asked to serve as a member of that administration, who knows?

Zierler:

To be even more expansive about it, I assume that you saw your role in non-partisan or bipartisan terms, so it was possibly even within the realm of possibility that the Obama administration might have wanted to keep you on in some capacity.

Orbach:

I think it’s in the realm of possibility, but it didn't happen.

Zierler:

[laugh] What role did you play in the transition, in the DOE generally, and the Office of Science specifically? Did you talk with your successor?

Orbach:

Oh. Yes, I have. Because the people who have been appointed or nominated had wanted to know what the office was like. So yes, I spoke with them. In fact, I encouraged them very much to take the job, because they were very fine. I mean, these were excellent people, and I just thought it would be wonderful if they would accept. I also pointed out that once you say no, that’s it. You're never asked again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I really enjoyed those seven years. It was hard work, but I felt very good about being able to serve the country. And I know that may sound a little corny, but it’s true. So when I talked to prospective new directors of the Office of Science, I made that point. Namely, it’s an opportunity to serve the country that you wouldn't have again or otherwise. And to be honest, they've all taken the job. [laugh] So it worked.

Zierler:

Were you tired when it was time to go? Were you ready to move on? I assume the job was extremely demanding.

Orbach:

Remember, I had come from the university. I had been a chancellor. That’s a 24/7 job. Before that, I was Provost. That’s another 24/7 job. No, I've been used to that. They teased me at UC Riverside for sending emails at midnight. The hard work was—I don’t know how to put it—I don’t want to be too self-aggrandizing—it was rewarding. Let’s leave it at that. And I was quite pleased to have done it. And I would have continued. But it also was clear—I left after ten years as Provost, after ten years as Chancellor, after four years as Undersecretary—it’s time to go and let somebody else have that job.

Zierler:

And in terms of time to go, what were some of the opportunities that you were considering? Was staying in Washington part of the list of opportunities available to you, or were you looking to get out of town generally?

Orbach:

Oh, no. We were staying. We had an apartment that we owned in Washington. Initially when—remember I left on January 20th at noon. Period.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

You're literally on the street. I mean, literally. I was the last one in the building, and at 11:59 and 59 seconds, the guard came in, took me by the hand, and walked me out of the building.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

So that’s it. You're then on the street. It’s a bit like Cinderella, you know? [laugh] It’s over.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Orbach:

But I loved physics, and I had been continuing to do it while I was undersecretary. And so there were some things I was involved in, calculations. And I tried to work with the Library of Congress for a couple of months, and it was very frustrating, because you don’t have access to the journals. You have to fill out a slip of paper. I knew how Karl Marx felt, at the British Museum. I mean, it’s very frustrating. Actually I did some very nice work, it turned out, and I since published it. But at the time, it was very frustrating. And then I was approached both by the University of Texas and the University of Maryland for the heads of their respective energy institutes. And so they both made very wonderful offers. To me, the opportunity to go to Texas and be in a completely different environment and a very nice offer, swayed my decision. And so we accepted in April or May—I can’t remember—to go there. But for a couple of months, I tried to work as a journeyman physicist in Washington. But I missed the university, and the ability to talk to people and get access to libraries and what have you.

Zierler:

Who were some of the main driving forces behind the Energy Institute at UT Austin?

Orbach:

Well, I think it was really President Powers that thought it was appropriate. If you looked at the University of Texas, it had resources across the board in energy. You had the Petroleum and Geosystems department, which is number one in the country for petroleum research and geosystems research. You had the Jackson School of Geosciences. You had the Bureau of Economic Geology. You had the Business School. Goodness. You had a number of different programs, also in Houston and elsewhere, that were run through the University that dealt, one way or another, with energy. And what President Powers suggested was the need to bring them together, to take advantage of all those resources by forming an institute that would use them as a base, and then hopefully add to the resources available to the campus.

Zierler:

In terms of your portfolio and areas of expertise, do you think that your recruitment was more a sign of your expertise in physics or your policy experience in Washington, or was it really the blend of both?

Orbach:

It was a blend of both. And that was the whole point, was that it was science and policy. I had appointments in three different departments—mechanical engineering, the physics department, and the Jackson School of Geosciences. That represented the breadth of the interactions that I had.

Zierler:

What were some of your main goals? What were you looking to accomplish at the Energy Institute?

