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Interview of Myriam Sarachik by David Zierler on September 15, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Myriam Sarachik, Distinguished Professor Emerita Physics at City College of New York, is interviewed by David Zierler. Sarachik recounts her turbulent childhood first in Belgium, from which her orthodox Jewish family evacuated during World War II, then in Cuba, and then in New York. She describes some of the challenges of being a girl interested in science and she recounts her undergraduate at Barnard, where her talents in physics first became apparent. Sarachik discusses the formative influence of Polykarp Kusch and her experiences with Dick Garwin, who was her graduate advisor at Columbia. She explains her dissertation research measuring the attenuation of a magnetic field through a superconducting film right at the time that BCS (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer) theory was developing. Sarachik describes her postgraduate work at Bell Labs, where she worked in Ted Geballe’s group, and where she conducted research in measuring the resistivity of alloys for which her findings came to be known as the Kondo effect. Sarachik discusses her decision to leave Bell to join the faculty at City College, where she immediately got to work building a lab and taking on students. She describes her coping mechanisms in her attempt to continue her career following the tragic loss of her child. Sarachik discusses her work on doped semiconductors and then in searching for the macroscopic quantum tunneling of magnetization. She reflects on her feelings of validation within the field as it related to her advisory work on numerous scientific boards and committees, and in particular her tenure as president of the APS. Sarachik describes her subsequent research on metal insulator transitions in two dimensions, and she conveys the impact of her major profile in the New York Times in 2020. At the end of the interview, Sarachik returns to her religious family roots and affirms both the cultural influence of this upbringing and her subsequent embrace of atheism. Sarachik concludes expressing wonderment at what the true meaning of quantum mechanical effects might tell us about nature.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 15th, 2020. I am delighted to be here with Professor Myriam Sarachik. Myriam, thank you so much for joining me today.
I'm glad to be here.
OK. So to start, Myriam, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
I am Emerita—which means I retired two years ago—Distinguished Professor of Physics at City College of New York, which is one of the CUNY branches. OK? Did I—
You did perfect. [laugh]
OK. All right.
That's exactly fine. Now, obviously, before the pandemic, I assume you would've still been going into the department for seminars and colloquia and things like that?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I now attend some of them on Zoom.
Because everything is happening on Zoom.
Including this. Everything is happening on Zoom.
Yes, we're all alone together.
That's right. OK. Myriam, let's go all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about your parents and where they are from.
They were both—well, I, too, was born in Europe. My father was born in Poland in a small town, a shtetl, where the men spent their time studying the holy books. And my mother was also born in Poland, in Rymanów, which is the same place as I.I. Rabi.
And the reason she was born there, her mother, my bomama was living already with her family in Belgium, but she went back to her mother in Rymanow to give birth. So my mother was actually born in Poland, but her young years were in Belgium with some time spent in Holland. My father, as part of his very, very large family, one by one, they immigrated west, mostly to Belgium, some to England, because things were not going terribly well in Eastern Europe. They got married and they had three children and I was the middle one and the only girl.
Were your parents from religious Jewish families?
Oh, yeah. Everybody was religious in those days. I thought the whole world was when I was growing up, when I was very young. [laugh] Yes, they were Orthodox. Actually, when he emmigrated and arrived in Belgium, my father suddenly discovered this larger world and he was totally captivated by it. He played the violin, he read books, everything he could find. My mother told me one time that when they were first married, he would read geography books to her. He was just completely bowled over by it.
How old was he when he got to Belgium?
It was around World War I. I think he was in his middle teens. And he was one of a series within the family who left Poland around that time. Like immigrants, they all arrived, they lived for a little while with an older brother or until they sort of got themselves situated well enough that they could go off on their own. And it was a very close family. My father, during the time that I'm describing, became irreligious. In Yiddish people say that you're frei, F-R-E-I, which means free. [laugh] I find the terminology to be quite fascinating. And when his children were born one by one, he went back to religion. So he once again was quite Orthodox, and I grew up in a family that was Orthodox.
What about your mom, what was her religious experience from her family?
Well, the default condition was religion. She was religious, too. She lived that way of life and followed most of the expectations. She was very much committed to the cultural aspect of it, but I don't know that it ever meant that much to her.
But it was a way of life, yeah.
So, in some ways, Belgium was like the new world to your father and he left the shtetl behind?
Say that again.
In some ways, Belgium was like the new world to your father and he left the shtetl behind him?
Yes. But he came back to it. This is fundamentally who he was, and I, too, despite the fact that I have taken a very different road, there's a part of me that knows that that's where I came from.
Mm-hmm. Now, I speak the lingo so we can use all the words that you want to use. I'm curious, some people are religious because that's simply where they come from and others have a deep emunas hashem, right, or a yiras shamayim?
Was your father like that? Was his faith in God and commitment to Torah, was it close to his heart, did he really feel those things?
Yeah. I don't know that I personally ever felt those things. My father, for some time during his lifetime, as I told you, really strayed away from it, but he came back to it and really became quite deeply committed. Whether he believed in God, that's a question that a lot of people will not answer because they're not sure, they don't know. But many people do believe. I mean, really deeply believe in God, and I think my father was sort of traveling toward that in his later years.
Mm-hmm. But, as we say, he was shtark [?] in his observances with Shabbat and kashrus [?]?
Did he attend minyan?
But he was not the orthodoxy that people think of these days with the payos (side curls) and shtreimelach (fur hats). I guess he was what you would now call modern Orthodox.
Yeah. He was not yeshivish [?]?
He was not yeshivish, he was not Litvish [?]?
No, no, no. Right.
Would he put on tefillin every day? Did he go to morning [?] minyan?
No. I think my brother did for a while. I'm not sure. I don't know. I don't remember. Being a girl, I was not subject to any of that.
Right. That's an important point.
That's an important point to remember.
I was not subject to any of it. But I did go to shul and I davened, I prayed. I recited all of it in Hebrew, which I could read but I could not understand. And it was just a way of doing things. You know, you grow up that way you don't think about it. Maybe there are people who just go through it and never think about it. But when I reached my teens, I began to think about it; what's it all about?
