Steve Feller

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Steve Feller

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Video conference
Disclaimer text

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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Steve Feller by David Zierler on May 28, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44726

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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Steve Feller, B.D. Silliman Professor of Physics at Coe College. Feller recounts his childhood in Brooklyn, his early interests in history and his education at Brooklyn Tech. He describes his experiences at Clarkson University and his research in physics and his adventures in small business. Feller explains the circumstances leading to his graduate work at Brown where he worked with Phil Bray who pioneered the use of NMR to study glass. He describes his realization that he loved to teach physics to undergraduates, which led to his appointment to the physics department at Coe. In the second half of the interview, Feller discusses his 30 year project to transform the physics program at Coe into one of the most engaged and successful departments in the country. He discusses his commitment to Sigma Pi Sigma, and in the last portion of the discussion, he describes his ongoing research on studying the physical properties of glass.

Transcript

Zierler:

This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 28th, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Professor Steven Feller. Steve, thanks so much for being with me today.

Feller:

It’s my pleasure, too.

Zierler:

OK! So to start, tell me your title and institutional affiliation.

Feller:

I am a professor of physics. There’s an endowed chair for this, it’s called the B.D. Silliman Professor of Physics at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Zierler:

Great. Let’s take this right back to the beginning. Tell me about your family background and your early childhood.

Feller:

Well, I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My mother told me that when I was about three or four, she took me to see the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. So that’s about as far back as I need to go. I lived a couple of blocks from the Long Island Railroad. And my parents also told me that once upon a time, I left the apartment and walked to the Long Island Railroad, climbed the stairs, and got on the train.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

Me, by myself. I know it has to be by age three, because we moved away from there shortly thereafter.

Zierler:

What neighborhood was this in Brooklyn?

Feller:

So this was Nostrand Avenue and Atlantic Avenue, I guess you would just call that—

Zierler:

Deep Brooklyn.

Feller:

Near downtown Brooklyn.

Zierler:

Right, right. [laugh]

Feller:

Then I moved to the outer parts of Brooklyn, not too far from Coney Island. Brighton Beach. The ocean. I actually lived in an area—I guess you would loosely call it Flatlands or Flatbush, near Marine Park.

Zierler:

My dad is a Seagate boy.

Feller:

Oh, yes. So Seagate is the neighborhood next to Coney Island. And it has a very interesting history.

Zierler:

For sure. Did you go to PS in Brooklyn?

Feller:

I did go to PS 207. My main accomplishment there was to—I was champion of Brooklyn in history.

Zierler:

In history!

Feller:

Yeah. They had a borough-wide history bee. In fifth grade, I won the school one, and in sixth grade, I won the school one and the borough one.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Feller:

They had it at Brooklyn College. It was cool. I remember it like it was yesterday.

Zierler:

Well, the history profession certainly lost one in you, I guess, when you decided to switch up.

Feller:

That had a lot to do with Brooklyn Tech.

Zierler:

Before we get to that, were your parents native New Yorkers?

Feller:

My father, yes. My mother was born in New Jersey and grew up in upstate New York. But my father is a native New Yorker. He grew up in the Bronx, and in New York. Manhattan.

Zierler:

Now to get into Brooklyn Tech, was that competitive? Was there an entrance exam?

Feller:

There was an entrance exam. It’s the same exam taken for the three high schools of science in New York City—Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Tech.

Zierler:

Now, did you consider all three, or was Brooklyn Tech just a no-brainer given your location?

Feller:

I don’t remember if you did it for one or all three. But I ended up at Brooklyn Tech. I really had no choice. My parents said, “You're taking the test.” “OK.” So that changed my life’s direction. In fact, I write a lot about history today. About the history of money. I study it seriously. I've written quite a bit about it. My special interest is money used in World War II.

Zierler:

Really!

Feller:

Mmhmm.

Zierler:

Having nothing to do with physics?

Feller:

Nothing. Although I have taken Coe College physics students to many places with this as well. For example, we went to the Isle of Man, which is in the Irish Sea, between England, Ireland, and Scotland. It’s about equally distant. There’s this little island, 30 miles by ten miles, and they had ten internment camps in there in World War II, that the British ran. So I took a student named Eric Hammarsten there. I got a grant from the Iowa College Foundation to go to this island. And we studied the money used in ten internment camps in World War II. It was quite an adventure. From there, we went to the Imperial War Museum in London. And from there we went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. That was quite the trip. I do love history a lot.

Zierler:

Well, maybe we'll come back to that. But let’s go back to Brooklyn Tech. So it was really only at Brooklyn Tech that you started to blossom in math and science?

Feller:

Yes, I would say. My parents were good at math. Neither had gone to college. I shouldn't say that; neither had gone more than one year to college.

Zierler:

What was your dad’s profession?

Feller:

My dad ran a small store inside of a building in Manhattan, at 1150 Broadway. He sold sundries. He was his own boss. He liked that a lot. But I would call that lower middle class. My mother stayed at home until I was through high school—and my brother and sister. And then she became one of the first—in the very first group, maybe the first five or six, legal bookies in the city of New York.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

She worked for OTB, off-track betting.

Zierler:

Wow. [laugh]

Feller:

[laugh] So they were both good at math, as a result. I remember my father giving me just columns of numbers from his business to add up. I mean, serious columns. Maybe, you know, 25 entries. No calculator or anything like that. Just a piece of paper and add ‘em up.

Zierler:

And you had to get it right?

Feller:

That was the part I—sometimes I got it right. Sometimes I didn't get it right. He would know immediately if it was right or wrong. He’d say, “Do it again” if it wasn’t right until we got agreement. It was good practice. So he was good at that. My mother was very good at math, too. So I guess there was some genetic disposition towards this, but it was Brooklyn Tech where a more serious introduction took place. Brooklyn Tech, when I went there, in the late ‘60s, was quite an intense place, actually. College was much lighter in comparison.

Zierler:

I've heard that. I'm curious—given the fact that it was the late 1960s, was Brooklyn Tech—were you largely sheltered there from all of the unrest that was going on during that time—Civil Rights, antiwar, all of that stuff? Were you sort of sheltered from all of that?

Feller:

From a lot of that, yes. However, if you grew up in New York City at that time, you were not completely sheltered. I went through various strikes. And I'll tell you one quick story. When I was a senior in the fall of 1969, the teachers went on strike not for money but for—to protect their contract. New York was decentralizing its school system at that time. And the local school board became more powerful, and they wanted to renegotiate individual contracts with the teachers. Teachers would have none of it. They had a contract with the Board of Education of the city of New York. So, they went on strike. OK? One month went by. At first it was fun, right? Sort of like when you're home from COVID-19—at first it’s OK; eventually, it’s not OK. Forgetting the health implications now; just the very act of being at home. And so as it approached two months—can you believe this?—a two-month strike?—I was getting frustrated. My senior year. I wanted to learn calculus. I wanted to learn physics. And the time was going by now. So I took it upon myself to go to the union headquarters to argue with them.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

To tell them that this was enough already. Settle.

Zierler:

Now were you part of a student delegation, or this was a solo mission?

Feller:

Solo mission. I went myself. They let me speak to one of the actual negotiators. I learned a few lessons. So what was I? I was 17 years old. The main lesson I learned was although they listened politely to me—they gave me time, which was more than I deserved, in some sense—not one word that I said mattered. And that was the beginning of a lesson in politics. It’s similar today. Firstly because politicians on either side don’t listen to each other. But also they really don’t listen that much to an individual constituent, unless they can really make a loud noise somehow in terms of shaking up the system. So that was my political—that one day was my political action. I did see the result of the strike. Toward the end of the strike, some teachers had already gone in, and the other teachers didn't like that. I had a terrific English teacher there, and he got ostracized entirely for the crime of going in to teach. And he ended up leaving the school that year. He was probably the best teacher there. One of the best teachers there, anyway. I had some interesting experiences at Brooklyn Tech. Not to drill too much on Brooklyn Tech. I was on a history class on the air. WNYE was broadcast from Brooklyn Tech. In fact, one of the characteristics of Brooklyn Tech, if you ever see the building, there was a huge antenna on top of the building. That’s the radio station that was New York Education, WNYE. They broadcast classes for people who were forced to stay at home. So every day, my history class was on the radio.

Zierler:

Oh! Like the Zoom of 1968, 1969.

Feller:

Exactly. It was like that. It was cool. I was on the track team. I was fast but not great. I could run the 400 meters in—what was then the 440 yards, which is a little bit longer, of course, if you know about track—in under 52 seconds, anyway, which is decent. We had guys who could break 50, and there’s a—dare I use the word “quantum”?—a quantum difference between just under 52 and 50.

Zierler:

Steve, in terms of your education at Brooklyn Tech, did you know coming out that you were going to specialize in physics? Was that sort of the game plan as you were thinking about colleges and programs?

Feller:

To be quite honest, I wasn’t thinking. But I did well in physics. It was sort of the college prep track, although Brooklyn Tech had all sorts of engineering tracks. Which is interesting, and I enjoyed it. I was not very good at foundry or pattern-making with wood or metal work, but it was good to learn it. Freehand drawing. We had no art classes, no music classes at that time. I bet you that’s changed. I haven't really checked what they teach now. But we had no theatre, no orchestra, no band, no choir, nothing. But, we had lots of math and science.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

So it was just sort of an unthinking—the next step would be to go to college, and I majored in physics because it was the path of least resistance .

Zierler:

Clarkson is obviously a small school. It’s an out-of-the-way school. Were you thinking specifically that you did not want to go to a bigger school, a more prominent school?

Feller:

There were constraints on the system. My brother had gone there, so I knew about it anyway. My girlfriend went to the State University of New York at Potsdam. That was a heavy constraint as well.

Zierler:

How did you have a girlfriend as a Brooklyn Tech guy? There’s like 6,000 guys and no girls.

Feller:

At that time, it’s correct. Of course, that’s changed. The story behind that is my mother’s from basically Utica. You remember I said she grew up upstate?

Zierler:

I'm from Utica.

Feller:

Oh, really?

Zierler:

Yeah, born and raised.

Feller:

So my mother was born in New Jersey but grew up in Utica, New York. She went to Utica Free Academy. Worked at what was the Boston Store downtown. And so I used to visit my grandmother, and my mother would come up for part of the summer as well, and spend summers up there. And the last summer I went, 1965, a very good friend of mine introduced me to Barbara. They had a party, and I met Barbara. So we wrote, I don’t know, 500 letters to each other. 800 letters? Somewhere in that range, say. Plus we would call each other from time to time. No internet of course, so we wrote letters. So that’s the story there. Then she went to Potsdam. So those are two constraints. My brother, Barbara. And then the New York State Regents Exam—that was the most serious test I took as a senior, because that was a money test . For me, it mattered. My father was lower middle class. So I did pass that, which meant I had to—to get that award, which was significant, then. I'm not sure what it is today, but back then it was multiple thousands per year. Maybe, I don’t know, five or six thousand a year, in real money. When I went to Clarkson, I actually got a check from them every month. [laugh] So that was the third constraint.

Zierler:

Those are all pretty solid constraints.

Feller:

It led me to Clarkson.

Zierler:

Did you even bother applying anywhere else? Or because of all that—

Feller:

Yeah, I did. I applied to RPI. I applied to Cornell. And I forget what else, but I remember those two. But the best offer, if you would—even then, offers were important, although not as important as they are today—by offers, I mean financial assistance—was from Clarkson.

Zierler:

Now, at what point did you settle on physics in Clarkson? Was that right away, or later on

Feller:

Right away. Path of least resistance.

Zierler:

How so?

Feller:

To be honest with you, I never thought about a career or about what I was going to do until the third or fourth year of graduate school. Never thought about it. Which worked out all right in my case. I enjoyed my stay in Potsdam. It is a good technical school. It’s in the same kind of league—is that the. term?—or group of colleges like Rochester Institute of Technology, RPI. Not so much Cornell; Cornell is in the Ivy Leagues. They were a bit different. But there’s a series of engineering schools in upstate New York. Well, you're from Utica. You might know of this. So, from Clarkson, I did well. I enjoyed it. Had a good group of teachers. Very good teachers there, actually. And, you know, friends, fellow students. We had at that time about ten majors in my graduating class, so that would mean a total—there’s always some loss, so maybe 50 or 60 physics majors at the school. So it’s a good size community.

Zierler:

Now at the time, you have no frame of reference. But looking back, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being in such a small program?

Feller:

You get to know people. That’s the first and main advantage. I did some undergraduate research there. I got to know Sigurds Arajs, I worked with Herbert Helbig on atomic potentials. I remember that as well. I'm sure you can do that at any school. When I was at Brown—we haven't gotten to that phase yet—I actually helped undergraduates with their senior projects. My advisor could see that I was interested in teaching, so he would assign me, “Work with this person,” I actually enjoyed it. I was quite good at it.

Zierler:

Did you have any physics-relevant internships as an undergraduate? Summer internships, things like that?

Feller:

I had one curious one. I did some research in the summer at Clarkson. Well, the project was interesting. It was on phototropism, which is light interacting with plants, and the bending of plants toward the sun. I remember setting up a rig to take photographs of this actually happening, in slow motion, one frame at a time. And then you really slowed it down so that you could eventually show it as a movie. And that was cool. But, also, I helped wire the school for computing, to have computing in professors’ offices. So I helped do the hard wiring one summer, with a guy who was really good at that sort of thing. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but he was good. His name was John Watson. And so I learned about wiring that summer. But other than that, I didn't go anywhere for an internship. Wasn’t that common back then.