Orbach:

What I wanted to do was to bring to the campus additional resources that would bring together the programs that were on campus. I haven't mentioned the chemistry department, the chemical engineering department. They all, in one way or another, were dealing with energy. And I felt that what we needed was additional resources to take advantage of those strengths that would bring them together and produce something new. So I worked with—or I tried to work with the large oil companies. I also pursued a number of opportunities that the Department of Energy had advertised, for example, for battery research and for energy research, solar energy research. There were hubs, I think they were called at the time, that I was instrumental in trying to bring to the campus. There were lots of activities that brought me to Houston and Dallas and elsewhere in Texas, to the Permian Basin, and so on, first of all to acquaint me with what resources Texas had, and then to bring them together in an integrated fashion on the campus. And of course to explore policy issues on the campus dealing with energy.

Zierler:

Obviously the Obama administration had a very different perspective on fossil fuels than the Bush administration did, and I wonder how that influenced, in terms of the policy side of things, the kinds of initiatives you were looking to accomplish at the Energy Institute?

Orbach:

Well, those attitudes really weren’t as divisive as they might seem. During the Bush administration, I was working with the parts of DOE that dealt with fossil fuels. Fossil Energy was the title of the organization. Looking at some basic research issues associated with carbon sequestration, for example. And that continued, was enhanced actually, through the Obama administration. So I worked actually with the Petroleum and Geosystems Department to come up with some schemes that would make carbon sequestration from coal-fired power plants economical. We actually wrote a paper on it. So there was really no distinction between the initiatives of the two different administrations. There was emphasis clearly on solar in the Obama administration, and I worked with the chemistry department for their beautiful work on solar taking solar energy and producing new chemical substances, initially just splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, which has continued.

That's still a major initiative of one of the hubs of DOE. So to me, it wasn’t an either/or. It was just simply a continuation of both. I certainly had a desire to reduce the carbon footprint. Now, that desire I also felt had to be economic. That is, you just couldn't ask people to double the price of gasoline [laugh] in order to sequester CO2. So there had to be—or electricity, for that matter. So there had to be a way to make it economical. So it was a combination of the market side and the technical side that I tried to bring together. Worked very closely with the business school, for example, in that process. So that was the initiative that I attempted as director.

Zierler:

I wonder in what ways, possibly as director of the Energy Institute, how that might have changed your thinking about the future of energy policy in the United States for the 21st century.

Orbach:

Oh, it had a profound effect. Absolutely. In particular, energy independence. When I was at DOE, it was somewhat ancillary. I mean, you had fossil energy worrying about it, but people didn't believe it. When you said the United States would be energy independent, they would just laugh at you. Well, with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, it suddenly became possible, as we have now seen. And I remember going on—I think it was MSNBC—to talk about when we would be energy independent, and I think—this was, remember, way back—back in 2011—I said, “Well, probably 2020.” I was wrong. It was 2019.

Zierler:

Amazing.

Orbach:

And it was because we had almost unlimited resources. You think about hydraulic fracturing; it deals with shale. Shale is formed at the bottom of sea beds. Well, the world is full of sea beds that underlie our earth. And you have the Marcellus Play, but below that, you had the Utica Play. And OK, so first you work on Marcellus, and then when you exhaust that, you could just go down to the Utica. I mean, the amount of oil and gas that is present in the United States is staggering.

Zierler:

But it does raise the question, should these resources be extracted, given their electronic and environmental consequences.

Orbach:

Well, that was one of the things that we wanted to pursue, were those consequences. At the time there was some stuff about injuring the water table. We did some studies in the Energy Institute that pointed out that the water table goes down roughly to 700 feet. That is, at 700 feet, you start getting saline levels that are too much to use for drinking water. So your water table is somewhere between the surface and 700 feet. Hydraulic fracturing takes place at 10,000 feet. And OK, if you drill badly, you can break the drilling casing and screw up the water table, but we know how to drill in Texas. We have 10,000 wells close to Fort Worth, and I think two have leaks [laugh] and they were shut down. So it just didn't seem to me to be an issue. There is one issue, and that is what to do with the liquids that come out. Because oil is a nasty stuff, and the stuff that—the so called produced water that comes out of the shale is nasty. But it can be managed, and as long as you manage it, one of the possibilities is drilling a hole and pulling it back down well below the water table, which is the injection method that’s used now. OK, that’s one way of getting rid of it. But nowadays, they're actually talking about separating the good water from the other stuff and getting rid of it. There’s lots of ways of handling that. That to me was the only downside that we were looking at. I never thought that the price of oil would go negative, [laugh] which it did a few weeks ago. But at the time, it was really a wonderful resource. And so we tried policy-wise to point out that there wasn’t any environmental consequences except for the ones I just mentioned.

Zierler:

Up until last year, you had the three affiliations with mechanical engineering, physics, and the Jackson School. And I'm just curious if you felt most at home in any one of those three.