Myriam, what was your first language?
What was your first language?
My first language was Yiddish. The language that we spoke at home was Yiddish. Wherever we were, Belgium, France, Spain, Cuba, all throughout our travels, Yiddish was the tongue that really bound us together. And a quite remarkable thing is that when we arrived in the United States, that changed. When we spoke to my father, we always spoke Yiddish. We just spoke Yiddish, but in the United States the local language – English - really crept into the communication system between us and the outside world. It just took over. It was really different. It was quite remarkable. The American culture just—my younger brother was—at the time we arrived in the States, I was 13-1/2, he was 8. And within 9 months he lost every trace of Spanish. And that was, for him, like his mother tongue because when we arrived in Cuba, he was 3 years old. So, as he was growing up, Spanish was his native tongue, other than Yiddish, of course. And within 9 months or 10 or a year, he just absolutely forgot every single bit of it. To this day, he doesn't understand it but there's a deep resonance with the language, and his accent, when he says something in Spanish, he doesn't understand it, but his accent is perfect. [laugh]
Myriam, what was your first school? Did you go to cheder?
No. I attended first grade in a school in the suburb of Antwerp that we lived in, Borgerhout,, Madamme Wright's [?] school. It was a small school. After our first attempt to escape from the Nazis in the summer of 1940 we returned to Antwerp. When we came back we moved into the middle of Antwerp because the place where we had been living was very near the airport and was being bombed all the time. I went to second grade in Tachkemoni. a Jewish school that taught both secular and Jewish subjects.
And what was your father's profession in Belgium?
He was a diamond cutter and a diamond dealer. In fact, the profession of almost all the Jewsin Antwerp who immigrated one by one from Poland was diamonds. And the people who were already there taught the ones that were coming in. And they actually established a really active and vital diamond industry. After the war, after we had been in the United States for a bit, not long, the Belgian government tried to re-establish the diamond industry and they invited all of us to come back. Some of the family did go back, but we didn't. We didn't because the kids, Paul, Henry and I, didn't want to.
And what was the circumstances of your family leaving Belgium?
Well, the Germans invaded. [laugh] It was a major cataclysm in world history. Not just the invasion of Belgium but Germany's quest to dominate the world.
But my question is, this was reactive on your family; they did not see ahead of the curve and get out sooner than the invasion?
That's right, yes.
And how difficult was it to leave?
Well, it was very difficult. We barely escaped with our lives, actually. When they first invaded, we (and thousands of other refugees) walked to Calais while the Germans, who were flying overhead in airplanes, got well ahead of us. So, by the time we got to Calais, the family had splintered into different groups and lost touch with each other. They promised each other that they would meet when they reached Calais, but by the time we reached Calais Calais was being taken by the Germans. It was under heavy, heavy bombardment. My mother and younger brother and I were separated from my father and my older brother. Part of our extended family was in Boulogne. During the long walk which we started together, the family – aunts, uncles, cousins our maid, etc. etc. had splintered into separate groupings and had lost touchwith each other. And at one point, there was a British ship that took women and children across the channel to England. And my older brother Paul, who was eleven years old, got on that ship. So did many aunts and cousins. But the men (including my father) were not allowed to board the ship. And we (Ma, Henry and I) were not even there when that happened; we were elsewhere. So the whole thing just—it was a very difficult time.
Do you remember these events vividly, or is part of it reconstructions from what others told you?
I remember a good part of it very vividly. I remember being hungry for the first time in my life. I had been an eating problem. My mother just didn't know what to do because I wouldn't eat. And all of a sudden, to her complete surprise, I was hungry. [laugh]
I was carrying a gas mask as we walked to Calais and it was getting heavier and heavier and heavier. And I asked, "Please—" I begged, "May I leave the gas mask?" I remember arriving in Calais where we spent the night during very heavy bombing in some barn which was filled with people who had arrived from all over. And my mother decided that she simply could not stay there because it was too dangerous and there was no place to even lie down. You know the pictures you now see of those kids that have been put in cages at the border and there's not even an inch of space for them to lie down to sleep; that was the sort of scene. I could spend the next 10 minutes talking about it, but...
I'm curious, Myriam, if you understood, even as a small child, that you were in danger specifically as a Jew and not just because there was a war?
I think I knew that. I knew that. I knew that because—we all knew that. It was a child's view of things. I didn't understand completely everything that was going on, but I understood a lot. I was nearly 7 at the time, and I now look at 7-year-olds and they look like they know nothing, but that's just simply not true. They understand at some level that is higher than you would give them credit for, they understand what's going on.
But your family was caught; you spent time in the concentration camp?
Oh, that was on a second try. After Calais and Dunkirk fell to the Germans, we spent some time on a French farm, and eventually the Germans said, go home, and everybody went home. So we went back to Antwerp. And we spent another almost a year back there before many of us decided that we just have to get out or try to get out. And there was an exodus, and some people made it, and many did not.
Did you have any idea why the Germans who would've had orders either to kill or round up Jews would have simply given them an order to go home? Did you have any idea what that was about?
I don't understand the question. Say it again.
In other words, in the middle of the war as the Holocaust is getting underway, why would—
It wasn't yet underway. That was a decision that was made down the line, and none of us really ever imagined, nobody imagined that what would transpire was possible.
But we knew things were not good.
They were not good, but you didn't have any conception of an Auschwitz or anything like that at that point?
No. No. No. But we knew that we were in very bad jeopardy. The Germans came and searched our houses. There was a curfew. They searched our homes. It was very oppressive.
So the year back in Antwerp you always felt in danger, it was nothing like a normal year in your life?
Oh, no. The British bombed every night. I remember my father going outside and gesturing bomb here. [laugh] And we went down to the basement. They bombed and we went down to the cellar, the all-clear sounded and we came back and went to bed. And it was just constant, constant, constant. And there was one night when I woke up to the all-clear and I realized I was in my bed and I was all alone. They had left me behind. But, by the way, my older brother wasn't there anymore. He was in England at that point. And they came up from the cellar where everybody was sheltering, and I was absolutely—I can't put words to it. They didn't care enough to take me with them. And they said, "Well, we just didn't have the heart to wake you up one more time."
