Roy Schwitters

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ORAL HISTORIES

Credit: Department of Physics, University of Texas at Austin

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Roy Schwitters by David Zierler on May 8, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44804

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Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Roy Schwitters, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics, University of Texas, Austin. Schwitters recounts his childhood in Seattle and his early interests in math and science. He explains his decision to go to MIT for college and the circumstances leading to his thesis work at SLAC and his graduate experience at MIT where he worked with Louis Osborne and Victor Weisskopf. He describes his decision to continue to work at SLAC on the SPEAR project, where he reported to Burt Richter. Schwitters describes getting recruited to go to Harvard and his interest in the collider projects at Fermilab and Brookhaven. He discusses his early involvement and ultimate leadership position in the SSC project, and he shares his views on why the SSC ultimately failed to go forward. Schwitters describes his subsequent work at UT-Austin and his advisory role with the JASON group. In the last portion of the interview, Schwitters reflects on some of the most pressing issues at the intersection of science and national security, and the areas of research in which he plans to continue working.

Transcript

Zierler:

Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 8th, 2020. It's my delight to be here with Dr. Roy Schwitters. Roy, thank you so much for being with me today.

Schwitters:

My pleasure.

Zierler:

Okay, so to start, please give me your title and institutional affiliation for the record.

Schwitters:

Right, I'm now soon to be professor emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin, in the physics department.

Zierler:

And now let's take it right back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your birthplace in Seattle, and your family background, and your early childhood.

Schwitters:

Okay, well, just as you point out, I was born in Seattle. My parents, of course, came in from the war, not long before I was born in 1944. They had met in eastern Washington, my mother had roots in the Seattle area and my father was originally from South Dakota.

Zierler:

What brought them to Seattle? Was it the war?

Schwitters:

Yeah, they were both involved with war efforts and met each other in eastern Washington. My father was in the Navy at Pasco, and my mother actually worked at Hanford.

Zierler:

Really?

Schwitters:

Which was interesting at that time. Right.

Zierler:

What did she do there?

Schwitters:

She was a secretary there, and so that was kind of an interesting, you know, antecedent, I guess, to things I've been doing.

Zierler:

Yeah, certainly.

Schwitters:

You know, my memories, of course, started essentially at the grade school level. And we lived in the same house, actually, the whole time from grade school to leaving for college. I was really fortunate to be: A) strongly supported in math and science and thinking about these things, with a, you know, the classic story of a few outstanding teachers along the way. But Seattle then, in those days and still is, dynamic. And my parents followed it, although they were not technically trained, but they followed the developments, particularly at Boeing, which was such a major activity. And just to give you a sense of what kind of things that happened, in my grade school class, I remember vividly going outside and watching the first flight of a Boeing B52.

Zierler:

Wow.

Schwitters:

And it had chase planes and it was a big roar, and it flew, essentially, past our little grade school and past our house on its way from Boeing field, if you know, to Renton, where they build the 737s now, for the most part. So one was tied into that kind of technology from the get-go.

Zierler:

Yeah. And did that capture your imagination?

Schwitters:

It certainly did, yes. No question about it. And then of course you had friends and so forth that were associated with these other activities, although, again, my parents were not technically trained, but were really supportive of my being engaged in all manner of science and technology.

Zierler:

Now, did you go-- Did you go to public schools throughout?

Schwitters:

Public schools throughout. I had the very good fortune, both in, well, all three levels, but middle school, I was really challenged by a great math teacher that just made an indelible mark on me. And then we had at our high school just a legendary math teacher that I had several courses from. And that led to, you know, doing some competitions in math. We had good relations with the other high schools. And so I got to know through those activities, I was at a place called Franklin High School, but the other kind of top math students in my class, graduating class, and I think three or four of us ended up going to MIT after that. So it was a very supportive environment. Again, my senior year was the Seattle World’s Fair, you had John Glen flying, and all this cool stuff. We had a little rocket society, kind of informal, around. And actually, before I got into that, I was launching stuff in the back yard, and there was one rather impressive detonation, my parents (laughs) basically closed all the windows and turned off the lights and pretended that we weren't around. (both laugh) When that happened. So it was a wonderful, supporting operation all the way. Friends, parents, and so forth in that--

Zierler:

Now were you equally strong in math and science in high school, would you say?

Schwitters:

I would say so. Yes, I was. Although math was better taught. We actually didn't have a real physics program. So when I went off to undergraduate school, I thought I'd be an engineer, given that background.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

During my sophomore year, I realized how much I liked physics.

Zierler:

Right, so Roy, I have to ask. In terms of, you know, you've got some pretty good schools on the west coast, right? What compelled you to go all the way east to MIT?

Schwitters:

That was a great question. In fact, I was admitted to CalTech and to MIT. And I chose it (laughs) not any way negative on my family, but it was further away from Seattle than Pasadena was, and I thought that would be interesting. And--

Zierler:

Had you ever been out east before?

Schwitters:

No. That was my first ride in an airplane, flying off to MIT. So that literally was the choice and the reason, if you can believe it. And it was no means negative at all. I thought it'd be a great-- And my mother is very adventuresome, so she, they all supported us there.

Zierler:

Roy, you know, coming in 1962, I'm curious, you know, obviously, you're a college freshman, has a limited view of the world, but were you thinking about, you know, the Cold War at all? Were you thinking about physics and international security and nuclear weapons and things like that? Or were you more narrowly focused?

Schwitters:

Oh, I was definitely thinking about such things, although I wasn't doing much in an organized way. I was taking classes. The big-- Oh, there was one other highlight for me, if you can again, this seems sort of almost silly now, but it wasn't, it was important. There was a Reader's Digest story about Harold Edgerton. Okay? And I got to take a freshman seminar with him, and worked in his lab. And actually, that was a natural pipeline to national security matters, because while there, and with him in his office, actually, he was called when the Thresher submarine collapsed and sank. And we went down to the Boston Navy yard and crawled around on the bathyscaphe Trieste, which they were going to go find the Thresher with. So, I would say, Edgerton had a major impact, although he was an EE guy, person, but he had a real sense of adventure and just liked to go do cool things.

Zierler:

And you connected with him right away when you got to MIT?

Schwitters:

Yes, freshman year. It was amazing. Yeah.

Zierler:

Did you know him or his reputation beforehand, or you just--

Schwitters:

Oh I did, I was at... through this article in the Reader's Digest about his strobe photography. And I didn't know anything about him for real, and so it was just great to meet and work with him. And we had events, not, you know, not dissimilar from the occasional home rocket failure, where you know, you could shoot bullet holes in his lab, taking strobe photos sometimes. Some of that was amusing, and he was such a great guy, he sort of scolded me about, you know, one messy weekend where potato pieces were left around after being shot by rifles. And then he laughed and said, "Well, I hope you got some good pictures."

Zierler:

(laughs) So to fast-forward a little bit, in terms of you developing your research interests in experimental high energy physics, right? To superimpose that on your undergraduate education at MIT. In terms of the kinds of classes that you took and the kinds of professors that you were drawn to, did you feel like your identity as an experimental high energy physics, was more or less set by the time you graduated, or were you still sort of open to subfields when you were thinking about graduate programs?

Schwitters:

Well first of all, I, yeah. Just to say I did get started in, I said, in engineering, even started a major, but that was just a fraction of a year. So I went back to physics and yeah, and it was largely one professor that I took a course from. Small seminar course in modern, we'd call it, particle physics now. Louie Osborne. (Louis Osborne). And we got on very well. I was then in my senior year, married, and he would take us to dinner at their home, and various excursions rock climbing with his boys and neighbors. In fact, and I was a climber in those days. My summer job, I don't know if you know this, I was a mountain guide on Mount Rainier.

Zierler:

Oh.

Schwitters:

And which was, needless to say, a great summer job. And my wife and I met up at Paradise where she worked the previous summer as a student employee at the National Park. We married before my senior year and she was able to join me to be part of the MIT experience, that last senior year. So there became, through the climbing and kids and these families of my advisor and his friends---we went out weekends and did rock climbing and all that kind of cool stuff---which developed into a strong personal relationship with a very fine experimental physicist, and chance to work in his lab. And then it was just natural that I stayed on, and there wasn't any question when I came to register for graduate school the next fall, that's where I went. Working with Louie.

Zierler:

Now, I've heard several perspectives on MIT encouraging its undergraduates to move on to other programs versus to stay "home," so to speak. So what kind of advice did you get in terms of your decision-making?

Schwitters:

It was pretty simple. It was just from the graduate advisor to everyone else, do what you want to do.

Zierler:

Yeah. Did you consider other programs, or--?

Schwitters:

That wasn't a-- Oh, I did. I applied at a few others, but what was happening there was really interesting. And I think that the movement to let people shop around, or go to other places, strengthened after my time.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

And for me, it was the right thing perfectly, because again, as a family situation, my wife took on a rather important role at the foreign student office at MIT, and we got to know the Boston area much better then, and so... And, furthermore, Louie’s first graduate student was Burt Richter.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah,

Schwitters:

And my thesis was done at SLAC, so all these things just connected perfectly as far as I was concerned.

Zierler:

Now, in the late 1960s, I'm curious what your perspective on the scene was at MIT, in terms of counterculture, in terms of anti-war sentiment, civil rights, things like that. What was going on from your vantage point?

Schwitters:

Well, a lot of marches. We tended to be in those marches. I was, you know, busy with my thesis. But yes, we were, I would say, we were quietly engaged in the anti-war process, and it was just a natural part of life. On the other side, I was not... I was certainly not extreme or activist, and one event stands out in my mind: There was a big MIT seminar among physicists on the decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima. And it was, I believe---trying to think of all the people there who were talking at that event--- A dozen really important individuals. I guess it was I.I. Rabi who, and there was a small group of very noisy and, you know, people who were just not letting him go forward. And Rabi just turned around to them and told them, "Listen, we're talking about physics here. We're talking about important things. Please sit down and be quiet so we can continue." And they did. (laughs)

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

They were very straightforward and very strong, so and I was highly supportive of that, so I did get to know, you know, many of the founders of the serious physics groups involved in questions regarding nuclear weapons. Henry Kendall was a good friend. And so on. So that was all a natural part of life, and with serious work going on.

Zierler:

Did you think at all in a systematic way about, you know, particularly in the Vietnam era, the role of the Defense Department in physics research?

Schwitters:

No, I didn't. Not particularly, other than I still felt that physics and the academic support of it by the federal government, it struck me as valid and important, and I supported that.

Zierler:

Now, you said that you actually did your thesis work at SLAC?

Schwitters:

Correct.