Orbach:

I didn't, really. I'm a physicist, but my home department was engineering. And physicists sometimes are a little cocky about their basic science [laugh]. So I came to appreciate engineering, a lot. I actually taught a course on engineering materials when I was in the Department, and I learned a lot. I had forgotten about phase diagrams and eutectics and that kind of stuff. That’s terribly important. But I was able to introduce at the end the new materials that people are now making—they're called metamaterials—that you can make from fundamental physics principles. And so I was able to bring together, I hope, some of the new materials that physicists are working on, into the mechanical engineering field. And then the last two or three years, I taught a course in engineering on quantum mechanics. And I thought it was very important for engineers to understand the new quantum mechanics and how it affects the things that they do, both in terms of materials, in terms of electrical circuits and what have you. It turned out to be a very popular course, very advanced, but I was able to try and mix it with an engineering background. I really enjoyed that. So I found myself in a very different environment. It’s really my home department. I've kept obviously with physics and with the Jackson School, but I became an engineer! [laugh]

Zierler:

Ray, that brings us right up to present day. What are you working on these days of being home all the time?

Orbach:

[laugh] Well, I'm working from home as everyone else is. As you are. For my research. I'm actually supported by a Department of Energy grant. To go back to our previous conversation, it sprang from one of those workshops, the one on mesoscale physics. Suddenly occurred to me because of the work I had done at UCLA and Riverside, that there was a tremendous opportunity at the mesoscale for looking at what are called complex systems, systems that are non-linear and dynamic. And an example of that is something that we call a spin glass, which is nice because it has a magnetic moment, and you can actually measure it at the quantum level. And it occurred to me from that workshop that no one had ever looked at the behavior of these materials at that scale. And it has proven to be a boon.

There’s just more and more excitement that I think we've been able to generate by looking at these dynamical systems that are to the eye chaotic but in fact obey some very simple, beautiful geometries, at the mesoscale. And so I've been doing that. I have now a postdoc who works with me. We have a superconducting quantum interference device—we call it a SQUID—which measures at the quantum level very tiny magnetic fields and magnetic moments, and we look at the dynamics of these non-linear complex systems to see what happens at the mesoscale. One of the things we look at is called chaos. People use that phrase in a very unusual way, not a very specific mathematical way. But we can now be very specific about what the conditions are for chaos, what is chaos, and how do you measure it, and what are its consequences. How do you control it? And in the middle of all of this, some people that I had worked with at arm’s length in Rome and in Madrid have been able to synthesize—I should say simulate—these systems on a computer, a special built computer. And it brings back what I had said back in 2002.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Orbach:

I had given the commencement address at the RAND Graduate School, and at that time, the Earth Simulator, the Japanese machine, had just shown what you could do. And I said at that time—it’s actually written down—that there are three legs to scientific discovery—experiment, theory, and simulations. And now here [laugh] in 2020, I'm working with these wonderful machines in Europe that are doing simulations on the very things we're measuring. And so we're learning all kinds of things by interacting back and forth. Everything that I said in the RAND Graduate School talk is now coming to happen. So it’s a really fun time and an exciting time. The frustrating part is I can’t get to my office. But the nice thing is, we have a wonderful library here, so I can work at arm’s length. And my postdoc has been given permission by the campus, an exemption, to go in and change the samples once a week. By himself. And so we're continuing, as we did before. But it’s really fun right now.

Zierler:

Ray, I think for the last part of our excellent discussion—we've already established that you're a lumper and not a splitter, but for the sake of isolating your answers, I want to ask you two broadly conceived retrospective questions and two broadly conceived future-oriented questions. The retrospective questions are going to be split between your role as a scientist and a physicist and your role as an academic executive and a policy administrator. In your role as a physicist, what’s something that stands out in your mind, looking back to the beginning of your career, that you felt like you truly did not understand, and over the course of all of your decades in research and work, now you truly do understand, in the world of physics?

Orbach:

[pause] Well, first of all, I went into physics because it was very hard to understand. I think the work that I'm doing now on non-linear systems is an example. I wouldn't say that we have conquered it, or that I understand it fully, but I certainly understand it a lot better than I did. We started doing that in the ‘80s. That’s almost 40 years ago. And the major papers that we wrote were in 1992 and 1999. And looking back, they were prescient. That is, we had come up with concepts—correlation length and how do you measure it—which in retrospect were pretty impressive [laugh] and I think somewhat revolutionary in that field. And now, we're able to use them as tools in our investigation. So they're no longer discoveries; they are now vehicles for actually probing the nature of these very complex systems. And if you say that we understand it, I can’t say we understand it completely. But I can say that what we've done before has now given us tools that we can work with that we never dreamed of before. And those tools are proving, I think, very exciting and very remarkable. So that would be one example, I think, of the answer to your question.