So I remember those things. But, you know, when I talk to friends and other people, we don't talk about this. I do know that they don't remember their young years all that well. My husband, for example, remembers very little about what happened when he was a child. He does remember when they moved from one place to another in New York, and other maybe one or two or three signal events. But, during those years, I was faced with very dramatic events all the time. Not all the time, but much of the time. And those I think are remembered much more than just the ordinary day-to-day existence. There were demarcations, this happened and that happened and then the following happened, and I remember those happenings. Some of it is because, as you say, it's a reconstruction, but most of it is memory. And some of it is missing. How did we get from here to there? I don't remember. [laugh] How did we get from the first camp near Bordeaux to the second camp near Tour? I don't remember – I think I remember they took us by train. My father would have remembered but he was killed in an accident back in 1968 and he was gone. And my mother just didn't remember. And Henry, my younger brother, was too young to even know what was going on. He was 2. He was a toddler, spoke only Yiddish. My mother tried to get him to shut up when German soldiers were around because she was afraid they would nab us—and the curious thing is that, in those few instances where that happened and the soldiers knew he spoke Yiddish, they were just—he was so cute, my younger brother; he was adorable—they just loved him.
Now, I bet you remember at the end of that year what happened next to your family when you did have to leave Antwerp?
Oh, yeah. We took a train to Paris. We left one day later than other people in the family because we weren't ready. The laundry was not dry. It was on the line. People didn't have dryers. My mother used to hang it up. And we were stuck in Paris for a while waiting for our luggage that was supposed to follow us. And by the time we got to the Spanish border where we were planning to cross into Spain-- we had false papers, everybody who got out had false papers. by the time we got to the border in Hendaye, the Germans had found out that the papers we were carrying were not genuine, so we couldn't try to cross. The family members who got to that point earlier than we did got out, but we did not get out. We tried to smuggle across the border, and we were caught, and that's when a series of things began to happen. We were put in a very bad camp surrounded by barbed wire in Merignac near Bordeaux.There were no families in that camp other than our family and another family that we were traveling with (the Schwergolds) from our community. Hygienic conditions in that camp were truly atrocious. And I remember my father and Mr. Schwergold meeting with a rabbi who lived in Bordeaux and came to the camp to try to help us. The Grand Rabbi of Bordeaux, I have since found out. To me he was just a rabbi. And he succeeded in getting us transferred to another camp that was not as oppressive. And there were a number of things—that second camp was a different kind of camp. It was residence forcé. where the adults and the children were housed in separate living quarters. Henry was a toddler, so he stayed with his parents. I was going on 8 and the children my age were separated and slept separately and ate separately, and saw their parents only on weekends. There was a wonderful young girl who was the leader and took care if ys. I think she also was one of us – interned in the camp. She organized our time, she sang songs with us, and we ate together separately from our parents. I remember a song we sang: “Mes amis, la vie est belle, malgré les peines, qui nous enchainent…” which translates to “My friends, life is beautiful, despite the sorrows, that enchaine us ….” We spent just I think maybe six weeks, seven, eight weeks in that camp. And we finally escaped. We escaped from that camp to Tours, and a day later we smuggled across the Ligne de Démarcation, the border between occupied France and unoccupied France, into Vichy, France, which also was not such a great place to be.
But there's bad and there's worse, and being in Vichy was a lot better than being in occupied France. We stayed in Nice for several weeks. I knew we had to get out, out, out, I kept asking why are we staying here for such a long time – I was finally told that Papa had to “arrange the papers”. We then took a train across the Pyrenees into Spain. We stayed in Bilbao, again for a few weeks where food was strictly rationed and the only food we succeeded in getting was a delicious pie that some restaurant was willing to give us every day after dinnertime. We eventually sailed from Vigo and arrived in Cuba after a three-week voyage across the Atlantic.
Now, Myriam, at this point, I assume you and your family were quite well aware of what the German plans for Jews were at this point. In other words—
You still did not know?
No concept of what was going on in Poland?
No, no. Because this was the middle of 1941.
So it's still early.
Yeah. In the middle of 1941, we actually got out and reached Cuba toward the end of 1941. And the roundups and the trains and all of that, that started in 1942, and we did not find out what was going on even then. We found out somewhat later, when we were already in Cuba.
Now, when you left, did your family know they were going to Cuba or was it just get on a boat and just get out?
No. No, no. Actually, we thought we were going—actually, we just wanted to get out.
But we had a visa to Santo Domingo, and that's because, in the course of events leading up to World War II, there was an international conference held in Evian where many governments convened to try to figure out what to do about the oncoming situation —the upshot is that Rafael Trujillo was the only head of state to open his country, the Dominican Republic, to refugees. So we actually had visas to Santo Domingo without which there was no way we could've gotten out, because there were two aspects at the border between France and Spain. One was that you had to have a laissez-passer, an exit permit to get out of occupied France, and that exit permit was the problem when we were trying to get out, but it was also a matter of whether Franco would allow us to enter into Spain. And he allowed people to get into Spain only if they had documentation that showed that they had no intention of staying in Spain. So the visa was absolutely essential. So getting out was a problem, getting out of France and getting into Spain was a problem, and they were two separate things. So we had a visa to go to Santo Domingo and when we finally got on the boat that took us across the Atlantic, the first stop in the New World was Havana. And the family members who had preceded us had stayed in Havana. Batista, who was the dictator of Cuba at the time, allowed people to stay if they arranged for the appropriate bribes and so on, but bribes, I think, were very commonplace. You couldn't get out without bribing people. You couldn't get in without bribing people. And bribing people is considered a terrible thing to do, but without it I wouldn't be here talking to you. So we stayed in Cuba and we stayed for many years. I grew up in Cuba.
But your family's initial plan was Cuba was just going to be a stopping point; it was not the destination?
That's right. So like everybody else in the world, we wanted to get into the United States.
Right, right. Did you have family in the United States?