Zierler:

How did that come about?

Schwitters:

We had developed, with Louie Osborne, a cute technology for Osborne's research area, which was high-energy photo-production of mesons. And that's what Richter's group at SLAC was taking up then at the higher energies possible at SLAC. A little more background on Louie: he lived a good part, I think, of the war years in Italy. His father was chief of mission or some such position at the US embassy in Rome. But anyway, through work at Frascati (the Italian high energy physics lab located near Rome) after the war and people that Louie knew there, we developed a polarized photon beam capability using diamond targets. Diamond was the ideal material, and we could produce coherent bremsstrahlung from the SLAC electron beam to make polarized photon beams, and that gives you more information in the experiment. In fact, a whole other side-story is there, you better watch out, you're getting me going here.

Zierler:

Please. That's what I'm here to do. I'm here to get you going.

Schwitters:

Okay, so, we wanted to do this experiment at SLAC. SLAC approved it, we would do it in collaboration with Richter. But with the higher energies, it took an extremely perfect diamond to be able to work. A bad diamond would have imperfections that would destroy the coherence. And you couldn't make a very good beam. So, Louie, if you can believe it, got to know this guy at Harvard who was a student, and a science junkie himself, who happened to be Ron Winston, son of Harry Winston, the famous diamond merchant. And so I had called all over the world, trying to get good diamonds, and De Beers said forget about it. You know, we're not going to help you. So--

Zierler:

Because you didn't have the money?

Schwitters:

Yeah, exactly. What we needed were large perfect diamonds. Well, I first told him my choice diamond was a piece out of the mid-plane of the octahedral crystal of a perfect diamond, and a 1mm thick slab out of that. And the De Beers guy said, "I'm sorry, sir, that's quite impossible." And hung up on me. (both laugh) And they were wrong.

Zierler:

At least you asked.

Schwitters:

So Ron got really into this, and so for a while, every week he'd go down to the, I think, the family stores in New York and throw a bunch of raw diamonds in a box. And they'd come up to me in Cambridge, and then I'd fly down to Gaithersburg, Maryland, where Richard Deslattes, a great crystallographer we got to know at the National Bureau of Standards, had the best setup for checking the purity of crystals, so we had a great time. And I'd bring a box of diamonds down, spend a couple days, we'd check them out. Send them back to Winston. And finally we found a few really good ones and we got them at very nominal prices, and cut them into the targets we needed and then we wanted to test the purity, or test the survivability, so we took a couple-- So, imagine an octahedron. Take a slab out of them center, there were two pyramids from either side.

Zierler:

How do you take a slab out of the center? What does that mean?

Schwitters:

Well, you saw it, however the diamond guys do it. So here's a natural diamond, with almost perfect octahedron structure, from which you cut out roughly a millimeter-thick square from the midplane. The square slab and two leftover pieces all are good crystals. And so we wanted to expose a good diamond to the beam, the SLAC beam, and see would it survive? And so we took the two end pieces, the two pyramids, put them in the beam dump at SLAC, and exposed them. They turned jet black, absolutely gorgeous, and then I went back to NBS, put them back in the crystal apparatus, and lo and behold, they're just still perfect crystals. So we knew it would work fine in the SLAC beam. And my wife still has one of those pyramids on a ring. (laughs)

Zierler:

I was going to ask you. I was wondering if you got to keep it.

Schwitters:

Yeah, absolutely. So that's a really cool story. You could tell, we had a lot of fun in all of those times. The experiment, you know, was not earth-shattering, but we did a nice experiment at SLAC. We got results, I got a thesis, and I got a job offer for a post doc with Burt Richter at SLAC on this new thing coming along, which was still just an empty parking lot called SPEAR.

Zierler:

Now, did you defend your thesis back at MIT or at SLAC?

Schwitters:

Oh, at MIT, yeah. I was coming back and forth. My wife was still working there, so I was getting into, even in those days, sort of airplane commuting mode.

Zierler:

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

Schwitters:

Uh, no. (both laugh) I think it was Photo production, if I had to guess, Photo production of pi plus mesons with polarized beams.

Zierler:

Now, to the extent that a dissertation is thinking more broadly than the dissertation itself, did you ever think about the larger implications of your research, and what it meant for the field more generally?

Schwitters:

I knew, I felt, and I think I had it pegged about right, this is sort of the classic, really good mortar that your put into the, you know, the structure of physics, but it wasn't, you know, it wasn't the big story. Which in those days was the advent of quarks. And that's what I got out of my first, undergraduate class with Osborne. And the great thing about Lou Osborne and Vicky Weisskopf, who was the head of the department in those days at MIT, was they stressed the importance of the then emerging ideas of quarks. Louie was quite an accomplished theorist, and he could do simple back of the envelop calculations about quarks. So I was, even while doing my thesis, and certainly immediately after that, really into hadron structure, quarks, and all of what that meant. And to some extent, you could get some, at least, correlations that were relevant in the photo production work. But I knew Richter was building the e+/e- collider, and that's what I wanted to work on afterwards, so the bigger thought. But the community was going to Fermilab then. Because the new Fermilab was just coming on, and a number of people sort of questioned me. "Why aren't you going to Fermilab?" You know, all this stuff. And I was really... Really wanted to do the electron positron work, and I felt it had real promise and could answer questions about quarks, and so--

Zierler:

Now Roy, I just want to interject at that point. Just a comment you made earlier about the big story here, was the "advent" of quarks. And I just want to clarify. Do you mean the advent of quarks as a theoretical possibility, or the advent of quarks as a, these are real?

Schwitters:

Well that was the debate in some sense. But there was enough circumstantial evidence in my book that meant that they were, to me, they were "real." We know they didn't get out of hadrons, but you could see already in the magnetic moments of particles, and a lot of other data, and then finally, in the same year I was doing my thesis, just actually about a year before, came out the deep inelastic electron scattering results from another MIT group working at SLAC. So it was just happening. And what we knew we could do with e+/e- then of course was: you had this very simple rule that you could measure the sums of squares of the quark charges by looking at the ratio of the total hadron cross-section to muon pairs. And that looked like a simple elegant measurement, but it was much more interesting, what we ended up finding, than even that.

Zierler:

So at what point, what was the real tipping point that convinced you to stay at SLAC?

Schwitters:

Oh well, it's because I could work in the lead group with Richter and his team, which were just superb people, then planning and starting to build a higher-energy electron positron collider, called SPEAR. It appeared to me to be very, very straightforward and elegant experiment. Again, that wasn't popular in some sense, with the rush to Fermilab, but through Louie and Burt, and we got to know the Italian literature very well, thanks to Louie, and other things going on. And once I moved to SLAC, you know, we had Feynman coming up, and we had these incredibly interesting folks around, and BJ Bjorken was extremely important to us, and just a good friend, in addition to his great contributions. So it was just terrific, I just never came close to regretting that choice.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. Now, coming on as a post doc, were you looking to refine and expand your own dissertation research, or what you were doing was so natural to what was already going on there that it was a seamless transition?

Schwitters:

I liked doing different things. I liked, you know, building devices to hold diamonds, aligned to, you know, a few arc seconds. And I liked the challenge of building the first magnetic detector for electron-positron colliding beams. And here was the opportunity. We, the group, invented the first magnetic collider detector. And they all look like that now. All the successful ones still look like that.

Zierler:

Yeah, yep.

Schwitters:

So my job was, no, I guess I liked to change technology and not follow just one path. A line of physics to be sure, so I was given the job building the spark chambers. And that was a big deal, tracking particles in a magnetic field, and with the best technology of the day, it used magneto-strictive wire to signal out where the track, where the spark took place. And that, the common wisdom was it could never work around a magnet. Well, we found a way to make it not only work, but work better within a magnet than it did outside, and so it provided the key that opened the way to designing modern collider detectors in my view. My humble view. Because you could have a tracking system that was nearly 4 pi coverage, but it covered the full 2 pi in azimuth. This meant you could have good coverage and good symmetry built into the detector so that whatever you were observing, you didn't have to worry much about detector biases. And so that was very important to me, that notion that the detector was uniform in acceptance.

Zierler:

Right. So the idea that this was a Pandora's box---Note: my earlier comment is clearly not the correct metaphor; maybe we can find a better one or drop it here too---, obviously it suggests that there's a before and after, right? So what was exactly the transition? What was impossible before that became possible?

Schwitters:

Well, first of all, there's the thinking. The thinking was, you built tracking chambers and usually spark chambers. They became proportional chambers a little later, but both technologies had them built in planes. And you'd stack up a bunch of planes. Well, planes are flat and they have edges. And it's hard to pack them around a cylinder. Okay, so that was just a simple mechanical thing. That was very straightforward. Now the magnetostriction was that if you put an iron wire in a magnetic field, it can be totally saturated by the field, so it does not get the, it cannot generate a sonic pulse. But if you make it perpendicular to the field, it can generate, you know, a magnetostrictive signal, and get tracking information out. It's a sonic pulse that senses the position and, you know, the time of flight down the wire. But then we had the best, amazingly, piece of luck, by angling the wire, the magnetostrictive wire. So they're installed at the end of spark chamber cylinders. They're biased by three degrees to the axis of the magnetic field, so they have a little bit of a component of magnetic field along the wire. And that biases the wire in just the right way to optimize the signal.

Zierler:

Okay.

Schwitters:

And we stumbled into this and so it was a combination of those things. So you could make a very elegant cylindrical detector with the magnetostrictive wires embedded on the ends of the detector, and which did not interfere with the physics being observed. And we only had light-weight aluminum wire, and spark chamber gas, in the center of the detector where the particles go that were created in the e+e- collisions. Thus, our aluminum wire chambers did not cause many interactions that might clutter up the events we wanted to observe. Our events were much cleaner than what you see coming out of LHC detectors today, for example.

Zierler:

And by "cleaner," what exactly does that mean?

Schwitters:

Just the tracks of interest showed up.

Zierler:

Uh-huh. Which tells you what?

Schwitters:

Well, you can then measure their momentum, and you can use energy momentum conservation and other, external detectors to tell you about neutrals and other effects. These features enabled us to measure the masses of unstable particles and from that, we found charm and the tau lepton.

Zierler:

Now, were you reporting directly to Burt?

Schwitters:

Yes.

Zierler:

And I wonder, I mean I've heard so many perspectives, I want to hear yours as well about his style. Tell me about his style as a physicist, as a mentor, as, you know, as a future leader of SLAC. I'd love to hear your perspective.

Schwitters:

Yeah, well Burt is very solid. He's very well-prepared. I don't know if you read my obit on Burt in Physics Today.