Zierler:

Did you have a senior thesis?

Feller:

No. No senior thesis.

Zierler:

Did you think at all about entering industry and not going straight to grad school, or were you sort of automatically on that track at some point?

Feller:

There’s a curious story about that. In terms of engineering industry—I mean, technical industry—I never thought about it. However, I set up a little business. My roommate worked at a local pizza joint. This is before I married Barbara. I was married junior and senior year in college. But in my sophomore year, my roommate—his name was Alan Raphael—just in casual conversation told me how this great local pizza place would deliver pizza by taxi. This was before the days of Domino’s or pizza delivery. Nobody delivered. So they would call a taxi to deliver the pizza and they’d add an extra buck. You know, in those days taxi rides, it was a small town, and it wasn’t that much. So I said, “Wait a second. For a buck a pizza, I'll deliver it. Just call me. Forget the taxi.” Then Domino’s came to town. They were just getting going, right? And they cut into our business. So then I got the idea—this was my one Econ 101 lesson—I went to the boss and I said, “Raise the price of all pizzas a dollar, and advertise free delivery.” He said, “OK.” Our business quadrupled immediately. Immediately.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

I started hiring physics majors to deliver pizza. I could not keep up with it! When the time came to graduate—so I did this for three years. I became like part of this guy’s family. He was Italian. The mother was Italian. She made the sauce every day. It was a great place. So [laugh] when I was graduating, he said, “Steve—” By then, I knew I was going to Brown, although there’s a little story behind that. And he said, “Steve, go to Providence. I'll set you up as a partner. Open a pizza place.” I thought about it. Even seriously. You asked me about industry. I thought about it. I am convinced to this day that I would have been rich if I had made that decision.

Zierler:

[laugh] You wouldn't be in Iowa. That’s for sure. [laugh]

Feller:

I wouldn't be in Iowa, and I'm not sure I’d be in physics!

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

Because I knew what it took to run an independent business like that—60, 70 hours a week.

Zierler:

Plus your father. You have it in your genes.

Feller:

Exactly. So I was so tempted. He would put up the capital, you see. I’d have my own shop right off the bat. I had done a lot of work for this guy. Thousands of pizzas. By the way, we drove Domino’s out of town for a while. They left, because we actually won that battle for a while. So I told him, “No.” Look, if you're going to go to graduate school in physics at Brown, you're gonna run a 60-hour-a-week business?

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

[laugh]

Zierler:

Well, you considered it!

Feller:

I did. How often do you get a chance to be a millionaire when you're leaving college? He had a terrific product. Everything was the best. The sauce. The pizza was really good. It’s still open, by the way.

Zierler:

Really!

Feller:

Yes.

Zierler:

What’s it called?

Feller:

Sergi’s.

Zierler:

Those Italians in upstate New York, they make some good food.

Feller:

They do! I love the Italian food in upstate New York. Utica, there used to be a place called Tony’s on James Street.

Zierler:

Sure.

Feller:

Deliciousness.

Zierler:

Yeah. Yeah.

Feller:

O'scugnizzo’s. Have you ever been to O'scugnizzo’s?

Zierler:

Yeah. I heard it pronounced O’scugn-EETZ, but yeah, same thing. Right.

Feller:

Very saucy, cheesy pizza.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

Very messy.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

My uncle, by the way, was the sports editor of the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

Zierler:

Really! The OD?

Feller:

The OD! And he used to take me to Vernon Downs all the time.

Zierler:

Oh man, Steve, you're really taking me back now.

Feller:

[laugh] That was good for a budding physics guy, because you know, I would try to figure out the odds. So they had the tote board, and I loved comparing how much was bet to what the actual odds were. Because I realized they were taking out a cut. But, you know, I was a young kid at the time, and my uncle had a free pass. He covered it for the newspaper. And we went to Saratoga. We went to Canandaigua, to the horses. My uncle took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame, several times to the Hall of Fame game, which they used to have every summer—I met Hall of Famers at the time. It was exciting. So when I was a senior at Clarkson, I applied to a few schools, for graduate school. I never considered anything else, really.

Zierler:

You mean it was physics or nothing, if you were going to graduate school? Is that what you mean?

Feller:

Yeah. It was physics or nothing. I enjoyed it. I had done well. I knew there was a lot more to learn. There was no way I was leaving Clarkson with a physics degree and thinking that was the end.

Zierler:

Looking back, in terms of your exposure to physics at Clarkson, was it a pretty equal mix of theoretical and experimental and applied, or was there a particular emphasis in any given area?

Feller:

No, there was a pretty good mix. A very intensive program, actually. Very few liberal arts courses, which in retrospect was a mistake, in my opinion. But what did I know at the time? I was biased like many other physics students I knew.

Zierler:

Were you thinking of wherever you were going to go to graduate school, the kind of physics you wanted to specialize in? Were you already thinking on that track?

Feller:

No. I was completely open. And I was taking courses—many courses—and the curriculum was rich in physics courses. So I probably took over 20 physics courses. I haven't added them up, but—so I had a pretty broad education in physics.

Zierler:

And where else besides Brown did you apply?

Feller:

Purdue. RPI, again. I might have applied to Clarkson; I can’t remember. So I got the first acceptance from Purdue. I didn't hear anything from Brown until like February, and I heard from Purdue like beginning of January. By the end of January—roughly speaking, about a month later, I decided, “Well, I'll go to Purdue.” It was a perfectly fine school. I wrote them a letter of acceptance. They got it. I'm going to Purdue. Then out of the blue, probably because either they were running late or more likely I was in the second group—I didn't know about these things at that time—Brown accepted me and said—but then they made the right wording. They said, “Come visit at our expense.” Which for me was a new concept, shall we say. Brown is, what, five hours away from Clarkson? I said, “OK, I'm coming.” I liked New England, so my wife and I—at that time, my wife, Barbara—still my wife, but we had gotten married—we went to Providence. And we loved it. We were well treated. The department was about the right size for me. It was 60 professors, something like that. A hundred and fifty or 200 graduate students. I think. I might be wrong. No, probably less than that—a hundred graduate students. Because there were about 20 in a class, so that would be about 100 graduate students. And I thought about it for a while—

Zierler:

Steve, did you think that like a Caltech or an MIT or a Harvard—did you think that that was sort of out of your range, or you didn't want to be in that kind of an environment?

Feller:

I don’t know. I was on my own, sort of. I was not pushed to go to any particular school. Although the professors were good, it wasn’t that personal, where they would say, “Steve, we really think you should go here.” So I did it on my own. I didn't know. I didn't know what I was doing. I had no idea why I applied to Purdue or Brown or RPI and so on. And I had accepted Purdue. And then I wrote Purdue a letter, and told them, “I'm not coming. I'm going to Brown.” I felt a little bad about it, but not bad enough not to do it. So then I went to Brown. I have more stories about Clarkson, but that’s probably enough on that.

Zierler:

[laugh] So how did you develop a specialty at Brown, and what professors did you become close with there?

Feller:

So the way Brown worked it then was something like this. You took a broad array of graduate courses the first year. Quantum mechanics right off the bat. I think we took solid state physics off the bat. Math methods. We took nuclear physics. I can’t remember if that was the first year or the second year. An experimental class, as well. This was the sort of the usual graduate school physics. I didn't take any undergraduate courses. And we were told they have a system—or the grapevine told me; I can’t remember exactly which one—go talk to professors, toward the end of your first year, and find out basically who has positions and where there’s a good fit. So I did that. I spoke to Leon Cooper, which, you know, kind of excited me. He had just gotten the Nobel Prize. I thought, “That’d be cool.” He had moved to basically AI, artificial intelligence. But it wasn’t a good fit. I don’t know why exactly. He was a little bit aloof. I talked to lots of other people. There was a guy who was doing optics and holography, which I have an interest in, actually. And then I met Phil Bray, who used NMR to study glass. And I immediately liked the group. So it mattered to me, the group dynamic. Phil was good. Right off the bat, he said, “Call me Phil.” I liked that. That mattered. That little thing mattered. The fit.

So he had money. He was a very prominent physicist. He was the first to use NMR on glass, actually, so a pioneer. He had gone to Harvard. He had worked with Norman Ramsey. And we agreed that I would start. How do you start? You spend the first summer studying for the qualifying exam. But then I had some money. I could study. I would help out a little bit here and there, people who were doing experiments, but I really didn't have a project or anything. So, my emphasis was pass that test. You see, the whole path is sort of directed at this point, until I'll tell you in a little while why at some point, you have to make a decision. But really I was easygoing. I didn't worry about it. I was not anxious about finding something. People from my group basically went to the Naval Research Lab or Xerox or IBM. So either industry or government lab. Nobody went—I shouldn't say that; one person went into college teaching while I was there. But I didn't worry about it. I had years, you know?

Zierler:

Third or fourth year, you said.

Feller:

What?

Zierler:

Third or fourth year in graduate school is when you started to seriously think about your career.

Feller:

That is correct. So I went to Brown. I did that. I did well in the classes. The qualifying test, I remember that very distinctly.

Zierler:

Where are you in the experimental versus theoretical at this point? When do you sort of concentrate your efforts?

Feller:

My group was both, actually. And I had some serious theoretical problems, but the group was more experimental. But I was leaning that way. Everybody did an experimental project. You might do some theory also. So the theory I did, I can tell you what it is. My first theory project was to calculate the NMR what’s called powder pattern or the response by a solid with an integer spin. The half-integer spins had been solved, but the integer spins, for spin three, the boron-10 nucleus, had not been solved, as to what to expect. So if we were going to try that nucleus, we had to have the theory of what to expect from the experiment. I worked with a really good guyon that. His name is Jay Jellison, Jr. He had a career at Oak Ridge National Lab. He had gone to Bowdoin in Maine. Really, really sharp guy. By the way, it was in graduate school—not undergraduate—it was in graduate school where I learned for the first time that I was not at the top. One has to learn that lesson. I was in the good group. What does that mean? There were a few people at the very top; I was not in that group. I remember there was a guy from Turkey who came into Brown with a master’s degree. He knew much more than I did. It was humbling. It was a good lesson to learn. Similarly, Jay Jellison, Jr. is a really sharp guy. So I learned about perturbation theory. It was a perturbation theory calculation. We had some programming to do to actually calculate the powder patterns.

Zierler:

So you're working with computers at this point?

Feller:

Yes. So Brooklyn Tech had a mainframe computer. I learned how to—I programmed to get the square root of ten or something. [laugh] But by Brown, they still had a mainframe. I was there during the switchover to [??]. Originally you had to bring the cards into the processing building, but eventually, terminals came. And my thesis was one of the last before word processors. We had no personal computers. Because I graduated in ’79. I think they came out probably the early ‘80s. Like Word or WordPerfect, the old program. My group was both, but NMR was an experimental thing, really, and it is a bit involved from the physics point of view. Chemists and biologists use it. It’s a fantastic technique. MDs use it now. I was astounded when MRI came along, which came along after I finished at Brown. “You can use NMR in the human body? Wow.” I actually met—I forget the guy’s name—one of the guys who first did it. He got an APS award. I happened to be getting an APS award in ’93.

Zierler:

Was it Ad Bax?

Feller:

I can’t remember the guy’s name.

Zierler:

I interviewed most of the NMR guys at the NIH. It’s probably one of those guys, if I were to take a guess.

Feller:

I could find out, though, who won an APS award in ’93 for it. And I remember very distinctly—I already knew then, in ’93, that it was affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Of course now, tens of millions or more. A hundred million. So I remember briefly discussing with him, and I said to him, “Your work has saved hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.” And then he said something nice about how my work is very important, working with students and so on. I got the APS award for undergraduate research that year.

Zierler:

Oh, very cool.

Feller:

So being in his company was inspiring, actually. The technique I had used in graduate school on little itty bitty glass samples had been used to see the brain. I was deeply impressed. So, now it’s year three and year four, and I'm just going along, I pass the qualifying test, I finish courses, and I'm doing research. They have a system—they might even still have it today—what is the system? If you don’t do anything, I would have gone to the Naval Research Lab and industry.

Zierler:

You mean that was your sort of natural trajectory?

Feller:

Yeah. That would have happened to me for sure.

Zierler:

Why Naval Research Lab? What is it about that place?

Feller:

We had a connection that many of our guys had gone there. Once we had a connection at Oak Ridge National Lab, a guy by the name of Bob Weeks. I'm trying to remember their names, but there were several people before me and even after me who went to the Naval Research Lab. These people included Dave Griscom and Frank Bucholtz, for example. But by this time, I thought to myself, “I like working with people. I like teaching.” Brown had the system where I was a TA at first, and then became an RA. The usual system, right? And I enjoyed it, but to be quite honest with you, being a TA is not much teaching. These are canned experiments. They give you the manual. They give you the class list. They show you how to do it. Or they don’t even have to show it to you anymore. You know what I mean? Measuring resistance with resistors, Ohm’s law. You know. Or I graded homework. That’s not teaching. Or occasionally a recitation section. OK, that’s at least some teaching. So then I thought to myself, “I should find out about teaching. OK. I want to find out about teaching.” Not the usual way, though. I thought to myself, “I should teach a class.” I thought that was a good idea. So I went to the department chair, first, and I said, “I want to give up my RA and become a TA again, and I want to teach a class to get experience.”

Zierler:

Now is this like a step down in the normal way things are?

Feller:

In the normal way things are thought of, yes. No one had ever done it before. But I thought it would be great experience. I didn't worry about the money or time away from research that much.

Zierler:

Meaning that you want to get a taste of the professor’s life? If this is something that you want to do?