We had distant family, not close family.
So no one that could host you?
No one that would host you, no one that would take you in?
No. No. Well, in order to finally get in, after the war was finished, we needed an affidavit from somebody in the United States, and the affidavit was a promise to take on financial responsibility if the immigrants couldn't make it on their own. And that was a requirement that—we had nobody in the States who was really close, but we had a distant cousin whom we didn't really know who was willing to do that.
To get back to your father, did he keep up with his Yiddishkeit in Cuba?
And what was the Jewish community like there?
It was close. It was a close community. It was a refugee community.
In Cuba there was pretty much an upper class, a lower class, and us. [laugh] No, there was some middle class. I'm exaggerating, but it was a very stratified society, as exists in much of the world. And we were sort of in the middle and we formed our own community, and it was a very close community. And most surprisingly with some of the—I don't know—notoriety that I just received with this prize, I have received emails and inquiries from people whose fathers and mothers went through Cuba on their route to escape and they asked me whether perhaps their parents knew my parents.
A number of such people, strangers to me at this point, and yet the connection is there, I remember their names. I was friends with some of their kids.
Did you pick up Spanish pretty quickly?
Yeah. Kids do that.
And what kind of school did you go to, a Cuban public school?
Cuban public schools were not public schools the way people think of what public schools should be here in the United States. They were not viewed as serious places to learn things. So everybody who was able went to private schools. For the first, I think, two-and-a-half years or so, I went to a Cuban school called Ariel and I reached the point where I would go into high school when I was three years younger than I should be. I was 11, and the entry age was 14, and the Cuban government simply would not allow me to enter high school. And I can tell you that my parents fought hard to try to get me in, but it was impossible. So at that point, I was switched to an American school because my parents didn't want me to be subjected to the same curriculum I had already learned. There was a prescribed path and I had already been through the earlier grades, so they switched me to an American school so that I could learn new things because the curriculum and the sequencing were different. So for the last two-and-a-half years or so I was in an American school called Ruston Academy.
Myriam, when did you start to realize that you were talented in science?
[laugh] Science was sort of a concept—it had no meaning to me. I was very, very good with numerical things. I realized that I—I don't know that I realized that, but I was really quite surprised in first grade all of a sudden I was number one in class instantly from the very beginning, and everybody else that we knew whose children were in that school, the parents just couldn't believe that that little nobody [laugh] had risen to the top like that. So, in fact, I think that during that year I found my calling in life. I mean, I was somebody instead of not being—I was nobody before then.
And nobody doubly because you're a girl, as well, and this is not really a suitable—
Yeah. And girls don't do that, right?
I mean, girls were inconsequential. [laugh] And my prowess with numerical things continued. It is largely the reason why I reached high school scholastically so early—I was much too young. And that's what sort of propelled me forward. I was also—I could conjugate Spanish verbs better than anybody else in class. That's not numerical, I just could do it. And the Cuban system of education was very, very strong on memorization, and I could memorize. I used up my memory during those years. My memory has been terrible since then. But we took botany, zoology. I memorized in what we now think of as biology just long lists of classifications and genuses and God knows whatsit. So my brain just kind of functioned that way. I don't know that there was a particular point where I realized that scientific material—and actually, I was interested in things other than the sciences, too. I read enormous amounts of stuff. I just liked intellectual pursuits.
So at this point you were not thinking that you would grow up to be a scientist, that was not in your imagination?
No. Yeah, listen, girls don't do that, right?
Unfortunately, that was the attitude.
Yeah. And I subscribed to it, too. A woman's role was different. My father later on—maybe then, too—was deeply concerned for my two brothers. What he worried about was, how are they going to make a living? How are they going to make their way through life and make enough money to be able to—and that was never a concern for me because I wasn't going to have to make a living, I was a girl.
Yeah. You'll get married and you'll have kids and...
So I was free to sort of roll around in stuff and not worry about, how am I going to make a living? I just wanted to learn things.
Probably this changes when you get to New York.
Not even then?
What were the circumstances of coming to New York; how did that happen?
Well, we had always wanted to come to the United States. When the war ended in 1945, America opened its doors, but it didn't open its doors completely and widely. There were quotas. There were lines. We were on the Polish quota because my parents never became Belgian citizens. It was just not something that happened in those years. And, as Polish citizens, it was a long, long wait because the Polish quota was not very large. There were very few people who could get in and they had to wait in line, and we waited for two years. But why did we come to New York? That was the beaten path. Everybody went to New York.
Later in life, I discovered Jews who came to the United States but not New York, from small cities elsewhere in the United States, and I was amazed. I mean, how did that happen? Everybody went to New York. So we were part of everybody, we went to New York.
And what was the mode of transport? Did you take a ship, a plane?
No, no. [laugh] Oh, I remember we got all dressed up. This was an event. We had clothes tailored and made specifically for the trip.
It must've been nice to leave under your own volition and not escaping an enemy.
Yes. And we dressed up for it, the hat and the gloves. It was amazing! We took an airplane to Florida, to Miami, and we took a train north from Florida to the United States—to New York.
[laugh] And where did you land in New York? What was your family's first apartment?
When we first arrived in Cuba way back, we lived with my uncle Chiel and his family for quite some months before we found our own apartment. When we arrived in New York, we lived with my Aunt Chumtje for quite a few months in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn until we found our own apartment. And that, I guess, is the road for immigrants; if they can possibly stay with somebody who preceded them, they do that until they find their own way. And that's what we did. So we arrived in March and at the end of August of 1947 we moved to a place in Washington Heights, and it was a real cultural upheaval for me. It was so different from anything I had known before.
Was your father, in New York, was he looking to get back into the diamond business?
He was always in the diamond business.
So even in Cuba he was in the diamond business?
In fact, the refugee community built an incredibly active, productive diamond industry in Cuba while they were there, and it has pretty much vanished. Because when we came it was built, and when we left—we meaning almost all of us, one by one—the diamond industry just leaked away. And, as I told you, the Belgian government tried to get it back, and it actually succeeded in getting back enough of it that it was reestablished in Belgium. It’s a long time ago—it's now quiet different, it's now dominated by a different demographic distribution.