Zierler:

I did, I did.

Schwitters:

He often said and he really did believe in hiring the best people he could into his group and giving them real responsibilities. And then he was on top of it all, so he, you know, he was the best group leader I'm aware of. He did not have temper tantrums. He had very high standards of just deportment, and physics preparation, but I think his strategic thinking was his greatest strength. He would think strategically where things were going and where we were going. Burt, like his mentor too, Louie Osborne, were committed to a magnetic detector for exploring high energy electron-positron collisions. That was a big deal. Getting a magnet, a uniform, cylindrical, solenoidal, magnetic field in a colliding beam experiment was an expensive, and technically challenging goal. Burt’s team succeeded in developing the first working example and it succeeded brilliantly in discovering new worlds of physics.

Zierler:

Why was that such a big deal?

Schwitters:

Because the Frascati people started to see anomalously large cross-sections of what they thought were hadronic particles, and speculated that. But they could never confirm because they had non-magnetic detectors. They couldn't be sure. And they were criticized a lot for this. And so Louie infected me in this, when I was still at MIT. Osborne, by the way, was at the time himself building a magnetic detector for the Cambridge Electron Accelerator in their attempt to make a collider. It just never worked out. That, I should point out, is extremely important. I was working shoulder to shoulder with Louie and his folks, and trying to solve the problems of a magnetic detector for colliding means, even though it wasn't my physics. I was completely separate from that during my thesis work, but I lived in the same work space and we talked a lot about it, but Louie was absolutely excited by the Frascati results, their importance to physics, and that's really where I-- Yeah, that's where I picked it up there, in our lunchroom conversations. Because of his excitement, and then Burt was going to be doing it.

Zierler:

Yeah. So what do you think, what were some of Burt's larger basic research questions that really motivated him?

Schwitters:

Well, you know, that's a very interesting question. I couldn't have answered that, I think, until I did a little bit more homework for the Physics Today obit. Because, as you probably read in some of these, and you may have read a little bit of the history, there was some tension in going back and looking for the psi, when Burt wanted to go to higher energies after the machine became capable. And that was a tense argument. He wanted to go to higher energies. And he made a few disparaging remarks about, well, we'll give you one weekend to, you know, stay down at the low energy and go chase these “backgrounds” there.

Zierler:

And who represented the other side of these tensions?

Schwitters:

Me and Marty Breidenbach, okay? And a couple of others, but that was about it.

Zierler:

And what was your basis for this different point of view?

Schwitters:

I was, it was really interesting, I was doing the final analysis of our first paper on the cross-section for hadron production. At these energies. And which would have really embarrassed us all. Because it was so rich with this new physics, and we didn't even know it. And so what happened was, it looked to us by December '73 that this ratio of the hadron cross-section to muon pairs was not a constant at all, because if it were, then you could read off the sums and squares of charges of the quarks. But it seemed to be a constant cross-section. I.E. a rising value of R. And everybody got all excited about, well, around Burt, got excited about that. And I went to write the paper, and there was one set of data runs that were, I don't know, half dozen, no more than a dozen, data runs. Which means, you take data for an hour or two, fill up a tape, stop it, start a new fill of the storage ring, new tapes, run again for another couple of hours, and so on. And you do this for a couple of days or so, at a given energy.

While analyzing these data over the summer of '74, Richter was largely away from SLAC at meetings and doing other things. The machine itself was being upgraded to go to higher energies. It could only go up to a certain energy, not high enough to reach SPEAR’s ultimate. So SPEAR was being upgraded. Burt came back in early October. Or even later, he had been giving lectures and so forth at Harvard. Anyway, I found that one energy data point there, again, out of these half dozen or dozen or so runs, two of them were anomalous. One was a factor of seven too high, and one was a factor of five too high. And the statistics were overwhelming. They had to be real. They could not be faked. And so, but it's just one plot. You may have even seen that somewhere; it had been published in a few places. But it just didn't work.

And so then I remember distinctively a beautiful afternoon at Stanford in, must have been, early September '74, when I was just sitting, waiting for some students, new prospective grad students, to come up and take a tour of SPEAR. And sitting in the sun, and I sort of went through all the arguments that I could think of for what was behind those events, because by then we had looked at every single one individually on a computer, if you believe it, an early video screen. Okay? A CRT screen. They were all good events. And my thrust had been working through the software, finding bugs, which we found, and the bugs and so forth actually enhanced and exacerbated the discrepancy. So my fight was, what's wrong? And then sitting there in that sun, I just realized, there's nothing wrong. We have to be sitting on the edge, the only thing that can explain it, is the edge of a peak, of a resonance, and we're just barely tweaking it, and we'd had no idea how big it would be, but--

Zierler:

So how do you know that nothing's wrong?

Schwitters:

Just by believing the quality of the data. I go back, and I took all these runs, and I would-- oh that's a great question. I'm trying to remember all these checks I was doing. I was doing all of this, if you can believe it, on a bank ledger sheet, before spreadsheets. And we had a brand new baby in the house. And I started-- Oh, I know, and I plotted, this was the crazy plot that people don't do. But I did it. I plotted the cross-section as a function of run number, okay? Run number, which is not a physical, meaningful thing, except that's how you take your data. And here were these two anomalous runs, and then there was some time off, and then everything was settled down after that. So, it's clear from all the data and everything else, that the data were consistent, and there had to be a spike there that we were just on the edge of a precipice. And we were.

So that was the test, and well, there's a lot of funny stuff you can look through. The log book was kept in the Smithsonian a long time. But my colleague, Harvey Lynch and I, were the co-spokesmen then of our SPEAR experiment, and Harvey was extremely skeptical. He's a very tough, intellectually, guy, a good guy, and he wrote this run plan where we had to basically go through all kinds of hoops before we'd-- And it was essentially the equivalent of a blind experiment, to come back before we test our toes in the water against the real, anomalous energy.

But, I came in a few hours early that first morning, and a Berkeley grad student, Scott Whitaker, and I were there, and we just decided to run through the suspected energy and yes, it went up, the cross-section went up by a factor of five or six. You know, so you've got a factor of five or six over baseline, with poor statistics. And then the SPEAR accelerator leader, Ewen Patterson, joined us. We were all thrilled and did a little hand count of detected events and put it in the log book, which again, if you've seen that, it's amusing to see it—exciting, but not yet convincing. We then had to give control of SPEAR to the accelerator experts to commission all the improvements added to it over the preceding summer shutdown. And then we had to go through an elaborate day of tests of the Mark I detector along with SPEAR, which we did, and everything was fine. It was finally Sunday morning, when we got to the point of trying to find what was the sharp peak causing the earlier data to appear inconsistent. So Burt was in the control room Sunday morning, because the word got out about our “unauthorized” hand count of events the previous morning. I think he may still have wanted us to shut down the low-energy running by the end of the day and go on to higher energies. That soon changed!

Zierler:

Yeah. This hadn't convinced him?

Schwitters:

So this was mid-morning, and it turns out, of course, SPEAR's energy is controlled by current in its magnets set by a digital-to-analog converter. The step size (in energy) of which was too big for this resonance, as it turned out. Okay, but, Burt and his accelerator team, had put a little potentiometer in the circuit so you could vary the current and interpolate between any two digital steps. And we had an intercom system in the control room for the phones that ticked every time the detector’s spark chambers made a spark, because they created so much noise, physical, electrical noise. So typically, the detector's running, it goes tick, tick-tick at an interval of a few seconds. And so we said, "Well, it's time to really check between a couple of energy points and asked Burt to interpolate between the two."

So he stood up and twiddled the knob, and it (the detector’s spark chambers signaling the event rate) control room intercom went from tick-tick-tick to bzzzzz. Okay? Buzzing, was this resonance, a hundred or thousand times faster than at the neighboring energies. I mean, it was just the most startling noise and, you know, your whole being was buzzing with it, I mean it was incredibly exciting. And then, oh a few hours later, we figured out what we had discovered. It was much larger cross section than I ever expected, in terms of its peak size and narrowness. Nobody, nobody predicted a resonance would be so narrow. But Bjorken had always felt we should just always be scanning the energy. Every digital step. Of course, we didn't actually run that way. It was a great strategy: With it, we would have found it (the psi particle) in the first year running.

Zierler:

Yeah. Did you have visitors who became part of the research? I mean, people were coming to SLAC, visiting all the time.

Schwitters:

Oh, a lot of visitors. Burt was very good in that regard, especially Europeans who worked in e+/e- colliders. So we had really good connections, yes.

Zierler:

And did they become involved in a substantive level with the research or they were-- Mostly they were just viewers?

Schwitters:

Oh, no, no, they were substantive participants. They'd come for six months at least, or more, and really led efforts. Absolutely.

Zierler:

And how did your post doc transform into a tenure-line position? How did that play out?

Schwitters:

Well it turned out, it happened just before this era. After the first three post doc years, you'd get a sort of up-or-out call, and I was invited that summer of '74 to the next stage, which is called a SLAC assistant professorship. It's still non-tenured. So I had reached that level on the basis of my work on the detector, mainly, that's all anyone knew then. And when this came, which was very gratifying, it actually, frankly, allowed me to just expand my horizons to where I wanted to be. It gave me more of a sense of security and was terrific.

Zierler:

And did you ever consider a more traditional faculty position at that point? Or this is the be-all, end-all for you?

Schwitters:

Oh no, I was content to stay at SLAC. Very much so. I had the opportunity to be a faculty advisor to science students in one of the Stanford dorms. I understood that there had been quite a schism between SLAC and the physics department at Stanford in before my days.

Zierler:

Yeah. Now do you feel like from your perspective in the early 70s, was that schism, was that the high point of that schism? Was it just beginning? Was it ebbing?

Schwitters:

I think it was ebbing, for sure. You know, the protagonists were pretty much beginning to retire and so forth. Certainly at my level, with the people I dealt with down there on campus, the relations were great. But it was in the construction of SLAC and just the idea of going off-campus to build a huge, national facility became the basis. Between Pief Panofsky and the traditionalists at Stanford. That was largely over, as far as I was concerned.

Zierler:

And so were you, what kind of opportunities did you have to interact with people in the physics department?

Schwitters:

Well, you know, it was non-zero. We'd see each other at seminars and in fact the first, the experiment opposite ours in SPEAR, when the psi discovery was made, was a Stanford experiment under Robert Hofstadter. When Hofstadter’s associate in charge of that experiment saw the events taking place that weekend, he was sort of glum, and he said, "Well, I guess this will delay our plans to test quantum electrodynamics." (both laugh) My feeling was, "Boy, you're right there."

