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Interview of Anthony Zee by David Zierler on 2020 December 15,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45421
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Anthony (Tony) Zee, professor of physics and a member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara. He recounts his family’s escape from revolutionary mainland China to Hong Kong, and then to Brazil where his father pursued economic opportunity in Sao Paulo. Zee explains the opportunities leading to his undergraduate study at Princeton, where John Wheeler was a formative influence, and he describes the connection from Wheeler to Steve Weinberg that allowed him to pursue his graduate studies at Harvard where ultimately he studied under Sidney Coleman. He discusses his postgraduate work at the Institute for Advanced Study where he worked with Michael Green and Bob Carlitz on hadron-hadron scattering. Zee explains his reasons for accepting his first faculty appointment at Rockefeller University and all of the contemporary excitement surrounding asymptotic freedom and renormalization. He describes his return to Princeton, where he stayed until he was denied tenure and he moved to Penn. Zee explains the origins of the ITP (before Kavli’s endowment made it the KITP) and his interest in coming to Santa Barbara after a brief appointment at the University of Washington. At the end of the interview, Zee describes the pleasures of writing popular physics books, he emphasizes the importance of reinventing oneself within and beyond the broad world of physics, and he shares that his big non-scientific ambition is to have a cartoon submission accepted in the New Yorker.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 15, 2020. I am delighted to be here with Professor Anthony Zee. Tony, it’s great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Well, thank you for inviting me to this interview. I am very happy to have this opportunity to talk to you.
Wonderful. So to start, Tony, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am jointly in the physics department and at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California in Santa Barbara. I’m very fortunate to live in this very beautiful town.
Okay, very good. Well, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
My father is a truly remarkable figure, to have succeeded in spite of war and revolution, thanks to which his education got interrupted. I think he barely got through maybe something like fourth grade, so he’s completely self-taught. Most impressively, he taught himself English and became a businessman. My father made the really fateful decision to flee China at the time. I have many Jewish colleagues in theoretical physics, and sometimes the family stories are almost similar. What I simply cannot imagine is how people could drop everything at an instant and leave. We moved to Hong Kong. I feel extremely fortunate. If my father had not done that, during the Cultural Revolution I could have been carrying rocks, as some of my cousins did, instead of studying quantum field theory.
My mother came from a scholarly family. She is also very intelligent, but in a very different way from my father. She was very witty and artistic, loved to tell jokes, and was always the life of the party as I was growing up. She sang Chinese opera, for instance.
My father, as I said, was a businessman and a very, very driven and intelligent person. His business had its ups and downs in Hong Kong, and during a down phase he decided to move to Brazil, and so I ended up going to high school in Brazil before coming to the US to study at Princeton. I think of myself as a double immigrant, but I’m also grateful for that. I’m the product of three different cultures — American, Chinese, and Brazilian, and the three interplay in a very interesting way. For example, the Brazilian culture in me is such that I feel very comfortable living in France. I have lived on and off in France, most recently spending a full sabbatical year there. I feel comfortable there, and in the other three Latin countries in Europe as well. So I am very happy that my father moved to Brazil instead of the US.
Of course, I am most grateful to my father for his emphasis on education. He often told us, his children, that nasty people could take everything away from you but there was one thing that they could never take, and that’s your education. As I said, I have many Jewish colleagues in theoretical physics, and this particular bit of my family history really resonates with them, whenever I mentioned it. They would invariably tell me that a central feature of Jewish culture is the emphasis on education. By the way, I think that this is far from universal, contrary to what some people might want to think.
Tony, how old were you when the family moved to Hong Kong?
I was around four years old.
Do you have any memories of the move or of mainland China?
I have a very vague memory that my uncle, my father’s brother, showed me a telescope. So I must have been quite young. I still have a vague memory of looking through this thing and everything coming much closer. That was magical. That’s surely why that experience got stuck in my memory.
In general, I have a really terrible memory, compared to, say, my first and second wife. I would get into some argument with them about some relatively trivial fact. A typical example: I might say to my wife, “This summer maybe we should drive up to Napa Valley and visit the wineries there,” and she replied, “We were just there a few years ago.” “No! I’ve never been there! What are you talking about?” So then she produced some photos. [Laughs] So that sort of things happens to me from time to time, and also in the physics community, such as saying very pleased to meet you to someone who then informed me that we had met twenty years ago, with the argument ultimately resolved by his emailing me a photo.
What were your parents’ economic and political positions where they were both in a position to flee China and why they felt that they needed to flee China?
Well, they were not the only ones by any stretch of the imagination, to put it mildly. There was war and revolution, and history in the making. The remarkable thing, as I have learned over the years, is how some of these stories about the Chinese diaspora and the Jewish diaspora could be strikingly similar. As I said, I’m always amazed that people could be so decisive, dropping everything just like that.
So, we had relatives who felt that they had no particular reason to abandon everything and leave. There are many tragic stories, as you can imagine, and I was told that it was more or less the same in the Jewish communities. My mother’s older sister, together with her husband and her children, and her younger brother, were leaving for Taiwan, and she had even bought boat tickets for her parents. But her father, that is, my maternal grandfather, basically said, “I have never done anything wrong. This is my country, and the Communists are not going to do anything to me.” But the Communists, just like the Nazis, were hardly going to debate with you whether you did something wrong or not! The later fates of various people were sealed in an instant and couldn’t have been more different. For instance, my uncle in Taiwan, that is, my mother’s younger brother, plays golf regularly and has gone on luxury cruises to places like Alaska. I won’t even bother to tell you the contrasting fates of family members who chose to stay in China. I could tell you numerous other stories from my childhood, but that would be totally off topic.
Tony, how many years were you in Hong Kong?
I attended elementary school there, and I could tell you some interesting stories as well. One feature of the schools in Hong Kong, at that time ruled by the British, ran on the British system that, unless you passed your end of the year exam, you didn’t get automatically promoted to the next grade, a practice which I think might have been abolished even in England by now. As a result, in my elementary school there were 16-year-olds still in third grade or something like that, to exaggerate a bit. [Laughs] I have a class photo from that time, and I was the shortest, smallest guy, and I think the youngest together with another kid. The people sitting in the front of the class looked like tough guys three times our size. In fact, one guy I remember very clearly offered to be my protector. He told me that we could be friends, and “If anybody says anything to you that you don’t like, just tell me. I’m going to smash them to bits.” This was no idle threat as his nickname was “He who smashes through walls.” After that, I felt I could swagger about in the school year. Kung fu and all that martial arts stuff reigned. [Laughs]
Another interesting thing that I was reminded of was that in Hong Kong at that time, there was a hierarchy of schools, like anywhere. Some schools are considered more prestigious academically. My American friends who grew up in New York and in San Francisco told me much the same thing. But you had to take exams to get into the more prestigious schools, and I guess I’m not a very good exam taker because much of these exams required memorization of facts. I remember my mother was embarrassed that I was the only child in her social circle who failed. [Chuckles] (Not to be bratty and bragging about it, I recently learned that one of those boys who got in now owns an insurance empire in LA. Big hairy deal!)
So instead I went to this so-called tough school that I just described. Decades later, I was told that the most famous graduate of my elementary school was Bruce Lee, the martial arts movie star. [Laughs] Also, right after school let out, many kids would be outside the main gate settling scores with each other, with a lot of fist fighting and stuff like this. But I was blissfully unaware of any of this. I mentioned that my father’s businesses had their ups and downs. In a prolonged up phase, we had a uniformed chauffeur in an era when private cars were still relatively rare in Hong Kong, and he would be waiting outside the school gate to whisk me away, and so I didn’t get to see any of the actual fighting, let alone participate.
Where in Brazil did your family settle?
We settled in Sao Paulo, which was and is one of the biggest cities in the world, as you know, but it is the where in this teeming metropolis that is interesting. Again, I was extremely fortunate, and enormously grateful to my father, who, as I said, put tremendous importance on education. When we first moved to Brazil, he was not financially very well off, more like almost penniless. Eventually he became fairly affluent. But he said, “No matter what, I’m going to get my kids, one at a time, as my finances get better, into an American school,” because he didn’t think the Brazilian schools were any good.
For the first year, my father couldn’t afford to send me to this American school, and so, while my younger brothers and sister went to Brazilian schools, I stayed at home on my own. Later in life, I always tell people that, in terms of my education, one year at home without school was the best thing that happened to me. I wanted to give my oldest son that experience when he was in high school. One of my friends told me that tenth grade was (and I suppose still is) the worst grade in the American high school system. In ninth grade, you just get into high school and you’re all excited, but tenth grade is when you fall in with the wrong bunch of friends and you lose all your study habits.
So I tried to convince my first wife that we should take our sons out of high school for a year and she totally refused. We compromised by my taking a sabbatical year in Paris, and letting Andrew go to school and fend for himself. It turned out to be a really good strategy; if you have kids, I recommend it. When we came back, he was speaking fluent French and the chairperson of the Stanford French department personally tried to recruit him. [Laughs] But instead, Andrew followed me and my wife and various uncles who had gone to Princeton and went off to New Jersey to major in English lit, followed by some years in Hollywood and eventually Harvard Law.
But anyway, back to my own story. As my family and my friends often remind me, I’m an extremely lucky person. The luckiest thing is, of course, that my father left Communist China. Here is another. When my father rented an apartment, a rather small apartment for the size of the family, he had no idea that it happened to be located near the American consulate, which I discovered somehow on my own.
Sometimes when I tell my children these stories, they don’t completely understand. No, you couldn’t just Google image where you were going. Because of the Amazon (and we are talking about the river here), people in Hong Kong at that time pictured Brazil as one great big jungle. My parents had a friend who brought with him boxes of soap, razor blades, and stuff like that. [Laughs]
My family didn’t go to such extremes, but my mother wasn’t sure there would be any school for me in Brazil. So before we left Hong Kong, she took me to buy a whole stack of textbooks, and one of them was a physics book. Classified as refugees, we went on a freight ship that took about 50 days to get from Hong Kong to Brazil, via South Africa. It was very exciting to be on this ocean-going ship at first, but after a few days, we’d get bored. So I started reading some of these books, and the physics book really grabbed me.
So, my father rented this apartment that happened to be within walking distance of the American consulate. I soon discovered that they had a library, and they let me go in there and read anything I wanted. So I have always had this — how do I say it? — this sense of gratitude to the United States Information Service [also known as Information Agency]. The left wing in the US and also around the world often says very nasty things about the USIS because it’s more or less a tool of American propaganda. But as far as I was concerned, the place was almost a paradise. They had lots of books and magazines, much of which extolled how wonderful the US were.
But at that age, I just read everything I came across and soaked up information. I still remember reading a book about forest management, the different kinds of trees and how often you should cut them, et cetera. Incredibly fascinating stuff. Years later, I would feel pangs of sadness whenever I read about a mob in some third world country attacking and ransacking the USIS library. Decades later, I even visited India partly in connection with the USIS, to extoll my book Fearful Symmetry, which they had ordered whole loads of. [Laughs]
Eventually, my father got me into this American school. Things went well for me, and I got into Princeton, and that was yet another fortunate break for me.
Tony, in what ways did your family retain its Chinese culture as immigrants in Brazil?
