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Credit: Lowell Brown
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Interview of Lowell Brown by David Zierler on May 21, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/XXXX
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Lowell Brown, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Washington. Brown recounts his childhood growing up on a farm in California and his early interests in nuclear physics. He describes his undergraduate experience at Berkeley, where he worked with Burton Moyer’s group in the radiation lab. Brown describes his decision to go to Harvard for graduate school, and the considerations leading to his focus on theoretical work with Julian Schwinger. He describes his dissertation work on a field theory description of elementary particle decay. Brown recounts his postdoctoral research at the University of Rome and at CERN and he discusses his collaborative work at Imperial College. He explains the circumstances leading to his faculty position at Yale, and his decision to join the physics department at UW. Brown provides an institutional history of the department and the major research projects he took on during his career, including the 3-by-3 matrix, the g-2, experiment, quadratic Brownian motion, general relativity, and quantum field theory, about which he wrote a major book in 1994. At the end of the interview, Brown discusses his work at Los Alamos, where he has worked on theoretical research as a consultant, and he describes his lifelong passion for Ferraris.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 21, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Prof. Lowell Brown. Lowell, thank you so much for being with me today.
To start, tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
I was a professor of physics at the University of Washington. I retired around 2000, and I had been a consultant at the Los Alamos Laboratory since the middle 1970s. I moved to Santa Fe and worked half-time at the Los Alamos Lab for about 15 years after I retired. But I finally am really retired.
[laughs] So, you’re in New Mexico now.
Yeah, I am. I’m in Santa Fe.
Okay. Let’s go right back to the beginning. Tell me about your family background and your early childhood.
I grew up in a fertile area. Twenty miles north of me, Bryce DeWitt was born, who became a very well-known expert in general relativity. Twenty miles to the east of me, my uncle once asked me…he taught high school, and said, “I wonder what happened to a student of mine. His name was James Rainwater.” I told him, “Well, he was a professor of physics at Columbia University, and he won a Nobel Prize.” So, my area was fertile. I grew up a mile from the city limits on a little farm…four-acre. The street I grew up on was called Lovers Lane. And there’s a movie you can find, a film noir B-movie that’s called The Girl in Lovers Lane. And it stars Lowell Brown. So, is that good enough?
[laughs] That’s good enough. I might need a few more clues, though, for what your actual birthplace was.
I was born in Visalia, California. I grew up on this small farm. I got interested in nuclear physics after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I read some articles about it in LIFE magazine. So, I read those, and I guess we subscribed to Popular Mechanics or something, and they had articles about it. When I graduated grammar school, I had to write some essay about something, so I wrote an essay about nuclear physics as a 13-year old or 14-year old guy. I then sent it to the Physics department at the University of California at Berkeley, and I said I’d like to come and visit the Radiation Laboratory. About two weeks later, I got a letter back saying I should come up at some certain Saturday afternoon. So, my father drove me up 200 miles — I guess we got up early in the morning — and met a man named Burton Moyer at the gate of the Radiation Laboratory up the hill in Berkeley, and we had an all-afternoon tour of the laboratory.
Alvarez had just finished building his linear accelerator, and it was interesting. The beam-line completely filled this room that it was in, with no room for any experimental area or anything. But there was a large room further on that the beam-line had to go through a bathroom to get to it. And so this beam-line went over a toilet that, I guess, was not used. Anyway, we saw the — well, before we saw the cyclotron — we saw this gigantic machine shop where they’d machined the pole pieces for the 184-inch cyclotron. It was a horizontal lathe. I’d never seen such a thing. So anyway, we went to the cyclotron, and it was not running, so we could get inside the shield and actually look at the cyclotron. There was a probe cart. You could put a probe cart through vacuum interlocks into the cyclotron. On it was a target, and that target was the target that was used to produce the first pi mesons in a laboratory. That had been done about two weeks before I got there.
Lowell, let’s take the narrative back a little bit. Were your parents native Californians?
My father was a native Californian, and his father was, too. On the other hand, my mother was from Nebraska, and her father was a Norwegian who had immigrated from Norway.
Did you go to public school?
Yes. I don’t know if there was a private school in Visalia. I don’t think so.
[laughs] Right. So, you said early on — when did you start to exhibit strength in math and science in school?
Well, I just always found it pretty easy. When I was in 4th grade, I think I was taking 5th grade mathematics, or whatever it was. And in high school, I took a course in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry and so forth. They did not teach precalculus or anything like that. And to do the geometry, I never glanced at the textbook. We were supposed to come in the next day and prove some theorem on the blackboard, and so I’d invent some proof. But on the other hand, I was taught to read by phonics, which was terrible. I’m sorry, not by phonics, but by word recognition. Now, a physicist has a good spatial memory, and so I could learn to read very quickly. But then, when I had encountered a word I’d never seen before, I had no idea how to pronounce it or what it was, and it made it very difficult to learn foreign languages or anything like that. And I also never had — I mean, we were taught about nouns and pronouns, and this and that, but I only learned the word to parse when I had to work with computers, so we never really analyzed the sentence structure. I took Latin in high school, and that I did study. I’d take a book home and study an hour every night, and I still didn’t do very well. But that’s the only course I studied in high school.
Were you thinking specifically about physics programs when you were deciding about what college to go to?
My father wanted me to be an electrical engineer. He said you could make lots of money. So, a girl I knew in high school said I really ought to go to Berkeley, so I applied to Berkeley and went there. I started out as an electrical engineering major. I had an advisor who told me I had to take these other courses to fill out whatever you call it — these courses that weren’t in your major — distribution requirements, or something, I guess they called it. One of them was political science and this advisor said I should really take it, so I did. I went to the first lecture — spent the whole hour explaining why political science was a science. So, at that point, even though I was this hick kid from Visalia, I decided if you had to prove that political science was a science, it must not be a science. And so, I never went to any more of his lectures. I did read the textbook. Anyway, I changed in the second semester to be an engineering physicist, and then starting with my sophomore year, I just changed to be a physicist.
Yeah. Who were some of the professors at Berkeley you became close with?
I knew Burton Moyer who had shown me the cyclotron when I was a child, and I actually talked him into having me become a member of his research group at the radiation lab. I think I even got paid a little bit. So, I worked a few hours a week. I started, I guess, when I was a junior in college. So, he was a person that I knew. At that time, the students were not coddled. I mean, I never knew any other teachers very well. I took a course in quantum mechanics from Emilio Segrè. I thought it was kind of funny, because he was reading Fermi’s notes, and he sometimes got hbar upside down. And then I took a course in nuclear physics from Luis Alvarez who also won the Nobel Prize. And that was the time that Alvarez started building hydrogen bubble chambers. Physics there was very active.
Did you have a senior thesis at Berkeley?
No. No, I didn’t. No, there’s not such a thing. It’s interesting. In the fall of ’55, I guess it was, when I was a senior, I spent evenings at the rad lab babysitting a huge Cherenkov counter that was at the end of the antiproton experiment. So, I kind of vaguely participated in the discovery of the antiproton, but I mean, I was just a technician. I wasn’t even acknowledged in anything. But Moyer’s group had the counter at the end of Segrè’s experiment that discovered the antiproton that gave confirmation.
How much lab work did you do at Berkeley?