Zierler:

But I mean, all kidding aside, what did you see in that comment as sort of the larger implications of this project?

Schwitters:

Well, I think it was just the beginning of this incredibly rich experiment-- because we had so little sense of the size and scope of the gold mine we were sitting on. We did know, from in the very beginning, the best candidate was the theoretically hypothesized charm quark, which was expected to form a bound state with its own antiquark.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

And that was the analog of the phi meson for charm quarks. That was the best guess immediately. And again, stories around that, but that was certainly my personal guess. But we had no idea it would be so high and narrow in its width. So that launched very important other, you know, tests: Prove that it's a charm, but first of all, see if there are more of these narrow states, which we did ten days later, we found the second one, psi prime. So that became pretty clear, and then at 4 GEV, the higher energies, the resonances became broad. And so what did that mean? Well, that means they have much shorter lifetimes. They were decaying directly to charm particles without a quantum number inhibiting the decay. Therefore, you go look for charm there. And we found it. So we found charm particles. We found, but hidden in the charm, and this is again a subtlety, a complexity.

Part of the reason even for the mystery of the events surrounding our results prior to the psi discovery was a thing called the “energy crisis” by Burt: we were seeing fewer charged particles than expected. And so it turns out what happened was there was this incredible coincidence between the previously unknown tau lepton, which decays with a lot of energy going to neutrinos that you completely miss, and charm, which decays a lot to charged particles, and the two new particles sort of cancel in terms of the overall picture that you're looking at. And so looking at gross features, just multiplicities of charged and neutral particles, could never reveal anything substantive until we understand these underlying psi resonances and all the physics there, including, the tau lepton. It was buried in there and took two more years of hard work to prove. Hiam Harrari gave a talk on this some years later, about this wonderful, wonderful mystery that was presented by this rich physics that was all buried there. No one expected it, no one. None of us experimenters expected a heavy lepton in the same place, except for Martin Perl. I mean, he believed in it, and his group were analyzing the same SPEAR data and found plausible evidence not long after the psi discovery. Frankly, Burt, I and others were skeptical. I worked hard to try to see if there was a way you could explain it by some other means. I failed. When I told Marty about my analysis, he got upset at me, because I was not on board his tau hypothesis. I told him, "Listen, I can't disprove you, so please, take that as a positive." I don’t think he never really bought into that argument.

Zierler:

Where were the theorists in all of this? Were they interested in this research? Did they have their own ideas about what you would find?

Schwitters:

Oh, they did. The theorists were great, yeah. Of course the... Bjorken was really on top of it all. And Fred Gilman, and the strong group of the theorists at SLAC. Feynman kept coming up from Caltech to visit. And so, yes, theorists all over the world were interested.

Zierler:

And what was Feynman specifically interested in with this?

Schwitters:

Well, he was, you know, proving the quark idea. I mean, really seeing that these quarks are real. He got it immediately. Interestingly enough, the first reaction of Murray Gell-Mann, of all people, was a quite different explanation, entirely. I found his to be an interesting reaction. But Feynman just got it right and was tremendously excited by the drama of everything. So, yes. It was a very, very excellent collaboration, and at the right level. The theorists were helping us, teaching us, keeping us honest, and vice versa. It was a great feeling at SLAC in those days.

Zierler:

Now, we talked a little bit about, you know, the draw, people coming to SLAC, but from your perspective, how well was SLAC, and specifically you, how well integrated were you with the larger, you know, high energy physics community? Were you attending conferences, were you writing papers, were you involved sort of beyond the SLAC confines during those years?

Schwitters:

I was pretty much into SLAC. Because, remember, the community was going to Fermilab.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Schwitters:

And so in my early days at SLAC, I'd go to conferences and things, and chat with other physicists, and they said, "Why are you wasting your time out at SLAC? I mean, Fermilab is where the action is, and you should--" (laughs) So, you know, we were considered backwater by a lot of our colleagues, but that changed overnight. (laughs)

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. Did you keep track of what was going on at Fermilab? Were you involved in that at all?

Schwitters:

Not in a deep way, no. Not then.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. But did you gain an appreciat--

Schwitters:

I mean, obviously-- Pardon me?

Zierler:

Did you gain an appreciation, I mean, this question of at the beginning, sort of like why wouldn't you just go to Fermilab, right? Wouldn't that have begged the sort of... You would have to know what was going on at Fermilab to really, to consider it strongly.

Schwitters:

Oh yeah, but I think we had enough, you know, by then, the standard model was getting really pretty well described and talked about everywhere, and you know, the fact that the physics that was soon to come from Fermilab and CERN, for example the discovery of weak neutral currents and so forth, was certainly known in all the seminars. And yeah, I'd go to a few conferences, but I’m not a big conference goer. Typically, I would go to a Physical Society meeting and an international conference once a year, but you know, I was busy with SLAC. And it was great.

Zierler:

So did you ever take on sort of more administrative responsibilities at SLAC?

Schwitters:

Nope. Nope. Not really.

Zierler:

Lucky you.

Schwitters:

Yeah, exactly. No, it was really just an ideal situation.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. And then your promotion to associate in 1977. Did that represent sort of a transition to a new project you were working on, or it was just... You were continuing on in this trajectory?

Schwitters:

That was the trajectory, and they were pretty careful about their timing and things. They didn't want to hold people too long. They wanted to be up-or-out. And so you know, I felt, again, pleased with the promotion. I was always frankly a little disappointed that there still wasn't a strong teaching side. I was interested in teaching, not as strong as most good teachers are, but I wanted access to the great students there. I had grad students, terrific grad students from Stanford.

Zierler:

Did you have opportunity at SLAC to teach physics courses in the department?

Schwitters:

Those came a little bit later. I might have had taught some, but I was just too busy then, with everything still moving intensely in a very exciting time.

Zierler:

Right right. And I mean, so that gets me to my question about, you know, the circumstances leading to you heading off to Harvard. What were some of your motivations? I mean, the first question is, did they recruit you, or were you sort of looking for opportunities, you know, life beyond SLAC?

Schwitters:

Came out of the blue entirely, okay? Just out of nowhere. "How would you like to come to Harvard?" kind of thing. I said something like "Huh?" And yes, it was a full professorship, too.

Zierler:

Who reached out to you?

Schwitters:

Karl Strauch.

Zierler:

Okay.

Schwitters:

Karl Strauch was a chairman then. And then very soon, you know, I had a meeting with-- So I came back, and said sure, and I, first of all, realized it was a full professorship, it wasn't associate. And all that that meant. And I knew the people in the high energy physics group there rather well. Again, they had been trying to work on this physics, some of them, at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator. So that was a positive in my book. They had a good lab. But I think the most dramatic thing was my early encounters with the leadership at Harvard then. So it was Henry Rosovsky, was the dean who was the boss. Dean of Arts and Sciences and a truly great, interesting and humorous person. And so my first interview, if you will, was with Henry. And then I had a chance encounter with Derek Bok, who was president then, just out in the, literally, in the Harvard yard. "Oh, Professor Schwitters, so glad to meet you. You know, I read a couple of your papers, and they were really interesting", and he spoke to them in content-- I about fell over. Until I was on the faculty and realized, at least in his day, he personally reviewed in detail each tenure case. I don't know if you knew that.

Zierler:

I did not know that. I did not know that.

Schwitters:

It's the Harvard system, and it's called an ad hoc. And so when a department gets an opportunity to make an appointment at the tenure level, they have to do the searching, and they send the information in to the dean and to the president, and then about this case, and of course, there's a search, and there are all kinds of possibilities, but the crux comes with the so-called ad hoc committee. And that is chaired by, was chaired by the president. Henry Rosovsky was merely the recording secretary, I think, (laughs) in this august party. And it is a committee formed out of half Harvard faculty from other departments, and half experts in the field from other universities. So woah. So, and I again, served on these panels later in my career, and saw how they worked, and Derek had done it, does do his homework. And of course it was his way to avoid things like visiting committees and so forth. He can tell by those ad hocs how they go, how his departments go. So it's not just making the right choice, I thought it was incredibly well done. Can you imagine? He spent just a day in an intense meeting out of his busy schedule for every tenure appointment. Okay, think about that.

Zierler:

Amazing.

Schwitters:

It tells you the priority he put on it. And then with that kind of input, he can learn also how his departments are doing.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

So when I had this chance encounter, he had read some of my papers.

Zierler:

Amazing, amazing. So what was your sense? I mean, obviously, it's a big deal out of nowhere to get an offer to be a full professor at Harvard, right? What was your sense of what this represented in terms of where the department wanted it to go and where you fit in in that structural vision?

Schwitters:

Well, so, you know, it was Harvard, it was coming back to Cambridge, which my wife and I liked very much. We were frankly rolled over by the cost of living in California. I mean, we could just never conceive of buying a house. So we had a personal interest in looking outside the Bay area. And it was a good time for our growing family. The offer came in '79, we moved, that you know, and the new Fermilab Tevatron was coming online. I was really interested in that, and the proton-antiproton collider at Fermilab. And there was, you know, Brookhaven was still in the market then with their Isabel for high energy colliders. I felt that I really wanted to go try higher energy colliders, even if they were just hadrons (protons/antiprotons) only. Burt never accepted that, he really, really didn't like the idea of my leaving and giving up your friends' electrons and positrons for these fat, ugly protons. But anyway, that's neither here nor there. I was looking for a change by then.

Zierler:

Now-- Oh you were? You were looking for a change?

Schwitters:

I wasn't searching for it, because there were opportunities, but the, frankly, the next generation collider at SLAC, called PEP, was not very interesting. And that would just be more of the same. So here came this unbelievable offer, and time for a change. My wife and I felt that we knew enough people there, they were great friends. I mean, Steve Weinberg was already a friend anyway and so on. And so... the experimental group there was very, very nice and coherent, and so--

Zierler:

And I'm sure you fully intended to keep up with what was going on at SLAC and all of that.

Schwitters:

Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Zierler:

Yeah. In fact, I bet Harvard valued the fact that you were going to do that?

Schwitters:

Uh, I don't know. Harvard has many good people they value... (laughs) Oh, of course, yeah, they want good people-- And listen, it's professor nirvana.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay? And at least in those days.

Zierler:

The larger point I'm getting at here is, you know, I mean this narrative arc of, you know, it was a backwoods, right? SLAC. And now all of a sudden, Harvard really cares about what's going on there. So that's, this represents a real transition.