Good of you to ask that! It’s a question that many Chinese families, and no doubt other immigrant families, have to wrestle with. In our case, it was relatively simple. My father, of course, had to learn Portuguese to do business, and as I said, he’s an amazingly driven and intelligent person and he was able to work really hard. I wish I could work half as hard as he did. He managed to pick up enough Portuguese and became a fairly successful businessman. In 10 or 15 years, he went from barely able to feed the family to becoming relatively affluent.
My mother, on the other hand, had difficulty learning Portuguese. She could shop in the outdoor market, but basically my parents’ social life was almost exclusively with other Chinese families, and that’s one way for the children to pick up some Chinese culture by osmosis. My mother did a wonderful thing for me: before we left Hong Kong, she bought a bunch of books for me as I said, school textbooks mostly, but also a few novels in Chinese that she thought I should read. I hear similar stories from my Jewish friends about keeping up their cultural heritage.
Another thing worth mentioning is that one reason my parents went to Brazil, aside from my father having a friend there, was a teacher I had in Hong Kong. He was a devout Catholic, a bit younger than my mother in age, and he would lecture my mother about living a more sanctified life and try to convert her. My mother eventually did convert, and then she converted my father and of course all the children. In fact, my father played a fairly important role in building the Chinese Catholic church in Sao Paulo. So if you ever visit Sao Paulo and you seek out a Chinese Catholic church, you would find a plaque with names of all the people who worked hard to get this church built, including my father. Well, I say church, but of course you shouldn’t think of it as some cathedral with spires. It’s just a large house in a residential area. There were lots of activities within the church. My mother became more religious as time went on and the church ended up as the center of their social life, organizing trips to various parts of Brazil and so on. I think that holds true of many immigrant communities in the US as well. Those of us with PhDs and whatnots tend to underestimate the importance of these social centers.
Tony, when did you start to get interested in science?
Well, as I said, on the slow boat to Brasil I read an interesting physics book, a book that by modern standards would be considered one of the worst physics textbooks ever written or …[laughs]… basically just a list of facts, even trivial facts such as how to convert from centigrade to Fahrenheit and back, without much reasoning, --- I remember that very clearly. But at that age, I was not discriminating at all. I just soaked up all this information. “Oh, how interesting.” I would say [Laughs] So, on that long ocean voyage, and later, in the American consulate library, I read a whole bunch of books.
In fact, I remember reading… The first time I ever heard of Princeton was in a popular book by George Gamow. That’s also, by the way, one of the stimuli that made me want to write popular books on physics later in life. When I mentioned this to my friends, Frank Wilczek in particular, quite often I would get, “Yes, I read exactly the same book.” Popular books do reach some young minds, as another friend, Rob Phillips, emphasized to me recently.
One, Two, Three…Infinity?
Yes! Perhaps you remember that Gamow mentioned a physicist in a place called Princeton named John Wheeler, who proposed that the atomic nucleus was a donut. I thought this was absolutely wild. Why would anybody think that? That was literally the first time I had heard of Princeton. My father was a businessman. Outside of his business, all his friends are Chinese. Nobody talked about physics. Nobody mentioned Princeton. These notions were not part of my world, entirely alien to the kind of environment that my three sons have grown up in. As babies, they were already held by people with PhDs or even Nobel prizes in theoretical physics, and basically all their friends’ parents have gone to some university or another.
Tony, you must have been an excellent student in Brazil to have been admitted to Princeton.
Well, let me tell you some interesting stories. I went to a rather fancy school run by American nuns, the Felician sisters. It was quite expensive compared to the alternative, which would be going to Brazilian schools. These days it would be called an international school for expatriates. So most of the children in the school were American, you know, children of American businessmen and people like that. Rich Chinese would send their kids there also. I felt awkward because my family was definitely not one of the wealthy Chinese families. There were stories that when the Nationalist government in China fell, some families just loaded up private planes with gold bars and flew off to Taiwan and eventually to places like Brazil. So there were some extremely wealthy Chinese in Brazil, and their children were also in the school. I think that’s true of the Jewish community as well; some very wealthy families left Europe, but of course, also a lot of penniless families. My family is somewhere in between. The American kids are very bratty and rich. I didn’t feel like I belonged.
People often assume that I am fluent in Portuguese, but in fact my command of it is minimal. Portuguese was not taught during my time at that school. When a student asked the principal, a snooty American, why we were not learning Portuguese while the world outside the school was speaking it, he looked at us and said, “What for? Do you want to address the servants?” When Bob Schrieffer offered me a position at the Institute, he proudly told me that he went out of his way to hire a Brazilian secretary whom I could chat with in Portuguese. By the way, this kind of magnanimous gesture was typical of Big Bob [Schrieffer]. Zuleine de Lima was wonderful. Among other things, she color coded my life, and this many decades since I last saw her, I still use her system, the stuff having to do with travel go into yellow folders, with book writing into green folders, et cetera. Turned out that her Portuguese was also very rusty, and so Bob’s well-laid plan fell through.
I had French, which I must admit is more useful than Portuguese, and partially led to the intertwining of my career with several leading French physicists.
So this school academically was terrible. Nobody was really interested in studying. Also, my class, perhaps the third to graduate from that school, consisted of seven students. The teacher said, “Well, there are four class officer slots. You could be president, vice president, secretary, or treasurer. It would be good for you to pick one of these offices. It will help you get into college.” [Laughs]
I didn’t get to take physics. Whatever physics I knew when I went to Princeton was self-taught. I did learn chemistry. The nun who taught chemistry was very funny. By the way, I loved these nuns. They were wonderful people, people who sacrificed their lives for this school. She would drill us for 15 minutes every class to make sure we memorized the symbols for the elements. She would say, “Sodium,” and then we were supposed to say, “Na.” [Laughs]
So you asked, how did I get into Princeton? The nuns must have recognized that I was exceptional, which was enormously to their credit. The nun who taught math told me to “Go sit in the library by yourself.” One reason might be that the nuns were worried that I might ask a question that they couldn’t answer. [Laughs] I thought quite consciously at the time that I shouldn’t tell my father that I was often sitting in the library by myself reading, he might get really angry since he was paying a tremendous amount of tuition to get me into this school! [Laughing] But ultimately, the payoff was that the nuns got me into Princeton with a full scholarship, all expenses paid.
I learned all kinds of things in that library. For example, I still remember the shape and size of the book about linear algebra I found. Here I’ll tell you a funny story. I discovered a locked cabinet. Naturally, I was filled with curiosity. Then one day, they must have forgotten to lock the cabinet, and as you can imagine, it contained books that I was not supposed to read at that time. [Laughs]
Tony, what year did you arrive at Princeton?
I arrived in 1962, so I’m a member of the class of ’66. The design of our Princeton jacket shows a grinning tiger hanging onto the famous sign for Route 66, sticking his thumb out and trying to get a ride with a blonde driving by in a convertible. At the time, I literally did not have the foggiest idea what the drawing meant, least of all the historic significance of Route 66 for Americans trying to get to Southern California. And yet here I am, all these decades later, living less than 100 miles from where the old highway 66 ended. Recently, some of my classmates have been actively drumming up all kinds of activities, and as I get older, I feel more and more comfortable with some of these people.
Was the plan to pursue a degree in physics right away, or you were more open to any number of majors?
No. I felt strongly that I was interested in physics the most, but at Princeton I did get sidetracked.
Frank Wilczek and I used to talk about this; he told me he thanked heaven every day that he switched from math to physics when he was in grad school. I also had a delusional moment in my sophomore year. I went the opposite way; I switched from physics to math! Princeton had a very famous knot theorist at the time named Ralph Fox and I studied with him, and I took a graduate course with William Browder. That cured me of my delusion totally and absolutely. [Laughs] The Princeton math department did that favor for quite a lot of kids, people who were high school math aces, got to Princeton, and then were totally blown away. [Laughs]
Tony, were you the only Asian kid in your class?
Ah, that’s a very good question! Well, when I tell stories to my sons and to younger Americans, they can’t believe what it was like going to an all boys’ school like Princeton in those days. For one thing, they had some kind of Greco-Roman fixation on male nudity. We were required to swim stark naked. I had a roommate who liked to sit in a chair in the snow without a stitch on watching people go by. For the first two years, we ate in a gothic dining hall with stained glass windows, served of course, cafeteria style was yet unknown in that corner of the world. At that time, every class in Princeton had about 800 students, and whenever a young woman came in, all 800 of us were supposed to bang our spoons on our glasses. There were perhaps ten black kids in my class, and out of the ten, six were African princes. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but I have a clear image of the Rolls Royce with a chauffeur waiting for one guy. [Laughs] Then there were 10 or 12 Asian kids, and I didn’t fit in with them either. Almost all of them were from Hawaii and planned to go back. The graduate school was completely different, very diverse for those days, with a number of Chinese studying physics, engineering, and such, and in my junior and senior years I got to know some of them. But as a freshman I fell in with the Jewish kids right away.
The very first week, I met a very bright kid who was interested in physics, and we got to be friends. He told me that I better catch up since I didn’t know anything; in particular, he showed me a thin book about S-matrix theory, something I had never even heard of. I remember being quite worried that I was about to be blown out of Princeton. Was I the only one who hadn’t mastered S-matrix theory? He eventually disappeared from physics, unfortunately. I remember a few weeks later, he suddenly said something like, “Oh, by the way, I should tell you that I’m Jewish.” I was quite taken aback. “I thought you were American?” I knew of course that Jews existed from reading the Bible and such, but I went to a Catholic school in Brazil and was very sheltered at home. It sounds ridiculous now, but at that time the effect was sort of almost like somebody coming up to me and saying, “I’m a Sumerian,” or “I’m a Babylonian.” [Laughter]
These are ancient people. [Laughs]
Much later, when I was an assistant professor at Princeton, Murph Goldberger, who was chair at the time, said to me, “Tony, in order to be in theoretical physics, you have to become an honorary Jew.” [Laughter] I said, “How do I do that?” He said, “Well, to become an honorary Jew is very easy. You have to listen to a Jewish joke every day, and I will give you some lessons on Jewish culture. The first lesson is how to tell a rich Jew from a poor Jew. Look at me. I’m a typical rich Jew.” You probably have heard of Sam Treiman, right?
[Laughing] Of course!
He was a famous professor from whom I had taken a course as an undergraduate. In fact, Wilczek and I wrote many papers with Sam Treiman later on. So Murph Goldberger pointed to Sam, who happened to be standing around, and said, “He’s a typical poor Jew.” So then he proceeded to explain to me how to look for telltale signs. [Laughs] Later, in the internet era, Goldberger put me on some mailing list for jokes with his many Jewish friends, to which I was told to contribute also. His wife Mildred also taught me a nasty limerick about Eugene Wigner, which later I put into one of my books. After Sam passed away, his son asked me to replace his father’s on it with his. I was about to say “Sure!” but then I was advised against it, probably by Murph but I am no longer sure. “Who knows what these younger guys might be offended by?”
Amazing! And that’s the best way to initiate you into the tribe.
Right, right, right. It sort of came naturally. Murph was right about the joke telling. Actually, my good friend and collaborator Henri Orland has perhaps even surpassed Goldberger in his ability to rattle a chain of Jewish jokes. By the way, besides jokes, Murph also had an arsenal of sayings. My favorite, used by Murph against people drawing conclusions from false assumptions is “If my aunt had balls, she would be my uncle!” I put that into one of my books, and taught it to my son Max when he was seven or eight as a basic lesson in logic and reasoning.