Yes. And also the arrival of methods for making diamonds, for actually making—not just mining but I remember all those years where physicists, including my own thesis mentor, were trying to fabricate diamonds because diamonds were very, very valuable. I knew that one day it would become possible, and it has become possible so that the value of mined diamonds, diamonds altogether, has diminished considerably. However, now with the situation that surrounds us, which is so uncertain, I'm told by cousins who are still in the business that it's coming back up.
Hmm. Did your father go right to 47th Street?
And he established a business there?
Yes, with his brother Chiel with whom he was always very, very close.
What was your first school when you got to New York?
OK. There was a school in Bensonhurst. We found out when we arrived that the system in the States was that you go to your local public schools, and public schools were OK. In Cuba they were not very good, they were not very effective, but in the United States people did that. So I went to a school—we arrived in March; April, May, June—I went into 8B for, I think, the last three months of that school year. And then, when we moved to Washington Heights, my mother knew that the system was that you go to the local public school, so she found out what that school was and it turned out to be one of these really, really violent schools. It was an experience that was absolutely amazing. My background certainly did not teach me how to fight. It was the furthest thing from anything I had anything to do with up to that point. And the fights in that school were just every day, and they were violent, and they were horrible. They took place when school let out, so kids were going home. And I knew how to speak English, but it was a peculiar accent and it didn't quite fit. I didn't fit into that school at all. They had a spelling contest and I knew how to spell and some of them didn't, but there was a competition and it went in stages, and I won the competition in my own home class and then I won the competition at the next level and so on. And I was in the competition when the final was going to take place in the auditorium, and I was going to be one of the competitors. At the last minute, the principal pulled me out, put me in his office, and gave me an exam to do. And I was outraged! I was supposed to be in a competition. [laugh] I think he saved my life.
Because I was very likely to win that competition. I had just arrived at that school and actually I was in 9B. I had skipped 9A. I had been in 9B, the very last grade in a junior high school. So I came in at the very last semester. I didn't fit worth a damn. I was white and almost everybody else was not. And if I was going to win that competition, I probably would not have survived it.
So it was an experience.
And as I think I wrote in a little mini biography that was published recently, there were kids in the class, in my own class, who took me under their wing and walked me home every day to be sure I got there. So it was a shock. It was an incredible shock. I absolutely could not believe that you could be unsafe in your own school. It was just like—I couldn't believe it. And then I went to Bronx Science, which was full of misfits like me. [laugh]
[laugh] But not many girls, right? Were there any girls there?
Not many girls. I arrived not at the beginning but—I had gone to junior high school. That first year of high school was already done in junior high school. So when I entered, the proper place for my entry was as a sophomore. I think that particular class was the first that admitted girls, but some of the girls were already there because they came in a year earlier. But look, whether I got those facts exactly straight, it was around the time when girls were first admitted to Bronx Science.
Myriam, I'm curious if you got to know—I assume they were your contemporaries—people like Shelly Glashow and Steve Weinberg? Did you know them at the time?
I didn't know Shelly. I know him now. We've been in touch. I remember Steve Weinberg. He was that young, red-headed kid. [laugh]
He was younger by a year, I think, than the rest of us. I do remember somehow that in biology—believe it or not, biology—we weren't in exactly the same class, but I think we took it about the same time, and he was phenomenal and I was doing great, too, but in a different way. We didn't take the class together, but he was obviously just shiny bright. I did not know Shelly. Shelly was a good friend with Danny Greenberger—
I didn't know Danny, either. I was a refugee kid. I told you I was a misfit. We were all—we weren't all misfits, but there were a lot of kids who went to Science who weren't quite the regular path. But I didn't know too many people. I still was basically a refugee and I didn't connect very easily with my classmates in those days. No, I didn't know Danny, I didn't know Shelly. I knew of Steve and we knew each other. He doesn't remember that. We knew each other very vaguely. And I've become very good friends with Danny. Danny is basically cut from the same cloth as Shelly. And Steve. He has incredible originality and a fascinating off-beat way of looking at things.
Shelly credits Danny, I believe, with really helping him with calculus. That was one of Danny's strong suits.
Now, to get back to this question of when, Myriam, I wonder, finally in high school, is this when you started to think that maybe science would be a viable career path for you or still no?
[laugh] No, I didn't. Quite surprisingly, when I got out of Science, I had absolutely no intention of becoming a scientist. I had been surrounded by all the science. I was operating in a much broader kind of plane. I loved music. Music was just something that had always totally dominated my soul. And I continued a number of other things. Since I knew Spanish and I knew French and I knew them very well, I took a number of courses when I got to college in Spanish literature and French literature. I was finally able to take a course in philosophy, something I had looked forward to. I was interested in a whole bunch of things and I just did not—science was not where I was going. And, in fact, when I was at this junior high school, I found out that there were special high schools that were giving examinations, entry exams, and Hunter was one of them. And my mother had heard of Hunter. She probably heard not of Hunter High School but Hunter College, which has a measure of international reputation. And she wanted me to take the exam to get into Hunter. And, while I was at it, I found out there was also Bronx Science and a Music and Art high school. And so I thought, yeah, why not? I'll apply for Bronx Science. I didn't apply for Music and Art because I had had no piano to practice on for almost a year, nine months, and there was not a ghost of a chance that I could get in. Of course, that was just simply not true. But I did not apply because I thought I didn't stand a chance. Had I applied, I might very well have gone there, and my life might've been different. Who knows?
Yeah. Leaving New York for college, though, that was not remotely a possibility?
Oh, no. Don't be silly. My father would never let me. [laugh]
I actually—there was an exam, I forgot what it was, to enter college which was shared among many—you took the exam and you put down which colleges to send the results to. And, of course, I listed Barnard, which is where I ended up going. And just on a lark I listed Brandeis. But it was clear that my father would never let me go to Brandeis. He would never let me live anywhere except home. So I did not apply to Brandeis, but they got the results of that exam and, lo and behold, they contacted me, and they said, where is your application? [laugh] And I forget what I wrote back, but obviously I couldn't go. Going away to school or going away to anywhere was off the map. My father was an autocrat within his own house, within his own family, his immediate family. I was the only one who confronted him, who actually did battle with him. We loved each other enormously, but I just absolutely was unwilling to submit to his edicts. But, of course, I always lost the battle because...