Schwitters:

Oh yeah, and plus the Harvard/MIT people, including Louis Osborne, working on the Cambridge Electron Accelerator electron-positron collider, you know, they tried hard to get their collider going, but it was just too big a stretch to make that work. So no, no, no, all of that, all the attitudes and of course the physics on the theory side was directly linked into things at SLAC and Fermilab. And so I was interested in taking our detector ideas and apply them to hadron (proton-antiproton and proton-proton) colliders. See, detectors built for hadron colliders, principally at the CERN then, and but coming on even at the other machines, were not four pi magnetic detectors with tracking that enable you to observe most of the particles created in collision. They lacked the acceptance—fraction of solid angle surrounding the collision instrumented---that we had in our original Mark-1 detector at SPEAR. And that bugged me. So I wanted to stay on the detector design side, and apply some of our inventions in a new regime. And frankly, if you look at LHC (Large Hadron Collider at CERN) detectors now, ATLAS is a good model, it looks an awful lot like the Mark 1 detector at SPEAR in concept, only much larger.

Zierler:

So getting to Cambridge, how well did you settle into the traditional academic life? Did you take on graduate students right away and start teaching undergraduate courses and all that?

Schwitters:

All of the above, yes. All of that. Became affiliated with one of the houses and have dinners there, and yeah, we just absolutely loved it. You know, Harvard was just terrific. And they understood that buying a house was a big deal for us, so they were able to get us a more attractive mortgage for a couple of years to get started. Boston was in recession then, so we got a tremendous deal on a grand old house out in Winchester, and it was great fun. So these things made relocating pleasant.

Zierler:

What kind of undergraduate classes did you enjoy teaching most?

Schwitters:

Harvard physics majors.

Zierler:

No, I mean, what classes? What classes did you like teaching?

Schwitters:

Well any, I really preferred the undergraduate classes, so the introductory physics. I took over introductory mechanics from Sidney Coleman.

Zierler:

Oh wow.

Schwitters:

And my mentor in the teaching introductory E&M was Ed Purcell. Ed became a truly good friend, and I realized how little I knew (laughs) after being around Ed for a couple of years! He just changed my whole understanding and outlook on special relativity, for example. It's kind of embarrassing to say this, but I've heard it from others. Until you really go through some of these topics with fresh, smart students, you don't really know what you think you know. And electrodynamics is a good example of that.

Zierler:

And so who were some of your most successful collaborations in terms of graduate students and post docs during your Harvard years?

Schwitters:

Well I had, first of all, excellent graduate students at SLAC. Jim Siegrist is now a top official in particle physics for DOE. Tom Himmel has been a successful particle physicist at Stanford/SLAC, now retired. Rafe Schindler has also had a good career there. So they did very well. Tom and Rafe stayed at SLAC, but Jim went off to Berkeley and joined CDF at Fermilab where I was able to keep in touch with him. And then he moved into government. I'm glad he did. At Harvard I had really a great crew coming through. Some—Theo Schaad and Mike Levi—worked at SLAC and others--David Brown, Rick St. Denis, Ed Kearns, and Bill Trischuk—on CDF at Fermilab, so that became their community.

Zierler:

And how well did you follow the Nobel prize in 1990 at, you know, with regard to SLAC?

Schwitters:

Well let's see. The 1990 Nobel Prize at SLAC? That went to Martin Perl, a SLAC group leader, who joined with Burt’s group on SPEAR. I thought it was fine and well deserved. You know before Perl’s Prize, there was of course Sam Ting and Burt Richter in 1976. And that was a very special Nobel prize in several strange and wonderful ways. It came very quickly, in 1976, just two years after the psi discovery at SPEAR. And that one created some consternation, which I'm beyond. But anyway, Marty Perl, I thought, was terrific. But here's a sidelight to that Prize that I just loved: So I called up Pief Panofsky the day it was announced and congratulated him. And he was just so bubbling over with his usual enthusiasm. And he reviewed to me all of the Stanford work he had inspired and supported, and said, "Well, that's my fourth Nobel prize, you know?" I think it included Bob Hofstadter. Burt, Dick Taylor, and Marty Perl for the Prizes awarded for physics experiments at Stanford and SLAC, all made possible by the efforts and leadership of Panofsky. He was just thrilled. And so that that gave me just immense joy to have been part of the two Nobel Prizes for work on the SPEAR Mark-1 magnetic detector.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay, it's a little different twist than you probably have heard elsewhere.

Zierler:

(laughs) That's true. That's why I asked.

Schwitters:

For a lot of people who worked on the Mark-1 detector at SPEAR, the '76 prize was kind of a disappointment, just because everybody felt so good about it, and it was clear Burt deserved it, but that somehow that experience was not shared by him with the group; many others in the group didn't feel any particular ownership for it.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. I've heard that too. It's--

Schwitters:

Oh have you heard that?

Zierler:

I've heard that, and it really speaks to how special of an environment SLAC is, in terms of everybody supporting everybody else, and... Yeah.

Schwitters:

Oh yeah.

Zierler:

Now, Roy, in broad terms--

Schwitters:

Oh by the way, let me tell you one Nobel prize story you may want to hear or you may not. This is back to Burt. It was during a difficult evening hosted by the president of Stanford. During his speech, he noted he was so proud of the fact that finally someone who had done his work at Stanford—Burt--got the Prize. He had Hofstadter and Felix Bloch, both Stanford Nobel Prize winners sitting near him at the dinner and several others from different universities also present. So, he blew that one! Another great physicist present---Matthew Sands---was most annoyed by these comments. Do you know Matt?

Zierler:

No.

Schwitters:

Matt Sands is an accelerator physicist, I think he's still living, who did a lot of the early work at SLAC and Stanford. He became chancellor at UC Santa Cruz. Great man. But after dinner, he stood up from the table, and growled to everyone nearby: "That evil prize!" (laughs) That sort of set a lot of the tone of the celebration.

Zierler:

Now, during your Harvard years, would you say that your research focus stayed on essentially the same trajectory as SLAC, or did you take this as an opportunity to pursue new projects?

Schwitters:

Well, it was new. It was with the hadron colliders.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

And I really wanted to go in that direction.

Zierler:

Why? What was it about hadron colliders?

Schwitters:

Energy. That we could go to higher energies where new discoveries might be possible. In those days, it just looked too hard and too expensive to continue to use electron-positron colliders for such searches. Proton accelerators can attain higher collision energies for well-understood technical reasons based on particle mass: protons and anti-protons are 2000 times more massive than electrons and positrons. It's a problem that basically not been solved. Today, we still don't have an electron-positron collider anywhere in the world that can produce top quarks or Higgs bosons that are studied routinely at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), for example. These are the heaviest objects known within the context of the Standard Model of particle physics, but not obviously the last words in particle physics.

Zierler:

Right. Right.

Schwitters:

Okay? Really hard and it still is hard. But anyway, Fermilab—So, in 1980 or ’81, I joined CDF—Collider Detector at Fermilab—and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. CDF was then being designed to run on Fermilab’s Tevatron superconducting magnet accelerator that would collide protons against antiprotons at energies many times higher than any other accelerator in the world then. I had a half-time appointment, and taught half year for several years at Harvard, while commuting back and forth to Fermilab every week, where I was helping to manage the CDF construction and physics program. And I got to learn a lot there about hadron colliders and detectors. And we built a very good detector---CDF---in that process which did good physics, finding the top quark and many other results of real value. I never second-guessed that decision. I enjoyed the work, Fermilab, and the people involved in a much bigger project than what we did at SLAC. And then, of course, the SSC came along, and that was a completely different experience. That's one of those callings that you know will have difficulties and there were.

Zierler:

So let's just, there's a whole interview therein, right? So my first question there is, when you got involved with SSC, I assume it was at the purely conceptual stage. Is that fair to say?

Schwitters:

Oh... Well, again, I was really into Fermilab, the collider detector physics there. I mean the Fermilab Tevatron and the antiproton source were an amazing, you know, step forward. I mean, they borrowed technology, which is good, from CERN. They invented the superconducting magnet. They really did. It was suitable for accelerators. And so that was really in a major advance. So I think Fermilab kind of had a bad start, but was really doing great things, you know. I was thrilled to be part of it in those days. And Bob Wilson was still there. Leon Lederman had taken over, and they injected a lot of energy in the place. And we just had a great crew at CDF, and that's where a lot of my students could work and others. So it was just, it was really a very positive event. We could spend summers out there and do all of that stuff.

Zierler:

And at what point, who approached you to become director and at what point did you take this as an opportunity to move on from Harvard?

Schwitters:

Well, I didn't take it as an opportunity to move on from Harvard. I loved Harvard.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

I loved the students. And I was on enough high-level SSC activities at the time that kept informed! I had been on the SSC site selection panel, so I knew a lot about details of the project. And I would have been completely satisfied with being a senior professor at Harvard and going down to work at the SSC, believe me. Until I got a call from the SSC Board of Overseers committee. Boyce McDaniel (Cornell) and Pief Panofsky were on the line and asked me to be the SSC director, at which point I sort of went, "Ugh! (laughs) Do you really want me? This is going to be hard. And I've got an awfully good life at Harvard right now." Furthermore, another really good thing they do at Harvard is they insist that you resign, if you plan to be away for more than two years!

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay, so that was in some sense the big crux of new obligation/opportunity. I just felt the SSC was important to the future of US science, and we appeared to have a good start, a superior design, and a good site. Having been on the site selection panel, I knew that site was good, while others were complaining that it wasn't at Fermilab. I am still certain that Dallas/Fort Worth site was the best one technically, and, given the politics of the day, the only one that had a chance to succeed.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

So I could accept that and that's what I did.

Zierler:

Now, important, obviously, so I want to ask you that question of why you think it's important in two ways. One is, what did you understand the SSC in concept as being able to accomplish that could not be accomplished elsewhere? And important from, in terms of the attempt to make it happen from a budgetary perspective, right? Why should the United States, essentially, support this endeavor? Important in that regard as well.

Schwitters:

Right, right. Okay, well, first of all, the planning and design that had already gone into the SSC. Remember, I came in late. I was not part of the Central Design Group that set the basic scope of the project. We changed some of their plans later, but I knew the site well just from the site selection process and all of that. Again, the main physics objective was to find the Higgs particle, okay? Very simple. Now, I don't exactly like that, because I felt that it formed an expected “discovery”; the real surprise would be not finding it--

Zierler:

Is it reductive?