Things have changed a lot, and the Santa Barbara physics department right now is not particularly Jewish. We have, of course, a number of Jewish Americans, but we also have many other ethnic varieties. I would say that the top theorists at Princeton at that time, and also at Harvard when I was in graduate school, were quite likely Jewish. I think that Harvard was 100% Jewish in my field of particle theory, Julian Schwinger, Sheldon Glashow, Steve Weinberg, Sidney Coleman, all of them I am tremendously fond of and have the greatest respect for.
Feynman. We’ve got to put Feynman in there as well.
Yeah, Feynman. Right, but he wasn’t at Harvard. I’m just talking about the Harvard physics department.
Oh, I see. Of course.
If we were including other places, then there was Murray Gell-Mann, who was very nice to me by the way. I liked him a lot. And many others.
Tony, did you have any laboratory work at Princeton that gave you an idea of what a career as an experimentalist might be like?
[Laughs] That’s another really great question! [Laughs] In fact, Princeton had a very rigorous experimental program. Have you heard of this cannon that students had to build?
I never built that cannon. I managed to escape. [Laughs]
That wasn’t you.
Anyhow, before I tell you about my experiences with experimental work, I have to go back a little. My first week at Princeton, John Wheeler assembled all the physicist wannabes and announced that he was giving a special course. So here was the John Wheeler whom I read about in the library of the American consulate, standing right in front of me! He was going to select the students for this course, and proceeded to ask the students some simple yes or no questions about physics, telling those who said yes to move to one side of the room and people who said no to move to the other side. I think I may have told this story in one of my books, maybe in Fly by Night Physics or in my gravity book. After a few questions, he got the group down to 18 or 16. I made the cut! This special course turned out to be completely crazy. As I understand it, he was not allowed to teach this course ever again in the Princeton physics department.
The reason Wheeler wanted to teach this course was because he heard that his former student Feynman had been teaching a special freshman course, the notes for which later turned into the big red book. He decided to teach us physics “upside down”. So we learned special relativity first. Then we let c go to infinity and obtained Newtonian mechanics! [Laughs]
We learned some simple quantum mechanics. Then we let Planck’s constant go to zero to recover Newtonian mechanics. [Laughing] We were also supposed to read a standard freshman physics textbook on our own. The lectures were sometimes on some crazy stuff that he was thinking about. For instance, if my memory is not tricking me, we also heard about bongs of the bell and the egg crate.
Now to why I never learned experimental physics. The course naturally had a lab component, which turned into such a disaster you couldn't believe. Wheeler told us, “You boys will pair up to form a team and each team has to do an original experiment. The whole point of doing physics is to do something that nobody else has done before!” [Laughs]
Well, I didn’t have physics in high school and had never even timed a ball rolling down an inclined plane. On the other hand, some of the Princeton freshmen whom I was in with had wanted to become experimentalists and already had lots of experience with electronics. But still, we were freshmen. How were we supposed to do an original experiment? Wheeler’s idea was ingenious; he said, “You boys run around the department, talk to the experimental professors, and ask them if there is something original you could do.” [Laughter] I think that’s another reason the department wouldn’t let him teach this course again! I cannot imagine the kind of havoc we caused.
Wheeler had the wisdom to pair me with a friend of mine who was really good in experiment. He and I talked to Tom Carver, an experimentalist who did optical pumping. The poor guy said, “What is this? You guys are freshmen! You don’t know any quantum mechanics. You don’t know anything! Wheeler doesn’t think that I’m busy enough?” [Laughs] He drew on the board some atom with two levels and some wriggly lines representing photons moving electrons up and down.
So we had to get hold of some glass bulb, put some sodium gas inside, and use a laser beam to pump electrons. Wheeler told us to go to the machine shop to get this glass bulb made. Well, that took up the whole semester, and we ended up doing literally nothing with the glass bulb! [Laughing] It was just a disaster. Well, perhaps the experience served to teach me that experimental physics was hard. Later, when I was on the faculty, Carver and I had a good laugh about it.
For some reason, Wheeler took a liking to me. I interacted with him quite often. For instance, he gave me a dollar one day and said, “Please go to Nassau Street and buy a sponge.” “You mean a kitchen sponge?” Strange, but I followed the order, and then he had a photograph taken of the sponge, which ended up in his book as spacetime foam.
Tony, did you ever think about staying at Princeton for graduate school, or was the advice that you should go on somewhere else?
The advice was to go on somewhere else, in fact, I think that staying was essentially not allowed.
And Tony, I wonder at what point, perhaps as you were considering staying in the US for graduate school, that what this really meant was that you were making a life and a career for yourself in the United States and that you would not be going back to your family in Brazil.
Right, right. My father’s financial situation had improved steadily and he was able to afford a plane ticket for me to go home for the summer at the end of my sophomore year. I visited the University of Sao Paulo and met a young professor named Jorge Swieca, a very good quantum field theorist. He had a very tragic end many years later, committing suicide, but at the time he was extremely friendly to me and told me all sorts of things about quantum field theory. Most memorably, he even arranged for me to go on a blind date with his niece. But it was clear to him and to me and to everybody else that if I wanted to go into theoretical physics, Brazil was not the place for me.
There was a lightning two-day coup d’état in Brazil in the spring of 1964. My family was not affected at all. My father told me that it was over before most “ordinary people” even knew about it. Anyway, that summer, while I was relaxing at home, a man in uniform delivered a telegram. My father was by then affluent enough to buy a house on a leafy suburban street, the residents of which were not used to receiving telegrams, something that would be hard for young people born in the present telecommunication age to imagine. My parents were quite worried; never had a telegram been addressed to me. Well, it turned out that John Wheeler urgently wanted me to get a famous Brazilian physicist and liberal intellectual out of military jail. My father said that this Princeton professor must be nuts: “How does he expect a Chinese teenager to confront a junta and demand a prisoner release?”
Tony, was the motivation for going to Harvard simply by reputation, or was there a particular professor that you wanted to work with as a graduate student?
Ah! There’s a whole story to this, and if you have time, I can tell you the whole thing.
Here we are! Let’s do it.
I’m afraid I’m taking up a lot of your time. Again, I may have to give you some necessary background.
So, I took John Wheeler’s special course, which I joked about, but in fact I learned an enormous amount. He also taught me a great deal informally, outside this course. Most importantly, he taught me how to think about physics. I became sort of his protégé. Everybody in physics knows how delightfully different Wheeler was. He would give me a physics problem to solve, and next to the problem he would draw a dish of ice cream, the implication being that if I solved the problem, he would treat me to some ice cream. But, as I recall, that was meant to be symbolic --- more like some words of extravagant praise. Physics Today ran an article about ten years ago called something like “Wheeler’s Influence on Theoretical Physics,” which mentioned six physicists who were influenced by Wheeler. I was proud and honored to be one of them. Well, since you have a physics background, you know that John Wheeler had a lot of crazy ideas, for example, about how the universe came into being because the universe became conscious by looking at itself. He had this famous picture in which an eyeball was looking at itself, and that was supposed represent the universe or something.
During my junior year, John Wheeler told me that we were going to do some research together, to calculate the amount of gravitational wave emitted by a vibrating and rotating neutron star. I later realized that it was an excuse to get me to read the book on classical fields by Landau and Lifshitz and the paper on the liquid drop model by Bohr and Wheeler; all I did was plug numbers into a formula derived in L&L. Looking back, I understood that I did practically nothing, but he insisted on producing a paper by “Zee and Wheeler.” I now appreciate how valuable that kind of encouragement was.
At the end of my junior year, the same Murph Goldberger who much later told me Jewish jokes, but who frightened me a lot at the time --- he had a scary reputation among the undergraduates, deserved or not --- asked to talk to me. In contrast, I was more or less friendly with his buddy Sam Treiman, the “poor Jew” in Murph’s world, and from whom I took a course about particle physics. I remember asking Treiman after class lots of crazy or dumb questions, in particular about what happens to a photon as its energy goes to zero, and that he sometimes had trouble convincing me that his answers were correct. [Laughing] In fact, I think that perhaps the most valuable part of a Princeton education was learning not to be intimidated by famous senior physicists. Anyway, no doubt that Treiman told Goldberger about me.
So, one day, this rather frightening Geheimrat Goldberger said to me, “You really should quit this stuff about the conscious universe, wormhole, and all that. The future is in particle physics, kiddo. Learn some quantum field theory!” Thus, I went to study quantum field theory with Arthur Wightman, who was doing axiomatic field theory, all that rigorous mathematical stuff. Goldberger then chided me, remarking “You’re jumping from the frying pan into the fire! That will be the end of you.” But how would I know that I was supposed to study hand-waving and sensible field theory instead?
I liked Wightman a lot. Sometimes his comments were cryptic. Once he had to go home to get something and asked me to walk with him. As we went by the tennis courts, he said, “Remember, Tony, tennis is geometric while football is algebraic.” Or perhaps, it was basketball that was algebraic. One year of studying quantum field theory with a master, and this is the one statement I remember most clearly!
Fortunately, Wheeler didn’t hold my “betrayal” against me. That reflects how very generous he was. In fact, when it was time to apply to graduate school, I went to Wheeler to ask for advice. Looking back, I’m not clear why I did that. I didn’t go to Wightman to ask for advice. I didn’t go to Treiman to ask for advice. Some kind of instinct, feeling that with Wheeler’s personality, he would look out for me.
I remember very vividly Wheeler sitting me down and drawing a rather elaborate chart on a piece of paper. He said, “I’ll tell you who the best theoretical physicists are in the US right now,” and he wrote down about twenty names, telling me where they were and what he thought of them. He said, “Well, this one has a Nobel Prize, but he’s over the top, going downhill fast.” He continued in this vein for a while. Then he said, “This man, Steve Weinberg, is quite young, but I think he really has a great future ahead of him.” So he told me to go to Berkeley to work with Weinberg, saying that he’d write to him.
Then he called in his secretary. Nowadays, very few professors have our own secretaries. Those were the days! He dictated a letter to Weinberg in my presence, basically saying, “I have this kid here whom I’m sending to Berkeley to work for you.” [Laughing] Then he told me to call Weinberg.
I had to gather up a lot of quarters, something like ten dollars’ worth, and I went into a phone booth on campus to call Weinberg. When I tell this story to young people, some might say, “What are the quarters for? Why didn’t you just use your cell phone?” [Laughing] So I called Weinberg, and he said, “I got the letter about you from Wheeler, but I’m leaving Berkeley. I’m moving to Harvard. You could come to Harvard if you want.”
This was another piece of luck for me, a tremendous piece of luck. At that time, theoretical particle physics was split between the East Coast and the West Coast. The West Coast, especially Berkeley, was doing S-matrix theory and bootstrap and things like that, while the east coast, in particular Harvard, was more into quantum field theory. So that decided my career as well. Had I gone to Berkeley, I probably would have done S-matrix theory, which didn’t quite have the same future as quantum field theory. [Laughs]
That is certainly true! How did you develop your relationship with Sidney Coleman?