Feller:

Exactly. I wanted a real class. I'll never forget his answer. His name was Phil Stiles. He was the chair. I'll never forget his answer. “No way,” he tells me. I was a little surprised how blunt he was. I said, “Why no way?” He goes—I'm not sure what it is in current dollars. Let’s say it costs $70,000 a year to go to Brown. I bet that’s close. “No way is a student coming into Brown for $70,000 a year and be taught by a graduate student.” I thought about it for a second, and I said, “That makes sense.” I had the catalog in my hand. And I opened it up to him and showed him, “Here it says you train teachers. Where’s the teaching training?”

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

[laugh] He acknowledged it. [laugh] So we had a little dilemma. I wasn’t going to yield. I understood his point. He understood my point.

Zierler:

But Steve, what’s so different about teaching your own class than from leading recitation?

Feller:

Completely different.

Zierler:

I mean, I know the answer, but I want to hear it in your own words.

Feller:

Who makes the decisions, first of all, in the class you teach? You do. The method of teaching. You do. You're not just going over problems that frankly are not that exciting. You're going over the core material in your own way. You have to know it in a very deep way. Deeper than problem-solving. Problem-solving, that’s a skill you learn, I would argue. But teaching, that’s different. And most people have no clue how to teach, by the way. None. Even to this day. There were other good teachers. I'm not saying I'm the only good teacher in the world. I do consider myself a decent teacher. And there are others I know that I respect highly. But there’s hardly any training for that. And I can come back to that at some point, if you want. So anyway, they agreed to let me teach a self-paced course.

Zierler:

What’s that?

Feller:

So in those days, there was a movement to change course designs—in math, it had started where a student could work at their own pace, and when they're ready for an exam, you give them an exam. This was called Palmer method courses, I believe. They come in if they need help. They come in for—or a group of five might come in for a lecture on some topic, or to solve problems. So it’s more than being a usual TA; it’s less than being a professor. They let me do that. I don’t even know; maybe they put it in the schedule that year just to please me. I don’t know. I doubt it, though, because that would be way too much of an effort for a graduate student. But maybe they had a professor who didn't want to do it. I don’t know. But they had the slot, and they were nice enough to let me do it. All right? I did it for a semester. And that was valuable. I was my own master at that point, for that class. I helped the students as best I could. OK. Then I thought to myself—beginning to see that it’s not the usual path perhaps—"I should take some education courses.” Now I had heard in discussions with physics friends that have sort of an arrogant point of view that, “Oh, those are useless, worthless classes. Why would I want to do it?” I took three of them. I had to convince Phil Stiles again. He was not happy about it. He did not want me to take them. Not so much because he thought they were worthless—maybe he did, but he never said it—but because it would take money away from the physics department. See, at that point, I was an RA—well, I had gone back to being an RA, which was paid for by an NSF grant. The tuition was paid for out of the grant. And the way money was allocated at the school was number of people in seats. So that’s why they gave you course credit for research. It wasn’t a course or anything; it was a placeholder, so they could charge tuition, and so the department could get money back from the university. He didn't want to lose that.

Zierler:

It makes sense.

Feller:

Yeah, it does. I said, “I want the experience of learning.” Out of the three courses, they were almost right. Two of them were useless methods courses. Although I got to see how teachers do that.

Zierler:

What’s useless there?

Feller:

Rote, baby level, not very exciting. But one class was very valuable—educational psychology. How many graduate students in physics take educational psychology?

Zierler:

Who even thinks to take educational psychology?

Feller:

It was the most valuable course in graduate school for me.

Zierler:

Huh.

Feller:

Because I sat in classes—real, live classes—and observed. I observed, for example—because the teacher was good, the teacher had like these grids we're supposed to fill out. How long does the teacher wait before a question is answered? Does the teacher spread it out and ask people all over the class, or rely on the usual pets, I guess you'd call them. You can see everything just by sitting in the class. All the mistakes of teachers, you could see. All the good things that teachers did were revealed. And I never forgot the lesson. So when I taught, I would make sure everybody in the class was involved. I’d make a point of it. I would go around the room. I learned to ask questions of the students this way, the right kind of questions. Not just lecture. Think about what you're doing. And I had seen it in action. That was a potent lesson, actually. So I did that. And then I became an RA again. So I took those courses, OK. Then one day, I was reading The Providence Journal and there was an ad for Providence College. They wanted a science teacher for their required course in science, Foundations of Modern Science. I went to see Phil Bray, and I said, “I want to—if we can agree—I want to teach at Providence College part-time.” Actual courses.

Zierler:

What does he have to say about it? Are you asking his permission?

Feller:

Yes. I didn't want—I had seen too many cases where people went behind professors’ backs. They would literally take these part-time jobs tutoring or teaching at a high school or something, and never tell the professor. I didn’t think it was right. I wanted it above-board. Phil Bray happened to be a superb teacher. He cared about it. In time, when he would travel, he would let me teach his class, which was a high honor in my opinion. So I taught his general physics when he was famous for general physics. The teaching award now at Brown is named after him. So I was above board. I even agreed to take a cut. I suggested it. A cut in the TA salary, which wasn’t much. I agreed to go down to half of the appointment. So I came out even by teaching at Providence College. There was no net change in my financial situation.

Zierler:

But a significant change in your experience.

Feller:

Terrific experience. Worth it. Cost me six months’ extra time. We agreed to that, too, by the way. And I got to teach two courses a semester for at least two years.

Zierler:

Did you focus on physics, or the requirement was to go broader than that?

Feller:

The requirement was to go broader than that. I remember a few of the instances in the class. I remember going over the famous birthday problem. It was a pretty set curriculum but I could do it my way. I was the professor for the class, but the curriculum, I didn't set that. So the birthday problem, you know the one—23 people, it’s about 50/50 that two people have the same birthday? Providence College—is OK. Large classes. But really nice students who are kinda blue-collar. I liked that a lot. But the school didn't care that much. I'll say that. But, I mean, Brown did care. Brown’s expensive. Providence College—you know, worried about getting by, basically. So they have classes of 40 for the first-year class. I mean, think about it—40 for the first year required class in science, not optimal. I was busy. So I knew going into the room—I had not checked the class list out—out of 40 people, the odds are like 99% that at least two would have the same birthday. So I took out a ten-dollar bill, and I put it on the table, and I said, “I'll bet anybody in the room.” “But don’t bet me,” I says. “I know the odds.” I was trying to teach them about probability. “That at least two people have the same birthday.” Three football players said, “Oh, no way. No way. There are 365 days, 40 people? No way. The odds are in our favor.” So a couple of them put ten-dollar bills on the table. Which made it better. Then we found out everybody’s birthday, and there were two sets of students who had the same birthday.

Zierler:

Two. [laugh]

Feller:

One, because they were twins. I hadn’t thought about that.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

But one other I guess you can call it legit pair. Yeah, I did not give them the money back. I gave it to like the Science Society or the Chemistry Club or whatever it was. I don’t think they had a physics club. So I gave the money to that. They had to learn a lesson. No pretend. If you put the ten dollars down, you learn a lesson. No mercy. But the lesson was learned. I enjoyed that. So then when I began to apply to schools—by then, I knew that I wanted to be in a small place. I didn't think I was going to do research. We haven't gotten to that yet. So I applied to mainly small schools all over the country.

Zierler:

When do you finish up your dissertation? When does this happen?

Feller:

That happens in the summer of ’79. I was applying and writing the dissertation in the spring of ’79. Yeah, sometime I’d say January to July, or something like that, I was writing and interviewing.

Zierler:

Who was your advisor?

Feller:

Phil Bray.

Zierler:

Oh, he was? OK.

Feller:

Yes, he was my advisor. And I had done work on oxygen-17 NMR, which was new at that time. And boron-10 NMR. You remember the theoretical project? I did experiments on lithium borates. On glasses containing boron-10. And that turned out to be good. And I had to fit the spectra and make a model for the structures, how the structures changed, and so on.

Zierler:

So you have a pretty solid mix of exposure both on the teaching and the research end of things.

Feller:

That’s correct. I had published six papers at Brown before I left.

Zierler:

So did you feel like you had a real binary choice before you, in terms of which to pursue? Or were you looking to sort of—best of both worlds kind of situation?

Feller:

You ask interesting questions, David. In the real world of 1979, I didn't think of binary choice. [laugh] I just knew I wanted to teach and that had more of an interest to me than the research. It turns out over my career, I've been a fanatical researcher with students, with undergraduate students, and a fanatical teacher. By fanatic, I mean I'm really into it. Both. At the time—

Zierler:

You're probably not giving yourself as much credit in terms of how strategically you were thinking. I mean, going to Coe, going to a small college—you could have gone to a national lab, right?

Feller:

Yes.

Zierler:

You could have gone to a Brookhaven or an Oak Ridge and had zero contact with undergraduates, right?

Feller:

I could have.

Zierler:

It seems like you consciously did not choose that path.

Feller:

That’s a true statement. I deliberately wanted to go to a smaller school. Not necessarily Coe College, but to a smaller school. I applied to about 30 that year.

Zierler:

What was the job market like at that point?

Feller:

Terrible. But I did get six interviews, and I ended up at Coe.

Zierler:

Did you apply almost exclusively to small schools? Was that sort of the focus?

Feller:

Almost exclusively. I also applied to a few branches of state universities. But more to schools like Union College. In fact, I thought I was going to go to Union College. That was my first interview. I went there. We hit it off. Barbara loved it. You know, in Schenectady. She’s from Utica, so—Ballantyne Brae, you know where that is in Utica?

Zierler:

Family friends, good friends, right off of Ballantyne Brae, right at the intersection—the hospital is right there—St. E’s on Genesee Street—and they lived right up there on the second house on Ballantyne Brae. This is crazy! [laugh]

Feller:

She lived at 34 Ballantyne Brae.

Zierler:

Oh, man.

Feller:

So Schenectady was looking good. Good interview. I gave my NMR talk. I come back. The next day, I get a phone call. “Steve, it’s Union College. They want to speak to you.” And they gave me the courtesy call to tell me they had offered the job to somebody else. I couldn't believe it, almost, because what I had heard and what turned out to be true, except for Union College—when you get the phone call, that means it’s a job offer. But not in that one instance. I didn't hear from all the schools, because Coe made the offer, and I accepted it. Coe then was quiescent. Can I say it like that? I had a lot of freedom, a fairly new science building, and one great colleague, a guy by the name of Joe Kasper, who had worked with James Van Allen on the discovery of the radiation belts. I loved going to Coe College.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. Cool.

Feller:

James Van Allen was the spirit of the physics department at the University of Iowa. And Joe Kasper had been a World War II veteran and was nearing the end of his career. He had three more years to go at that time. I didn't know it, but I knew he was older. And we wrote two books together—one on holography and one on digital circuits. Now, as a newly minted professor, I had taught kids about holography before I got to Coe, and my wife was a teacher in Attleboro, Massachusetts, so I was hot on that topic. Digital circuits I had used. The old TTL chips, my colleague had used them. We wrote a book on that as well. A book at the level of John Wiley for sale in Barnes and Noble. But they both had good lives. The holography book sold well. Dover eventually bought the rights to it. So you can still buy it online.

Zierler:

Had you heard of Coe before you knew the opportunity there? Had you ever heard of it?

Feller:

No. But that was true of most of the schools I applied to. I had not heard of Union College. Earlham College, I applied to. The College of Wooster in Ohio. I have a funny story if you have time, for the College of Wooster. So I said I had six interviews, all over the country. That was one. They treated me well. They had a nice little hotel on campus. South of Cleveland, as I recall. And I gave the talk. Only there, they asked me to teach a lesson. And they were very clever. I didn't realize it at the time. They asked me to teach about single and double-slit diffraction. Because there are subtleties in there, and they wanted to see if I really knew it or not. So I didn't realize they were testing me. [laugh] All right, so I go there and so on. Didn't hear from them. The offer from Coe comes. Didn't hear from them. I never heard from them. They never said yes or no, one way or the other. I presume that meant they went to somebody else. Well, I have a daughter who’s a math professor at a small college in Iowa. I have two daughters. Heidi and Rachel aka Ray Ray’s at MIT as a dean, and one is—dean of student support services—and one teaches math at Simpson College in Iowa. Between them I have four grandchildren: Max, Leonardo, Isaac, and Ramona

Zierler:

This is a family business! Fellers in education.

Feller:

Family business, yeah! My wife’s a teacher, too. And so my daughter goes to the math meetings in 2008 and interviews with the College of Wooster for a position at about the same time that she interviewed for the Simpson position. So she goes to them—because I had told her this—I don’t know exactly when—but I had never heard from Wooster— She goes and tells them, 29 years after or so, that I never heard from them. [laugh] The next week, I get the formal rejection. [laugh] Almost thirty years later. But they said some very kind things there. I guess they had followed my career or they could look me up or whatever. They said some very, very kind things. How it was their mistake, and we're sorry, and blah blah blah. I said, “Thank you.” That was funny, I thought.

Zierler:

Yeah, seriously. It worked out.

Feller:

It worked out all right, so, no problem. So then I went to Coe, 1979. Drove across the country. Took a ferry across Lake Michigan so I could see the Yankees play in Milwaukee. I am a baseball fan. I started the whole conversation with you by mentioning Ebbets Field. So I saw the Yankees. And this was the last or the next-to-last game that Thurman Munson played in. I'm not sure you’ve heard that name?

Zierler:

Sure, sure.