Zierler:

Now on the policy and the administration side, if we say that we understand something in physics, it’s because we understand things like equations and particles. And I wonder, in reflecting on all your work in administration and policy, there, you have to understand how people work, right? That’s really the bottom line in being able to do these jobs effectively. And so I wonder how you understand in broad terms, how do people work? And how do you get things done in large and complex bureaucracies to make sure that the best possible outcome can be achieved?

Orbach:

Well, I don’t know if you've ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?

Zierler:

Sure. [laugh]

Orbach:

Under the word “quality”. At the time, I hadn’t read the book, but I have since read it. One of the—first of all, you're quite right. Dealing with people is a complex process. When I became provost, which is really the first time that I had been in administration, at UCLA, the issue of quality was first and foremost. And there, physics played a major role, because as you just pointed out, in physics you have this luxury of experiment and theory, and you can come up with all kinds of theories, but if they disagree with experiment, they're just fun, that’s all. [laugh] But they don’t have any meaning, or they're not very useful. Maybe. [laugh] So when I became Provost, I really felt that UCLA did not have the level of quality that Berkeley had. I think I said that before. So what I tried to do was to change the language of the promotion and tenure system, the rewards system, to focus more on the highest level of quality that I could. And at the time, it was not always accepted. And in fact, there were some enemies that I managed to create.

But I think that by and large, the people—the faculty and the students—respected that, and I was able to do things that otherwise I might not have been able to accomplish. As a consequence, I think UCLA has really risen beautifully in the galaxy of universities. And I like to think that we played a role in that at the—not the beginning, but at an important juncture in its history. It encompassed everything. It encompassed not only research; it encompassed teaching. It encompassed the extracurricular activities, that is, the academic side of athletics. For example, people may not think about that, but it’s terribly important that student athletes have a quality education, in my view. So everything about the institution depended on that criteria. And when I went to Riverside, it was the same thing. I wanted to see that campus bootstrap itself into a top-quality institution. Now, when you do something like that, you need the support of the people who are there. Without it, you can’t do it. And by the way, that’s not just the faculty and students. It’s also the Regents. It’s also the President’s office. It’s the whole bureaucracy that you're a part of. And so you have to convince them—actually, now that I think about it, the legislature as well, in a public university—that you're serious about this, and that it’s important to them as well as to you.

And so at Riverside, as I've already talked about, we made some major decisions that I think in retrospect have improved the quality of the campus. But it wasn’t just me. It was the whole faculty that rose to that point and agreed to actually take on a higher teaching load, to do things that meant harder work, but ultimately that led to the rise in prestige of themselves and the campus. When I went to DOE, the Office of Science was already very well established, but I thought that its relationship to Congress and to the policy field should be stronger. And so that was the reason that I worked with OMB and with Congress and within the DOE, with Secretary Abraham and Secretary Bodman, to improve the quality of the scientific basis for that Department. And I think in retrospect, it has worked out very well. And the people I have appointed bought into that, and have in fact on their own led the improvements that I had hoped would take place. You can’t do it yourself. Unless the faculty and the students believe in that concept and that they can arise and rise to that level, it won’t happen. So I was blessed in a way that UCLA, Riverside, and the Department of Energy had people that felt just like that.

Zierler:

Let’s take this duality and put it into the service of a forward-looking perspective. As a physicist and as a scientist, what are you most excited about in the future? What are the discoveries to be made, the technological advances to be achieved, that most captivate your imagination and attention looking forward?

Orbach:

Well, I think anybody who is asked that question would say the quantum world. That is, there are things out there that make no sense whatsoever, and are real, and do things that you would never have imagined. The fact that you can have atoms that communicate with one another quantum mechanically, instantaneously, over distances that are macroscopic, to me seems like magic. Entanglement is what it’s called. I just don’t understand it, but it’s real, and it happens. It’s often said that physics advances when the old guard dies. And I think the young people who work in that field now are doing incredibly exciting things. One of the real beauties is the coming together of physics as a discipline. We talk now about Dirac materials. Well, if you think of Dirac in terms of relativity, and yet now we're talking about materials that behave like mathematically his equations. They're four-dimensional. I mean, it’s just remarkable that some of these ideas come from everywhere [laugh] and enable you to accomplish things you would never have dreamed of, and give you properties you would never have dreamed of. I also am very excited over simulations and what will happen when we reach exaflop speeds at Oak Ridge. When we reach that speed, I think you're going to see simulations that will be fabulous. We will be making discoveries that we never dreamed of. I've already indicated about it, the exaflop, but the special computers that work on these random systems that I work on, the wonderful things that come out of them, the insights that you would never have had otherwise. So that’s another area that I think has enormous promise for the future. So those are a couple of things that I think are very exciting, and I hope I live long enough [laugh] to participate in them.