The late 1960s was an exciting time for everybody, but especially so for me. A Princeton classmate who was going to MIT asked me to share an apartment near Harvard Square with him. After four years, the two of us were let out of this monastic all-male school in the middle of New Jersey, into this big city teeming with young people. How could we not be excited? My friend was Jewish, by the way, very Jewish, in fact, and all he could talk about was how he was going to catch a lot of girls. [Laughs] He even told me what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of ties, etc, but of course all that became quickly irrelevant.
When I went into the Harvard physics department, somewhat to my surprise, I ran into Steve Adler. He was a student of Sam Treiman’s, and so I had met him peripherally. The world of theoretical physics is a web of interconnections. I was happy to see somebody I actually knew. He said, “Oh, I’m just about to leave. I have been offered a position at the Institute for Advanced Study, and so I am going back to Princeton.” Then he offered me some advice, the most important of which is the following. He told me, “There’s a very, very smart guy named Sidney Coleman coming to Harvard, allegedly one of the smartest persons alive. Maybe the smartest!” [Laughs] Steve Adler said that the best theory graduate students at Harvard all wanted to work with Julian Schwinger, the legendary prodigy with his Nobel Prize etc. This is of course still true now; it was not special to that particular time at Harvard.
At that time, Taiwan had a national exam, and the Harvard physics department would simply take the guy who came out number one. The prestige of Lee and Yang in the Chinese-speaking world was such that the top student invariably wanted to go into particle theory. Year after year, that number one person worked for Schwinger. All these guys became my friends as well, and I learned a lot of physics from them. They were all Schwinger students, but being a Schwinger student was very tough at that time because you were not allowed to use Feynman diagrams. [Laughs]
Right! Tony, I thought you were going to say it was tough because it was difficult to interact with Schwinger.
Oh, yeah! That was true also. I want to state for the record that Schwinger was actually a very nice guy. He was very shy which made him seem remote and unapproachable. Perhaps because of all these students from Taiwan who worked with him, he was especially nice to Chinese students. When one of them got married, a beaming Schwinger (who was childless) gave the bride away. That was the first time I got to talk to Schwinger, and that is why I am able to assert that he is a friendly guy. But back to Adler’s advice to me: “Don’t work for Schwinger. He’s a Nobel Prize winner, the most famous guy in the department, but he has reached the height of his career already. But there’s this young guy, who is going to be fighting for tenure, so he’s really hungry and you should go work for him.” I said something like, “But, but, but, I was supposed to work for Weinberg, blah, blah, blah.” Adler insisted that I should work for Coleman.
I didn’t know what to do. Both of them blinded me with their brilliance, so to speak.
But as I told you, some of my friends say I’m a very lucky man. Both of my wives said so. [Laughs] The decision was made for me: after one year at Harvard, Weinberg left and went to MIT. The rumor, at least among the students, was that Weinberg and Glashow (the heir apparent to Schwinger in particle theory) had a fight. I asked Weinberg about this several decades later, and he totally denied that rumor. I don’t know if you are aware of this episode of physics history.
Sure. This is a big controversy in the field. Of course.
Right. And in fact, Weinberg’s famous paper on electroweak SU(2) × U(1) was written at MIT. So at that point, I basically had no choice. I mentioned luck, because I soon understood that my personality was much more compatible with Coleman’s than with Weinberg’s. I doubt that I would have survived as a Weinberg student. Just compare his textbook on quantum field theory with mine! Come to think of it, Coleman was not even on Wheeler’s chart of the greats in theoretical physics. So, I would be ignoring John Wheeler’s high hopes for me as well.
Besides, I had already sort of befriended Coleman (I once even introduced my future wife’s cousin to him) and was hanging out with him, asking physics questions. And in the summer, he let me stayed in his apartment. I took Coleman’s course on quantum field theory as well as Schwinger’s course on quantum field theory. The former awed me with his cleverness, the latter with his sheer power.
What was Coleman’s specialty? What was he working on at the time you became his mentee?
Murray Gell-Mann (and others) had proposed SU(3) in the early 1960s, but even the incomparable MGM had to struggle with group theory. Very few physicists knew about group theory, … well, that’s an exaggeration. The nuclear physicists knew about group theory—Wigner at Princeton and others like him, such as Herman Feshbach at MIT. I have stories to tell about these two also, but let me not go there. Still, very few knew. Shelly Glashow, I think in one of his autobiographical sketches, said that after he and Coleman mastered SU(3), they were like kings of the road, and they were able to clean up the field. I took Coleman’s group theory course; it was great. My group theory textbook certainly benefited from that course.
What was Coleman’s style as a graduate advisor insofar as it related to how you developed your own thesis research? Did he essentially give you a problem to work on, or were you able to come up with your own problem and present that to him?
That’s a really great question. He used the Feynman attitude on me. You’ve probably heard of the Feynman story. There were students at Caltech who went to ask Feynman for a thesis problem. Feynman said, “If I have a good problem, I will have worked it out myself. Why should I give it to you?” [Laughter] Coleman told me essentially the same thing, so I had to come up with my own problems. I ended up even publishing some nonsense. He obviously gave me advice and so on and so forth, but the answer is no: he didn’t give me any problems to work on. In fact, he was kind of mad at me, too, when I wanted to leave. Okay, I’ll tell you the full story.
My graduate student days were exceptionally exciting. As I said, I went to graduate school in ’66, and in ’68 the riots started, in Paris, and around the world, against the Vietnam War, and all kinds of other stuff. Classes at Harvard were canceled, and some of the younger faculty were participating in the riots. [Chuckles] I was one of the people that got tear-gassed at Harvard Square. I gave a lecture recently at some conference honoring Glashow, and I talked about Harvard in ’68, ’69. I said to the audience, “You people don’t really understand how large a horse actually is if you’ve never been charged by mounted police wearing helmets and hitting people with clubs.” [Laughs]
When the horses come charging at you, the size and speed of those animals are almost unbelievable. To be honest, the riots at Harvard were to a large extent also fun and games because the university had declared Harvard Yard to be off-limits. The rioting took place at Harvard Square, which was, and is, a public area, but as soon as you saw the police coming and smelled the tear gas, you could run back into Harvard Yard, so that’s what we all did.
My graduate education was very much interrupted. Later, when I became an assistant professor at Princeton, I discovered, or other members of the faculty discovered, that I had enormous holes in my education, and I realized that those should have been filled in the classes that were canceled! [Laughter]
So, to make a long story short, after all this rioting and all this counterculture stuff and all this rock and roll fun, in ’69 I met the girl who would become my first wife. By that time, I was really tired of being a graduate student. So one day I told Sidney Coleman, “I want to get out of here. Give me my degree.” Sidney said, “Well, you haven’t written a PhD thesis yet. You can’t leave.” So I said, “I don’t care. I want to get married and start a new life.” He said, “Okay. Well, in that case, I’ll have to send you to university such-and-such.” Sidney was referring to a well-known public university in the Midwest, and he meant it as a punishment. I am not going to name it since I see no reason for me to insult my friends who are there right now. [Laughs]
Looking back, I realize that Sidney was expecting me to capitulate and agree to stay on and write a proper dissertation. But perhaps the riots had “toughened” me, ha ha, or perhaps I was more combative when I was younger. I remember very, very clearly responding, “Sidney, I don’t care. Just send me there. I want to get out of here and get married.” [Laughs]
By that time I had published, on my own, five papers, one of which was complete nonsense, as I said. From this I deduce that I hadn’t even shown Sidney my published papers, because the error was so elementary that he would have caught it instantly. [Laughs] I said, “I could staple these papers together and hand them in as a dissertation.” He said, “Okay. Just write some commentary on them.” I wrote a brief commentary in a day or two, and hired someone to type it up.
I was all prepared to go the Midwest. My girlfriend grew up in Illinois, and so was not unwilling to go back to the Midwest. However, a couple of days later, I ran into Sidney Coleman in the hallway, and he smiled and said, “Hi, Tony. Relax. I’m not going to send you to the Midwest. I just got off the phone with Steve Adler, and I’ve arranged for you to go to the Institute for Advanced Study.” I exclaimed, “Oh, great! Thank you, thank you, Sidney!” [Laughter] So that was how I went to the Institute for Advanced Study in 1970.
So did you actually have a formal defense, a thesis defense at Harvard?
Yes, I did.
Tony, who was on your committee?
The people on my committee were Coleman, Glashow, and the third person was maybe John Iliopoulos, a postdoc at the time. You’ve probably heard of the name: he discovered charm with Glashow.
I gave a talk celebrating the discovery of charm at some conference with the three discoverers, Glashow, Iliopoulos, and Maiani in the audience. I mentioned this story a bit, and Iliopoulos said he didn’t remember being on my committee. So perhaps it was Arthur Jaffe, but it doesn’t matter. The reason that I can’t remember this third person, and neither could he if he was indeed Iliopoulos, should in fact be obvious to you: this third person never got a chance to say anything. Here’s how my defense went. Glashow would ask me a question, and Coleman would say, “Come on! Such a stupid, easy question! Don’t ask him that!” and Glashow would say something like, “Sidney, you think it’s an easy question? You know the answer?” Coleman would give him the answer and then asked Glashow a hard question, and Glashow… [Laughter]
And you’re just sitting there watching them go at it.
Well, I was not sitting; I was standing. [Laughter] Looking back, I wonder if these guys even glanced at my beautifully bound dissertation in bright red. They would have pointed out that one of the five papers contained an error. At that time, things were much more relaxed. Now the bureaucracy has become much more serious. In the UCSB physics department, we even had a wise men committee that later became a wise persons committee.
I was a wise man for a while, for several years. A wise person is now required to attend these PhD exams to make sure the questions are fair and that no student is harmed in the process, so something like my story could no longer happen.
Tony, around the time of an oral defense, you might be thinking to yourself, “What are my contributions to the field?” What did you want to accomplish with your dissertation and as you were thinking about postdoc experiences? What were the talents that you had that you thought, “Here’s how I can make an impact in this field of research”?
Well, when you’re young, you’re tremendously ambitious. You know, the sky is the limit, and you read all this stuff about Einstein and Heisenberg and all the rest, and you want to make a great contribution to physics. In fact, if anything, I find that the students here at UCSB nowadays are not ambitious enough. I always tell them to think high. There are a few people, such as Frank Wilczek, Bob Schrieffer, who are extremely lucky, whose PhD thesis is the Nobel-winning ticket. [Laughs] You have to have won the physics lottery. So I didn’t have that kind of luck, perhaps there is a conservation law for luck. Still, I thought I would like to make an important contribution, of course, but I also soon realized, after getting to the Institute for Advanced Study, that all my fellow postdocs were thinking about the same thing. By the way, I got married after I got there and I had an informal wedding reception on Institute grounds.
Clearly, we want to come up with the right electroweak theory. Now, of course, everybody knows that SU(2) × U(1) is the right theory, but how would anybody know that in 1970 or 1971? So there was a chance that you could come up with the right theory.
Tony, did the Institute feel like an island unto itself, or did it feel part of the Princeton community?
That’s also a very good question. [break in the conversation]
Tony, let me ask the question in a little different way. As I was thinking, your observation about students nowadays perhaps not being as ambitious as from your generation, I wonder, though, if part of that—and perhaps you appreciated it at the time—was that in your field, you know, theoretical particle physics, this was really the golden age of so many exciting things that were happening that perhaps nowadays, at least in particle physics, that’s no longer the case, that perhaps the frontier has moved to cosmology and astrophysics. I wonder if you can comment on that.