There’s a course in classical mechanics, and there was a lab attached to that. And the lab was just atrocious. We were supposed to do these accurate measurements of things sliding down planes, and this and that and the other, and to provide a statistical analysis of the errors. Well, the errors were not statistical. They were systematic. So, you kind of had to cheat to write a laboratory report, and I didn’t like that at all. Then, the only other lab I took was at the end of my senior year. And it was a laboratory in atomic physics, and that was a wonderful lab. We did all kinds of classic — like, the Frank Hertz experiment. We did all kinds of really modern physics experiments. Well, experiments of kind of the ’20s and ’30s, but that was a lot of fun. I had a lab partner. His name was Vernon Ehlers. He was the first physicist to become a member of the United States Congress. I tried to contact him after he became a representative in Congress, to no avail. I guess I couldn’t get through his fence around him.
Well, what was your sense of some of the most exciting developments generally that were happening in physics while you were at Berkeley? What were some of the big questions that some of the major professors were working on while you were there?
Frankly, I didn’t know a lot of what was going on in the experiments except for the antiproton experiment. The really important thing was in the summer, I worked in the summer after I graduated college. I worked at the rad lab full time. Some graduate students who I knew had come back from the Rochester conference, and they had said that some nut was trying to say that parity is violated. And so that was, of course, the Theta-Tau puzzle, which was — I’m not sure I really understood it. Anyway, that was up in the air, the violation of parity. That was, of course, a very major development in physics. Otherwise, I don’t know. They produced, as I said, for the first time plus and minus pions, and then also later, the pi-zero. And they did a lot of — actually, Brookhaven was ahead of Berkeley in doing experiments with their Cosmotron. The Cosmotron had not had enough energy to produce an antiproton, but it did produce K mesons and associated production, and all that stuff. The Berkeley accelerator, the Bevatron, was delayed a few years because Lawrence and Alvarez were worried that we were going to run out of uranium. And so, they wanted to make Uranium-233 from thorium with a gigantic accelerator. And so, the laboratory was devoted to that for a couple of years about making this gigantic accelerator to make Uranium for bombs. It would be a gigantic thing, about a mile long, with its own nuclear reactor to provide energy for it. You know, those guys thought big at that time.
What graduate programs did you apply to?
I don’t know.
You remember — was it only Harvard, or do you remember applying to more schools?
I actually don’t remember applying to more schools, but I guess I got pretty good recommendations, I really wanted to go to Chicago and work with Fermi, but Fermi by that time had died, so I didn’t go to Chicago. That was going to be my first choice.
And how well developed were your interests in theoretical physics by the time you graduated from Berkeley? Did you know that you wanted to pursue theoretical physics specifically for graduate work?
No. I thought I’d become an experimentalist.
Yeah. And for example, the first summer when I was a graduate student, I worked at the Harvard cyclotron. But I decided that I wanted to be a theorist for two reasons: one, I thought it was harder to be a theorist, and so that was a challenge; and the other was that I didn’t want to be a member of these great big experimental groups. They had like, five people in a group, and that was too many people for me.
So, if you specifically remember only applying to Harvard, what was it about Harvard? Was there somebody in particular you wanted to work with?
Well, I did this at the advice of Burt Moyer. He said there was some really smart guy there named Schwinger. So, I said, okay.
Were you familiar with Schwinger’s work prior to joining Harvard?
No. No, I was not.
What year did you graduate Berkeley?
1956. Okay. So, you get to Harvard in the fall of 1956.
Do you start working with Schwinger right away, or is there a period of time where you have to prove yourself before he agrees to take you on?
Well, it was rather informal. I don’t remember exactly when I started working with Schwinger. It was probably toward the end of my second year, and there was a preliminary exam, an oral exam, that we had to pass. But that was not that hard. And Schwinger, at that time, essentially would almost let anybody be his graduate student, and instead of having some qualifications by something, you became qualified by not flunking out or giving up. [laughs] But Schwinger, at that time had about, I don’t know, eight or 10 graduate students. And I saw him about every month or two. It was good. I mean, it was kind of learning by jumping into a fire, so to speak. You either burned up, or you didn’t burn up. [laughs]
So, Lowell, at what point do you decide to focus on theoretical physics? Is this like, from day 1, when you get to Harvard, or it’s more gradual?
No. As I said, it was the summer after my first year in graduate school. I decided that theoretical physics was more challenging. And as I said before, I didn’t want to be in large groups of five people. Now, it’s of course 5,000 or so.
[laughs] Right. Was this an easy transition for you, or you felt like you had to play some catch-up?
Oh, no. I worked very hard on the beginning graduate courses. Also, I took extra mathematics classes and so forth. So, I was completely prepared to be a theorist.
What were some of the big projects that Schwinger was working on during those years?
He was working with Paul Martin. Paul Martin started as an elementary particle theorist at that time — computing radiative corrections to atoms. But then Paul got interested in condensed matter physics, and so he got Schwinger interested, and so they worked together for a year or two.
Now, I’m curious about that, Lowell. I mean, to have Paul Martin and Schwinger get interested all of a sudden in condensed matter, it sort of begs the question: what was the big deal that was going on in condensed matter physics to get people of this stature interested?
Well, it was a time that — well, quantum field theory at that time was in kind of bad shape. It had had enormous successes in atomic physics and explaining the Lamb shift and the magnetic moment of the electron and the hyperfine structure, and so forth. But the interactions in elementary particle physics were strong, and so the perturbation calculations weren’t applicable. And nobody knew really quite what to do. And a lot of people started just kind of thinking that there was stuff beyond quantum field theory. This was the time of Geoffrey Chew and his S-matrix stuff and trying to avoid anything with field theory. It was sort of clear that you might be able to apply quantum field theory to condensed matter physics, and also things like nuclear structure perhaps, and many particles. So that was a field that quantum field theory had not been applied to before, so it was just — I had to take it that it wasn’t a question if they had some experiment to explain or some phenomenon to really describe. They just thought: Well, here’s a field we haven’t tried so let’s do the quantum field theory of many particle systems.
And where did you see your own budding scholarship, your own research, within these developments? What kind of work were you looking to do?
Schwinger gave me some rather formal problems to work on that I’m not very happy with, for my Ph.D. thesis. I’d just rather forget about it.
[laughs] Well, maybe you can forget about it right after our interview, but right now, I must ask: what were you not happy about?
Well, it was trying to prove that — it was in a couple of things. It was a field theory description of elementary particle decay, which was not very original, and that was half of it. The other half was trying to prove in some rigorous way that you could not have an anomalous magnetic moment, an intrinsic anomalous magnetic moment, in the Lagrangian. Now, it’s known that if you did perturbation calculations, it was not renormalizable. Schwinger wanted some operator proofs or something that would hold to all orders. And I could kind of — well, I don’t know, do a little bit on the periphery of it, but I never really proved anything serious.
What was Schwinger like as a mentor? Was he accessible? Was he easy to work with?
Well, as I told you, he had a very large number of students, and he was not that accessible — as with many other of his students, I would see him for an hour or two once a month or something. That was good practice too, because since you could only see him for such a short period, I would spend a long time writing up detailed notes of what I wanted to talk to him about, because I didn’t want to waste any time. That was very good practice, but that’s, as I say, kind of learning by just not being coddled at all.
Was his style if you had a problem you couldn’t work through, could you go to him and he would help you?