Feller:

He died in an airplane crash just a few days later. The Yankees lost the game, and then I drove on to Iowa from Milwaukee. There I was! A quiet building, a quiet department, one excellent person—Joe Kasper.

Zierler:

This is a big opportunity for you. This is a blank canvas, I'm guessing, for you, right?

Feller:

Yes. I didn't realize how important that was, but you are quite right. It was a big opportunity for me.

Zierler:

What’s the demographics at Coe? What’s the average student? Where are they coming from? What’s their socioeconomic background?

Feller:

Coe was a blue-collar college, sort of like Providence but much smaller, and much more liberal arts. Although Providence College is a liberal arts school, but I mean, this is much more of the school you would picture like a junior Amherst or something. Amherst College—that’s a very famous liberal arts school, top of the line. We are also modeled after—like Amherst is—after the colleges at Cambridge or Oxford. So a broad education. It’s required that you take many courses across the curriculum. Relatively poor students, much financial aid, like many other small colleges. We are going against the grain in that we are growing at a time when most schools are not growing. We're even at the moment ahead of—we're at a record level, if you would, of applications, even with the COVID.

Zierler:

You're talking now? Presently, you've grown?

Feller:

Now. When I arrived at Coe, we had about 1,100 students, and now we have about 1,400. Always balanced delicately. Always one move away from a crisis of some sort. I learned how involved faculty are with recruiting. It’s very much unlike Brown or something like that. There’s a college called Carleton College; maybe you've heard of it.

Zierler:

Minnesota.

Feller:

Yeah. It’s a decent school. I remember that the president at Brown switched when I was there, and the former president of Carleton became the president of Brown. Nobody had ever heard of Carleton College. Which now, I know that Carleton is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. But at the time—that shows arrogance from Brown—nobody had heard of this school. Or I had barely heard of Grinnell College. You really don’t hear of schools that much unless you're in the business. You might have heard of them, because you're at the American Institute of Physics. But the average person that lives in New York City has not heard of Grinnell College.

Zierler:

Sure. Why would they?

Feller:

Why would they? Well, only the richest school in the country per student. They haven't heard of it. They don’t know it. We are in the same group as Grinnell. We are the poor cousins of Grinnell. And we know it, and they know it. But I'll take my students over their students. Not that they have bad students; they're just rich. I like students who are hungry. My students are hungry. But when I came, we had maybe ten physics students in the four classes? Something like that.

Zierler:

And what’s the program? There isn’t a separate physics program; there’s just an overall science program?

Feller:

No, no. There’s a physics major. We have a physics department. When I came, I was the third member of a very small—now we have five. So we have grown, actually. I guess I'm proud to say that when I came, we had ten physics majors, and now we have 85 physics majors.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. Wow.

Feller:

So it has grown.

Zierler:

And I bet with such a small department, you can’t afford to specialize in terms of your teaching because there’s just simply too much to cover, per professor.

Feller:

I have taught everything. Even astronomy, which I had to learn. I only taught that once. Of course my specialty is solid state physics. NMR of glasses is part of solid state physics. So I taught that. But I taught across the curriculum.

Zierler:

Now in terms of expectations at such a small school with such an emphasis on teaching, when you get tenure, is your research part of the equation, or it’s almost exclusively focused on your teaching record?

Feller:

It’s a good question, David. Nominally, they say that the research is important. In reality, it’s not. The expectation is so modest. So I find myself in the odd situation of having deliberately chosen to teach at a small liberal arts college, and still I'm pushing the agenda that I want—I have a higher expectation that faculty should be more involved in their field. I don’t think that it has to be publishable research in the subject matter of their department. No. Artists can have exhibitions, of course. Or somebody could do a research on pedagogy. Perfectly fine in my opinion.

Zierler:

But obviously it’s not controversial to say that remaining engaged in the research benefits the teaching. It’s not an either/or situation.

Feller:

I agree with you. That is not obvious to everybody at Coe College. Because what I did, many people respect, but many people felt threatened by, also. Might surprise you. That is when you accomplish—when you work with students and you publish papers with them and you get grants from NSF and so on—I never intended it as a threat to anybody, but people took it that way. Because you're shaking up the system, the status quo. And that is not appreciated by everyone. Now, the overwhelming majority—so I would say it’s probably eight or nine to one like it, that Coe benefits from it, which I truly believe. I've always believed, by the way, that this should be a mutual effort with the school and me, and other faculty. That it shouldn't be that I do this separately from the school. I want the school involved. I want the school letting the alums know about it. It always made sense to me. The school should benefit from it. Having said that, I've had lots of good arguments about indirect money. [laugh] And the school has been very generous. Still, I think the school should benefit.

Zierler:

And what’s the teaching load? Is it usually three-three?

Feller:

Yes, that’s what it is now. It used to be three-one-three, when I first arrived. They had a January term. But the official teaching load is three-three now.

Zierler:

That’s a challenge in and of itself, of getting the research in, if that’s what you're doing. [pause] Right?

Feller:

I find that difficult to do. But you have to push yourself. You can’t just turn it on in the summer. That’s not a good equation. But people are flexible. I'm not the only one to have discovered that when you do more, you're able to do more. [laugh] Now of course I've been busy over the years. You know, many 12-, 14-hour days. And, of course, I have a family. I have two girls. Barbara. Lots of people have families. And some people find this interferes with family. Some people just want to teach. They want a more comfortable life. There’s nothing really wrong with that. Well, not much wrong with that. It does the students a bit of a disservice, of course, because I think you should be current in the field, and that the students get connections. They meet people. They go to conferences. They write papers. Not just for graduate school. I'm not a believer that a physics department should reproduce itself. That’s a huge mistake. I believe students should go into broad, diverse employment and fields of interest. I'm all for that. I've never believed in just sending students to graduate school in physics—I think it’s arrogant for physics departments. But there are other physics departments that believe as I do. I have a student who is one of the leading bloggers in the United States. His name is Jason Kottke. You can look him up. K-O-T-T-K-E.

Zierler:

I know the name. I've heard it.

Feller:

He was my student. Physics student. Very nice guy. He wanted to become a blogger. I'm proud of him! He has done well. Why not? He uses his science in his blog. I look at it every so often. So over the years—a program, by the way, cannot be built in five years. It’s impossible. So I've been doing this 41 years at Coe now, and two years at Providence College before that, as you know. It took all of that time to build up what we have now, a program I am proud of. So we have five faculty who are working on all cylinders with research. In a given summer now—well, a normal summer; how about that? [laugh]—I can discuss this summer, too—but a normal summer, we now have 40 students staying to do research. So that keeps us pretty busy.

Zierler:

How are the facilities in terms of the lab work? Is Coe supportive of the labs?

Feller:

Yes. They are supportive of the labs. And we've gotten many grants for it as well, because of our work in the field. We have superb equipment now. Much research-grade equipment. We have lots of collaborations now, which I can describe. I have a whole thing about collaborations. So we have 40 students who are on campus in the summertime.

Zierler:

What have been some of the most significant research work that has been done at Coe in recent years?

Feller:

OK. We have a guy who does medical imaging. By medical imaging—he’s a detector guy from high-energy physics. And it turns out that the software for that is similar to imaging. It is imaging. So he has done a lot of medical imaging. So that’s pretty significant work. We have a woman who does astronomy who has made discoveries about the atmosphere of Mars, about events that were not known before in the atmosphere of Mars. She works in the descendent group of James Van Allen. James Van Allen’s group was taken over by Don Gurnett. I'm not sure you heard of him. And he had missions on many of the planetary missions. He had experiments. So my colleague who works with experiments at the University of Iowa, she is still call an adjunct or whatever it is, at the University of Iowa—she still has data from her experiments on the planetary probes. Right now, it’s the Mars Express. But she has done work on the other probes as well. I can tell you what we discovered in glass science. Basically, I specialize in making new glasses under unusual conditions and environments. So we are now the go-to people—we have the niche of making glasses for many groups around the world. We study them by neutron scattering, NMR still. Although we do not have a modern solid-state NMR spectrometer, I still do much work with NMR. We do work at Argonne National Lab at the APS, the Advanced Photon Source. I have a colleague who does optical properties of materials. So recently he has learned how to use lasers to make patterns on different kinds of glass. That’s new, and potentially important. For example, water repellant surfaces, or a bactericide surface —to kill bacteria. We have a guy who is quite expert at musical acoustics, had a cover article in Physics Today. James Cottingham. Expert, world expert on wind instruments. On free reed instruments, in particular. You can look up his article, with his instruments, on the cover of Physics Today.

Zierler:

Cool! OK.

Feller:

So does that give you an idea, roughly?

Zierler:

What I'm hearing is that the department is certainly punching way above its weight.

Feller:

Way above its weight. Each of us is averaging eight undergraduate research students a year. That’s a lot, in addition to the teaching load. So we are, but NSF is supporting us. We've had continuous NSF support—I have had—since ’86. So it also takes money.

Zierler:

Steve, what are your most fun classes to teach? If you could only teach one class, what would it be?

Feller:

Modern physics.

Zierler:

Modern physics.

Feller:

Modern physics. And probably general physics is in second place. But I love modern physics.

Zierler:

What does that mean? What’s the cutoff? You're talking chronology?

Feller:

Well, no. In physics, I'm thinking of [laugh]—it’s sort of an oxymoron—modern physics is not modern. [laugh] But it’s the physics after Newton. So it’s physics, as it’s taught today, from about 1905 to 1950.

Zierler:

That’s modern physics?

Feller:

[laugh] That’s modern physics.

Zierler:

So what’s 1950? We go from Einstein to what?

Feller:

We go from Einstein in 1905 to development of quantum physics, to some modern topics. A few modern topics. High-energy physics discoveries, accelerators would be toward the end. Now, of course, that’s modern-modern. But in terms of what we actually cover—the cyclotron. We get to the cyclotrons from the ‘30s.

Zierler:

I like “modern-modern.” I was hoping you weren’t going to say “postmodern physics” from 1950 to the present or something like that. [laugh]

Feller:

We might mention a few personal interests, but that’s about it. Lasers. How lasers work, we'll do. That’s part of modern physics. The atom, of course. The Bohr model of the atom. I really like Niels Bohr. He has an interesting history. In fact, I played him in a play.

Zierler:

No kidding!

Feller:

Maybe you heard the play, Copenhagen.

Zierler:

Sure. Yeah, sure.

Feller:

That’s a physics one. I’m at a liberal arts college. We have a first-year course required of all students. A colleague in theatre approached me and said, “Steve, let’s do scientific plays. I'll do the theatrical side. You explain the science.” I said, “Great, let’s do it.” So this is a true liberal arts college. We team-taught a class for new students on the science of—Science on Stage. So we did Galileo. That’s one of the classic plays you’d do. Galileo by Brecht. The trial of Galileo. Very interesting play. And then at my suggestion, we covered Copenhagen. Because I had seen it in London on the West End. I love theatre. I had seen it. I was astounded by it! That there was Niels Bohr, and there was Werner Heisenberg, on stage in front of me, arguing about the morality of building the bomb, and the scientific details of fission. On the stage, in front of me! I said, “Let’s do this play.” So we covered it. I did this three years with him, and we covered the play. There’s a video out, and there’s—oh, the guy who plays Werner Heisenberg is Daniel—yeah, the guy, he also played James Bond.

Zierler:

Oh, Daniel Craig.

Feller:

Yeah, he played Heisenberg in the video. So we showed that. And during the last year we did the course, I just kind of casually said, “Let’s put the play on at Coe.” He said, “Done. We're gonna do it.” So I came home that day and my wife Barbara—I said, “Barbara, you want to be Margrethe or Bohr on stage?” So the three of us—there are three parts—did the play, on the main stage at Coe. First part of a sabbatical. I spent every day in the theatre department.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

It was humbling. I learned a lot! [laugh] We had a director who was a fanatic about staging, about—oh, there’s a name for the positioning of where you were and so—

Zierler:

Blocking.

Feller:

Blocking. [laugh] Right. Blocking. I had never been in a play before. So he changed it like 100 times. Finally, I had to say to him, as the play was getting close—I said—I forgot his name already—it has been ten years since this started. The play was put on in January 2011. I said to him, “Don’t change the blocking anymore! Enough!” [laugh] Because, you know, I have to learn that stuff, and to keep changing it is jarring. I finally said, “Please don’t do it anymore.” After about a hundred times, really. And we're down to two weeks to go. [laugh] So we did it! Four nights at Coe. Now, here’s the funny part of that. It was interesting. I actually have a bootleg copy of the play that they recorded.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

I told my colleague in England, my NMR colleague, Diane Holland at the University of Warwick, that I was doing the play. Unbeknownst to me, she writes a proposal to her Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick, for me to come over and do the play. With Barbara. That they would put us up for a month, in a beautiful accommodation, and we’d have a play one night. I tried to get my colleague in theatre to come, but he was teaching, he couldn't do it, and so on. So I went to the theatre department to get a Heisenberg. This is in England, you understand. [laugh] So I got volunteers. There were about 31 people, something like that—I remember 31 people—in their introduction to acting classes. OK? I mentioned this crazy plan. Six people wanted to do Heisenberg. All girls.

Zierler:

Girls.