Schwitters:

Well, see, this is the problem. I had the pleasure of seeing these totally unexpected discoveries made, okay? Nobody expected the psi to have the properties that it did. I notice I call it "psi." Not J-psi. And so it was such a thrilling experience, and you have to have some faith that there's more physics out there. Now, it's true. In my words only, and I don't mean to be disparaging, I knew full well the Higgs was an “expected” discovery. That is to say, it had been postulated. You knew a lot of what its properties would be. But it was so important to the standard model, and other things would come out in that process. And when I made this decision, top quark still hadn't been found.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

So you know, essentially fleshing out the standard model is still my goal.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay, personally, if I could have a, be part of that goal. But anyway, and it may be sufficient, by the way, the way it is, which is kind of exciting too, given where astrophysics has taken us. But that's a total side issue. So back to SSC. So I felt it was a... I thought it was a responsibility. I thought it would be good for the country. I mean--

Zierler:

Responsibility to who?

Schwitters:

To physics, our physics community. And the U.S. And I knew we could forge, until things came apart with partisan elections, a very strong collaboration with the Japanese. We had that on CDF and we had it, which was stronger at Fermilab than the Japanese connections out at SLAC ever were. And with Italians. So we had the makings of stronger collaborations through my Fermilab experience, actually.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Schwitters:

Not that I put them together. They were there, but just making them work and see how they work and learned how they worked better. So that was all extremely positive. And once the site was selected, you know, I already, I'll repeat, but we felt that the Texas site was extremely positive, and it had local support that was extraordinary at that time. What happened, of course, was the Berlin Wall came down. And that was important and yes, we had all kinds of, we haven't gotten into this yet, but I don't even think they're that important: the political issues and so forth. But the existential issue was, we had lost our existential competitor, the Soviet Union in that period. Okay, they were clearly not as strong an international threat anymore.

Zierler:

But when you say, "existential competitor," do you mean in a national security framework or do you mean in a particle physics framework?

Schwitters:

Well, I believe they're linked in a way. I believe your intellectual future determines your ultimate strength as a nation.

Zierler:

Interesting. Interesting.

Schwitters:

And I really do believe that. And it keeps everybody sharp and you want to be answering hard questions that you don't know the answers to.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

Okay? So that's now, maybe physics is getting-- may even get beyond that one of these days.

Zierler:

So that's a very powerful observation, right? That you know, when the wall came down, that really changed the name of the game. I wonder, can you reflect on where, specifically, did you pick that up? Obviously from your perspective, you wanted SSC to continue. You know, Soviets or no Soviets, because as you said, there was a responsibility to physics, right? Beyond the Cold War. So I wonder sort of, you know, if you read something or you talked to somebody or you just got this general idea, like, "Uh-oh. Soviets aren't around anymore, this might have existential ramifications to whether the SSC is going to be built."

Schwitters:

Oh yeah well, okay, I did. I mean there were several indicators. First of all, the almost-instant shift, after the SSC was terminated, of most major part of the American high energy physics community toward the CERN LHC. I mean also the LHC had a very powerful siren call during SSC, as well. And damned glad we got it. We could keep going with that.

Zierler:

Why? What's the connection? Why this uptick in this new endeavor?

Schwitters:

Oh, I think SSC was viewed as being risky in the States, and you know, Carlo Rubbia and Europe did a great job of bringing that in, and Fermilab wanted to stay in the game during and after SSC was built

Zierler:

What was the risk?

Schwitters:

What was the risk?

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

To whom? I mean all the risk was our people. Okay my take was that most senior people really liked where they had their labs, right, already. They liked where they were. I mean, Fermilab was very convenient, very nice, good place to be. And CERN is just fabulous for such physics. And by that time, a lot of the, I think, physics community felt they didn't want to go to Texas. And so what came to Texas was a group of young people who did not have their careers well-identified yet, and they were willing to take risks. And they were just terrific, and we had a great team going there. But that was coupled on with the fact that we had, well, we had a recession coming. And the country cut back on this kind of scientific investment. I think that it's a fact that this became more attractive to join up with CERN even though the scientific potential was less than SSC. SSC was a big new commitment that was tough for Congress. I think this general picture is true, but I've not seen it really properly researched, and I'm not the guy to do that. But in the end, cancelling the SSC was purely a political decision. I learned much later that President Clinton gave Texas Governor Ann Richards the choice: "Do you want the international space station or the supercollider?" It was this simple and as banal.

Zierler:

You mean, it really was a binary? It was an either/or situation?

Schwitters:

That's what I was told by a very reputable person to begin with, and confirmed by several others who say, "Yes, that is a fact." That's all I know. And it was such a, frankly, a bummer from my point of view. Think about it. The Soviet Union had been viewed as being an existential threat. Being a leader in physics, was good because it had spin-offs into national security. And so the US had to keep this up. And you can see that, by the way, when the Japanese realized that the SSC was in some jeopardy because President Bush’s (Sr.) reelection was in some jeopardy by winter ’91-‘92. They got cold feet in the SSC. And held back a year, by which time the Clinton administration came into office.

Before then we had, believe me, many very late nights, 2 a.m. phone calls and high level diplomatic discussions with senior people in Japan for a couple of years. A major contribution by the Japanese appeared to be a done deal until the political situation in the US changed. The Japanese saw the handwriting on the wall fairly early in 1992, that Bush was in trouble. He had that-- remember, he just delayed his trip to Tokyo to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1991. Bush came later, delaying to winter 1992, and it was a very unfortunate trip. And the Japanese got the strong message that he was on the rocks, and the SSC project would be on the rocks too. I'm not taking that as the reason SSC was cancelled, but I'm trying to say, how does it fit into a bigger thought? And the thought is: You didn't really have to keep funding physics at recent levels to have the benefits that we would need in a post-Soviet era. You can see it in the Congressional debate, you can see it in the strong, "cut the budget at any cost" debate, a significant change of the tone of the Congress. We—high energy physics—had wonderful support in Congress, both House and Senate. But that whole tenor changed during SSC days with the major political changes in the world.

Zierler:

Yeah. I wonder if you could talk about, if you saw, the fact that it came down to a binary choice, right? An either/or, what's going to be funded? To what extent was that a failure of messaging in terms of, you know, advocating for the SSC's importance in and of itself? Not just as a line item. Who needed to hear that line of thinking, and who should have delivered that message?

Schwitters:

Yeah, that's another good question. And now you're really getting into the imponderables. I’ll try.

Zierler:

Sure.

Schwitters:

I still think the biggest thing was an existential threat to the US by the Soviet Union had been eliminated. We could move on and Congress would save money. Both political sides were willing to go with that, I think. As to the binary choice, I only learned that several years after the fact. I did not know that any time near when any of the key players were still involved. So and it came to me as a huge disappointment. "Is that all there is to it?" You know? Is there no more to the SSC than that?

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

How did things appear from the point of view of the growing SSC laboratory? Bush was looking strong, and an SSC lab in Texas was growing and making significant technical progress. We knew those two years, '92, '93, would be a tough passage. And we succeeded to reverse negative Congressional budget action and got through '92. In the next year, when Clinton's people came in, we had a new set of officials that had to be educated on the SSC. Al Gore was not a particular friend of this project. He was polite. We had some meetings. The first high level contact, even before Al Gore, was a visit by a Pennsylvania congressman, Jack Murtha, who was very influential, and a close friend of Clinton's, who came out and took a tour with us. We had a good visit with him. Showed him what we were doing. We went through why we want to do this project and what's the value to the country? Lot of serious discussion there. With the growing Republican Texas delegation and the new Clinton Administration, we no longer had the strong bipartisan effort from Texas that was so strong in getting the SSC project underway. So that may have doomed us.

Zierler:

But the boon to the local economy was not a persuasive item for them?

Schwitters:

The Republicans were just totally inconsistent on those points.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Listen, there were two key individuals in the delegation: It was Joe Barton, from Ellis County where the project was located, and Texas senator Phil Gramm from Texas A&M. They were sometimes just outrageous. You know, they'd be on the steps of the US Capital Building, campaigning for cutting everybody's taxes, and next they would say they wanted the supercollider. By that last year, '93, they just had no credibility. The year before that, we at least had Senator Lloyd Benson and other more serious people involved. So the support weakened significantly in that transition at the political level. And there were other changes in Texas, the “Texas Six-Pack”, newly elected, "cut the budget" congressmen came in in '94, and so it became just impossible to get much traction. And so I don't know whether the choice between SSC and the space station was decisive. I wish someone would research this question carefully. But anyway, that's how I see it, as banal as that. It ended up being a binary choice made by two good politicians.

Zierler:

Was this personally very difficult for you, this decision?

Schwitters:

Yes, the loss of the SSC was personally difficult. The new Administration’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary clearly didn’t want to communicate with me, an untenable position for any lab director. Some good friends and wise people told me, "Just resign." And I had already had a very nice professorship at UT Austin, it was just waiting in the wings. I was very happy to go up there and keep doing physics.

Zierler:

Now, how did you put that together? You accepted the directorship and then you connected with the UT, or the other way around?

Schwitters:

I had accepted the directorship, yes. And then UT invited me with a professorship when my SSC responsibilities finished. And again, this is an example of just the tremendous support that the project had, and that's possible in Texas. One of the great supporters of education in Texas secured support for several endowed chairs at UT Austin, and some of those were in physics. And one of them was reserved for me after we moved to Texas for the SSC. I got to know this individual when he was on the governor's commission for the supercollider. He and his colleagues were really forward-minded about the importance of education and research. They knew that Texas had to stop digging their ideas out of oil wells and get on with engaging people’s minds. This is one example of why I was so positive about the support base in Texas, compared to, say, Fermilab, where there were protests against building the SSC. But in Texas, this forward-thinking group of senior people was powerful.

Zierler:

How did you manage the anxiety from the other national labs? You know, for like Fermi and things like that. What was your general response to that, at least during the period when the SSC looked like it was going to happen?

Schwitters:

Yeah, well, a good way you can is to involve their people in your laboratory committees and research, and be available to talk to everyone with interests and ideas. From the beginning, we had people from SLAC and Fermilab involved in our work. More from Fermilab simply because they were more experienced in the specific technical issues.

Zierler:

I guess my question is, did you have a convincing case to make that they didn't have anything to be worried about in terms of what SSC represented?

Schwitters:

Oh, no. I don't think we ever had that. I think they always had something to worry about. We all did.

Zierler:

SSC included?

Schwitters:

Yeah.

Zierler:

No, but I mean in terms of, had SSC gotten built, what would have been the implications, both budgetary and brain drain and other things on Fermilab and SLAC?