He's your father.
During one of these battles, he just said to me, he said, "Listen"—it may even have been about Brandeis. I don't know what the specific topic was, but he said to me, "So long as you live in my house you will do what I say. And when you get married you will do what your husband says." And that's the way it was going to be, except it wasn't.
Did you ever try to explain to him that, you know, this is America and there's a new generation, there's a new way of doing things?
Nah. There are some things it doesn't pay to waste breath on.
There was just simply no way that that was going to be a discussion that yielded anything.
Was he opposed even to the idea of you going to college at all?
No. I was living his dream. Look, he really would've loved for his children to follow the intellectual path that he never got a chance to. My father was one of the best self-educated—he never had an education of the kind that you think of as being an education, but he was really very, very knowledgeable about a lot of things because he was so deeply interested. And I know that he would've really loved to have had the chance to follow that path, but it was not something that his life offered as a possibility. And he wanted his children maybe to do that. And I was the middle child and a girl, and he didn't have to worry about whether I was going to make a living or what was going to happen. It was going to be all all right. I'm going to find somebody, get married, and take care of my children, right? In the meantime, he really took great pleasure in what I was doing. I was living his dream. And he never stopped me, he never opposed me.
But I assume that there must've been some paradox in the sense that he had big dreams for you, but he also wanted to constrain you within his very traditional—yeah.
Absolutely. It was really a dead-on collision. On the one hand, he was deriving such pleasure from the fact that I was actually realizing what he would've loved to do himself, but he didn't really expect that I was going to do anything with it.
Yeah. At the same time, did he want you in shidduchim [?]?
Did he want...?
Did he want you in shidduchim, did he want you to find somebody and just get married?
[??] shidduch, to make a shidduch?
No. No. There were a couple of guys in what was still the refugee community that he would've loved for me to get involved with, and there were a couple of possibilities, but I broke away that way. I wanted to make my own choice.
And how did you express that? How did you make your own choices?
It just happened.
I mean, in terms of the kind of school you went to, the course of study that you pursued.
No. That was my own choice.
What was your first major in college? What did you think you wanted to study originally?
I didn't know. In fact, when I first started college that first semester, I had difficulties. I don't even remember which courses I was taking, but I wasn't doing very well. And I thought maybe I would major in math because I really did like math, but it didn't turn out to be—I took a whole bunch of math courses. It didn't turn out to be as fascinating as I had hoped. I took a course, for example, in theory of numbers, and I thought that all these beautiful patterns and discoveries, they would all be discussed and I would learn them in that course, and it turned out to be such a dry course for me. Maybe it was how it was taught. But, on the other hand, I had terrible trouble when I first started physics. I just didn't get it. I didn't know what was going on. Physics was actually the hardest—I could do the math; I just didn't find it as fulfilling as I had expected. I took a graduate course when I was an undergraduate with a friend of mine who also is a woman who chose physics. I took a first-year graduate course in linear algebra. It was deadly. In this linear algebra course, the guy who taught it - I didn't understand what was going on and I finally figured out that it was because what he called U on the Monday of this week became X on the Monday of next week, and it became W the week after.. And his notation just kept changing. Every time he met with us everything was renamed. It took me a while before I could understand what he was doing. [laugh] I had to trace the nomenclature before I could even begin to understand it. And math somehow was a series of such silly things that got in my way. And I somehow didn't follow up on it. Physics was impenetrable for me. I actually failed the first half semester of the physics course, the first physics course I took at Columbia. And I had never, never in my life come close to an F. My father actually, who was following on all of this—I came home, and he said to me, "What did you get on your midterm grade in physics?" And I said, "an F," with a big smile on my face.
He looked at me and he says, in Yiddish, “vus is de gedile?”, (what are you so happy about?) [laugh] I wasn't celebrating, I was shellshocked. The world had suddenly turned upside down on me. I didn't know what I was going to do. And I never actually told this story, but the course was taught as a huge lecture, the professor would come in and lecture, but the nuts and bolts of the course were being run by, like, postdoc lecturer positions. Dr. Resnick was in charge of running the course, I went to talk to him, and I asked him, "What can I do?" And we had a conversation and he said, "Look, you have to go back to the beginning of the course, and I will give you a “re-quiz”, we had had weekly quizzes and I had essentially flunked all of them. He said, "One by one, I will give you quizzes to take as you did in the beginning and I'll give you another chance." And that is what I did. I continued with the class from the midsemester point onward and, at the same time, I started again at the beginning so that I just marched through it two quizzes every week. And I rescued it. I worked like a fiend, but I pulled it off. And I got not an A, which I would have gotten if they did the full substitution of the requizes for the original ones - I got a B. And then, the semester after that, I got—it was not weekly quizzes, it was three exams—I got a 100 on all those exams when the rest of the class was floundering and drowning. It was absolutely amazing!
What clicked for you, Myriam?
What clicked for you?
I don't know. I just decided I was going to understand it. I don't know what clicked for me. I just—I guess I made it happen. I just believed it could and had to happen, and to this day I don't know. The thing about physics—in math, you could do the problems without really—there's a frame within which most of the problems can be done. You learn how to differentiate using a bunch of rules. I could differentiate you under the table. The next semester I could integrate the hell out of you. But I didn't need to understand what was being done when I did that. It was sort of a closed thing within which I could operate very well. In physics, that's not possible. At every stage, you have to have access to things that you had already learned—it was much more open-ended, and I couldn't do it until I absolutely decided I was going to do it.
And it just happened. I made it happen, I think.
I keep asking, Myriam, at this point do you think maybe you're going to become a physicist or still not yet?
Oh, no, no. At the end of that semester—
That was it?
—it was the time to declare a major and I chose physics. But I have to tell you that my struggles were not over.