Feller:

Twenty-nine out of the 31 were girls. So it was sort of like—it was a dramatic reading of the play, unlike the actual play. This was like an abridged version. I was the director. [laugh] And so we had these people coming in and out. So they learned their parts well, the six girls. And you know, the lights would go down and a new Heisenberg would come in, she’d do that part, she’d leave, a new one would come in to cover the play. It worked! We had standing room only. The Institute of Advanced Study supplied food. I got Indian food for everybody. [laugh] And we did Copenhagen.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

[laugh] Now after that, that was the beginning of a sabbatical. I did it at Coe in the month of January. The play was at the very end of the month. I went to England in February, 2011. We did the play at the end of this month. And how’s this for a coincidence? They have a superb NMR facility at Warwick. It’s one of the centers in Europe for NMR. In the same building as the theatre department. What were the odds? So anyway, from there, I visited colleagues in Italy. And did I go to Greece that year? I can’t remember. But Italy, for sure. And that close to Copenhagen, I contacted Felicity Pors. That’s the archivist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. And I said, “I’d like to come see the sites from the play Copenhagen.” She was very gracious. She let me come. So Barbara and I went to Copenhagen to take a tour of all the sites from the play. Because Barbara had been at all the rehearsals and so on. We actually started the rehearsals in December, but January was an intense period, and then the play was end of January. So we went to Copenhagen. We saw, just like in the play, his office, where they played ping-pong. Where Heisenberg played ping-pong with Bohr. I had the best possible tour guide, the archivist. It’s like being at the Niels Bohr Library and getting the tour from the head guy of somebody’s lab that they had specialized in, or she had studied for her thesis or something. I don’t know who. Einstein at Princeton or something. This was the same kind of thing. But then it occurred to me—it was wonderful. We had the tour and so on. I was so appreciative. She’s the archivist. I asked after half the tour, “Can I see some of his papers?” I believe they have the most papers there. You guys have a lot, too.

Zierler:

Right.

Feller:

But I think they have like the premier collection of Niels Bohr. They should, I guess. I don’t know.

Zierler:

Yeah, sure.

Feller:

And she said, “Oh, Steve, if you had told me before, I could have got out the papers and so on, but that’s difficult to do at a moment’s notice.” I put her on the spot. I didn't know. “Sorry, Steve.” OK. Five minutes later—this is a true story—she goes to me, “If you could see one thing, what would it be?”

Zierler:

Oh, boy.

Feller:

I knew instantly. Because I had read a lot about him by this time. I played the part of Niels Bohr. So I knew, from the background reading, that in 1912, when he was a student, a postdoc student of Rutherford, that he had written a memo to Rutherford first outlining his theory of the atom, before the paper in 1913, on the constitution of atoms. In 1912, he—see, I like history—he writes this five-page handwritten memo. I told her, “I would like to see the memo.” The first writing down of the atomic theory. Goosebumps, right?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Feller:

I know you like history, because you're doing this. Wouldn't you have goosebumps?

Zierler:

Seriously.

Feller:

She goes, “OK.” We go down to the archive. The lights flicker on, right? They come on. Because they're always dark, otherwise. She climbs up one of these little ladder things they have there. You know what I mean? The rolling ladder. She climbs up, she gets a box down, she opens the box, she rummages through it, takes out a folder, and hands it to me. The memo.

Zierler:

Mm!

Feller:

Five loose pieces of paper. I open it up. I begin to read it. “Dear Professor Rutherford.” Very formal. In English, because he’s writing to Rutherford. Blah blah blah. And there’s the model of the atom laid out.

Zierler:

Fshhh!

Feller:

Yeah. Goosebumps. So. Now, my wife has worked in museums over the years. So my next question of Felicity, my wife instantly answered, “No.” [laugh] I asked Felicity, “Can I take pictures of it?” And she shrugged her shoulders. “Sure.” [laugh] Yeah. I'm not sure you guys would let me—oh, actually, you guys did let me take pictures of Feynman’s notebook. You guys took it out once, and I took pictures of Feynman’s notebook, which I thought was really cool. Because he had no mistakes in it.

Zierler:

It’s Feynman.

Feller:

He had derived calculus. It was a fantastic thing. But anyway, here was Niels Bohr’s thing. I took photos of it. By the way, no gloves were required. I held the document in my hand. Got out my camera. I still use those in lectures to students. Very exciting moment. OK. Keep going. That’s a diversion. But I hope you find it interesting.

Zierler:

I want to ask, Steve—if there’s any in particular that you want to talk about, that would be great—but overall, all of your visiting professorships, because of your emphasis and love for teaching, I'm curious about the impact—if you think about them all sort of retrospectively, teaching in different cultures and different countries, different approaches, how have those visiting professorships influenced you as a teacher?

Feller:

I think that’s a good question, too. I really think that’s a good question. It has impacted me a lot. And we have a very good sabbatical plan at Coe, which allows us to have them. So I'm appreciative of that. One semester plus the summer, if you choose, although I have spent every summer doing research. But one full semester every five years, at full pay. So that allowed me to do it. Every time I went, I brought back opportunities for students. Students always followed to every one of my labs. But also, there were a number of cultural benefits to me. So for example, I was in Japan, in Kumamoto, Japan, on the island of Kyushu, with Barbara—that’s one of the southern islands, at Kumamoto, Japan—with a great colleague that I met in Greece, on another trip. And I was the foreigner. Barbara was the foreigner. He put us up in an apartment. We were there about five weeks. I couldn't speak Japanese. It’s important that you be a foreigner. That you have this helpless feeling of not being able to communicate at first. You appreciate, then, other people. It was very important. I have since sent students—they have been the foreigner, in different labs. But the foreigner working with a scientist who brings the world closer together. Science is that kind of activity. It’s a collaborating activity. The science is the same for everybody and it’s possible to work together.

But to get new insights—for example, just making the glass, different groups make it differently, and I learned a lot about it. My Japanese colleague made the best samples. I mean, his measurements are the best. Ten times better than mine. Mine are good, better than most. His are the best. But he can only make them over limited ranges of composition. We specialize in making glasses over wide ranges of composition using rapid cooling. He did exactly the opposite. Slow cooling. He made cylinders for velocity of sound measurements. Now, it turns out, for velocity of sound measurements, you want very homogeneous glasses so that the sound doesn't bounce off of defects. OK? So he made these incredible cylinders. They were several centimeters high, a couple centimeters in diameter. And how did he get these to be super homogeneous? Well, he didn't just melt them in a crucible, and that was it. He reacted—he was a chemist and a physicist—chemical physicist, I guess you'd call him. He reacted boric acid with sodium carbonate—say, making sodium borate glass, each of which was in a solution, in a water solution. He mixed them together, and over the course of days, they intimately mix and then form a reaction, which precipitates out of the water. He then heated that mixture up. OK? Oh, I said sodium carbonate. It was really sodium hydroxide solution, with the boric acid solution.

So, he had a super well mixed solution before he melted it in a crucible, which allowed him to make defect-free glasses, for which he could measure the speed of sound—he had cleverly designed it himself. He was a very good scientist, this guy. Basically you send sound pulses up, they reflect off the top, they come back down, you time them by overlapping the waves, the sound waves. So you get very precise time. The distance is very precise, because the cylinders are incredibly precise. So I learned that. I never would have known that otherwise. You can read it in a paper, but seeing it, that’s—he measured density by having this huge tube. It’s one of the standard ways, but I had never seen it before. Maybe a six to seven-foot tube in the lab of some kind of solution, of two liquids. And you put the sample in the cylinder and it came down until it stopped sinking. Because it was a density gradient tube. Well, that allows you to get very precise measurements of the density. But you have to know the temperature of the fluid because then the density of the fluids change. He was super careful. It took him a couple of days to make one glass and one measurement.

Zierler:

Sounds expensive.

Feller:

In time and effort, yes. He designed his own furnace for it, to make the cylinders. Built his own furnace. That kind of stuff. It was great. Now, in similar fashion, I spent a sabbatical in Greece. My first scientific sabbatical in 1990, that was great. And it has lots of funny stories. I suddenly saw these papers coming out on glasses where we at Cod extended had extended the range of glass formation. And they’re coming from this research tank, theoretical institute—sorry, the National Hellenic Theoretical and Physical Chemistry Institute, a part of the Greek government, but associated with the University of Athens. So I wrote to them. Well, because I saw they were using my papers. And I said, “I have a sabbatical coming up. I’d love to visit you.” They said, “Come, Steve. We'll arrange it. We'll get the housing.” So on and so forth. When I got there, I found out that they had also gone to Brown, a few years after me, not in physics but in chemistry. So they knew my advisor; they knew my work. I didn't know them because they came after me. They knew me. So that worked out well. I'm still colleagues with them. I was in Greece last year. So it had a big impact. And I've argued with the Coe administration that that is a huge benefit that they should expect more of faculty as a result. They should expect that students will benefit from it, I think. Now, it could be intangible, just improvement of teaching. I’d be happy if the teaching improved. Books. I’d be happy. Some people do write books. Some people never finish their books. They should be encouraged to finish. They should be responsible for that time. It’s precious. About two years ago, in fact, our Board of Trustees reviewed the sabbatical plan, because they were wondering, “What comes out of it?” It’s a legitimate question.

Zierler:

Right. Not just fun for the professors. What does Coe get out of it?

Feller:

I've been on the committee that reviewed proposals. Sometimes you read a phrase like, “I need to recharge” or something. Maybe they're right. There’s nothing wrong with recharging. But that can’t be the basis of a proposal. Then that’s a joke. I can tell more stories, but keep going.

Zierler:

Steve, one thing we haven't talked about yet is—we've talked so much about research and teaching; we haven’t talked about service. And that’s obviously the point of contact for us, with SPS. When did you start to sort of devote yourself to service in physics?

Feller:

I do consider it important. That’s a good question. What happened—I had done outreach programs. We're still very active with outreach. We have an annual—large service event—we call it the Coe College Playground of Science. And now we have—so we're the nucleus of it. We invite other science departments and clubs on one night to do science demos so we multiply our impact. So we get like 50 demos in one night. Then we invite every teacher in four counties to come. And as the Iowa expression goes, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s actually, “If you build it, he will come.” It’s referring to the father. But not going crazy about that. “If you build it, they will come.” Paraphrasing the thing. We get 1,500 people that one night now. It has become a tradition. So I like that kind of stuff. We go to many schools. I'm comfortable going into schools. In graduate school, I observed, many times, at Hope High School in Providence , down the block from Brown, which is an economically deprived school, actually. In 1996, at the encouragement of somebody whose name I've forgotten at the University of South Dakota—they had a very active SPS chapter. They still do. He had found out that we were active in SPS—And I was a member of the SPS, and that we were active in outreach. Maybe he called me. Because he was the counselor. You know, the SPS counselor for Zone 11? Now I know the zones; at the time, I didn't know about that. So he said, “Steve, why don’t you run for counselor? My term is ending.” You know, sometimes it’s hard to find people. A lot of schools don’t respect SPS activity. Some do. It tends to be the smaller schools that do respect it.

Zierler:

Why that divide? What do you think that’s about?

Feller:

The overwhelming emphasis is on scholarly pursuit at an R-1 university, period. Teaching doesn't count too much. Your service doesn't count too much. Research dollars count a lot. Dollars. And if you do research, that helps --those departments want those dollars. That’s being maybe too cynical. They want the research, too. I always believe that the reason we do research is for the students. The main product should be the students first. But it’s easy for me to say that, because at a small college, what I'm doing is a luxury. My career never depended on how many dollars I brought into Coe College, whereas the careers of many physics people does depend on that at big schools. So, I highly respect SPS, as you can imagine, having spent part of my life with it. But there are lots of schools that don’t.

Zierler:

But what about it specifically is so attractive to you? What do you love about SPS?

Feller:

OK. So I ran. I was elected. Turns out there were like two candidates, and I wrote some kind of thing. And not that many chapters vote, so the election might have been, you know, five to four for me. It was just luck that I got it, probably, because they didn't really know me. But I learned a lot from it. So I went to the centennial meeting in Atlanta, of APS first. That was the first national meeting of SPS I went to. And that was great.

Zierler:

What year was that?

Feller:

’96. In Atlanta. The 100th anniversary of the American Physical Society. And I loved it. I met people who were interested in teaching and in research from all over the country. I met students from all over. There were 18 zone councilors. They were 18 associate zone councilors. So, I ran again. Three-year positions in the councilor position. That was great. Now, at the end of that, the position of president of Sigma Pi Sigma came up. By then, I was into it. One thing led to another. I guess I'm the kind of person that doesn't—I'm not passive. I'm a pretty active guy. And so the position of president of Sigma Pi Sigma came up. I thought, “I'm as good as anybody else, now that I know about the system.” I had been a member of Sigma Pi Sigma since ’72 at Clarkson. So I ran for that. And I was surprised I won that. There were five candidates that year. But I was already active at the national level. So I won that, and then I won it again. And in the meantime, we had the 2000 national conference, what became PhysCon but it was just called Sigma Pi Sigma Congress then. That was held near Washington D.C. at College Park, Maryland. And there was William Philips doing his great temperature demo. The meeting wasn’t a big one. It was probably the smallest of the Congress meetings, at about 150 to 200 people. But I thought it was great.

Then I began to encourage my students to become the associate zone councilors. Although we haven't had a lock on it, out of the last 25 years that I've been in—I guess it’s 25 years now, yeah—25 years that I've been active, students have been the associate zone councilor 20 of those years. From Coe College, I mean. Then 2004, I was the president of Sigma Pi Sigma at the congress in Albuquerque. They had a historical component to that. We went to the Trinity site. That was most interesting. And the meeting was a joint meeting of Sigma Pi Sigma and the Four Corners APS chapter, and the local zone meeting. And so that was a good meeting. I brought ten students to that meeting. Our activity level had been ramped up already. That was 2004. 2008 was at Fermilab. Now, looking at a map, you'll see that Fermilab is four hours away from Coe College, due east. I went all out for that one. The first of many times I've gone all out. We rented a bus for the entire Congress. Actually, a lot of people would join us on the bus as we went around, thinking that that was a conference bus. [laugh] Although we never minded, although we had 40 people come to the conference from Coe.