No. I mean, you could tell him what you were doing, and he would maybe nudge you in some direction or something, but I don’t think he would give much explicit help — give probably a lot of implicit help, but not explicit help. In the last year or two at Harvard, I got to know the junior faculty fairly well. For example, Wally Gilbert, who was an assistant professor of physics at that time — I used to see him about once a week, so he was really a lot of help. Then of course, he went into biology and won a Nobel Prize in biology. But I guess, for example, once my wife and I had dinner at his house and — who else was around — Kurt Gottfried was around. I used to have lunch with him when the weather was good, we’d have lunch outside on the grass. In the last year or so, I would go out with Schwinger’s entourage to Chez Dreyfus, this place in Cambridge where he always had the same steak or something. So, I’d actually have lunch with him quite often, but I never talked anything about…I mostly just listened. I guess I was not so timid as a graduate student.
[laughs] Lowell, I’ll test your memory. What was the title of your dissertation?
I don’t know. I guess “Quantum Field Theory of an Anomalous Magnetic Moment” and “Unstable Particles” …I mean, there’s two different pieces.
I’m sorry, Lowell. We cut out for a second there. I asked the question about the contribution of your dissertation. I did not hear your response. I’m sorry about that.
Well, it’s good — I guess the point is, I don’t really have any response. It really just kind of disappeared.
Well, Schwinger passed you. You must have had some significance as far as he was concerned.
Well, I can tell you how Schwinger passed me. I had a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship the whole time I was at Harvard. I’d finished my thesis, but Schwinger had to approve it, and he was in UCLA. And so, I wrote a letter to the National Science Foundation saying, “Could you give me some money to travel to UCLA to get my thesis advisor’s approval of my thesis?” They wrote me back and said yes, and here’s some check or something. It’s really different times. The physicists had a huge amount of clout because of their efforts in the war, which was only 10 years or 15 years before. So, I got on an airplane and went to California, and I stayed with the woman that had suggested I go to Berkeley married a physicist, and so I stayed with them when I was in Los Angeles. I phoned up Schwinger and said, “I’m here, and I’d like you to look at my thesis.” I’d not written him or anything, so he was a little bit surprised that I was there. So, he said, “Well, what you should do is, there’s this turnaround place at a lamp pole in the UCLA campus. And you go there at 12:30 tomorrow or something, and I’ll come and pick you up and take you out to lunch.” So, I handed him my thesis, and then I guess I stayed another couple of days. And he says, “Oh, that’s okay.” That’s how I got my thesis approved.
[laughs] Well, it worked, apparently. So, Lowell, once you had graduated, once you defended, what were your options? What were you looking at in terms of postdocs or research work? What were your available opportunities?
I got a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship for two years, and — at that time — I guess one of the major things in elementary particle physics was the application of dispersion relations, analytic properties, and that kind of stuff. And they’d done some good work at the University of Rome, and so I thought, well — and also, I guess my wife and I had seen these Italian movies, and La Dolce Vita, for example, was a movie that took place in Rome. So, we went to Rome. There were other people at Harvard that had been to Rome, and we asked them, you know, how do we find an apartment? They said, “Well, you go to the bottom of the Via Veneto, and there’s a bar, and you go in there, and you ask for some guy, who will no doubt be sitting there, and he will find you an apartment.” So, that’s what we did when we went.
[laughs] And what was the culture like there in the Institute?
Well actually, at that time, the place was not as active as it had been a couple of years before. So, I misjudged that, and so mostly I was on my own. There were some other postdocs I talked with, but the only publishable research I did there was to write a long paper on the analytic properties of potential scattering theory that you can prove from infinite determinants. I worked on that with another fellow, and finally he went to MIT and discovered that exactly the same thing was being done by another couple of people. And so the four of us finally published the paper on the subject. So, that did make a tiny little dent. It was quoted, to some extent, by Regge himself in a book that he wrote.
Then after the first year in Rome, I went to a conference in Trieste. That was the forerunner of Salam’s effort to make an institute in Trieste. And so, he made this conference and was trying to get support for building this institute. It’s good I went there, because again, you know, I never thought much about anything in the future. I wanted to go to CERN for the second year, so I wrote this letter saying I’d like to come to CERN. I got a letter back a few weeks later saying they’d be happy to appoint me and pay me to work in their accelerator department. And it took me a while to figure this out, and I finally decided that I’d forgot to tell them that I had my way completely paid, and I didn’t need any money. All I wanted was a desk in the theoretical department. [laughs] And the reason, I guess, they offered me this job was I worked a summer at Lincoln Lab outside of Cambridge, and I wrote a couple of fairly trivial papers there on perturbations of microwave waveguides and cavities. Accelerators have microwaves, so I guess they thought I was a microwave expert, because I had four publications in something that included the two of those Lincoln Lab papers.
And I assume you could get by on English okay. That was the shared language?
Well, yeah. In Rome, it was terrible, because everybody spoke English — at least, to us — at University of Rome there. I learned a fair amount of Italian by going to a school a couple of times a week. And I never got very fluent in Italian, but you know, I could get by. Anyway, I really didn’t want to go work in the accelerator department at CERN, and so when I was in Trieste, I guess I told Schwinger of my problems. He was there as a lecturer. I heard Imperial College in London is a pretty good place, and that’s where Salam is. Could you ask Salam if he can get me a position as a visiting something at Imperial College? And so, that’s where I went the next year. It’s good I went to that conference, because otherwise, I don’t know where I’d go.
Now, the NSF grant was — did you extend it, or was the idea from the beginning that you’d spend time in Italy and then time in Britain?
No. No, I mean, that was just a fellowship for two years. I could do whatever I wanted.
So, what was it that attracted you to Imperial College?
There was Salam, and Matthews, and Tom Kibble, and various people that I knew about, and they had done a lot of work on elementary particle physics and quantum field theory, some of which was good. [laughs] So, that’s why I went.
Well, I wonder, during your time in Europe, if it was useful in terms of refining your identity as a physicist and helping to sharpen the kinds of things that you would spend the rest of your career working on.
Well, I guess it made writing papers easier.
[laughs] And did you find that that was what you were really good at…writing papers?
Well, I don’t know. I skipped all over the place in theoretical physics. I worked on elementary particle physics a long time, and then I worked on some cosmology, some general relativity, a little bit of nuclear physics and plasma physics. I kind of jumped around a little. So, it isn’t as if I sharpened a tool to do one particular branch of physics. I mean, I enjoyed working on different topics.
Well, for example, when I was at Imperial College, I found a preprint of a friend of mine, Zoltan Fried, who I knew from Cambridge, on the scattering of intense laser beams on photons. I didn’t think he did a very good job of it. So, I convinced Tom Kibble to help me. I knew that — I’d read Schwinger’s famous paper on vacuum polarization and the first footnote said that somebody had made an exact wave function for a relativistic Klein-Gordon wave function for electrons and laser fields. So, I thought: well, I should be able to use that to make it…for Dirac electrons. And so, we did that, and Kibble and I wrote this fairly long, extensive paper. And of course, it said that they could never, ever measure this, because it needed six orders of magnitude, something like that — more intensity than presently available — and that was impossible. And then of course, in the late 1980s, they actually measured it and found these nonlinear effects. And that paper became fairly famous, actually. I mean, that’s one of the top — I don’t know, three or four papers, if you go into my Google Scholar.