Yeah, absolutely. By the way, David, you are asking tremendously good questions! [Chuckles] You’re a great interviewer.
Oh, thank you.
So first of all, physics has not only moved away from particle theory and quantum field theory, but in the last four or five years even away from string theory. It used to be that almost all the best students wanted to do string theory, but not anymore. The other major trend—and I think it’s even more major than particle physics getting past its glory days and losing some of its shine, so to speak—is the longtime global trend away from theoretical physics towards more applied physics.
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes].
Young people want to do things that could benefit humanity directly. The past couple of months I’ve been teaching an undergraduate course on fluids, and I’ve been trying to emphasize some of the connection to climates, to the ocean, that kind of thing. A lot of students want to go into nano this and that, into condensed matter. There’s a shift towards experiments, but I think the most important shift from my days is towards more applied stuff.
And you think at the time that you finished your graduate work, of course, there was much fundamental discovery to be had in theoretical particle physics.
Right, right. Absolutely! I recall Bjorken, one of my very favorite persons, visiting the Institute for Advanced Study and saying, “This is a very exciting time. Nobody knows what the gauge group for electroweak interaction is. Just find the right group and you go to Stockholm.” [Laughs] I mean, now it’s a completely different story. It’s like, what is there left to do? Everybody knows it’s SU(3) × SU(2) × U(1).
Tony, who were some of your-- Please, please.
I was going to ask, who were some of your most important collaborators at the Institute?
Ah! That’s also a good question. The star during my year—my year meaning the postdocs that arrived the same year I did… And this is also an interesting story that I’ve told some of the postdocs here. But David, when you write this in the transcript, this part may have to be edited because I don’t want to offend anybody, okay?
But I will tell it straight right now as I talk to you.
Yes, so sometimes I would have to tell a downcast postdoc here, “Don’t worry that you’re not the star in this year’s group. Who knows how things would turn out in the long run?” When I got to the Institute, the big star was a guy named Bob Carlitz, without question a really smart guy. Bob was also a very friendly and social fellow --- he and his wife gave great parties. Bob came from Caltech, so he was full of the bootstrap, Regge poles, etc, you know, all these S-matrix type ideas. He really blew the rest of us away by telling us, to our utter amazement, that he already had an assistant professorship lined up at a really prestigious university. We were like, “Bob, we didn’t know, duh, we thought we were fortunate to have gotten a postdoc offer at the Institute…” [Laughing] We treated him like a superstar. Bob started telling me about all this West Coast stuff. Remember, theoretical particle physics at that time was very split between the East Coast and West Coast.
He said, “Quantum field theory, all that kind of stuff is passé. You learned all that. What? Come on!” [Laughs] He told me I had to learn more facts, saying, “At Harvard they don’t teach you facts? What’s wrong with those guys?” So he made up a stack of flashcards. On each card, he wrote the name of a particle on one side and on the other side various facts, stuff like what its lifetime is, what it decays into, what the branching ratios are. He would use these flashcards on me, to make me memorize all these facts which I didn’t learn at Harvard. He was very nice to me, and we became good friends --- his wife was already a famous translator of contemporary Chinese literature. The Carlitzes were for sure the razzle-dazzle couple in our IAS class. Another guy in that class was Michael Green, whom you know became famous later as one of the fathers of string theory.
Of course. Right.
But at that time he was a very junior guy. In England, graduate schools lasted three years, so compared to the American postdocs, he knew significantly less. So Bob Carlitz took Michael Green and me under his wing, so to speak, and he suggested projects for us to work on. Mike and I functioned almost like Bob’s two research assistants. The three of us worked on diffraction scattering, Regge poles, and pomeron, all these things. Now if you know a bit about history, the kind of stuff for which Bob was the star was all swept away by gauge theory a couple of years later. Quantum field theory came roaring back, and it’s the people who knew quantum field theory who got ahead. Bob did go to University of Chicago but he didn’t get tenure there. I felt really sorry for him because he certainly had no control over the tides of history. Bob was of course not the only one: the roaring return of quantum field theory that I described in my books swept many people away at that time. I suppose that this happens in many other fields as well, but it’s especially dramatic in theoretical high energy physics, because it’s significantly more fashion driven. I have witnessed this happening again and again. I truly felt sorry for Bob. In my mind, he is certainly a very bright guy, perhaps a lot smarter than Mike Green and I, for all I know, but he learned the kind of stuff that was swept away by gauge theory in the early ‘70s. I hope that Bob does not feel offended if he ever reads this. I have nothing but fond memories of him and of the time we spent working together at the IAS.
And Tony, where is QCD in all of this?
Nowhere! [Laughs] It didn’t exist at all at that time.
But it’s coming soon.
It was coming soon, yeah, but not yet. We were still fussing with the old strong interaction. Carlitz, Green, and I wrote a series of papers on hadron-hadron scattering that were quite well thought of at the time, but now justifiably totally forgotten. I’ll tell you another funny story in this connection, to underline the huge leap in the level of mathematics used in string theory and related fields these days.
We used Gell-Mann’s SU(3) in our work. Geoff Chew was on a sabbatical at Princeton University, and he called us up one day and asked the three of us to come over to his office at the university to explain our papers to him. He said, “What’s wrong with you young people? Why do you have to go to SU(3)? SU(2) was good enough for Heisenberg, but not good enough for you guys?” [Laughter]
We explained, “Professor Chew, it was just going from 2×2 matrices to 3×3.” [Laughing] But now when I hear this super abstract, super mathematical stuff that graduate students are talking about, it simply amazes me how physics has changed. Can I come back to your question before we took a break?
You asked me if the Institute for Advanced Study felt like an island to me. I think that was the question. Did I get your question right?
I think that I had a somewhat different take than people coming to Princeton and to the IAS for the first time, especially foreign postdocs. That I was a Princeton undergraduate changed my perception somewhat. I was of course still in awe, that here I was walking around in the same buildings that Einstein used to walk around in.
I told you about my Princeton classmate whom I met early on who told me, “I’m Jewish by the way.” [Laughter] He knew a lot of things that I didn’t know, and was much more into the world than I was. During our sophomore year, he said to me, “You know about this Institute for Advanced Study, right?” and I said, “Of course I do.” He said, “Why don’t we go over there and sneak around. Maybe we’ll see some famous people?” So we got into various buildings and walked by the offices, looking at the names on the doors. Some of the office doors were open, and we’d try to peek in. [Laughs] We went by Yang’s office and he was in there. Mark and I debated silently whether we should knock on the door or not. [Laughs] Finally we both decided we’d better not.
I was two years at the IAS as a postdoc, and then a sabbatical year there on leave from the Princeton faculty. During that entire time, I never talked with Dyson. He was the most senior professor there, and I literally felt a bit scared of him. Looking back, it’s so stupid and so silly, you know? What was Dyson going to do to me if I went up to him and introduced myself?
Some twenty years later, Wilczek arranged for me to be the Dyson Visiting Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and of course, the first thing I did was to go say hello to Dyson, particularly since they gave me the office next door to his. I told him that story and Dyson said, “That’s totally crazy that people are scared of me!” [Laughs] I want young people to know that this whole thing about being sort of scared of some famous guy is just nuts, perhaps in my case it was due to my cultural baggage or something. Dyson turned out to be an exceedingly nice person. We talked about lots of things, such as book writing, and even went on a fairly long road trip. I have a bunch of stories about him also, but I won’t get into that here.
Was two years standard? Was that a set term when you knew you were going to leave?
Right. So two years was standard, and that was sort of set in stone or something.
What was your next move? What did you do next?
So that’s another long, complicated story. How much time do you have?
Oh, Tony, as much time as we need. I’m having a great time.
Have you heard of a guy named Abraham Pais?
Well, sic transit gloria mundi. It’s almost painful for me to talk about, but anyway, okay. Bram Pais was Jewish and had a rather tragic story. During World War II, he was in Amsterdam, hiding in some attic the whole time. Horrible, horrible. I think he lost his family. Then just as the war was about to end, he was arrested by the Nazis, but somehow survived.
He was a pretty good physicist, enough to impress Oppenheimer to be offered a position at the Institute for Advanced Study. But Bram had very complicated personality, a man perhaps understandably with a chip on his shoulder. There’s this famous story that when Gell-Mann was quite young, in his twenties, he had a brilliant idea, which he explained to Pais. I’m telling you Gell-Mann’s version, obviously. [Laughs] Pais said, “Oh, that’s a wonderful idea. Let us publish it.” This famous paper of Gell-Mann and Pais is no doubt the most famous paper that Pais ever wrote.
So Gell-Mann hated him ever after and never missed any opportunity to say nasty things about him. He always referred to Pais as “the evil dwarf” because Bram was in fact exceptionally short. Gell-Mann, as is well known, had an erudite command of words, such as quarks.
But I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was in my second year at the IAS, and so everybody around me started looking for the next job. I hadn’t really started looking, but then I got a phone call from Abraham Pais. I have a very outgoing personality, largely inherited from my mother, but which may also be partly due to my Brazilian background. So in the theoretical physics community, I daresay—of course I cannot prove it—that everybody likes me. Almost everybody likes me, and I like almost everybody. There are very very few people on my blacklist, but Pais is definitely on top of that list.
Pais was a professor at the Institute for many, many years. But he must have felt terrible psychological pressure to be with people like Einstein and von Neumann, and later with Yang and Dyson and the rest. You know in theoretical physics it’s completely clear which league you are in. Though Pais tried hard, the papers he wrote were never of the same quality as that of the other luminaries at the IAS.
So when the opportunity arose for him to leave the IAS for Rockefeller University in New York City, he left. I remember you saying you grew up in Philadelphia, right, not New York?
I went to graduate school in Philadelphia.
That’s right, and you wrote a book about Agent Orange. But anyway, you may know about this Rockefeller University, which is a weird place.
It started out as a biological institute, but in the late ’50s or ’60s, they became more ambitious and wanted to turn themselves into a university, but without undergraduates, only graduate students and focused on research. Pais was offered the opportunity to start a physics department. During his years in Princeton, he had become friends with Sam Treiman. I assume that he heard about me through Sam. Anyway, he called me up and offered me an assistant professorship at Rockefeller University. Do you know David Kaiser, the historian of physics at MIT?
Sure. Sure, of course.
He wrote a book and an article talking about the job market in particle theory, and he specifically singled out 1971, 72 as a really difficult time. I was aware that people a year ahead of me at the IAS had a lot of trouble finding jobs. To place things in context, after our years in Cambridge Mass, my wife and I were both a bit tired of staying at Princeton. We’d go to New York City on the weekends fairly often. She was excited about moving to New York City, and I thought it might be interesting for a change of scenery.
So Pais offered me this position and really played hardball, telling me that I had to respond by noon the next day. It was certainly not a nice thing to do to a naïve young person, to say the least. Nowadays it would be considered unethical. I talked it over with my wife, and the next day I accepted his offer at noon. But then right around 1:30 or maybe 2:00, Curt Callan from Princeton University called and offered me an assistant professorship at Princeton. My fate and my destiny would be quite different, I daresay, if Pais had given one more day to think things over.