Zierler:

Wow. That’s a showing.

Feller:

That was our first really large showing. But I'm conceited and proud to say that in the history of all of Sigma Pi Sigma congresses, no one has brought more students than I have. So 2008—40. no 2012 was in Orlando. A little bit more expensive, and now we have to fly, right? Although there are some groups that will drive or take a bus or something, but to go 20 hours didn't thrill me that much. But I did go to the group ticket sales part of United to get tickets. So I brought over 20 students to Orlando and the Kennedy Space Center. That was really good. And then beginning in 2008 at Fermilab I was the chair of the meeting. I had ceased being the president of Sigma Pi Sigma. And they like to give jobs to the retired people, so I became the chair, which I really liked. So that was 2008 and 2012,. 2016 was San Francisco. I know it’s going to seem hard to believe, but we brought 39 people to San Francisco from little Coe College in Iowa. I have the picture to prove it. And every one of us in a Coe College shirt. It was great. Just highly motivational. We met Jocelyn Bell Burnell in Albuquerque, and now we met her again in San Francisco. I got to introduce my students to not only Jocelyn Bell Burnell but other people like that. Jim Gates, who’s now a friend. Similarly, I consider Jocelyn Bell Burnell a friend now. She has visited us at Coe College already because of that. And my students get to know these people, literally. So, San Francisco was great. I have a student who works at Google. I have students all over the place now, alumni, and we're very close. I believe in maintaining close contact with alums.

We have reunions every few years. At the last reunion, at little Coe College, we had 130 alums and family members come back. They're important. I try to tell other departments this. I don’t think they believe me. They’re highly rewarding. They give back in jobs, internships, not to mention donations. Plus my students get to meet them. It’s amazing. It really is. Thus we had 2016 and it was in San Francisco. In 2020, I was now co-chair. I guess I was being weaned off [laugh] so that other people could come in. I had been president or chair since 2004. I was actively involved in organizing the conferences since 2004. Then I brought to this last meeting, in November 2019, 45 people to Providence, RI. Now, when you bring in 45, it’s not that easy in terms of making the arrangements, but I've experienced we can do it. What we did was the students drove to Chicago. I had a colleague, our newest colleague Caio Bragatto, who is going to be my successor in the next few years lead them. Also, next year we will have the switchover in which my new colleague becomes the advisor. Because I'm sort of on phased retirement. I'll explain it in a second. Sort of. It’s a little different plan than usual, but it is going to lead to retirement. This is the end of my 41st year, like I said.

In Chicago, they took one of the cheap airlines—Southwest Airlines—flew to Boston, took the train from Boston to Providence, and walked to the hotel. The train station is walking distance. Forty-five people. But the price per ticket was like $210. And of course you have to do fundraising. The first fundraising you do is to go to the dean and say, “I'll triple your money, but I need help from you.” So the dean gave $7,000. Which is a start. I was appreciative. Doesn't pay for the trip. Then you go to the Student Senate to get them to match. “The dean has given the money,” is the argument. “You should give the money for your fellow students.” The students wrote a proposal—“We're a recognized group.” I don’t think a physics club in the country gets the kind of support we do. We get $15,000 to $20,000 a year from the Student Senate.

Zierler:

Steve, can you talk a little bit about the role of AIP in all of this, and your partnership with AIP with regard to your involvement with SPS?

Feller:

Yeah. So I personally am appreciative that AIP is very supportive of SPS in ways that probably most people are not aware of. First and foremost, the staff, the whole office, is underwritten by AIP. And I know about other areas—physics is amongst the most supportive of its students. You know, Brad Conrad and company—I've seen the staff come and go. Brad is a very good director, in my opinion, plus the staff. Now, I know that the lifetime of a staff member at SPS is not that long. Oh, in some cases, it is long, but often times, they roll over to other similar positions. It’s a tough job, actually, for the money. I'll say it like that. The people are good people who work there. And some have made a career of it. I'll say Lydia Quijada and Sacha Purnell have made careers of it. And others. They also underwrite PhysCon and other physics activities, besides the staff and the headquarters. You would not have a PhysCon without AIP. Because one crucial thing is, when I bring 45 students, even the registration fee of, say, 175 bucks a student, you multiply that by 45, we're talking money.

Zierler:

So now I can say it from my perspective, but I’d love to hear in your own words, why you think AIP has this level of commitment in terms of what it’s underwriting.

Feller:

Because they're smart. This is the seeding of the future. The feed stock. Whatever you want to call it. I think they have been very successful at encouraging undergraduate students. I don’t know how to measure that. You guys have a great statistical arm; maybe they can measure it somehow. So right now, they have about 5,000 members of SPS itself, maybe 80,000 alum members of Sigma Pi Sigma. I think the numbers are close. Now, the number of undergraduates in physics has been going up recently. But even so, nationwide, so—you probably have three years’ worth of majors—the first year, most people don’t declare as a physics major. So three years and now we're graduating 7,000 a year or something like that. So let’s say on the order of 20 to 25,000 majors in the country, of which 5,000 are members of SPS. That’s not bad. Brad wants to be better. He keeps trying. It’s hard. Because every year, you have to renew them. It took me a long time to encourage SPS—now, this will sound a little conceited, but they're doing it now, so I feel good about it—bulk memberships. [laugh] I argued for 30 years—no, not 30; 25 years, since I started—that they should make it easy for a lot of people to sign up. Don’t expect individual students to sign up. Too much inertia. Let me sign up my group. Make it easy. And now Brad has gone beyond me. So they did that finally. Because little Coe College, for several years recently, has had the most members of any chapter in the country. By letting me get the students—we have an orientation meeting in the fall. I bring my little spreadsheet, which is a big piece of paper, and we sign everybody up right then and there. I don’t even have to collect the money from them. Which now it’s basically free, so I don’t even charge them anymore. I used to have the physics department pay half, and they would pay half. In those days, it was like, I don’t know, 16 bucks, so eight dollars each. So they had a little commitment, and I could spread the resources out. But by signing up everybody—I mean, we would sign up 50 or 60 people at a time, right off the bat. Even if most don’t stay, it’s OK. You'll get many who will. Now Brad has the bulk membership, so basically it’s unlimited for like 400 bucks. Now, I sign up 100. [laugh] Every student in general physics, basic physics, modern physics, you are now all members. And that’s how we got an interest of 45 people to go to the Congress. It multiplies itself.

Zierler:

In terms of the generations of undergraduates who have gone through these programs, what has been the effect in terms of what some of these students have gone on to do, in part as a result of SPS?

Feller:

First of all, there have been several people who have worked for SPS. That’s not the major impact, but already that’s an impact. Brittney Hauke, maybe you saw her at headquarters. And we've had many interns there in the summer that has changed their lives in many ways. If not every year, every other year, there’s a Coe student there as an intern in the SPS internship program. I've had people who are teaching who have set up their own—who are now active in SPS at their home institutions. This has enabled the society to spread naturally through the generations. I've had students who have become speakers. Sandeep Giri. Do you know that name?

Zierler:

I do.

Feller:

So Sandeep was the guy at Google I mentioned a few minutes ago, who came to the San Francisco meeting to speak. Sandeep was my student, my research student, and physics student at Coe. We used to argue about all sorts of issues, not just physics. We still do. I had a two-hour conversation with him last week about COVID and its implications and so on. We're not done yet. He calls me or I call him every month or two. Now, Bo Hammer and Michael Moloney—you know, your head guy there—approached me to visit Sandeep. Maybe you knew about that. To get him to join that board, the fundraising board, the development board. First of all, I do believe in SPS, and I had no trouble approaching Sandeep to join the board. I thought it was a good thing. Because he has ideas. He’s an original thinker, this guy.

Zierler:

That’s a big win, getting Sandeep on board.

Feller:

It is a big win. And so I spent a couple of days. Now, I form lifelong associations. So when I went to California, I met with Bo and Michael. They were there, too, and so on. But I also went to Sandeep’s house several days. His wife cooked glorious Indian food.

Zierler:

Nice.

Feller:

So when it came time for the Congress last year, I invited—well, “I”—I suggested him, that he be an industrial speaker at the Congress. This was before he joined the board. OK, maybe it was because he spoke at the Congress that Michael got the idea of him joining the board. I don’t know. Whatever it was, Sandeep—of course, he had led the tours four years before at Google. Which is hard to do, by the way. To get 200 people into Google was no small accomplishment.

Zierler:

I bet!

Feller:

But Michael wasn’t the director at that time. You had what’s his name. I forgot his name. But it was a guy who lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa where Coe is from. He worked at Rockwell Collins. The guy from Ireland. No, Michael is from Ireland.

Zierler:

Michael is from Ireland.

Feller:

[laugh] There was a guy from England, I think. Yeah, he’s from England. He was the guy before Michael, anyway. His name is Robert Brown.

Zierler:

OK.

Feller:

He would have been on the tour with Sandeep four years ago. Now let’s chat about after the Congress. So the Congress was quite an event. You know, it took four years to—no, that was three years after—three years to organize, from San Francisco. Then afterwards I made plans with Sandeep. I said to him, “Your family and my family should go to Cape Cod for a few days.” After the Congress. We did that. We rented a house together. My daughter came from Boston with her family. It was great. It was a big house. We had 15 people in the house. But it had nine bedrooms. One of these like mansions that in the wintertime is not used. It cost us $800 a day. Just a few days, though, and we could share it, so it was reasonable. And there we spent time just relaxing, playing games, arguing about current events, because Sandeep and I love to argue, and so on. So that gives you an idea. Maybe I should talk more about alums a little bit, since you mentioned—besides giving back to SPS or the impact that SPS has had on them.

Zierler:

What about in terms of their own pursuit of graduate degrees in physics?

Feller:

Oh, this is highly motivational, our program. About 70% of our students go on to graduate school. Although I said I'm proud of them no matter what they do. Sandeep’s story is illustrative. He went to Stanford, to graduate school. But after he got his master’s, he left, on purpose. He was done. They begged him at Stanford. He was doing great work. He tells me they kept calling him and calling him—“Don’t leave. Don’t leave. You're doing great.” It wasn’t that he was worried about it or anything; he wanted to go to Silicon Valley. He was being approached by headhunters all the time. And eventually he ended up at Google, but he had a few other jobs. He learned how to set up a factory, basically, both in the United States and in Taiwan and in Japan. He has had some very interesting projects. So our program ends up I guess encouraging students to go into graduate school, mainly in engineering.

Zierler:

Not physics?

Feller:

No, not physics. Remember my comment earlier about it’s bad to reproduce yourself. I think it’s one sixth of our graduates go on to physics. So we are now at 20 graduates a year. We have very little attrition in the classes. I'm proud of that. And so one sixth go on—so in a given a year, that’s, what, three majors or so go on in physics? It doesn't make much sense to have 20 students go on in physics. Way too narrow. I love physics. It has been good to me. And if a student wants to go on to physics, I'm all for it, obviously. But if a student wants to become an engineer, I'm all for that, too. If a student wants to go on in French—I've had two students do that—I'm all for it. If a student wants to go into economics, I'm all for it. I'm all for what students want to do if they pursue it with vigor, and they like it. Then I'm for it. Otherwise I argue with them.

Zierler:

You sound like an educator.

Feller:

It is my life’s vocation. [laugh]

Zierler:

Steve, let’s take it right up to the present. Talk about this phased retirement. What’s going on currently?

Feller:

Ah! So I said to you, I've done 41 years of teaching at Coe. It has been good to me. Coe has been good to me. I can say it. They worked with me. I don’t always agree with them. I make my opinions known. Not shy. But on the whole, they've come through. They have. On my last sabbatical—and it will be my last, because I'm sort of on permanent sabbatical now, as you'll hear in a second—I am employed by Coe College, still—I began to think about the future. It’s important sometimes—people don’t tell you you should think about the future. A person should think about these things. I do believe to build up a program, you have to be at a place for a long time. To really build up a program of excellence, I mean. You can’t do it in five years; I'm sorry. You can do it in 40 years, or less. [laugh] Doesn't have to be 40, but it has to be more than five. Not my program; I'm talking about being a teacher new at a college, where you have the ability to build your own program. There are lots of other professions and so on. I admire the Niels Bohr Library. It has built up a good program. It’s well-respected. I love libraries. The history of physics—I could easily have gone into the history of physics, believe me. I like it. The Niels Bohr story. So, I began to think about it. And I thought to myself—I had already worried a little bit, how are we going to preserve this program? It’s fragile. Idiosyncratic to me. Along the way, you have to make sure to keep it viable. I convinced the college to hire one of my former students back.

Zierler:

Oh, wow.

Feller:

Just one. He was the right person, because he’s willing to argue with me. And he’s a great thinker and a great writer. His name is Mario. Mario Affatigato. A great guy. From Venezuela. He’s joint Venezuelan, Italian, and American citizen. Fluent in three languages—Spanish, Italian, and American English. And very well-read. He went to Coe, and he made the most of his time here. I wanted him to come back. I went to the president and said, “We have to hire him back.” So when he finished his degree, we got him back. See? There’s an example where the school had to be supportive. If it wasn’t for that move, we would not have the program we have now. They have to have faith that—a lot of schools won’t do that. Trust me. Some will. Some won’t. Most won’t. Especially fragile schools. We're fragile. Total endowment at Coe is about $70 million. Which I don’t know how much you know about endowments that much, but that’s not high.