Schwitters:

Well, they're different places. SLAC has invested successfully in advanced synchrotron light capabilities, which was very wise in my view, and in exploring new approaches to very high energy electron-positron colliders, called linear colliders. The linear collider was sort of their ace in the hole. Fermilab, you know, was the first to push hard intellectually for the supercollider. The person who really started the SSC was Leon Lederman, Fermilab’s director. He talked about building a “Desertron”, we'd have to go off to a desert to afford building it. Well, we got Texas instead of a desert. Texas turned out to be much richer than a desert, okay? And a good place too. Unfortunately, young people inspired by Lederman’s vision came to the SSC, but then were selectively bred out of our field with its demise. Most have found good jobs, but not what they wanted in physics. A good number of them became quants on Wall Street, for example. This was a tragedy that I feel the community should have faced more directly before a site was chosen.

Zierler:

That was critical?

Schwitters:

That was critical, yeah. Because it allowed this impossible thing to happen, losing a generation of good young people needed to refresh our field. Our existing labs had become political imperatives. Unfortunately, Fermilab's site technically was not good for the deep, long tunnels that we had to build. It just didn't make it in the site selection on technical reasons.

Zierler:

Yeah. So, you know, last question on this line. And obviously another imponderable, but what did physics lose as a result of SSC not coming to fruition?

Schwitters:

Well, you know, again physics will come through somehow. I guess I'm disappointed that we haven't found anything unexpected. (laughs) Okay, that's CERN’s LHC, a competitor to SSC, did discover the Higgs boson particle, very important, but expected from theory. My hope is always to discover the unexpected.

Zierler:

But that's to suggest that had SSC gone through, we would have been finding new things?

Schwitters:

Well, I don't know. You just don't know. It's a gamble. It’s conceivable that exciting new astrophysical phenomena being observed with gravitational waves could provide some of the right stuff to integrate with particle physics’ standard model into what might integrate gravity and particle physics into a synthesis of the largest and smallest objects we know about in our universe. Long shot, but exciting.

Zierler:

Yeah. But to get back to the messaging question, right? Because it's all about messaging when you're talking about political decisions. To what extent do you think that the people who were making these calls on a budgetary perspective, if they were hearing the physicists say, "Well, we don't know what this thing is going to find," right? Could that have been decisive in terms of their appetite to fund something that had such an uncertainty to it?

Schwitters:

Well, see, that's what I think was a critical... That's why it made the demise of the Soviet Union so important.

Zierler:

Because, you're saying, had the Cold War continued, the uncertainty would have been a non-factor?

Schwitters:

For at least another few years, possibly. But with today’s international health, economic, and political challenges, it is very hard to imagine launching any large, purely scientific projects anytime soon. For the shorter term, I certainly hope we can attack these threats internationally, however.

Zierler:

Wow, okay.

Schwitters:

Okay. I really believe that. Well, it was that and really ugly Washington politics. It's not just that one issue, that, but that poisoned the well for the collider for sure.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Schwitters:

So yeah, I believe that. That's what I believe.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. So did you have a good experience, you have a good experience, with your professorship at UT?

Schwitters:

Oh yeah, yeah. We have really good students and Austin's a terrific place. I wasn't interested-- obviously -- in joining an LHC experiment, however.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

At this point, for lots of reasons.

Zierler:

So what kind of things did you move onto?

Schwitters:

Well, I moved onto JASON.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay? National security is where I put the intellectual thrust.

Zierler:

Right, right.

Schwitters:

Soon after moving to Austin, I became involved in a SLAC experiment and a novel experiment at the German laboratory, DESY, in Hamburg, both related to studying properties of b or “bottom” quarks. We built some nice hardware for the DESY experiment and several students received their PhD degrees on the two experiments. At this point in my life, I found such work to be less interesting than the chance to work on studies related to US national security through the group known as JASONs.

Zierler:

Yeah. So how did you get involved in the national security stuff?

Schwitters:

Well, I knew several members of JASON, and I had an opportunity to join the organization in late 1996.

Zierler:

So how does that work? You get a formal invitation?

Schwitters:

Well, you sort of talk to people and then you get a formal invitation, and you talk to some more people, and you end up spending several weeks every summer (and a few days at other times of the year) working together with other members on hard technical problems related to national security. It's sort of strange and wonderful. And yes, I considered it, frankly, a lease on life for me for the great people I was working with, their intellectual toughness, and importance of the problems we tackle.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. And what were the lines of communication to government officials? You know, based on the kinds of things that would be discussed in JASON committees? How would you convey these discussions and recommendations so that they were part of the policy process? Or at least, relevant to the policy process?

Schwitters:

Oh, that's a big question. It's ongoing.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

So the group itself has a tradition of really trying to do solid science and its work can only be based on that. Okay? And we mostly study problems that require security clearances at high levels to be able to access the tough technical jobs. So we stay strictly technical, we don't do policy, to the extent possible. And we try to find areas that are A) important and have real science-- Physics, mathematics, biology and engineering, content to them. To the extent possible, we try to brainstorm and find new approaches to solve hard problems. So you ask how do we interact with sponsors? We talk to lots of people who sponsor, essentially, this research, and will support us. Okay? And we give them a serious report on where we think things could be done to help their work. Our reports must be specific, to the point, technically accurate, and helpful to the sponsor.

Zierler:

What are some specific endeavors at JASON were particularly satisfying to you, both in terms of the clarity of the science and the way that it was conveyed in the policy realm?

Schwitters:

Oh, that's a really great question. Unfortunately, I really can't talk about them, okay? They involved all kinds of national security matters involving science and technology. One is, one which I'm willing to just say, because it's obvious and is well-known, is we have had impact on nuclear weapons issues. And I think all of us in physics who follow nuclear weapon matters at all-- know the facts of life here: nukes are dangerous, the principles underlying their power are well known, and they are possessed in significant quantities by several regimes around the world.

Zierler:

Are you speaking just generally, the fact that nuclear weapons exist, or specifically?

Schwitters:

Yeah, they exist. The US assigns high priority to ensuring our nuclear stockpiles are safe, secure, and effective. This is a huge, highly technical job with many key players. JASON typically plays a role understanding relevant scientific questions and advances for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA under the Department of Energy), working closely with the national laboratories.

Zierler:

Right.

Schwitters:

So the physics of nukes is sort of old news in many ways. Where I think JASON fits in today in other scientific areas for other sponsors involves information, how information is now used, how could it be misused, and so on. How can it be stolen? And the impacts of those questions. These questions arise across the board in many areas, just as important as nuclear matters. And obviously now, biology has become especially important to national security. Personally, I am not at all trained in biology, but we have recruited superb expert biologists to JASON who tackle the tough questions related to national security. For me to be able to learn from them under our intense atmosphere in JASON has been a special pleasure.

Zierler:

Where do you see your principle areas of contribution?

Schwitters:

Well, I work on specific technical things like the physics of accelerators and particle detectors, but try to contribute to broader topics also.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay? That's what I do. And large, complex systems. I have a practical experience with those! But you know, frankly, I really enjoy being able to learn so much new---to me---science. Take biology... So early in my JASON career, it was clear that biology just had to get integrated into our work in a serious way. One summer, we had “biology school for old JASONs” out in La Jolla. By then we had some very good biologists in the group, who taught the rest of us a little bit of lab biology one summer. We went up to Scripps in La Jolla and had our own experimental training, just up the road from where meet for our summer studies. My lab partner at the JASON bio-school was Freeman Dyson!

Zierler:

Oh wow.

Schwitters:

And so I learned to pipette and do PCR experiments with Freeman, okay? Now it doesn't get any better than that!

Zierler:

I can't imagine, I can't imagine.

Schwitters:

So you know, honestly, this group is cohesive, and have very high standards. They'd give you hell if you screw up. And it's always a challenge, and yet there's a nice spirit.

Zierler:

Now in terms of your hesitation to get into specifics, which I totally understand and respect, I am curious. Does JASON operate ever in a classified environment?

Schwitters:

Oh yeah. Absolutely. We have to.

Zierler:

So who sponsors your clearance?

Schwitters:

Oh well we, that's a good question. Our government sponsors. I mean, as you know, there are different clearances in different areas. We have high level clearances. They are essential.

Zierler:

Of course.

Schwitters:

In fact, to be a member of JASON, you have to be able to hold a clearance for work you contribute to. Okay? So, there are three types: clearances managed by DOD, by NNSA, the nuclear part of DOE. by the intelligence community. In my experience, there seem to be enough of overlaps for JASONs to be able to move seamlessly.

Zierler:

And what agencies, or even individuals, over a long period of time, have been the greatest champions of JASON and what it represents and why it's so important?

Schwitters:

NNSA, DOD, and the Intel community have all been strongly involved, but individuals in the government come and go and sometimes the funding goes with them elsewhere. There's no question that that JASON still has a great, cadre of physicists, Garwin, Drell, you know, Freeman Dyson, held tremendous sway right up to the point they can no longer contribute. ... Garwin is still going strong.

Zierler:

Yes, he is.

Schwitters:

Thank god. And he is such a pleasure to be around. In JASON, because you just learn so much, and he's so fundamentally kind with ideas and so hard-nosed if you screw up. it's just great, okay? And so it's a discipline there that's tremendous. And you know that it's close-knit organization “managed” by a steering committee and chair that come from and return to the membership. You may not know this, but I may have had the longest time as chair of anyone in JASON because several of our other members, who were in the pipeline to be chair, went out to industry and did other important things before they came back to JASON, so I stayed on longer than I probably should have. But the key to JASON is to find government officials who really care also. And who believe that there's serious value here. Such individuals are essential. And that person has been in different roles, different places in the government as things come and go. But without a serious champion who can muster, you know, and try to protect the organization; it's very fragile.

Zierler:

Of course, right.

Schwitters:

So, proving JASON’s value to key people in the government is essential. And often they're the unsung heroes and you may not even really know them.

Zierler:

But obviously, there needs to be an infrastructure. Even if the individuals, right, are located in various different agencies. Doesn't there need to be an infrastructure where continuous support from a given office is essential for JASON to be viable? Like I'm thinking of like the Office of Science and DOE, or OSTP and the National Security Council.

Schwitters:

Yes, that model is certainly preferred.

Zierler:

Harder simply because of the Trump administration?

Schwitters:

I can’t say. Because of funding pressure and finding people willing and able to put in the time and effort to write a good problem statement for us to work on.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

And introduce us to the people who are finding the problems we might be able to help them with. So you see, it's the opportunity cost to the home organization. They move around frequently, changing their areas of responsibility. So it's quite fragile actually.

Zierler:

You mean currently it's very fragile? It's not that it's always been fragile?

Schwitters:

It has been, it's always been fragile.

Zierler:

Oh, it has always been fragile?

Schwitters:

Yeah, oh, yeah.