There were a lot of things I did not understand fully, basic stuff that it took me years to really absorb. But I did enjoy the struggle. Maybe I'm a masochist. [laugh]
It was a quest that was often very discouraging, but it ultimately gave me an enormous amount of satisfaction.
Did you know at that point that you would go on to graduate school?
No. I wasn't going to do that. I mean, I was a girl. [laugh]
Right. What's the point of learning all this physics though if you can't go on to graduate school?
Oh, because I enjoyed it. You know, Phil and I got married when I got my bachelor's degree.
And where did you meet Phil?
Where did you meet Phil?
Oh, we met in that course, the course that I was talking to you about. I had missed two lab sessions, I think, because—well, one because it was a holiday and I didn't get that lab, and another for some reason, so I had to make up two labs. And Phil had to make up one lab for some reason. And they had set aside a weekend for doing these experiments. All the different lab exercises were set up and you could sign up to come and make up the labs you had missed. So I had missed two, Phil had missed one. So I had two back to back labs, 1:00 to 4:00 PM, and then 4:00 to 7:00. I did one of the labs that I had missed from 1:00 to 4:00, It took me almost the entire time to figure out what I was supposed to do and how to set it up. And I actually took the data within the last 25 minutes. So when the next guy came in who was going to do that lab, I thought I would save him a lot of time and explain to him, this is what you do and that's what you do. And I didn't move to the second lab that I was going to make up until it was a little late. But I wanted to save this guy all the angst and the trouble and so on, so I spent the time helping him and then I went on to the second lab. And the second lab was a two-person lab. In other words, there were some lab exercises that you did by yourself and there were some that were done by two students at a time. And when I arrived, there were two guys (one of them was Phil) already doing the lab and, oh, my God, I was faced with doing a two-person lab all by myself. I had just finished another lab and I was really exhausted. So I was very discouraged at this point. I started to set up this lab and one of them says, "Aw, come join us." I said, "I can't join you. It's supposed to be a two-people lab, not three-people." And yet they're already—"Aw, come on. Nobody's going to watch." So I said, "No, no, no, no." And finally I was exhausted, and I joined them. And, well, we met and actually at some point we went bowling together, we went to visit the Nevis Cyclotron at Columbia. And we're now married. We've been married for 66 years. We've had a life together.
A long one.
Myriam, by graduate school, did you know what kind of physics you wanted to specialize in, or you were still open-ended in that regard?
I was open-ended. Actually, I did not go to graduate school immediately because I wasn't going to do graduate work. But I wanted to do research and I wanted to stay around Columbia if I could because, even though I wasn't going on to graduate school, I wanted to take courses. So Professor Polykarp Kusch helped me to do that by arranging for me to get a job at IBM Watson Labs, a small laboratory near Columbia. And I began to work. Dick Garwin was my boss. And I took courses and I must've enjoyed those courses because I just wouldn't let go. And Phil got an offer—Phil was very, very bright. He understood all kinds of things I just didn't. And he got an offer—he also didn't intend to go to graduate school for different reasons, because it was not an expectation that he grew up with. But he was really good at what he was doing, and he got an offer from the engineering school for a graduate assistantship, because they wanted him to continue. So he came home, and he said, "Listen, this is what happened." I encouraged him to do it, and he decided he was going to be a graduate student. And I had a good friend, Noémie Benczer Koller, who spent her life actually—a good friend whom I got to know at Barnard. She was a physics major. She eventually spent her life on the faculty at Rutgers. Noémie was going on to do graduate work, and she had no qualms about that. She didn't understand why girls shouldn't or wouldn't, she was just doing it. So Noémie was doing it, and now Phil was doing it. And I thought to myself, well, I wouldn't be doing anybody any harm if I decided that I wanted to do it, too. And I asked Polykarp Kusch for a recommendation, and I became a graduate student. That's how it happened. It was not because I was on a particular path going anywhere. It was that I could allow myself to do it. And my father did not oppose it.
At this point he finally came around?
Well, he still didn't really expect that I was going to do anything with it. Nobody did. Even the faculty at Columbia. I was a student, right? And graduate schools, I now know, want students. They would like to have students to educate, and here was one, me. When I met with my graduate student advisor at Columbia, not my mentor, but there was a student advisor, at the point in my studies where a serious decision had to be made whether to just get a master's degree or whether to actually go on for a PhD, I met with him. He looked at my grades. I didn't know what my grades were because there was a rule in effect at the time at Columbia that you got letter grades but the only the faculty knew what they were. The students themselves did not know. They just knew whether they passed or they failed. So I didn't know what my grades were. He looked at them, and he shrugged and he said, "I don't know what to tell you." And he got up, walked out, and took this confidential set of grades and put them under my nose. And I didn't look because I wasn't supposed to. He came back after a while, we got into conversation, he realized I hadn't looked, so he shoved them closer to my nose and walked out again. And they were good grades. He comes back and he says, "You see, if you were a man, I would know what to tell you, but you're a woman; I don't know what to tell you." He never expected me to do anything.
Meaning that, as far as he was concerned, even though you got good grades, your existence as a graduate student was essentially a novelty, it wasn't meant to go anywhere?
I assume Dick Garwin did not treat you the same way.
My relationship with Dick Garwin was very complicated. We just...
First of all, he's not much older than you. He's, what, maybe four or five years older than you?
Yeah. Yeah. He was and is one of the very brightest people I've ever known.
And what's his status on the faculty? I mean, he's at IBM. Is he also fulltime faculty at Columbia at this time?
I think he was adjunct. He was very good friends with Polykarp Kusch.
Polykarp Kusch was really an amazing guy for me. It was Polykarp Kusch who arranged for me to start working with Dick Garwin when I first got my bachelor's degree, and before I actually made the decision to enter the graduate program. Dick Garwin and I really did not interact very much in the sense of mentor and mentee. It was just something he accepted. There was another student, Erich Erlbach, who was very bright, much brighter than I, with whom I actually ended up doing my thesis. It was not an easy thesis, and although I started along a different road, or Dick Garwin sent me on a different road to begin with, it was clear that I was not going to be able—it was an impossibly difficult experiment, and I just wasn't up to it.