Zierler:

Nope.

Feller:

Nope. It’s not high. We're a blue-collar college, like I told you. OK? So I thought to myself, “How can we preserve the program? What’s the best way? The best way is for me to work with my successor.” I approached the school and said, “I want to go on a special kind of phased retirement.” Normally in phased retirement, you just teach less, and after a couple years, you retire. In my case, I would teach less, but the school would agree to hire my replacement while I was still there. Eventually I would become full-time—or not full-time—71%, it turns out, a full-time researcher, working with students. So right now, and for the last two years, my only assignment has been to work with students in research, and my replacement. So we hired my replacement. He’s on board. He’s one of the five. But I haven't left. That’s most unusual, for a small school. And I'm a research professor at Coe College now. Unheard of. They really, again, when it mattered, came through. Now the program has been good to the college. Eighty-five physics majors. Ten million dollars in grants. It has been good to Coe College. I'm aware of it.

Zierler:

So what does research professor mean?

Feller:

I don’t know, exactly.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

It means I do research all year long. I teach no classes. And I made it clear to the faculty that I don’t fill in when you're sick or on trips.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

And I'm not teaching lab sections when they have an overload. I'm not doing overloads. The first semester, they tried it. Right off the bat, they said, “Steve we need you—blah blah blah.” I said, “I'm not doing it.” So they hired somebody else. They got somebody else. I said, “I didn't do this—” I took a pay cut—to then be rehired as an adjunct No thank you to that. I wanted to work with students one-on-one. Sort of like my Brown experience.

Zierler:

Right, right. RA to TA.

Feller:

RA to TA. I said—now it was TA back to RA, sort of. Or only teaching position. This is teaching research. I said, “I'm not going to take a section of a class. I'm not doing it.” And I have maintained that. And now they don’t ask. I have about a dozen students at a time. We meet weekly. And I meet individually with students as well. So we have a group meeting. I'm doing that this summer on Zoom. It’s continuing. We are working with something like 33 students this summer in physics research at Coe. Not the 40, because I know right now I'm doing all computational projects. Until things open up. We're not open.

Zierler:

COVID has not slowed you down, it sounds like.

Feller:

No way. I refuse. I had to argue with the school. They were wondering what to do, what to do. And I told them, “We need to continue this. We need to do it distance. We're not ending it because—you know, it makes no sense to end—” A lot of summer research programs went down. REU programs mostly went down. Now, we are both an REU site—we are probably the smallest REU site in the country. And by the way, I'm not a fan of the REU program. That might surprise you. I can explain briefly, but I—

Zierler:

Yeah, why? What’s the issue?

Feller:

The main issue is that it’s siphoning money from small schools to big schools, in a massive way. It is NSF’s flagship program for research for undergraduates. But think about how they do it. It’s really a graduate school recruitment plan.

Zierler:

So you're cut off at the knees right from the beginning.

Feller:

Yes. Not us, though, because we are an REU site.

Zierler:

But I mean, other type schools.

Feller:

Well, you can also get money through what’s called the RUI program, which is research at primarily undergraduate institutions. Small graduate programs and undergraduate schools can apply in the main directorate. They set aside I think it’s 2% of the money, something like that. So it’s very difficult to get those grants, and the funding rate is about 18 to 20%. But most of the NSF support for undergraduate research is through REU sites. And I've served on the REU panels and I've given out REU awards. And I said we're an REU site. Even though I don’t believe in the program, we still went for the grant. That’s a separate matter, entirely. Now, you might say, “Well, so what’s wrong with it?” After all, it’s large schools that have the research facilities, and they can handle a lot of undergraduates. The first thing that’s wrong with it is it tells the small schools, “You don’t have to do research. We'll do it. Don’t worry. You don’t do it.” And a lot of schools, believe me, if they fail initially at getting grants, that’s the excuse you hear. “I can’t do it. There’s no funding.” They're right in part. It’s not good to give up, of course, but they are right in part, that the funding is much more difficult. Now, what about the student experience? Decidedly mixed. It is possible to get a good REU experience. Now SPS, through its internship program, is like an REU. I think they do a very decent job. As I said, I send students there. I know what my students do. And SPS is very caring, very decent facilities—housing and so on—and the projects are hand-picked by the staff. That’s good. I know students—Tori Eng. Do you remember Tori Eng? She had a good experience this year. I've had lots of students. But at some schools—in fact, the amount might be as much as one in three students have bad experiences.

Now, what does bad experience mean? You go to a school—school x—you meet the professor day one—this is a typical bad experience—and the professor says, “Here is Joe. Joe’s going to be your graduate school advisor. I'll see ya. See ya later.” And then maybe at monthly meetings or something like that—because professors travel and blah blah blah blah blah—the last day, they get to see the student again. And in the meantime—so I argued, in that model, the graduate school model you can call it, how are the graduate students treated? Are they encouraged to teach? Are they given instruction about how to work with undergraduates? No. It’s assumed, I'm told. So why do you assume that? Secondly, the time of the graduate student, are they being compensated for it? Are they being treated properly, in other words? Will five hours a week be devoted to the undergraduate because they're being paid for it? That’s their job? No. They are expected to work with the undergraduates, whether they want to or not. Some take it seriously. Some do not want to work with the undergraduates, or they don’t know how to give the right jobs to undergraduates. They might have to do something that they don’t want to, the undergraduates. I've had people come back completely turned off by physics! Because of it. And not because they weren’t interested in physics. Now, that’s not the majority. I said about one out of three. But it’s a huge—

Zierler:

That’s a lot.

Feller:

It’s a lot. It’s too much. And again, almost all the money is going to these big schools. And why are they doing it? Is it to maximize the experience of the undergraduate student? No. Is it to recruit? Yes. I'm not against the recruiting, by the way. I'm not. But that can’t be the primary reason. But it is. Schools you’ve heard of—I won’t mention their names, because that won’t be nice—but schools—but I'm always in the minority when I go on these panels. I love it when they tell me, “Steve, you don’t understand.” That it’s an expectation of the graduate student, they tell me. They are expected to do this. By whom? By their advisor. No, they are a person. They should be respected. They're not. The graduate students are not. All right, did that answer your question why ?

Zierler:

Yeah. I'll be curious to stay in touch to hear how you continue working on these issues.

Feller:

That one I've lost, but I didn’t win that one, not that one.

Zierler:

Not that one, OK. [laugh] Well, Steve, I think now that we're right up to the present day, I want to ask you two last questions for our talk.

Feller:

As you can tell, I have the gifts of the gab.

Zierler:

[laugh] It’s great. Hey, listen, that’s what I'm all about!

Feller:

[laugh]

Zierler:

I have one broadly retrospective question, looking back 41 years, and then one that’s sort of a forward-looking question. So the first question is, you've had so many natural interests. You have natural interests and you follow those interests. But you can only learn things along the way. So in the course of those 41 years, going all the way back to, say, Providence College, what have you learned about teaching physics to undergraduates? Things that you wanted to understand maybe early on, but it really took the course of your career to truly master.

Feller:

You ask good questions, David. I can see you're a pro at this.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

So besides being enthusiastic—a teacher needs to be enthusiastic. I've also learned patience. I was not very patient when I started. I'm still not the most patient person in the world, although now I can be patient at times. I've learned about patience. I've learned that students—that the true relationship is lifetime for students. I don’t think it should be four years and off. So I maintain life—I've learned that over time. I didn't know, to begin with. But it is lifetime. And I nourish that, and I like it a lot. It’s about the whole student. Not just about physics. I mean, you can’t just teach that one part.

So students, in time—I'm pretty well-known for this, but not just me; others do this too—if a student has a personal problem, they will often times come to me. And I don’t mind, and I listen to them. I try to offer advice. Now having said that, there’s some caveats about that. I think this is probably true at a small school where that’s more natural. I don’t have a class of 300 students or 400 students. Can you imagine having a personal understanding of every student? But if I have 20 students, or now 10 to 15 research students, I can. And the other caveat is sometimes students have serious issues, and you can only go so far. So I think schools have wisely—and schools do a lot of dumb things with rules to protect themselves, but they have wisely, in this case, said that if you hear of violence or sexual attacks or things like that, you must report it. There’s no thinking about it. And it is true I've heard such things over the years. So with that caveat that you can’t solve every problem. You have to know when to call for help. Or if a student has mental issues that are severe, you have to get that student help, then. You can’t do that. I've had some students, on occasion—you know, students are stressed. That’s my daughter Rachel’s job—student support services. She works at MIT. She’s a dean there. That’s a bad combination—when you're smart and you're stressed. So I've learned that. But getting to know the whole person is important, so that when you offer advice to them—it can’t be the same advice to everybody. That makes no sense. You listen to them, and so on. I don’t try to push my own agenda on them. Although I'm known for advocating physics and being very active in the field and so on, I'm not going to push what I like onto them. And you have to think about that. You know what I mean?

Zierler:

Sure.

Feller:

I am genuinely happy that Jason Kottke is a blogger. And also when they're a student—I hate to call it tough love, but something like that—you have to be able to disagree with students, too. And that takes mutual respect. I mean, you could always just disagree and then they won’t talk to you again. OK. That’s one level of doing it. But if you have mutual respect—I'll give you an example. I have lots of examples. There’s a wonderful former student; his name is H.P. H.P is of Indian descent but came from the Zambia. He might have been 17 or 16 when he came to Coe. Very young. Smart. Wanted to use Coe basically to get to the Ivy League immediately. He was one of my few three-two engineering students. He has a physics degree from Coe and an engineering degree from Washington University in Saint Louis. It was a good combination. I'm not a huge fan of three-two plans, by the way, but in some cases, they make sense. In his case, it made sense.

So he only wanted to take math and science. You might have heard of this syndrome, you know? Some are international students who are super focused and so on. But we are a liberal arts college, so there’s an impedance mismatch already. Now, I went to a technical college, Clarkson. I only took math and science, for the most part, which I now recognize as a mistake. So we would discuss, and at the end, he was allowed to choose what he wanted. You know, he’s responsible for his own education. But I have to sign the form that said we discussed. So I would write, for several semesters, “I respectfully disagree with this schedule” and I’d sign it, after we argued about the value of taking philosophy or history or whatever. I do think those are valuable. And years later, about ten years later, he came back to me and said he agreed with me, finally. And his experiences in his life have shown that liberal arts helped him. He’s now CEO of several companies, startup companies in the Boston area. He’s a multimillionaire many times over. And he speaks fondly of his liberal arts courses, now. So that’s what a liberal arts college can do for you. I can’t say it led to his direct success. And we still argue to this day. But I can still go to them. Oh, and the other thing I learned is you go to your alums when you need help. I had a student who wanted to become an entrepreneur. This guy is an entrepreneur. This guy is like H.P. So I approached H.P. and said, “Please hire this student for the summer.” He did. Worked out well. I went to a student [laugh] who was a terrific student. Now he works at Corning. He’s one of their senior researchers at Corning, Incorporated. Corning, New York. They have a fantastic glass museum, right? So he works at Corning. I can approach him to take an intern at Corning. We have formally established one. Every year, they take an intern. Now, it took a little while to get to that point. Google. Sandeep has taken interns. John Salzer, astronomer—his life goal was to become an astronomer. He is one, at Indiana University. He has taken interns. You're seeing a pattern, right? In a typical summer now, we get about 15 of our alums to take interns. So that’s important, too. I'm not sure I answered your question, but—

Zierler:

It was a very retrospective question. You gave me a very retrospective response. That’s great.

Feller:

There are other things I've learned over the years, but it’s important that you want to do it because you envision in your mind what the goals are. The main goal would be the students. If that’s not your goal, don’t go into teaching. [laugh]

Zierler:

For my last question—the retrospective, of course it’s all about the students. Now that you're going to be a research professor, whatever that means, looking ahead, now that you have this opportunity—the research—for you, you've never let go of it. Tenaciously, it sounds like. You could have let go of it. Maybe for your sanity at times, you should have let go of it, but you never did, right? So now that you have this opportunity, you're still connected in the field. You're still interested in all of these things—what do you want to accomplish as a physicist, for however much longer you want to remain active in the field? What are the things that you want to contribute to, that in a different life, a different fork in the road, had you not gone the liberal arts way, maybe you had gone to a research university, maybe you had gone to a lab, to really allow those talents and interests as a physicist sort of take center stage. To the extent that you see you have that opportunity now looking forward, what is it that you want to accomplish?

Feller:

So that’s a hard question.

Zierler:

I'm putting you on the spot, too, I know. [laugh]

Feller:

I have worked—I started on learning about NMR, basically, as it applied to glass. Now, I am more looking at glass, and using many techniques, of which NMR is one. I have accumulated much data from many different glass systems over the years, much more than when I was a graduate student. What I would like—and I've dabbled in a little bit—but if I could do it—is sort of a—I don’t think I can make the grand theory of glass structure, but insights that unify the knowledge. By unify the knowledge—let me give you an example. This will be a little technical, but why not? AIP.

Zierler:

There you go.

Feller:

So glasses are amorphous solids. They do not have long-range order. That’s one of the definitions—part of the definition of a glass. Another one is that they have what’s called a glass transition, a characteristic thermal event that all glasses share. Crystals melt; they don’t have a glass transition. Glass is a solid, by the way. One of the great myths in the history of science is that ancient cathedral glass flows in the windows of ancient cathedrals. They were made that way. Why were they made thicker on the bottom? For stability. A friend of mine did many calculations on this subject for public interest talks, and it takes the age of the universe for it to flow. It’s not flowing. It is a solid. But it’s a solid that lacks crystallinity. OK? However, as many techniques have shown, it has a high degree of short-range order. A short-range order can mean five atoms, six atoms, or something like that.