But see, that’s not exactly elementary particle physics in the conventional sense.
Right, but it is in keeping with the idea that you were bouncing around theoretical physics pretty well.
Now, how did the opportunity for the professorship at Yale come about? Did they recruit you, or did you apply for an open position?
I knew Charlie Sommerfield slightly. I can’t remember where I met him. I think he had already graduated by the time I entered Harvard. I’m not sure. Anyway, again, it’s an interesting thing about the times: because I never worried about my future. It was this coincidence stuff that I was able to go to Imperial College. In the spring of my year at Imperial College, I started thinking: well, you know, maybe I ought to worry about what I’m going to do next. But there were all kinds of opportunities, because if I couldn’t get a job at a university, I could get an interesting job in some laboratory, because there were lots — there were the national laboratories. There were — I never even thought about the weapon laboratories, but they were there. And companies had — Bell Labs was a very famous place at that time, and General Electric had a famous group of physicists and so forth.
So, you were really open to a variety of opportunities after you were at Imperial College?
I wanted to work at a university, but if I couldn’t do that, I always had something to fall back on. Also, I guess one thing I did was I wrote Francis Low, at MIT, a letter asking him if I could get some kind of position there. And he wrote me back and said, “Well, you’ve really got to try to get one someplace else, but if everything else fails, I’ll find a job for you at MIT.” And then I think Charlie Sommerfield just wrote me a letter saying that they were rejuvenating the physics department at Yale, and that it would be wonderful if I would come. And so, I came there for one year as a postdoc, and then I was an assistant professor for a couple of years, and then I was a non-tenured associate professor for another couple of years.
Lowell, what were your impressions of the physics department at Yale when you first arrived?
Well, it was in transition. There were some good experimentalists. The theory group had some young people in it, but it was not…I mean, it certainly was not Harvard. It had some prestige because it was a famous Ivy League university. But a lot of the physics did not match with its prestige. The only famous older person there was Gregory Breit, and he was a very crotchety guy. And I don’t know if he even had any students at that time. He had a couple of postdocs that had worked with him, but they left. I guess he was about to retire. And my wife got to know his wife fairly well. He had some minor car accident, but they did not have any insurance for their car. And so, they had to pay somebody quite a bit of money, and I think they got their drivers’ license revoked. I can’t remember. Anyway, my wife would take Mrs. Breit out to do grocery shopping: which is a little bit funny, because at that time, when we went to Italy…I worked the summer before we went to Rome at the IBM Research Lab in San Jose, California. And I made enough money plus a little bit of money we’d saved to buy a little Alfa Romeo sports car. It was a beautiful car. We had it in Rome, London, and in New Haven to transport Mrs. Breit.
Is this the beginning of your love affair with cars, or did it go back earlier than that?
Well after I came back as a kid from this trip to the Berkeley Rad Lab, I asked Moyer where I could get a Geiger tube, because I wanted to build a Geiger counter. So, I built a Geiger counter.
What were you interested in using the Geiger counter for?
Just to see if I could build it. And my father had some rock that he said was radioactive, and in fact, it was.
How did your father know that this rock was radioactive?
I had no idea. And anyway, I built that, and I understood as a kid electrical circuits, and I understood how radios worked and vacuum tubes and everything; except I had no idea what Maxwell’s equations were. I had a qualitative understanding of all these things. But I was in this little town, and there was nobody else to talk to or to help me with anything, so I then — I was always interested in building things. For example, an electrical transformer fell off a power pole and was broken, so I was able to buy that, and I turned it into an arc welder with some help from Popular Mechanics magazine, or something. So, I would build things. I’d work on old cars. I was part of the hot rod culture, of course. There was a tremendous hot rod culture everywhere in California at that time. So, I hung out with those people some and was their mascot, sort of, because they were three years older than I was, which is sort of infinitely older at that age group.
Well, I wonder, during your time at Yale, if you thought that there was a sense that the physics program was looking to build itself up to be more competitive with the top-tier physics programs in the country.
Yes. Well, yeah. I mean, after I was there, they hired Feza Gürsey, who was fairly well known, and then they were connected — the older faculty were somehow connected with Princeton — and so they hired people that Princeton recommended. I don’t know if I could have stayed there. I could have perhaps stayed there and kind of fought for them to give me tenure, but they were not anxious to give me tenure. I know other people who have stayed there and did finally succeed in getting tenure — there was a guy named Loyal Durand III…“Randy.” So, Randy Durand was a fairly well-known nuclear theorist, and they did not keep him, and hired somebody else instead, which I thought was a mistake. But that’s because they essentially let Princeton tell them what to do, I think.
So, what then was your decision to move out west?
I had a number of possibilities.
I mean, the first question is: Why did you not want to stay at Yale? You got tenure at Yale.
No, I did not.
You did not get tenure at Yale.
I had an untenured associate professorship.
Oh, I see. The associate threw me off.
I mean, that’s kind of typical of those Ivy League colleges at that time.
Right. I knew Harvard had that system. I was not aware that Yale had that system as well.
Yeah. I don’t know if they still do or not. They did at that time. And you know, they wanted to keep me and have me around. They just didn’t want to think about having me around forever. Anyway, so I just looked around. I think I got a job offer from Brown University. The University of Illinois was interested in me. The University of Illinois had always a pretty good reputation in physics, at least at that time. I mean, for example, John Bardeen was there, and a lot of people had gone through. Murray Gell-Mann spent a year there. Geoffrey Chew was there for a while. Lots of people had been at the University of Illinois. But I couldn’t get my wife to come even when I visited there.
That wasn’t going to work for her.
No, that was not going to work for her.
But Seattle was a nice place to live.
Yeah. I knew a fellow named David Boulware who was a graduate student a year behind me at Harvard. He wanted me to come to the University of Washington a lot, so that’s the reason I went. And also, I’d been there a couple of years before, because they had some summer institute and so I thought it was a reasonably nice place.
And same question: what were your impressions of the physics department at Washington when you got there? Was it also in growth mode? Was it looking to rise-up the ranks?
The University of Washington always had a little bit of notoriety. I mean, they’d had some summer institutes, and so forth, for a long time. But the faculty there was okay. I think during the time I was there — I think the University of Washington went from kind of a provincial university to — I don’t know what you want to call it — a first-rate, second-class university, or something like that. It wasn’t in the top six or something, but it was certainly in the top 20 or something.
There was one remarkable physicist there named Hans Dehmelt, who did this very famous experiment to measure the magnetic moment of the electron — like three orders of magnitude — more accurate than anybody else had done before. So, that was a fantastic experiment. See, that’s another thing I worked on. I got interested in this experiment and so I started talking to these people; this is before they published it. And they had — I talk a little bit technically. They had this trap. It’s a small trap in a superconducting magnetic field, and the trap had electrodes on it, with a kind of parabolic electrodes…whatever. So, it had a voltage across this trap, and it had a magnetic field. So, the whole motion of the electron is determined by two external parameters, and they could measure three different frequencies. So, they measured the three frequencies — there was a relation between the two frequencies because there were only two external parameters. So, there were two variables and three measurements. So, if you can eliminate everything and get a relationship amongst these three frequencies…and it didn’t work. [laughs] And so, they were concerned about that.