Naturally, I wanted to take the Princeton offer, --- there was no comparison on the levels of theoretical physics being done at the two places --- and I talked to Treiman; at that time I didn’t know that Treiman was a good friend of Pais. We have to realize this is not 2020; this was 1970 when people talked about a gentleman’s code, a gentleman’s honor, and the like, especially in central New Jersey. [Laughing] Now we have all kinds of people in Washington who have never heard of any kind of honor. So Treiman said, “Well, as a gentleman you cannot go back on your word. You gave your word and you agreed to go.” Looking back, I realized that had I talked to Goldberger instead, I would have gotten the opposite advice. As I have noted, Murph Goldberger affected the salty language of the working class, and he would have advised me to tell Pais to go somewhere.
So I moved to Rock U in the fall of ‘72. I was not totally unhappy because obviously I could not have known that by being away from Princeton I would miss the future excitement about asymptotic freedom. Earlier that spring, I had read Sidney Coleman’s lectures about the renormalization group, and thought about what would happen if the strong interaction coupling somehow flowed to zero. At Rock U, I wanted to work on this idea, but Baqi Bég, one of the professors whom Pais had hired, said to me, “The strong interaction may well be a never-never land. Maybe this renormalization group idea would lead to a theory of strong interaction, or maybe not. Who knows? But Tony, come on, the electroweak interaction is happening, right here and right now! Whoever finds the right group gets to go to Stockholm.” I had heard Bjorken saying that too. Pais was himself trying to find the right group, and everybody else too, it seemed. As I said earlier, we now know of course that we already had the right group, SU(2) × U(1). So I ended up putting the strong interaction aside, to my enormous regret.
Also, nobody in New York --- I went over to Columbia from time to time --- knew anything about how to do loop calculations in Yang-Mills theory. That was a technical challenge, and instead of reading ‘t Hooft’s paper, which I should have done in the glare of hindsight, I was trying to fathom some other papers.
That was the fall of 1972. That winter, I ran into David Gross at a physics conference in New York, and he asked me what I was thinking about. I told him that I was thinking about whether the strong interaction could possibly be what I called a “stagnant” theory. I used the word stagnant to indicate that the coupling would stop flowing. Of course at that time we didn’t use the yet-to-be-invented term asymptotic freedom. I told him I was also trying to find the electroweak interaction with Baqi Bég.
David said to me, “You are a total fool. We tried to hire you as an assistant professor but you went to Rockefeller University instead. What kind of idiot would go to Rockefeller instead of Princeton in theoretical physics?” [Laughing] To my amazement, he said, “I offer you a job right now on the spot.” I have a vivid memory of this conversation in the large meeting hall of some hotel where the physics conference was being held.
And he had the authority to do this?
In my memory, he certainly sounded like he did. You know that David was, and is, a supremely confident guy. I recalled that they did not fill the position Curt Callan had offered me. Or perhaps he said that he had to check with Goldberger and call me back right the way to confirm. Anyway, the next day I went and told the people at Rockefeller, “I’m leaving.”
Some months later, I attended a conference at Temple University in Philadelphia. Several major players on the renormalization group, including Ken Wilson and Kurt Symanzik, were there, and it was from them I heard that Gross and Wilczek had found asymptotic freedom. I was naturally thunderstruck. Ken kindly told me how to salvage the work I had done up till then, and to quickly write up an application of asymptotic freedom to electron positron annihilation.
By the way, when I met Frank Wilczek, one of the first things he said to me, was, “I read a whole bunch of your papers. Come on! Your name is not really AZ, is it? You just made that up.” [Laughter] We became very good friends and wrote many papers together.
[Laughing] That’s great! Tony, did it feel like you were coming back home when you got to Princeton?
Absolutely, because Princeton University is an exceptional institution: the brainwashing that went on is just unbelievable. There’s nothing like it at Harvard or Stanford. Maybe a little bit of that at Caltech. But Princeton was absolutely, totally, like, “You guys (the undergraduate students) are at the best university in the world, on this side of paradise. [Unintelligible]” [Laughs] At that time, every Saturday during football season we were served ice cream bars on which the score was written out. It was always Princeton winning by some big margin even if [Laughter] the team was losing that year. It didn’t matter!
Tony, what was your initial title when you returned to Princeton?
Tenure track, though.
Yes, tenure track. I’m not sure there was even such a concept as non-tenure track assistant professors back in those days. Goldberger said to me, “Well well, look who is back. You should have come and talked to me.” For my first teaching experience as faculty, he gave me the plum assignment of quantum field theory. I put a lot of effort into that, and taught all sorts of topics that were just then coming into fashion, such as Yang-Mills gauge theory and renormalization group. All this stuff was unfamiliar to most people in the community. Goldberger himself often complained to me, “Hopeless for me to learn this stuff! You young people are amazing.” I said, “Come on! It’s very simple.” [Laughs] Then he told me how he and Fermi had similar conversations. That’s how physics moves on!
After I taught that course for two or three years, some people said to me, “You should turn your notes into a book.” I did eventually write a textbook on quantum field theory, but decades later. Of course I realized that I’d have to get tenure first before writing a textbook.
Was your sense that tenure was something that was in the cards for you, or was that very much up in the air?
Very much up in the air, and Princeton had a tradition of making it very difficult for assistant professors to get tenure.
Of course, I wish I had gotten tenure at Princeton, but when the time came, and Treiman told me that they decided to choose Frank Wilczek over me, I totally accepted their decision. I didn’t feel bad.
But Tony, why is it a zero sum game? Princeton is a wealthy place. Why not just make the pie bigger?
Well, you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask those people. You should ask Harvard. Harvard is starting to do that now, right?
Harvard also had a long stream of people who didn’t get tenure there, very good people.
Indeed, I understand that after Harvard promoted my contemporary and good friend Howard Georgi to tenure, they went for 30 years without promoting any assistant professors in particle theory. But then all of a sudden in the last few years they promoted a whole bunch! Almost indiscriminately. So they must have heard you! All those elite places are changing.
Tony, did you and Frank know that you were both competing for this one position?
You know, that’s really funny. Even though I don’t recall being told this, we were surely smart enough to figure that out. You would think that logically we would be like competing sort of or maybe even somehow at each other’s throats or something, but we weren’t at all. In fact, over time, we published well over thirty papers together.
But this is difficult because you’re not only collaborators, but you’re friends.
Indeed, not only were we good friends, our wives were very good friends. The two couples would get together and play stupid board games such as Hollywood Moguls. The Wilczeks had children earlier, and his eldest daughter used to sit my eldest son Andrew on her lap, teaching him ABC’s or something. Besides working together, Frank and I spent a lot of our leisure time together as well.
I mean maybe you would say, okay, that’s just my own psychological defense at this point or something like that, but honestly, through the many years that we worked together, I never thought of it, even though I was surely aware that Frank was smarter. I am not, and never was, some self-deluding fool. By the way, plenty of those in our theory community.
What were your prospects after learning this news? Where did you think you might go next?
Oh! That was already decided for me without my knowing about it. Yeah. I didn’t finish the story. So Treiman, the very same person who told me about gentleman’s honor and all that, was himself very much an old school gentleman. I’m very sorry to see that world going away now. I just can’t believe what has happened to the United States. Treiman said something like, “Well, I think you probably understand why we’ve decided to pick Frank over you. But I’ve already lined up an assistant professorship for you. I talked to the people at the University of Pennsylvania, and they’re going to offer you a job.” So that was very nice of him.
Maybe this was the old school…
It sounds like a story from a very long time ago.
Right, right. An ancient time. Gentlemen all around. But nowadays? [Laughing] Suppose a friend of mine called me up and said, “We have this guy here we’re not going to give tenure to. Could you hire him?” and I’d say, “Sure. Yeah. I’ll hire him.” [Laughs] That was a sarcastic joke! It would have to go through who knows how many committees and an endless series of bureaucratic barriers in the central administration! Anyway, that’s how I ended up spending two years in Philadelphia, and I could have ended up spending many more years there. I was fairly happy as an associate professor, and I had some very good colleagues. Bob Schrieffer was there, for example. By the way, that also has something to do with my going to Santa Barbara later. He later became director of the Institute in Santa Barbara.
Tony, was it at Penn that you became involved in condensed matter?
Goldberger had planted the seed earlier by making me teach a course on many body theory at Princeton. No, my actual involvement was later, in spite of the fact that Bob Schrieffer and I…
That’s what made me think of it.
… had offices next to each other. In fact, Bob liked to say… [Silence] Well, poor Bob. He passed away. He had a rather tragic life later. You know about him probably.
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes].
I feel sorry for him. He was such a nice guy, too. Bob Schrieffer was very special in my career. He offered me a job twice, once at Penn, and once at Santa Barbara.
At that time, there was a student who had really wanted to work for me, but I told him that particle physics seemed to be coming to an end, and that maybe this string theory was going to take off, so he’d be better off if he worked with Schrieffer on condensed matter. I was delighted that he and Bob wrote an important paper together. Anyway, let me not get sidetracked.
We left Penn for various reasons. One reason was that, shortly before leaving Princeton for Penn, my first wife hurt her back while giving birth to our first son, and so she was not enjoying life very much. Too many things were happening all in the same year—getting tenure, having a baby, moving to a new place, and buying a house. We bought a huge house --- my wife had gotten a degree in architecture from Princeton. It was one of those Dutch Colonial stone houses in Bala Cynwyd, on the Main Line, since you had spent several years in Philadelphia.
Mm-hmm [yes], mm-hmm [yes].
It was kind of too much for a young couple with a baby. [Laughs] Long story!
How many years were you at Penn?
For only two years, barely enough time to settle down. The University of Pennsylvania is a great university, with lots of good things going for it --- one of my nieces went to the Wharton School. But I think the proximity to Princeton was very bad for the physics department at Penn. They all seem to have this hangdog expression, speaking of themselves as rejects from Harvard or Princeton. There’s a guy named Abraham Klein…
… who didn’t get tenure at Harvard. He could never live that down. Once, at a faculty meeting discussing the dismal performance of the graduate students on the qualifying exam, Abe thundered that “At Harvard we would send such people elsewhere!” Mike Cohen responded with a stage whisper, “Abe, this is elsewhere.” I realized then and there that this kind of atmosphere was going to affect me sooner or later.
Tony, not to put you on the psychologist’s couch, but perhaps you drew on a greater perspective of your family’s experience and how lucky you were that they got out of China, and maybe in the grand scheme of things, losing a tenure chair to Frank Wilczek and landing nicely at Penn… All in all, things are okay.
David, you are indeed very astute as an interviewer. Exactly! Throughout my life, I have often thought about how lucky I have been. Partly, I’m a born optimist, and partly, perhaps Brazilian culture comes in too. The culture is like, “Yeah, tomorrow, we’ll worry about it tomorrow.” [Laughter] And so, perhaps I had wanted to go back to that kind of culture by moving to southern California.
Anyway, it was not good psychologically for the Penn physics department to be so close to Princeton. [Laughs] If Penn could move a thousand miles away, it could become the best university for five hundred miles around. [Chuckles]
So I spent only two years at Penn. As I said, my wife gave birth while we were still at Princeton. By the way, the last year that I was at Princeton I was actually on leave at the Institute for Advanced Study and we thought that would be a good place to have a baby.