So for example in silica, the Cadillac of all glasses, SiO2, every silicon is surrounded by four oxygens at very precise distances, and quite precise angles. A tetrahedral angle, about 109 degrees between a silicon-oxygen-silica. Or oxygen-silicon-oxygen sorry. Oxygen-silicon-oxygen—that’s the tetrahedral angle. Silicon at the center of a tetrahedron; that’s about 109 degrees. And the bond length is about 1.62 angstroms in silica glass. And so there’s a unit then that forms, a tetrahedron. That’s the same as the unit in quartz crystal. OK? B2O3 is composed of boron triangles a planar unit. That is the B2O3 structure. It’s one boron surrounded by three oxygens, each of which is half with a given boron and half with a neighbor. So that’s B-O-one-and-a-half on the average, which is B2O3. And then when you modify the glass, make new glasses by adding stuff to it, like Corning does—they'll add sodium oxide, potassium oxide, lithia and a lot more. They'll add maybe zinc oxide, tellurium dioxide. They'll add lots of stuff to it, to make the custom glass they want. You get new atomic-level units . In the case of silica, if you modify it, it’s a very famous reaction. By adding soda to it or potash, you begin to form non-bridging oxygens on the tetrahedra. Oxygens that only bond to one silicon. They don’t bond to the next silicon over. And so that’s a different unit. And you can find out how many of each unit exist in a glass. You can model these using molecular dynamic simulations now. You can measure it using spectroscopy.

Now, the holy grail, then, of glass science, in part, is to determine the atomic structure. Still not completely known. And then predict the properties. And then measure the properties and compare them mathematically. I think, and I'm not alone, that looking at various systems together, there should be underlying generalities that emerge, OK? So for example, one that I have discovered—I'm not sure—I haven't seen it explicitly published this way, and I've given talks on it now, as it was my idea, but there could be other people thought of it. It’s not that original. It was that you might ask, what’s the limit of glass formation? Well, you have the basic glass former, what’s easy to make into a glass. Silica, when you cool it, is going to make a glass no matter what you do, unless you are very careful to crystallize it. B2O3, to my knowledge, by itself, cannot be crystallized in the lab ]. GeO2 forms a natural glass, also, when you cool it. P2O5—phosphorus pentoxide—also forms a natural glass, one that occurs in nature readily. But if you modify it, is there a limit to the modification? There is. So for example, if you add sodium oxide, what would be the limit? Well, the limit turns out to be—although it’s not obvious, because it’s obscured a little bit—the limit turns out to be when every silicon is surrounded by these non-bridging oxygens fully. And you have no more links to the next silicon. So you form silicon oxygen isolated units, which forms a salt, then, if you think about it. And salts easily crystallize. There’s no network to be formed to get confused. Sodium chloride salt forms very easily the crystal sodium chloride. The same thing happens even in silica, if you form enough of these non-bridging oxygens, so you get a charged unit. The whole unit is charged. And it’s a negative charge balanced by the sodium ions plus charges. The unit becomes negatively charged—negative four, actually—so it’s surrounded by four silicon—sorry, four sodiums, which charge balances and forms a crystal.

Now it turns out if you make these glasses from sodium carbonate, which is the usual way to get the soda in there, eventually the carbon dioxide no longer leaves the glass. Normally when you heat it up, it bubbles out, which mixes the glass. In commercial glass-making, you modify the glass by using carbonates quite frequently. Even in the ancient glassmaking, this is how it was done. Today, some of that carbon dioxide, when you get enough modification, it won’t come out anymore, and equilibrium is established. So I started making glasses out of pure sodium oxide. We made the samples in a glove box because they're very water sensitive, and carbon sensitive, and everything else sensitive. And lo and behold, I saw the limit. Right in front of me. But when you got to the percentage of soda that saturates the glass with non-bridging oxygens—67%, by the way. It’s not hard to figure out. It’s 2Na2O.SiO2 which becomes, on the Si side, if all the oxygen is modified to become non-bridging with silicon SiO4. Am I going too fast? Probably. Ah. See, you're in agreement on it. You can see it’s SiO4, which is fully saturated non-bridging oxygens, then. That’s the composition. And that works. It’s like a wall. Below that composition you can make a glass. Above that composition, you cannot. Then it occurred to me, is the end of glass formation a generalizable point? Also, the retention of carbon dioxide retention is a generalizable result in all glass systems at high alkali content. Also, the limit on glass formation—I've been studying that, recently, too, in detail, with the groups in England, where we did neutron scattering. It was fantastic. We could see the carbon-oxygen bonds. It was beautiful. Sometimes you get excited.

Zierler:

I'm curious in how you put this research together. Are you thinking primarily in terms of academic questions, or are you looking at commercial viability as well?

Feller:

For the most part, academic questions. So we do basic research at Coe. Having said that, I'm not above being mercenary.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

We have done some work for Corning. We've done some work for glass companies. No problem. But the overwhelming majority is pure academic interest. Like this question of what can make a glass and what is difficult to make into a glass—in principle, if you cool something with unlimited rate of cooling, you can make anything into a glass. But in practice, there are these natural limits such as the non-bridging oxygen limit. And I've seen that in five glass systems there, five binary glass systems. And in ternary systems like sodium borosilicate, the limit is also there, and you can see it. In fact, when I started with sodium oxide, it was fascinating to see what happened. We could make glass below 67% alkali oxide, we couldn’t make glass above that limit. When you had the carbon dioxide retention, you can make glass with not unlimited soda contents, but way past this limit. When you went to the pure oxide and you got to that limit, the glass material, the melt, began to react with the crucible. OK? And it ate the crucible. That’s what the non-bridging oxygens did. They were very reactive. It changed the property of the whole material. So, that was a discovery.

And if I can make more of these generalities—for example, I’ll give you one more. At the 50/50 composition, say, of sodium oxide and boron oxide—50/50—which is not near the limit of non-bridging oxygens—you also cannot make a glass. Now, we came upon this by systematically trying to expand glass formation, and there was this limit, which if we went past the limit, we could make glass again. But at 50/50 and near it, we couldn't make glass. Now, other people had reported some similar things with much broader limits, and it wasn’t well defined. But we went to a rapid cooling device. We built it ourselves. We call it a roller quencher. It’s not our idea, but we made a very nice one, which can cool liquids at almost a million degrees a second. And when you cool that fast, you can make lots of things into glass that don’t want to become glass. That’s the goal of it. So we got to about 48% sodium oxide and 52% sodium oxide, but in the middle, between 48 and 52, no glass. But if we did it from lithium—lithium borate—we can make glass continuously. If you went into potassium—so these are all relatives, of course, the alkalis—no glass occurs between 48 and 52 % alkali oxide. So why? So we went to look at the crystal structures, which we believe has a strong impact on the glasses. And we discovered that in lithium borates—so if you go through the above argument about forming the non-bridging oxygens, each boron will form one non-bridging oxygen and two bridges, at that composition. OK?

It has another choice, too, but let’s just say for the crystal, it forms this thing. And the glass, it can form these units as well. It makes a chain. Can you picture the chain? Boron. Oxygen. Two of the oxygens will bridge on to the next borons. One oxygen is terminal to a non-bridging oxygen (out of the chain). So it forms a large or almost infinite channel. If you crystallize the stuff, you can see the spicules coming out of the solid. It actually has the shape of long chains, assembled together. But sodium metaborate forms a ring shape. Can you see that if you form—take three of the borons, it can fold on itself, and have one non-bridging oxygen per boron coming out of the ring. So it’s terminal. It forms a ring with a minus-three charge. All non-bridging oxygens surrounding. There are bridging oxygens in the ring. But outside the ring, it’s all non-bridging oxygens. Each boron has one non-bridging oxygen out of the ring, and two in the ring. It forms a hexagon, with an oxygen coming out of each of the borons. And you cannot make a glass out of that. Even with the rapid cooling rollers one micron apart spinning at thousands of RPM, you cannot make that into a glass. We've tried. Now, there are reports in the literature of people making that into a glass, but it’s a lie. Why is it a lie? They made them in alumina crucibles. Some of the alumina got into the melt and allows the glass to form. We use platinum. No problem. It’s just like that, too. I want to see these grand generalizations.

Now, there are physical properties—we had a little discovery the other day, which I'm pursuing this summer, and this will be the last thing I'll say now. I know you don’t have forever! So I had a student—a colleague of mine was studying zinc borates, glasses. I'm going to eat a little pineapple here, hold a second. Zinc borate glasses, OK? And he could only make limited glasses. I said, “Let us try with our roller quencher.” And we were able to make lots of glasses. And he was doing neutron scattering and NMR on them and so on. One of our standard things is to measure some of the physical properties, like the glass transition temperature. I had mentioned every glass has to have a glass transition. And we measure density, which is actually a very important property, easy for us to understand. It’s actually perfect for undergraduate students, and difficult to measure well. If you want to get within 1%, that’s difficult. My friend in Japan—you remember Masao Kodama, I mentioned him—he can measure the density on his super samples to a tenth of a percent. Ten times better. And that’s very difficult to do. OK. Anyway, we measured the density of the zinc borates, and they're pretty high. They approach four or five grams per cc. I then told them the standard next step is to find what’s called the molar volume. How much volume does a mole occupy? The density is equal to the molar mass over the molar volume. The molar mass is from the periodic table. The molar volume is the denominator. You measure the density. You just cross-multiply. The result is the molar volume. I looked at the trend, and it looked awfully familiar to me. You know how it is?

Zierler:

Where have you seen this before?

Feller:

Lithium borates. Now, the density pattern for lithium borates is very different. OK? But the molar volume?—so I said to the guys, “Calculate the molar volumes of lithium borates, and plot with the zinc borates. Show me.” And lo and behold, they were on top of each other. I mean, literally the same exact curve. So volume of zinc borate glass matches the volume of lithium borate glass. And the answer came to me right away. They're isostructural, and the zinc and the lithium don’t matter. They're too small. You see what I mean?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Feller:

Now I've told them, “OK, that’s nice. Now I want you to take all of the small ion modifiers and overlap them. I want sodium. I want calcium. I want magnesium. I want cobalt. I want silver. I want copper.” Turns out there’s a database called SciGlass. I had the school IT people allow the students to remote access my computer. I only have one version. It’s one of these things that cost me thousands of dollars. It has a half a million glass data points on it. So they're mining it now. So that’s what we're working on now. So far it looks promising. At least we'll see the limit. Now at some point, the modifying ions are going to become so big. Like cesium; there’s no way this will work for cesium, because cesium is much bigger than oxygen. I think the limit is going to be oxygen. If the ion is much smaller than oxygen, then basically the glass, by this conception, is solid oxygen, with a few little modifiers. That’s why the lithium glasses can conduct electricity. It’s solid oxygen. And if it’s lithium borate, they just kind of move in between the oxygen. Of course, you might say, “What about the boron?” Well, the boron is even smaller than the lithium. The boron is negligible in volume. It’s basically a plus-three ion. It’s not really. The charge is not exactly plus-three. But boron is miniscule in radius, and volume, it’s nothing. So literally [laugh] when they make a glass they're holding solid oxygen. But it’s not dangerous because it’s solid reacted oxygen. It’s already—the glass is oxidized. It’s the ultimate oxidation. It’s solid oxygen. All right, so there are a few examples of what I want to do.

Zierler:

Steve, I’ve got to tell you—I don’t know if phased retirement is the right word for this. I think you're going to be as busy as ever; you're just sort of changing focus.

Feller:

I am changing focus for a while, but I will retire eventually. Step by step. I'm hoping it will be in a smart way. This year, the SPS advisor, I will be it the first semester. And my replacement, whose name is Caio Bragatto, from Brazil will be it the second semester—we are a very diverse group, by the way, which I love. You have to have an accent to join our department.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

Even the students ask me what country I'm from.

Zierler:

The country of Brooklyn. [laugh]

Feller:

I tell them I'm from an island off the coast.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Feller:

[laugh] Brooklyn. The country of Western Long Island. Thus, Caio will become the advisor. I'm actually thinking I could do this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s completely fair to the school or to Caio. He needs his own independence, too. Now, this afternoon, I'm going to Zoom—I've read a paper that Caio and I have been going back and forth on, on the conductivity of some of these glasses. So I believe at this point in his career, I can help him. In two years’ time or so, that’s going to be about the time. But there’s no set time. But I've done this for two years already. So for the foreseeable future, I will continue as Coe’s first and only and maybe ever research professor. Liberal arts colleges don’t usually have research professors. Not poor ones, anyway. Maybe Grinnell could, or Amherst. They could hire research professors. By the way, where did you go to school?

Zierler:

I went to NYU and then University of Montana, and then Temple, and then I finished up at Yale.

Feller:

Aha, so you have geographical diversity right then and there.

Zierler:

All over the place. [laugh]

Feller:

Very nice.

Zierler:

Well, Steve, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I'm the beneficiary of your gift of gab, and I'm so glad we connected from Brad. I really want to thank you for the time you spent with me today.

Feller:

Well, it was nice meeting you, David. I enjoyed it myself. What professor person doesn't want to talk? I certainly like to talk!

Zierler:

There you go.

Feller:

So what happens next? I'll just ask you. You have now a couple of hours of recording.

Zierler:

Yeah, here we go. So I'm going to end the recording here.