So, I made a great contribution to that experiment. I diagonalized the 3-by-3 matrix, and I showed that the discrepancy could be accounted for if the electric and magnetic fields were not precisely aligned. And I asked them, “How much out of alignment might it be?” And it was, “I don’t know, a degree or something.” And it was just the right amount. They’d guessed, you know, what the accuracy was. And it was just about the amount that their relationship didn’t work. But the great thing about that is I also proved that the difference frequency that determined the anomalous magnetic moment was insensitive to this. It was not linear. It was quadratic in this deviation. The discrepancy they’d measured was linear in this small quantity and the important quantity to get the magnetic moment was quadratic in this small quantity and so it was negligible. So, then they published the paper.
Did you mostly work on this project on your own, or did you have collaborators?
I worked on that by myself, and then a young guy, Gerry Gabrielse, I got to know. And he was kind of more interested in the kind of theoretical explanations of things than the other guys. I mean, Dehmelt was a genius. He could make electromagnetic analogs to anything, and he knew everything about electromagnetic devices. A lot of good people went through as Dehmelt’s postdocs. For example, there’s David Wineland, who ended up at Boulder. I don’t know what you call the National Bureau of Standards now, but whatever — and he won a Nobel Prize a couple of years ago. Anyway, so Gabrielse and I started working on every possible little correction you could think about for this experiment, and so we finally wrote a Reviews of Modern Physics article about the theory of the experiment. That paper probably is the most quoted paper I’ve ever written.
Why do you think it gained so much traction?
Because after Dehmelt did these experiments, trapped ions attracted a lot of interest. So, it was the handbook for anybody who was doing trapped ions to know how to reduce the systematics and so forth.
So, to return to this idea that for a while you had really been bouncing around in theoretical physics generally, did the reception of this paper help narrow your focus, or you still wanted to have a sort of broad research purview in terms of the kinds of things you worked on?
I wrote several papers connecting to that experiment. There are problems with electromagnetic image charges that could mess up the measurement and several other things; little effects. I wrote a paper I’m quite proud of that didn’t get very much attention and that is I figured out the line shape of what they were measuring and it’s — most of the things are kind of linear, Brownian motion, but this was a quadratic Brownian motion — so I had some mathematical tricks I’d learned from Schwinger, and so that enabled me to calculate this line shape.
I’m curious what kind of mathematical tricks you had up your sleeve.
It was, again, infinite determinants and stuff. There are few people that have measured this anomalous magnetic moment of the electron this way, and of the people that have done that, which is a very small class of people, they’ve quoted my paper.
Is it surprising sometimes how work that you’ve done that you’re very proud of does not get cited that much, and other work that you’re also proud of essentially explodes?
Yeah. Well, I’ll give you another example. Larry Yaffe, who I guess you know…
How did you get to know Larry Yaffe? I can…
Just through the broader AIP physics network.
Oh, I see. Kind of like I got Tom Kibble to work; [laughs] I got Larry Yaffe to work. I visited Los Alamos. I used to visit two or three times a year for a long time, and somehow I got interested in plasma physics. And so I got Larry Yaffe interested, too. So, we wrote a long paper applying effective quantum field theory ideas, so it’s not just quantum field theory, but it’s these ideas of effective quantum field theory, in which you compute in a theory that is not renormalizable. As you calculate higher and higher orders, you have to calculate higher and higher counter-term corrections. You can do those because the basic theory is not divergent. So, you have to return to some aspect of the basic theory to calculate these terms. But they’re just simple polynomials.
Anyway, so that paper I really liked, and I think it’s a really good paper on plasma physics. In fact, we had a lot of trouble with the referee — because the paper was 80 pages or 100 pages long or something — and there was quite a bit of development of setting the stage before you could calculate something. But then, we proved some theorem or calculated something in like three pages after we developed this theory, and the referee didn’t believe it. It turns out that the thing we had calculated had been computed by somebody in a paper that was something like 100 pages long, and we did it in three pages. So, he didn’t believe that anybody could reduce this hundred pages to three pages. But of course, you had to have the theoretical background we had; but once you had that, it was easy to prove this thing. But that paper has got very, very few references. Plasma physics, in my view, is not in as good shape as it should be. The plasma physicists have become just — I mean, all they do is take canned computer programs using some molecular dynamics and really not even develop the computer code and apply it, and then it gets some result or something. And they never — I don’t know if they have any paper in their offices. I mean they never work out basic theoretical things.
So, Lowell, that gets me to a general question. To what extent has your research relied on computers generally? Have you waited at certain points for computers to get more powerful to run the kinds of calculations that are useful to you?
No. I’ve never done a serious computer calculation. I have occasionally tried to calculate something on computers, and it usually didn’t work. I learned the hard way about some stability problems [laughs] with computers. Often I’ve got results which are well, like in this line-shape problem. The result is an infinite series — which you can represent as some hypergeometric function or something…but that doesn’t help you. And so, I got a friend to actually compute with a computer the line shape to make a graph. So, I’ve often done things that — well, when I came to Los Alamos, half-time, after I retired from the University of Washington — myself and another couple of guys worked on the stopping power: the energy loss as a proton or deuteron or something goes through a plasma. And that again was a long calculation, a kind of effective field theory calculation. And so, we got formulas that you could write down as an integral of something, but then that integral was fairly non-trivial and that had to be computed with a computer. Two other guys did those calculations. I didn’t do it. I mean, there’s a point of diminishing returns in doing an analytic calculation. If you get something in closed form, well, it’s good to try to find the asymptotic limits and stuff to see if it makes physical sense, but other than that, it’s silly to try to approximate the formula; when you can actually just load it in some computer.
Can you talk a little bit about your work at CERN?
No, I was never at CERN. Remember?
I thought you had some affiliation there.
No. Oh, yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. I just spent a summer there.
I don’t remember. I certainly didn’t do anything to write a paper. I had a Guggenheim fellowship, so we spent the summer in CERN, and then the rest of the year at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton.
Oh, I see. So, that was one sabbatical year.
How was your experience at the Institute?
It was kind of mixed. Mostly I worked with a guy named John Collins, who was actually an assistant professor at Princeton. He wasn’t at the Institute. There’s a guy at Los Alamos now, who was at the Institute at that time. He was a young postdoc named Emil Mottola. He and I tried to understand some problems in general relativity like…I forget what it was. I guess it was Hawking radiation or something. And we messed around with it, but never did anything. But Collins and I wrote a couple of papers and stuff.
I should tell you a story about how we got to the Institute. We were at CERN, and we flew into Kennedy Airport, and we stood in line for a long, long time going through customs. And finally, when we got to the customs guy, he just waved us through. So, we spent all this time. It was very hot, and we were very tired, and we had all this stuff, because we had all the stuff to last for a year. A colleague of mine at the University of Washington wanted to visit a bunch of places between Seattle and New York, and so we gave him our car. And he drove this car in the summer, visiting these various places, and then met us at the airport. And so, we had our car. But there wasn’t room in the car for all of our stuff. My wife had this ingenious idea that since a lot of our stuff was in REI ripstop nylon bags, we could take these bags apart and filled the back seat back of the car with my wife’s underwear and everything.
[laughs] Oh, dear.