Another psychological aspect of my stay at Penn was that when I got there in the fall of ’78, other universities had already approached me. I had possibilities of going to Columbia, to University of Washington, and to some other places, even in Europe. The University of Washington invited us for a visit in ’79, late summer, maybe early fall. David Boulware, Lowell Brown, and Marshall Baker, and others really laid out the red carpet. They took us around to see Mount Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula, all the beautiful places around Seattle. [Chuckles] They told me that nobody owned an umbrella in Seattle, only some light drizzle now and then.” [Laughter] Again, I would have been happy to have stayed in Seattle for the rest of my life, but…
And of course, Tony, the University of Washington, kind of like University of Pennsylvania, it’s also a place with tremendously eminent physicists who did not necessarily get tenure at places like Princeton and Harvard.
Well, maybe Lowell Brown had that chip on his shoulder. I had heard that the Institute for Advanced Study was considering Steve Adler and Lowell Brown at the same time, and they picked Steve Adler, but that was before my time. I wouldn’t describe David Boulware as somebody with a chip on his shoulder though. I don’t know. Who else are you thinking of?
Maybe also some people that did not get tenure at Stanford.
[Pauses] Are you talking about the experimentalists?
Possibly. I’m not thinking about anybody in particular, but there was that general feeling at the University of Washington as well.
Oh, that’s interesting! But I was not aware of it, and in any case, that did not rub off on me. UW was in a stimulating but manageable city surrounded by great natural beauty, I daresay more spectacular than what central New Jersey could offer. [Laughing]
Well, at Penn I definitely picked up that vibe. Yeah. So can I tell you a story about Penn?
So Tony, what was your decision ultimately?
You mean my decision when I went to Seattle, or when I left? Again, I was happy to stay in Seattle for the rest of my life. Seattle was for sure a better place for my architect wife. But then a new theoretical physics institute that was being formed in Santa Barbara changed my life. What could I say? A decision being made in Washington DC thousands of miles away by a committee of elders eventually decided my fate.
So, Frank Wilczek came to visit Seattle. I remember vividly that he and I were walking through the University of Washington campus, on our way to pick up my son at his daycare. Frank told me that there was this new institute starting, and described to me how it would work. The original idea was that physicists would come and stay for six months and exchange ideas. It would emphasize interdisciplinary cross-fertilization, with two different fields at the same time and the physicists in the two fields urged to talk to each other.
Frank was trying to decide whether or not to leave Princeton and asked for my opinion. I said that it wouldn’t work. He asked me, “Why?” I said, “Two words: women’s liberation.” You know how people talked like that in the early ’80s. [Laughs]
I explained, “Women are all going to have serious careers, and none of these guys would be able to get their wives to leave for six months to go somewhere else.” Before people pillory me here, let me say that I was merely describing life as we knew it back in the early 1980s: the overwhelming majority of theoretical physicists were men.
I was actually quite right. [Laughter] That eventually did turn out to be a big problem for the Institute in Santa Barbara. In the beginning, people came for six months and even longer, but nowadays most visitors are here for just a couple of months max, or even just a couple of weeks.
Frank decided to go, as one of three permanent members, and invited me to spend a year at this new institute. Ironically, I was the very example of someone constrained by women’s liberation. My wife said, “I already sacrificed my architecture career by following you around. Now, just as we are settling down in Seattle, we are going to take off for an entire year?” I appreciated her dilemma of course, but I said that it was just for one year, and we had been considering having a second child. So the clever solution was to have a baby the same year we visited Santa Barbara. [Laughs] My second son Peter, now an evolutionary biologist, was in fact born in Santa Barbara that year we visited.
Here is the funny story. We ended up spending only eight months in Santa Barbara. When the University of Washington offered me a full professorship, they told me, to sweeten the deal, that I could spend a year away. My first choice would be to spend it at the Institute for Advanced Study, reflecting how uncertain I was about how this institute in Santa Barbara was going to function. So I’m getting this year from the university and I’m not going to spend it at some institute in Santa Barbara. Okay, it was true that my good friend Frank Wilczek would be there. In the end, I compromised by arranging for eight months at the new Institute and four months at the old Institute.
Did you have any inkling, Tony, at first that the visiting professorship would become something more permanent?
No, not at all! This was crazy. If I had known and felt that they were judging me every day for eight months, I would have become rather anxious, don’t you think? Looking back, I now realize that it might have been an eight month long job interview! I recall a meeting with Walter Kohn, the first director of the Institute, during which he asked me how I thought the place should be run. Perhaps my answers were not totally unreasonable.
Yeah. Frank didn’t say a word?
No, never said a word. Frank and I had a very productive year, when we wrote all those papers on anyons and fractional statistics and so on and so forth.
After so much fun, I then had to figure out how to get to Princeton, with the new baby with all the baby stuff and everything. What to do with our car we drove down from Seattle? Do you know Robert Brandenberger?
Have you heard the name?
He was on the faculty at Brown University for many years before moving to McGill. Robert, who was a postdoc in Santa Barbara at the time, offered to drive my car and moved all our stuff back to Seattle! So my wife and I, with two young children, flew off to Princeton.
Those four months in Princeton turned out to be quite eventful also. My second career as a writer started then. I went off to New York to meet with the publisher to whom Steve Weinberg had recommended me. Big Steve had advised me to write a popular book before the textbook on quantum field theory I had then in mind. Weinberg evidently had a lot of clout as the publisher made me an offer almost immediately after I showed him a sample of my writing. That sample eventually turned into a chapter of Fearful Symmetry.
Then we flew back to Seattle that fall, all ready to settle down for good. In October or November, I got a phone call from Bob Schrieffer saying, “We would like to offer you a permanent membership in our new Institute.” I joked with Brandenberger that he would have to move all my stuff back again, all that stuff that we could have left in Santa Barbara! [Laughs]
What happened next? What was your next move?
Well, that’s it. I have now been in Santa Barbara for more than three decades. My attachment to the University of Washington is not as deep as it might have been. They hired me as a professor and I was planning to spend my life there, but the first year I was getting used to the place, the second year, I was going to get down to work, and then the third year, Frank invited me to visit a new institute, the fourth year I was away, then the fifth year I came back to say, “So so sorry, I’m leaving again.” [Laughs]
Right, and so after--
So here I am! I’m in Santa Barbara.
Then after several years Frank Wilczek left! One day he told me that he got an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study. He left and sold me his house! Did you hear about that story?
[Laughing] I did not know that, no!
He bought Einstein’s house in Princeton, right? Did you hear that story?
Mm-hmm [yes], I knew that.
So people were making fun of me for a while. “Wilczek bought Einstein’s house so that you get to buy Wilczek’s?” [Laughter] By the way, I am now in my second marriage with my second wife. living in another house. My first wife is still living with her new husband in Wilczek’s house, if you could call it that.
Tony, what year was it that you started formally at Santa Barbara?
1985, so 35 years. It’s unbelievable.
And did you have any sense that the ITP would develop into this powerhouse that it is now?
Again, my answer to your question is complicated. The ITP has certainly grown by leaps and bounds, and eventually even changed its name to KITP to honor a wealthy Norwegian-American businessman. [Pauses] I think it sort of went away from its original vision. As I said, the vision was to have long-term visitors participating in two programs running simultaneously so as to promote some interdisciplinary exchanges. Over the years we’ve slowly moved away from that, partly for the reason I mentioned, that people come for shorter and shorter times.
The university has grown a lot. Under our current chancellor, it has shed its surfer school image and turned into a tremendous powerhouse, to use your term, in the sciences and in engineering. The physics department here has grown by leaps and bounds and enjoys a healthy symbiotic relationship with the institute. But I think that, even when Frank was still here, that it was already moving away from what we would have wanted it to be like. Certainly, nobody involved, not least the original four founders who pitched the idea to the NSF, would like to see it turned into a scientific hotel.
Yes, it is a powerhouse for sure. We have all these grants, a whole bunch of programs reaching into all areas of physics, and the top people in any given area almost all willing to come. But the atmosphere has become that of specialists talking to specialists. They arrive and they all start talking, and they don’t talk to people outside their area, or if they do, very little. You understand that I am describing the place from the point of the view of a native, of an indigene who is here all year round. In this admittedly flawed analogy, the tourists, if you will, are more excited talking to the other tourists than to the natives.
Of course, there is often some, not mathematically zero, exchange between the two programs, especially if they are fairly near each other in the landscape of physics, or if they share some computational or approximation methods, but my impression is that the exchange is mostly rather limited. Let’s say one program is on galaxy formation and the other is on something in particle physics, and there is not much of a common ground. People don’t want to waste their brief visit here talking to someone who knows nothing about what they are doing.
In the early years, the world’s greatest expert on galaxy formation spending six months here would be quite willing to educate outsiders about the pressing issues of the field. But this won’t happen if he or she is just spending six days here.
Contrary to this trend was the year-long program on the intersection between biology and physics we held in 2000-2001. I feel that counts as one of the greatest successes of the Institute. Every month was devoted to an area of biology that theoretical physicists might be interested in. Many eminent biologists came and gave lectures that were meant to educate, not impress. I daresay that that particular ITP program had an impact on the careers of quite a few biophysicists. My collaboration and friendship with Henri Orland from Paris started during that year.
Of course, usually the programs would start with a couple of introductory talks, but the talks quickly became very technical, as perhaps it should be. The series of directors we have had here have maintained what is called the director’s Monday lunch talk, which are kept at a general level, understandable to everybody. Writing on the blackboard, as in contrast to using something like PowerPoint, is strongly encouraged, even demanded. Those are very valuable and most of the locals and I enjoy them.
We do various things to promote the two fields coming together, such as picnics with a soccer game with each field supplying a team. But these are somewhat artificial, and I do not know if they accomplish too much. [Laughs]
Speaking more positively, one of my joys of being at the ITP is being exposed to an enormous number of different areas of physics and making the acquaintance of some of the leading players in each field. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two kitchens, one on each of the two floors we have at the Institute, provide a delightful arena for these encounters. I go to the kitchen to get boiling water for my tea, and often run into new faces there. Sometimes a friendly conversation ensues. “So tell me, what is the latest in this field? What are you working on?” This surely does not happen often if I were just a professor at some university.
In addition to postdocs, we also have graduate fellows, chosen from among the best graduate students at various universities around the country and around the world. Our director right now, Lars Bildsten, has worked hard to arrange for lunch talks, open to only the locals, during which each of these young people gave fifteen-minute talks about what they’re working on.
We also have a common room and an afternoon tea, to some extent modeled after the Institute for Advanced Study. I would come down and I would try to talk to people. But it is natural that people want to talk to people they know; after all, I would do the same.
I think that in many ways the original vision is probably unrealistic. Physics is very specialized, split into numerous areas. How are you going to force people to talk to each other? So you can see this at teatime, people come in, and two groups form and separate
Oh, we also have wine and cheese, once a month or so. Again, you can see that the mob converging onto the table with the cheese and the table with the wine. But then you can see something like the Red Sea spreading apart in The Ten Commandments. [Laughter]
[Pause] Well, David, don’t you think we have talked enough?
Well, I want to ask you a few final questions for our talk. First, what have been, over the course of your career at Santa Barbara, some of the most important research projects that you’ve been involved in?