Zierler:

Finally, in the world of science policy, we talked a little bit before how there’s always opportunity in crisis. In many ways, science and science policy are in crisis right now, if we want to talk about denialism with regard to climate change, people’s beliefs in vaccines and things—like in the daily news, social distancing and things like that. And there seems to be a real crisis or a divide between what scientists do and how that is communicated and implemented through a policy mechanism. So in all of your experience in the world of science policy, what opportunities do you see in this current crisis that we're in—and not just the coronavirus crisis, but this broader structural crisis of a divide, to some degree, between the world of science and the broader American public—what are some opportunities that you might see looking ahead that might put us in a stronger position than we're currently in?

Orbach:

I don’t know if I can foresee what you've just asked. The major issue that I see is scientific literacy. That is, the ability of the scientific community to explain itself to the community at large. You mentioned the COVID-19 issue, and I think just looking at the news reports and the policies that are being implemented haphazardly across the country, there seems to be a divide between policymakers and what I would call a scientific basis for dealing with the virus. Now, the science is not known. It’s a new virus, and we're still learning about its efficacy and its danger and so on. But there’s enough information there that I think policymakers could rely on. The difficulty is getting the information in a form that they can understand, and hopefully we are still a democracy, that their responsibility to the community will drive them to follow.

What I find as I look around—things are just inconsistent under the same conditions. And yet the science is not. Science is pretty clear. And so—not totally known, and there’s surprises out there and so on, but the timeline is clear, and the nature of the disease is becoming clear. And I just wish that there was enough literacy out there for policymakers to follow a path that made sense. There will be other things that matter. You were talking before about the Energy Institute, and I remember at the time the huge flap over the water contamination from hydraulic fracturing. There was that horrible movie that showed you could light the water coming out of the water tap. That was completely phony. But nevertheless, it got people terrified. Well, all you had to do was look at where they're fracturing and where the water is coming from, and figure out that there’s no problem, unless you drill badly. And that’s the responsibility of the states, and in Texas, we know how to drill [laugh] of all things. And so the policies then—still around.

You have New York State that has banned hydraulic fracturing. On what basis do you ban that when immediately across the border in Pennsylvania, they've been hydraulic fracturing for years, and they never had any trouble with their water supply? And in Texas, we haven't either. So what consistency is there in policy where two states that abut one another have completely different positions on exactly the same thing? And I must say, at a terrible loss to the citizens of New York. You can see where I'm coming from.

So it’s the literacy issue that really bothers me. One of the things that I felt very important in the Office of Science was to maintain the integrity of science. We had pressures all the time. You may remember cold fusion. I just wouldn't have anything to do with it, because there wasn’t any scientific basis that I could rely on that said it was a real thing. Another was geosystems engineering. There was a suggestion that we take iron filings, huge amounts of iron filings, and dump them in the ocean. Well, on no basis would I even [laugh] pay attention to that. It’s one thing, OK, to increase the amount of CO2 that the ocean could absorb. But something else might happen also. And things like that, to me—another thing—I'm sorry; there are just so many of them—what did they call it—methane hydrates at the bottom of the ocean. Bringing them up to the surface would immediately allow the methane hydrates to give off their methane. There is a problem of melting of the permafrost, and the methane hydrates there. And then you get methane in the atmosphere, which is 28 times as dangerous as CO2 for warming, if you limit it to 100 years. These things had scientific consequences that to me were terribly important. And so the integrity of the scientific area was critical to me. It’s a way of assuming that policymakers can believe it and hopefully follow it. But as I say, around the country right now, there’s little evidence that it has a uniform effect.

Zierler:

Ray, I'm just reflecting now on this whirlwind tour that we've taken over the course of our two discussions. And for some reason, the metaphor has popped into my head of—if you look at the nutrition label of a multivitamin and it says it has 600% of your daily recommended dose of Vitamin C, I feel like with this oral history interview that we've done, there has just been so much wisdom and perspective and science packed into this relatively short amount of time we've spent together. I feel like in every single regard, we are way over 100% in all that you've offered so generously of your time. So I really want to thank you for our time together. I really appreciate it.

Orbach:

David, that’s very kind. Thank you so much. I hope I can be helpful.

Zierler:

Absolutely.