It was knee-deep in underwear and pajamas and stuff. We had a son then, who was about 10 I guess, so he was sitting in the back seat covered with all these items of clothes. So, by filling up the back seat all the way full, we could get all our stuff in the car. But I was so tired, I was worried about driving, because I was kind of focusing and defocusing. And I kind of knew where to go, so we drove — we thought we should stay at a motel or something, because I was so tired, but we thought, you know, what were we going to do with this car full of all this stuff that somebody could break in and get? So, we drove to Princeton, and I guess to the main drag at Princeton, Nassau Street. So, we drove down there. I’d been to the Institute before, but I forgot exactly where it was. I knew roughly. The windows in the car were all open, and it didn’t have any air conditioning or anything. It was hot. Anyway, there’s this distinguished couple out walking. I leaned out the window and I said, “Excuse me, sir. But I would like to go to the Institute for Advanced Study.” And he looked at me, and he said, “A lot of people would like to go to the Institute for Advanced Study.” [laughs] He would not tell me where it was. I finally convinced him somehow that I had some reason to go there, and so he finally said, “Turn left on this street.” I thought that was pretty funny.
Was the Institute productive for you intellectually, in terms of who you were interacting with?
Well, as I say, mostly — John Collins at the university was a young assistant professor, and he really understood renormalization theory backward and forward. He really taught me some aspects of quantum field theory — but as far as the actual people in the institute — in talking with Emil Mottola — I learned some stuff about the exponentially expanding early universe thing had just come out, and so we tried to understand that. But it wasn’t really from the more senior people.
Lowell, can you talk about your decision to write the book in 1994, Quantum Field Theory? First of all, who is your intended audience for the book?
The book is essentially my lectures that I gave in a year’s course. So, it’s supposed to be an introductory book for essentially a year’s course in field theory. Now, as I said in the preface or whatever it was, it’s kind of an idiosyncratic book. It’s the way I do things. And it’s full of formal developments of how operators work and the renormalization group, and all that stuff.
Did you try to make it accessible to a broader audience, or was it more intended for specialists?
It was intended for serious grad students, and it was not a cookbook. A student, to go through it, had to work hard. It’s mostly been used as a supplementary book in field theory courses, and people use a more cookbook text than mine.
What do you mean, “cookbook”? What does that mean?
Well, it means, getting a perturbative answer the fastest way possible, rather than understanding what it means and how things work. I’ve gotten several quite good reviews. It continues to sell a few books every year. Not very many. There were a thousand hard-bound copies, and those were sold out quickly. And then Cambridge University Press never made any more hard-bound copies. The soft-cover book — I think something like 3,000 of those have been sold. So, selling 4,000 very specialized books is, I guess, okay. But you probably know more about this than I do.
[laughs] Lowell, your work on general relativity…is this something that has always been close with you? Was there a period in your career where you had an intensive interest in general relativity, or is this something that’s always been something that you’ve come back to?
When I was in graduate school, people that I knew were interested in general relativity. I knew Stanley Deser, and there’s this famous paper with Deser, Arnowitt and Misner, where they quantized general relativity in a canonical fashion. And then later on, Schwinger wrote some papers on general relativity. And so, I was kind of always interested in it. General relativity, until the late ’50s maybe, was kind of in ill repute. [laughs]
Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Why is that? What happened in general relativity?
Well. [laughs] What happened was that people just messed around with the formalism. They tried to put electromagnetism inside the metric tensor somehow, or they did something. They were not motivated by physical consequences, and so they just — I guess they were the tensor contraction crowd, or something. I mean, they just manipulated things. Then I really think that a very significant person was John Wheeler, who had all these crazy ideas. The point is, he wanted to understand general relativity in a physical way. So, Wheeler was interested in black holes, and it was only — it took a long time for people to realize that the event horizon of a black hole was not a real singularity that you could fall through it, and nothing would happen to you until you — well, nothing could happen to you where you fell through the horizon. Later on, you could probably get terrible things happening to you. But around that time, people started getting interested in…well, it was in Princeton mostly, I think. Robert Dicke was an experimentalist, but he was interested also in the theory. And there’s this variation of general relativity called Brans-Dicke something, and so people were motivated by physical effects. I mean, what really did a black hole look like? What were its properties, and whatnot? Interesting thing -- going back to plasma physics is that there’s a thing called Kruskal coordinates that enable you to describe globally a black hole. And they’re fairly subtle to understand. I don’t know if I [laughs] understand them very well. But otherwise, you have to use different coordinates in different places and patch them together appropriately. But it’s interesting that Kruskal was a plasma physicist, so that’s how plasma physics was in the good old days. It was probably the 1950s sometime. So, people got interested more in general relativity as a physical theory.
So, what do you see as some of your primary contributions with your research on general relativity?
Oh, not very much. There was some stress tensor trace anomalies and stuff that I worked out using some things I learned from Bryce DeWitt and some things I learned from Julian Schwinger. So, I did a little bit of work on that, but there was a kind of a flurry of interest in that once, and so I worked on that. I wrote a couple of papers, but that’s all I’ve ever done in straight general relativity.
What was your relationship with Hans Dehmelt and his work on single charged particles?
Hans is a very special and difficult person. I mean, he appreciated my work in trying to tidy up all his stuff — but on the other hand — he sometimes thought I was getting too close to something. I mean, he wanted it to be his project. So, I had a kind of a slightly difficult relationship with Dehmelt.
What was it about his research that was interesting to you?
At least two things: the fact that you could isolate a single electron and hold it there for as long as you want; hold it there for weeks at a time. Dehmelt had a word for this. He called it “geonium.” Instead of hydrogen, it was geonium, because it was attached to the Earth rather than a proton. It was a kind of man-made atom, so I was fascinated by that. Then, of course, the fact that you could measure things so accurately. I mean, you can also measure things like the electron/proton mass ratio, and stuff like that, by alternating having electrons and protons in this trap. So anyway, I was fascinated with…I’ve always liked to understand how gadgets work. But this is the ultimate gadget.
Lowell, I want to ask a few questions on the teaching and mentorship side of your career. For undergraduate courses, what were some of your most favorite or satisfying courses to teach undergraduates?
Early on at the University of Washington, they wanted to have an honors freshman physics class, and so I taught that for two or three years. I liked that a lot. I didn’t use any fancy textbook. A popular textbook at the time was Halliday & Resnick. Lots of people used it for just ordinary freshman physics. And I used that textbook, but if you use that textbook — you can look — and there are really hard problems in it. [laughs]
It had some kind of innovations which actually worked due to me — there was a guy at Yale who was an experimentalist who came to the University of Washington named Joe Rothberg. And he had an idea that I exploited; which I thought was really great.
I gave these problems every week, and then I had other students grade them in the presence of the student who wrote the solution. That is, it turned out I found a room that I could have every afternoon, and so I got a couple of students who had done very well in the previous course or in some other course and they would be the people who graded the homework. So, the kids in the class would come to this room. First of all, they had to turn in their homework at a certain time. So, then this homework was put in a big filing cabinet in this room. And a student TA would come in, and the other student would take his problem out of the filing cabinet. This student TA would grade it in the presence of the student himself, and say, “Why did you make this mistake?” Or, “Why did you do this?” “This is really cute,” or something. Sometimes, they’d do two at a time. The TA would have two students, and he’d grade both problems at the same time. And so, he’d say to one student, “You messed up here, but this other guy did it right. Look how he did it.” So, I thought that was a lot of fun. And also, I thought it was a very good way for the students taking the course, but it was also good instruction for the TA students to interact and to teach. It was kind of fun because I’d take the top students in the class and have them be the TA’s for the next year. That was kind of fun, because somehow I got these kids’ phone numbers in the summer, and so I’d phone them up and ask them if they wanted to do this. Most often, their mother would answer the phone. And I said, “I’m Professor Brown, University of Washington. I’d like to speak” — and the mothers often would reply, “What has he done now?” [laughs]
Lowell, did you ever teach physics courses to non-majors?