Zierler:

Probably now more than ever, is that fair?

Schwitters:

It's, I think it's always been fragile. It's, well, these days, it's very special now, what's going on, so we weathered last year's storm and ended up in a good home, but then of course the bigger national issues are still out there.

Zierler:

Right, right. So I don't know if you're at liberty to talk as a representative of JASON, or you just want to talk in your own capacity, but I am curious--

Schwitters:

I'm definitely not. Only the chair can speak for JASON.

Zierler:

Okay, good.

Schwitters:

I used to be the chair, but I'm not the chair now.

Zierler:

Good, so I'll just ask you and you can ask however you want. To what extent do you see coronavirus as a national security threat, and if so, how?

Schwitters:

Interestingly enough, I think we're all just dealing with it on a personal level so far. I mean, we've not had that discussion directly. Okay, there are topics now that we want to work on that are more or less in our normal line. Of course coronavirus has very good biological world out there trying to do the right thing. So my personal view is that JASON wouldn't have much sway in that question now. I know we have people who could contribute tremendously, but there are a lot of others contributing tremendously well now. And even they're not always being listened to.

Zierler:

Yeah.

Schwitters:

So JASON, the special part of JASON is being able to do incisive, critical scientific/technical/engineering thinking in a secret environment. A controlled environment. And being able to make that stick, we must have enough credibility with our own colleagues and the funders that you've talked about so that respected leaders can say, "Well, if these guys really believe this to be true technically, so it's probably pretty good." Unfortunately, it's not always to hit home runs by being 100% creative and right every time. We have some mistakes, but we try very hard to get it right.

Zierler:

What are some things that you're most concerned about now that are not, you know, headline news? That people aren't thinking about now, but they should?

Schwitters:

Frankly, I wish the world could get beyond nuclear weapons. I still see that as a goal for all of us because nuclear weapons are just too easy to build and too dangerous to ever use. And the world obviously will have its new problems and possibilities which will be challenging too.

Zierler:

Are you more concerned about strategic nuclear war or nuclear terrorism?

Schwitters:

Strategic nuclear war. Some bad mistake happens with these huge arsenals we and others have.

Zierler:

So that's still a real possibility, even though the Cold War is a distant memory?

Schwitters:

Thankfully, the Cold War is a distant memory, but today’s world still has lots of nukes sitting around in lots of places, some of which might not be very well protected. Putin’s recent posturing threatens new kinds of strategic weapons. So-called “small” nukes are being discussed, but it is most important realize that they would still be nuclear weapons.

Zierler:

But total global nuclear disarmament is, that's a pipe dream, right?

Schwitters:

Well, you know, it doesn't have to be. It's probably a pipe dream, but there's no reason you shouldn’t try. You know, again, the international scientific community has interacted well over the decades and done a lot of good, but even those kind of connections may be fraying, right? So, I think, that stability may be heading the wrong way, but nobody should want these things. I mean, they're too easy to acquire, so somehow you have to get back on the international track to build the trust it's going to take to get rid of them.

Zierler:

Right. And so given your, you know, no hesitancy to emphasize the strategic danger of strategic nuclear war, that begs the question, and I'll divide it into near-term and short-term. In the near term, are you more concerned about China or Russia, and in the long term, are you more concerned about China or Russia?

Schwitters:

(laughs) I've got to drop out there. The answer is yes.

Zierler:

(laughs) All of the above?

Schwitters:

That's right. Okay, listen, China is a force, but it also has A) a great people and B) a very tenuous relationship between its people and its political higher-ups that are something else again. So it's really different and what they're doing... Well, that's all I can say. And my god, Russia, where is Russia headed? A wonderful, diverse country that’s more like the U.S. than any other country I know, except for the fact that it's, you know, still very Russian and controlled by an impossible political system. These are all dangerous things. And it can ruin your whole day if some of these nukes ever go off.

Zierler:

(laughs) What was your reaction when the Trump administration went through on its threat to pull out of the Iran deal?

Schwitters:

Extreme disappointment. To this day, I mean that was a no-brainer to open up those conversations. Iran is a very sophisticated country, has been for thousands of years. Clearly capable of doing nuclear work. Okay? And to give up a freebie was just silly. Stupid and hazardous.

Zierler:

And how do you see it as a freebie?

Schwitters:

Because it had basically been negotiated. Okay. I mean it really had worked. I mean there's always going to be tension there. It was a starting point to go further. And so you wanted the Accord, because Iran probably was unstable on its own for going much longer without it.

Zierler:

Was your sense that the Trump administration sought out scientific advice in any regard on the Iran deal?

Schwitters:

None that I'm aware of.

Zierler:

And do you think if, you know, we have a Biden back in 2021, re-entering the Iran deal, is it in the realm of possibility?

Schwitters:

I have no idea. I'm really not part of those discussions. All I can say is, I would put it high on my list to re-examine that and see what pieces you could put back together again, yeah.

Zierler:

And then of course, on the other side of the world, do you think the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea has made that situation more or less stable?

Schwitters:

Oh, it's clearly less stable. I mean it's got a state leadership question that is just unfathomable. (laughs) It's hard to understand. So, you know, again, and that's a loaded peninsula with all kinds of potential for really bad things to happen.

Zierler:

Right. I mean the basis of my question is, obviously if war breaks out, it's much less stable as a result of there being nuclear weapons. However, the deeper question there is, is the fact that North Korea is now a nuclear power, does that make war itself less likely, in your view?

Schwitters:

Listen, I really don't know enough to make a well-informed answer on that. You know, I guess I have some faith in the system that the big brother over there would really not let it happen, but still it's just one of these things. There, you want to get rid of them. Get rid of them all. And rational people could do that. Okay? And they've been pandering to these irrational people, it's really tough.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. And have you had this view your whole career? I mean, even going back to graduate school, about nuclear weapons? Or have you thought about it sort of more systematically in the later part of your career?

Schwitters:

Nope, I've always had this view, but partially because I was in an environment, especially at MIT in grad school, where these things were actually being discussed a lot. Henry Kendall was a good friend. But I knew far less of the technical background to what goes on inside a nuclear weapon than I do now. And all that knowledge does is strengthen my view. I'm just not particularly interested in marches and rabble rousing, so I never felt that approach was terribly effective, even though it got some good things done on nukes. To me, knowing the Drells and the Garwins of this world, who had the inside and outside information and credibility, they were much more effective.

Zierler:

Yeah. Well, Roy, I think at this point, I want to just ask you a few more questions that sort of are retrospective of your entire career. And so the first one is, do you see your work in both the high energy physics realm and in the more... "political" is not the right word, but you know, the interface of policy and science, right? Do you see that as sort of two different careers wrapped into one, or is this a seamless sort of combination of your interests?

Schwitters:

(laughs) I guess I see it as a natural progression, okay? That, yes, I was interested to take it on actively, when high energy physics remains a young person's game. Getting over the loss of the SSC, to be very blunt about it, was difficult for me. And so, when I was invited to join JASON, it was a new lease on life for me.

Zierler:

Yeah. Yeah. And you were not-- It was an exciting opportunity for you because... you recognized the importance of physicists in the broader conversation? Or in science as the broader conversation.

Schwitters:

It was that I already knew many of the JASON members and they're just people I admire and respect and truly like personally. And then I got to learn much more about so many other things. The big plus is continuing to learn; occasionally, you can even make a little impact somewhere.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah. And looking ahead, in terms of physics, what are the kinds of things that you're still engaged in? The kinds of things that, you know, capture your imagination, you're excited to see in terms of advances? What are those kinds of things?

Schwitters:

I want to see the standard model in all its glory filled out. And that means clearly now in the astrophysical side as well as the, if you will, the laboratory physical side. And it’s happening. Did you get to attend that news conference at the NSF a couple years ago, where many astronomers reported on one LIGO gravitational wave event where two neutron stars coalesced and produced debris the astronomers could observe?! Much of the nuclear physics of heavy element production was on display for everyone to see! I never believed all the nuclear physics that led to heavy elements. And here it was happening, sprinkling the sky. It was just fabulous. So anyway, you bet. That stuff is great. I invest time in JASON. Now I have more time because I just retired from UT Austin. At the moment, I'm trying to get through, along with everybody else, the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult political period we're all in. My wife and I are moving into our retirement place in a beautiful part of Washington state. Fortunately, we have a lot of work to do, so I've been keeping quite busy. I'm starting to write a textbook focused on muon tomography, based on work of the last several years that I’ve been doing at UT with many undergrads and one outstanding graduate student, Henry Schreiner, now at Princeton. This has been great fun because it uses the detector tools of high energy physics to “see”—image—large underground structures. But that’s an entire interview all by itself.

Zierler:

Right, right. Well, Roy, I think for my last question, I'll make it both topical and forward-looking, and that is, you know, with the current situation, I mean there's so many levels of crises that are happening at the same time, and relevant to our discussion, there's a crisis in science. You know, are they going to be able to solve this? There's a question in science policy. You know, how do we harness the power of science to make sure that the discoveries are put to the use that they should be? And then of course, and this gets back to my questions about SSC, which I'm interested in. There's a crisis in science communication, right? That, you know, whether there's things like "fire Fauci" or protesting social distancing, and things like that. There's clearly a disconnect between at least a segment of the population and accepted scientific recommendations, right? So, given your long tenure, not specifically in this area, but broadly, again, in these questions of science and policy interface. What are some prescriptions that you might have for, you know, the best way forward on all of these matters? How do we come out of this situation stronger than we were before?

Schwitters:

Great question. I guess I go back to my faith that really kept me going in SSC days, which I called my Flying Time, where you could talk about what do you do with the person sitting next to you on the airplane. So if you have a media problem, it can be therapeutic to sit back and talk to people on reasonably long flights in airplanes, say from Washington, D.C. to your home town. The lesson to me in SSC days was that people in our country are eager to learn about real science. And they know it when they see it. They are genuinely curious and like to see and talk with interesting people working in science. And so I think our role in the Physical Society, in particular, has to be still to promote public information on the good, solid, exciting science going on in the world around us. Ultimately, the threats of nuclear weapons and the present pandemic must be addressed globally, through political processes recognizing human rights and the fact that science is essential to inform us about the world we live in.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Schwitters:

Okay?

Zierler:

Well--

Schwitters:

I mean, they know BS when they see it.

Zierler:

That's right, that's right. Well, Roy, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. I want to thank you for your generous time with me during our discussion.

Schwitters:

Okay. Okay, can you tell me a little bit about, what you do with this?

Zierler:

Absolutely, so I’ll cut it here.