Okay. Well, Frank and I and Xiao-Gang Wen, who was a postdoc here and now at MIT, proposed the chiral spin liquid and its possible relevance to anyon superconductivity. Nature may or may not choose this mechanism, but it’s certainly possible. That paper has been highly cited, but an even more highly cited paper, according to Google Scholar, is the one Frank and I wrote on the appearance of non-abelian gauge structure in dynamical systems. It is relevant to many different areas of quantum physics. Wen and I wrote a whole bunch of papers in the early days of fractional quantum Hall effect. I think that one of tunneling in double layered quantum Hall fluids is quite interesting. In terms of number of papers we published together, Wen is second only to Wilczek on my list of collaborators. By the way, Google Scholar lists Feynman as one of my collaborators. How is that possible? [Laughter] Well, I was asked to write the preface for his popular book on QED.
I already mentioned my work with Henri Orland on biophysics. Earlier, after I joined the ITP, I worked with Bill Bialek, at the time a postdoc and now a professor at Princeton. We wrote a number of papers on visual perception, applying field theory concepts to vision. I think that these papers are still important, with their emphasis on the optimization of information processed. I am particularly tickled by a paper we wrote with Dan Ruderman analyzing the mammalian visual cortex by appealing to the bound states of the Schrodinger equation. By the way, Bialek exemplified the kind of person the ITP would ideally accommodate, somebody who didn’t belong to any of the three major fields of theoretical physics the ITP was founded on. He was not in particle theory. He was not in condensed matter theory. He was not in theoretical astrophysics. We had, for some time, a category of postdocs called BTC postdocs, for “between the cracks”. In my mind, Bialek was the poster child for this, someone who knew both biology and quantum field theory. That was at least my ideal kind of person I liked to have around.
I also did quite a bit of work on random matrix theory, with Edouard Brezin, with Joshua Feinberg, and others, but I can’t say that this work started at Santa Barbara. To the contrary, at some point I got tired of working on the quantum Hall fluid with Wen. I had a sabbatical coming up, and I chose to go to Paris so that my second son Peter should experience one year of French public school. [Laughs] Indeed, by now, my three sons all have had a year of the French educational system, albeit at different levels, high school, elementary school, and kindergarten. I made a conscious decision not to take any my notes on quantum Hall with me. I’m this kind of person. I get bored far too easily. You probably know that I like to bounce around between different areas in theoretical physics.
If I had taken my notes, I would have continued working on quantum Hall. I forced myself not to do that.
So one day I was sitting in my office twiddling my thumbs, and Edouard Brezin dropped in and said, “Tony, do you know anything about random matrix theory?” I said, “Absolutely nothing.” He said, “Perfect. Let’s start working on it.” [Laughs] Not only is he a very smart guy and great to work with, he is also one of the most cultivated persons I know.
Also, as I have already mentioned, at some point, I wanted to write. Weinberg encouraged me, and so I’ve been writing books ever since.
Tony, my big question on that, of course, is you have an amazing amount of literature, both for technical audiences and broad audiences.
What are the challenges and pleasures of both?
That’s an extremely good question. Let’s see. My goodness! We have talked for so long. Okay. Book writing—that’s my second career and I really enjoyed it. The question you asked is a question I ask myself quite often. What are the pluses and minuses of writing textbooks versus regular books? I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since high school. A lot of physicists hate to write papers, feeling that it’s a total drag. I feel the opposite, actually, and so in that sense, I’m kind of following in the footsteps of greats such as Dyson and Weinberg, both of whom, as it happened, have played a role in my writing career. I don’t know if you are aware of this. Before I came to Santa Barbara, Weinberg was interested in hiring me at the University of Texas. He had left Harvard and went to the University of Texas. You know that, right?
I mentioned earlier that Weinberg had left Harvard for MIT. But then Schwinger decided to leave Harvard to go to UCLA, so Harvard offered a position to Weinberg. This was after I had left for Princeton, so I was not there to witness this historic event in particle physics. After some years at Harvard, Weinberg moved to the University of Texas. Then he invited me and my wife to spend a week in Texas, and he drove me around Austin, telling me what it was like to live there, in particular showing me where I could buy the New York Times in those pre-internet days. By the way, I first met Joe Polchinski at a dinner party at Weinberg’s house. He and his wife arrived just as my wife and I were leaving --- their flight to Austin was delayed. He ended up going to Texas. I had no inkling of course, that later, we would spend many years with our offices next door to each other. Such is the academic game of musical chairs.
Anyway, I was sitting in Weinberg’s office when his secretary came in with his mail. You know, a big shot like Weinberg has a secretary who opens his mail and prioritizes things, and she said, “Here is a review of your book.” Weinberg had just published a popular book about particles, one of my favorites by the way, and he glanced at the review and he sort of flew into a rage, because I gathered that the reviewer had some negative things to say.
I raised my hand timidly, and said, “Professor Weinberg, I had also thought of writing a book because I taught this course on quantum field theory and …” [laughing] Weinberg said, “Oh! Don’t write a textbook. Write a popular book instead. You have to write a popular book before you can write a textbook. A lot of physicists write textbooks without knowing whether they are capable of explaining things. If you can explain physics to a lay person, then you can really explain physics to a student.” By the way, I have been giving that same advice to any physicist who asked me about writing. Anyway, Weinberg offered to write a letter of introduction to his publisher in New York and that was how Fearful Symmetry came into being, as I had already alluded to.
Tony, I’m so excited by the recent publication of Fly by Night Physics. Do you see writing as, in the present, your primary…the way you primarily occupy your time?
A theoretical physicist growing into old age, as I am, has three ways to go. You can go into administration, jostling and fighting others to get on important committees, to become chair and dean, to obtain higher positions in the American Physical Society, and so on. The other is that you can continue to try harder and harder to do first-rate research, in most cases with less and less to show for it. That it becomes harder happens to everybody, and I admire those who can continue to turn out good research. But let’s not kid ourselves. Very few people, even the all time greats like Heisenberg, Einstein, and so on, contributed much to research after the age of 50. I once confirmed this general impression by looking at their lists of publications.
I’ve heard this before, Tony. I’ve heard that theory is a young person’s game in many ways.
That was Dirac, but he vastly exaggerated, and his remark has had a pernicious, but happily, fading influence on the theoretical community. When I turned 50, I was very depressed and I talked to a whole bunch of people. I talked to Dyson. I talked to Yang. I talked to Weinberg. I talked to Brezin. Many others. Naturally, I received conflicting advices. Some say to become more phenomenological, and some say more mathematical. One strategy is to calculate in an area where the physics is largely understood, as Bethe, another of my favorite persons, did. He used to visit the ITP and it was fun to chat with him. He would do his numerical work using a slide rule. By the way, I have always felt so fortunate to have met so many of the greats and the not-so-greats in theoretical physics. It is one of the perks of having spent more than three decades at the ITP. Before the pandemic, the annual flux of visitors here, including conference participants, was about a thousand, so I was told.
Well, I’m still struggling. One key to doing research at an old age is, of course, to find some bright young guy to collaborate with. So recently I’ve put out a really wild speculative paper with a young Canadian named named Eric De Giuli who is very smart and original. He’s an expert on glasses. So we speculated that gravity might be glassy. This, to me, is what will keep me going in research —combining some stuff I know with some stuff I know zilch about. You also understand that after a certain age you just don’t feel like spending time on a calculation that hundreds of others can also do. [Pause] Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it seems to me that many papers are written with routine calculations about something or another in particle physics. Well, I can do those calculations too, if they don’t involve massive numerical simulation. But why? [Laughs] Why should I? [Pause] Maybe I should. [Laughs] [Pause] Maybe I shouldn’t.
The third possibility is to write books, and in that I’m following Weinberg’s example, and before him, people like Gamow. Weinberg is my hero. He writes really well, and how he is able to have a steady output of both popular books and textbooks! But anybody who has read both his and my books can tell you how different they are. Sometimes I email him to chat about our different writing styles. [Laughs] Anyhow, I enjoy writing. It comes to me easily.
I still get a kick, even after all these years, out of seeing my books translated into various languages. Recently, On Gravity was translated into Turkish and Czech, two languages I did not have before; I have had Polish and Russian and Korean etc. By the way, early on, when China first opened up to the west, Fearful Symmetry was pirated with the author’s name changed to something like Mr. Hot. When I met Wen’s mother, she told me that she had read it but didn’t realize that her son worked with Mr. Hot. Later, there was a competing authorized translation put out by Tsinghua University Press.
And at this stage in your life, Tony, you have the freedom to pursue the things that are most interesting to you. You can do that.
Yes. Wilczek said the same thing to me twenty years ago already. At that time, I was still struggling to learn some string theory and maybe even to contribute. Frank said, “Why? How are you going to compete with these 30-year-olds in string theory who come in knowing a lot of math already?” [Laughs]
I’ve always wanted to learn new things. These days I’m learning by teaching. I invented the course on which my book Fly by Night Physics was based on. I also proposed the course on which my group theory textbook was based on. My mode of operation is to propose a course and learn new things and maybe write about it. I just finished a course on fluids, which of course I didn’t invent. There are a lot of very interesting things in fluid dynamics I did not know much about.
For example, for my last lecture last week, I derived the Rayleigh stability criterion for temperature inversion. Normally, hot air rises and cold air falls, but if a layer of hot air sits on top of cold air on the ground, then pollutants are trapped. That’s when big cities got all this smog. It’s fun, for a change, to understand the physics and to know where the equations are taking you. These days, students are more interested in applied problems which might benefit mankind, rather than in particle and string theory. This is a good thing.
Tony, for my last question, I want to ask you, based on the idea that physicists never retire; they only reinvent themselves and move on to new pursuits. Looking to the future, what are the things that you want to continue to accomplish in your career?
I want to become a better person. I want to be a healthier person. I should exercise more. The standard litany, I know, but I also have ambitions. I received a fellowship from Harvard to spend the academic year 2005-2006 at the Radcliffe Institute to write a novel. Alas, even with two lovely English major undergraduate assistants, I was unable to complete it. Yes, I should do this, I should do that. I should be more patient with students. There are some smart kids in a physics class, but there are also a lot of dumb kids, in spite of what the left radicals assert. [Laughs] By the way, in a course I took with Sam Treiman, a student, not I!, once asked an egregiously stupid question, and Sam picked up the eraser and threw it at the guy, saying “That’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.” [Laughs] Times have certainly changed. Now he would be lucky if he didn’t get sued! [Laughter]
Different times today.
For sure! In those courses I took from Schwinger, it was understood that you were not supposed to ask questions. You raised your hand, and he just ignored you. [Laughs] You know, I’ve also heard terrible stories at Caltech about Feynman. Part of the legends we theoretical physicists love to tell.
As I said, I also have other ambitions in life. For instance, I would love to get a cartoon into the New Yorker. That’s almost a lifelong ambition.
I have a lot of ideas and I try to draw. Over the years, I’ve made friends with several New Yorker cartoonists. They have been encouraging me and offering me advice. As you probably have heard, it’s almost impossible to get one accepted. It remains to be seen how many rejections I could take.
Tony, I read the New Yorker every week and I look at all the cartoons. I’m going to look out for a cartoon by you. I hope it happens.
Well, that would be fantastic! [Laughs]
Something to stay tuned for. Tony, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I had a great time with you, and I’m so glad that we connected. I really appreciate it.