Let’s see. Yeah.
My question is: what were some of the most important concepts in physics that you wanted non-majors to understand? If they never thought about physics before, what were some of the big things that you wanted them to understand?
The only course in physics for non-majors I taught was a course that was co-taught by somebody from the music school, and it was a course that somebody invented called the “Physics of Music.” So, that’s the only course I taught to undergraduates that was not for science or engineering majors. I don’t think it’s a particular topic in physics that is important, but rather just the way to think — how to see well — I guess the important thing is: how does physics work? Well, what you do is you find some phenomenon, and then you idealize that phenomenon, and then you’ll be able to place that phenomenon in mathematical terms. And you then solve some mathematical problem, and then you come back and see if it does describe the phenomenon you started with. So, having that kind of idea, and also just thinking rationally about something, proving something, being able to say, “I start with these” — well, it’s kind of like doing geometry in high school, if you will. But it’s just the idea of thinking rationally. Another thing that’s very important that doesn’t get taught enough is orders of magnitude, how big things are. If you ask most people what a trillion dollars is, I don’t think they have any idea of what that means.
And they don’t automatically say, “Oh, there are 300 million people in the United States, and I divide that into a trillion dollars, and I figure out how many dollars per person that is”, and that’s something they can understand. But very few people can do that, I think, and it’s a pity that that’s not inculcated in all students.
Sure. And on the mentor side, who have been some of your most significant collaborations for both graduate students and possibly postdocs?
I guess the most famous postdoc was probably Roberto Peccei, he came to us from MIT and was with us a couple of years. We wrote quite a few papers together about chiral symmetry and stuff like that. And then he went to Stanford and did this work with Helen Quinn on the Peccei-Quinn axion stuff. And that was a very famous paper. He then went to — this is a period when it was very hard to get jobs — and so he went to Germany and was in Munich for several years. He then went to Hamburg and was a head of the theory group of the DESY Laboratory in Hamburg. And then he went to the Physics department at UCLA. We tried to get him to come back to Seattle, but he went to UCLA instead. After a couple of years of being just in the Physics department, he became chairman of the Physics department, then he became the head of science or something at UCLA. I guess he never became president at UCLA, but he got pretty high-up in the administration. So, he’s probably the most famous of our postdocs.
What was the decision — let’s talk about your time at Los Alamos. What was your decision — did you retire from the University of Washington, or did you take a leave of absence, initially?
I actually retired.
I was very lucky. When I went to Yale, I was always very cavalier about what would happen next, and so what I should do is to try to get some kind of retirement thing set up and get the maximum amount of money I can put into my retirement and then forget about it. And so, I got into TIAA-CREF as a postdoc at Yale, and so I was in that program for many, many years. Then I retired, not at the maximum of the stock market, but just below the maximum of the stock market. So, I got a lot of money [laughs] when I retired, just inadvertently. This TIAA-CREF guy came and talked to me and my wife. So, my wife came in my office, and this guy came, and said, “What fraction of your salary do you want to take as your retirement pay?” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘fraction’? I’ll just take the whole thing, because I had so much money in TIAA-CREF that I could just continue my ordinary salary. That’s how I retired.
So, why did you not just simply want to retire? Why did you want to go on to — or did you have the idea when you retired that you were going to go to Los Alamos?
Oh, no. No. The last few years in Seattle were…I don’t know. I felt that I was kind of an outsider, and I just felt, I guess, that I was not maybe — I don’t know how to say it — recognized, or something, as well as I should be. I was unhappy there. So, I retired, but I mean, I retired at some age that was essentially a retirement age. But then, since the middle ’70s I’ve been a consultant at Los Alamos, and I knew a lot of people there. I spent some time at Los Alamos before I retired, and I found that a fellow had developed a new theoretical group that was inside the bomb design group, but it was not working on weapons, but rather working on unclassified physics that was vaguely associated with weapons, like plasma physics, or something like that. So, he wanted to hire me, so I had a job waiting for me at Los Alamos if I wanted it. Also, I visited Santa Fe in New Mexico for years, and I got to like it a lot, so I like it here. I think the scenery is wonderful. Santa Fe is a kind of interesting town. It does have quite a large collection of kooks; larger than normal.
What were you attracted to at Los Alamos? What did you want to accomplish there?
I didn’t have any preset thing.
Were you happy to work in the National Laboratory environment? Was that part of it?
Yeah. Well, Los Alamos, when I first started as a consultant, the director of the laboratory was Harold Agnew. And he was remarkable. He would wander around the halls and talk to people, and say, “What are you doing?” and stuff. And there was this funny cafeteria that was in this old wooden building. And there was this big table, and he’d have lunch there a few times a week— I often sat at that table — I really never got to know him, but we recognized each other. And he recognized, in fact, [laughs] most of the scientists in the laboratory. That was a wonderful environment. I got to be on the external advisory committee of the theoretical division, and that was kind of interesting.
Is your sense that you were able to accomplish things at Los Alamos that you weren’t able to do in an academic environment?
Not really. I don’t think so. The problem with Los Alamos is there’s this creeping bureaucracy. Also, reporting to the government has become atrocious. I’ll give you an example. When I first started, I had this consultant agreement that was on two pages of paper. Then after about 10 years, it goes to four pages of paper. Then, sometime in the late ’80s, it turned out to be like 90 pages of paper.
Oh, boy. [laughs]
So, I mean, it’s become terribly bureaucratic and not as much fun as it was when I first started.
Well, we should really talk about Ferraris now. I think the time has come.
Oh, Ferraris. Well, I never knew the name of Ferrari. If you remember, you should go see the movie La Dolce Vita.
It is very famous movie that takes place mostly in Via Veneto, where I went to get our apartment. So, we used to walk around Via Veneto a lot, and there were some Ferraris there. There were a bunch of interesting Italian cars at that time. I mean, there were Lancias and Alfa Romeos. Well, Fiats were kind of not very fancy. And then, Ferraris. I guess the first Ferrari I saw was a California Spyder. That’s a very beautiful car. That’s where I got to know about Ferraris. I could, of course, never afford one until around 1990. We inherited a little bit of money, and you could buy a used car…it wasn’t that terribly expensive. Well, it was only, I don’t know, half again or three quarters more worth… a little less than twice the price of an ordinary car. [laughs]
Did you have the assurance in Seattle that there was a mechanic that you could trust to take care of the car if it needed it, or was that you? Were you going to be the mechanic?
Well, first of all, I should tell you: I used to bicycle a lot. If the weather wasn’t terrible, I’d bicycle to work. But I could bike about a mile south of our house, and there was a Ferrari dealer there. It was the only Ferrari dealer for Washington and Idaho.
I’m impressed that Seattle had a Ferrari dealership.
It still has one. I got to know the owner of the Ferrari dealership in Seattle, somewhat. And I once asked him how he got this dealership. And before Luca [Cordero di Montezemolo] became head of Ferrari, Ferrari was just kind of a well — Enzo Ferrari in 1970, he essentially sold the company to Fiat, because he had no money. Except Enzo Ferrari kept the racing side of it. That was completely separate from everything else. So actually, after the 1970s, Ferraris were, in some sense, Fiats. But at that time, Ferrari had not become this organization which it is now, which is…I don’t know. I mean, I have no interest in modern Ferraris. What can you do with 800 horsepower? Right?
How many have you owned over the course of your lifetime?
For many years, the only sports car I had ever owned was that Alfa Romeo that I had. Then I bought a 308 Ferrari in 1991, I guess. And it was a 1984 car. It had two previous owners, and it didn’t have that many miles on it. I’ve had it ever since. I also got a 1966 Ferrari 330 GT in 2000 that I still have. But anyway, what happened was I was within easy biking distance of the local Ferrari dealer, and so I’d go there and look at all the new and used cars for sale. I could walk around and watch the mechanics working and things, and so anyway, I bought this used car through this place. You asked me how this guy became a Ferrari dealer. That’s why I made this digression about how Ferrari used to be kind of a loose organization.
In the 1960s, up until sometime in the ’70s, there was a famous casino in Reno, Nevada, called Harrah’s. And Harrah also had a real interest in cars, and he had a great big car museum as well. And also, he was the wholesaler for Ferraris. So this guy, Stephen Bayne, became the Ferrari dealer in Seattle. He phoned up Harrah’s secretary and said, “I’d like to speak with Mr. Harrah, because I’d like to become appointed his Ferrari dealer for Washington state.” And the secretary told this guy that Harrah was too busy to talk to him, but that she would write him a letter. So, the secretary wrote him a letter appointing Bayne to be the Ferrari dealer in the Washington/Idaho area. And that’s how he got to be the dealer. That little piece of paper is now probably worth several million dollars. He sold the business around 2000. I knew a mechanic…when I had a 308, almost all of the serious mechanical work was done by a guy in Tacoma, Washington. He would spend a couple weeks every summer in Italy, because he was from Italy. And he would go into Ferrari, into the company, and go into the parts department. And they would let him go back and rummage around all the shelves they had, and he’d find things he thought he might need. So, he would take all these things from these shelves and put them on a table and say, “Here, I want to buy these, and send them to me.” Of course, nowadays, they wouldn’t let you within 100 feet of anything like that anymore.
Well, Lowell, at this point in our talk, I think for my last two questions, I want to ask you a broadly retrospective question, and then ask you a forward-looking question. And so, the first question is: you’ve had so many seminal contributions in so many areas of physics. I wonder, is there one area of research or one project that you worked on that stands out in your mind, head and shoulders above everything else that you did, in terms of impact? Or, do you tend to look at the whole body of your work sort of as equal players over the course of your career?
Well, in terms of impact, I think the work I did doing the theory of the g-2 experiment has made the biggest impact.
Why do you think that was so impactful?
After Dehmelt did this work…also, a lot of other things happened at the same time, like laser cooling of things. So, the idea of trapping particles and manipulating with laser beams — you could have cooling with laser beams. There are a lot of different things that are connected to this original experiment that Dehmelt did. The work I did explaining all these various corrections and how various things worked in the trap, I think, has had clearly the most impact of the stuff I’ve ever done. In fact, Dehmelt got really angry at me because he won the Nobel Prize, and when you win the Nobel Prize, you get some tickets for other people to come. And he gave me a ticket, and I was going to go to the ceremony where he got the Nobel Prize. But I chickened out at the last moment for some reason. I just…I don’t know. I got embarrassed, or cold feet, or something, and I didn’t go. And he got really mad at me, because I’d used up one of his tickets. So, I missed going to a Nobel Prize ceremony.
Well, that’s too bad. [laughs]
I’ve done stupid things like that before.
Well, Lowell, for my last question — and I want to flip it, same kind of question — because of your interest and contribution to so many areas of physics, looking ahead to the future, is there any one field in physics that you’re most excited about, in terms of things to be discovered, in terms of opportunities to advance the field? Is there anything that really sticks out at you in terms of things to be excited and engaged about when looking ahead?
I don’t know. Physics is in some trouble, [laughs] because we’ve been so successful.
We’ve explained so many things. And as far as elementary particle physics goes, I think it’s just become almost impossible to do anything in it, because when I worked in the field, there were new experimental results coming out all the time, and it was a real connection between theory and experiment. But now, we’ve reached a limit where…the interesting physics, the scale is kind of logarithmic, so you have to build something 10 times bigger to get something that’s a factor of 2 better, or something. We need some new idea to build particle accelerators.
Now, there’s some experiments — there’s still interesting neutrino experiments we can do, and there are interesting kind of neutrino observatories of things that come from the Sun or from other sources, doing stuff at the South Pole, or whatever. But the kind of traditional things in particle theory have — particle experiments have become very sparse. And the people…there are still a lot of people that write lots and lots of papers on what one might see with some extension of the standard model of this, or that, and the other. And they get some attention, and so people work on them for a little while, but then they kind of disappear.
I mean, one of the things I’m proud of is I told you that this work I did years and years ago with Tom Kibble, on interactions of electrons with laser beams, and you know, that’s one of my most quoted papers, and it was written…I can’t even remember how long ago it was, it’s so long ago. So, I have continued getting — I don’t think it gets so many quotations — references now, but it got quite a few in the ’80s and ’90s, which was a long, long time after it was written. And I think most of the theory is done on particle physics these days kind of evaporates within a year or two. But other branches of physics have also suffered because of their success. Condensed matter physics, I think. I’m really not an expert on that, but I have the feeling that it’s also something that suffers from being mature. It also has some unsolved problems, like high-temperature superconductivity and stuff. I don’t know. Maybe biological physics. There’s probably stuff in that which is interesting…understanding the structure of proteins or whatever. There’s this protein folding problem. You probably know more about it than I do.
Yeah. That’s a big deal, especially among the physicists at the NIH.
Anyway, a colleague of mine in Seattle has a son, who is more famous than his father in doing biophysics. And he did something that was really amusing. He had a group. There was some particular protein that folded. He wanted to understand how to unfold it. It was this problem, like untying a really complicated knot, or something. I don’t know. And so his group worked on it for some time without success. He found out that there were these gaming groups on the internet, and they’re groups that consist of people — like, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen people or something — each of them are separated by a thousand miles, or something. And they get together somehow and get these funny names of…I don’t know. I can’t remember. It would be something like Darth Vader [Foldit Players] or something, some funny name. And then they pose these really complicated geometrical problems, and then different groups compete to see who can solve this problem the fastest. So, this guy, David Baker, he says, “Why don’t I turn my protein folding problem into a game and see if these guys can solve it?” And so he did, and they did. They solved it. So, there’s this paper that I saw the abstract from; not the abstract, but the author list. The author list goes: Somebody at University of Washington; Somebody someplace else; Some professors of this; and that; and then Darth Vader was listed. [laughs]
[laughs] That’s great.
They had their secret gaming name. So, they’re in the authors of this paper.
Well, Lowell, it’s been absolutely great speaking with you today. I really want to thank you for your time.