What does that mean, you weren't up to it; why not?
I don't remember the details, but it was an experiment that was finally pulled off by somebody else but that required a degree of technical prowess that I simply had not developed. I was just too inexperienced and raw to do that experiment. It required detection at a level that was really unprecedented, and I couldn't do it. I didn't even know how to start. And, as I was on the way to telling you, Erich Erlbach and I actually teamed up on a different experiment which was also nontrivial, and it did take two of us. I did not really have much interaction with Dick Garwin directly while I was doing this experiment as a graduate student as is usual, and I think we just did not connect that way. He was not that much older than I, and he felt, I think, and it was clear to me at the time, that Erich was much more capable and much brighter than I was. And, in fact, he was much more capable than I was. [laugh] And he didn't even interact with Erich that much, but certainly as a team the connection was closer with Erich than to me.
I wonder, Myriam, between his work at IBM and all of his advisory policy work in Washington if, in some ways, he was simply distracted, if he wasn't all there in terms of being a committed faculty member at Columbia?
I can't speak to that. He was involved in physics. He was very sharp. And he was—at the time, you remember, there was all this excitement about the the non-conservation of parity, the Lee-Yang theory, and Madame Wu's experiment. The weekend when that news broke, Dick Garwin had an idea on how to show that parity was not conserved. C.S. Wu had spent a semester working with people at the National Bureau of Standards doing a very difficult experiment to show that parity is not conserved. When the news broke, Dick Garwin had an idea for a simple experiment to test parity conservation that could be done at the Nevis cyclotron—I think it was Nevis—over a one-weekend period. And it was done; in several days they proved something that it had taken C.S. Wu and her collaborators at least six months to do. So he was invested in physics. He did think about it. He had a wonderful facility. For example, the conclusions he drew sometimes were based solely on thermodynamic arguments, simple and global arguments. I marveled at his ability to do that. But ultimately, he spent his time, as you say, advising the government in a way that made a huge difference. But he did not spend his time doing the sort of inquiry that research requires. I've thought about that. I don't understand the dynamics of it. I don't understand the difference. What he did was hugely significant. In his role as advisor to the government, he just told them like it is. He never minced words. He told generals and dignitaries and highly powered people what he considered to be the truth, and that was that. He was completely—I don't know how to put it. He dared to do what most people don't. And I don't even know whether he understood that he was daring to do something that no one else dared to do. So his value and the value of his contributions are huge.
Myriam, I wonder if you saw opportunity or at least reflecting when you look back—many graduate students have a relationship with their advisor where the advisor essentially just hands them a problem to work on that's related to their larger research. And I wonder, absent that or absent that deeper relationship with Garwin, if you put that to your advantage in terms of being more active in defining exactly what you wanted to work on for your dissertation and setting those terms yourself?
No, I did not set those terms myself. He set them. I set terms for myself later in life but not at that point. I didn't know enough to do it then.
And so what did Garwin give you to work on?
The thesis actually was an experimental measure of the attenuation of a magnetic field through a superconducting film. So we made thin films of lead and thin films of some other superconducting material deposited on a glass tube, and we measured how much magnetic field penetrated through those films as a function of thickness and as a function of temperature. And we came up with data that we were ready to analyze when the BCS theory just came in. And it made it possible for us to take those data and deduce the fact that there was an energy gap and how large the energy gap was. So we established—but very indirectly, by the way, because it really is not a direct measure of the gap, it's a measure of the effect of the gap on that property. The analysis did yield the fact that there is an energy gap. It came up with the wrong value but approximately in the right ballpark of the size of the energy gap. But it turns out that lead is an atypical material anyway. But it was very much in the center of where things were happening. One of Dick Garwin’s contributions, by the way, was in the geometric form of a coil that produced a magnetic field that dropped to zero very rapidly with axial distance from the coil.. And we used fancy techniques like homodyne detection. It was nontrivial, and it turned out to be much more important at the time the data was actually coming out than it looked when we first started it. It looked like a fairly mundane experiment, and as we proceeded, all of a sudden it was center stage. Everybody was talking about BCS (the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer theory) because it was a huge breakthrough. But I didn't think up that experiment, he did. He was very much into the basic aspects of physics.
So the personal difficulties that you may have had to set aside, in what ways was this project good for you in terms of setting up your career and becoming an expert in your own right?
Oh, it taught me a huge number of things. It taught me techniques, electronic measurements, the fascination of physics that was previously not known. It taught me many, many things. It put me in the center of the field by virtue of the sequence of events I just told you. All of a sudden, the thing that Erich and I had done with Garwin was at the very center of what people were worrying about at the time. There was an excitement to it that was just very seductive. [laugh]
Who was on your committee, do you remember?
My thesis defense committee?
I could remember but I don't right now.
There were people who were not physicists, and I was asked at the time to explain why, how it was possible for electrons to move through a solid without any resistance at all. And I did not understand how that could happen. I really didn't. To this day, I find it—oh, boy! [laugh] It's really, really weird. They did not give me my degree for a while because of that. I did not pass that exam. I was sent back to find out more or to find out better. I don't remember who was on my committee, but I did not do well on my exam. I never did well on oral exams.
Myriam, I wonder if you felt any extra pressure being a woman that—was there a sense that if you didn't do well maybe that there was a message that maybe women should not be operating at this level? Did you ever have those kinds of thoughts?
No, not really. I was very upset about my ignorance. I was very upset about my inability at the time to dig that deep, and I have to tell you that, although I understand a lot better now, there are still huge chasms in my knowledge, in my—I don't know how to put it. I was always hampered by the things I didn't understand. My understanding is miniscule compared to the chasm of what I don't understand.
And how did you bounce back? When they sent you back to learn more, how did you bounce back from that; and perhaps what lessons did you derive from that experience?
I studied some more. I tried very hard. I sort of got back into trying to figure things out for myself. And they were willing to let me hang for a year or two, and after a while I just said, "Look, you just can't do that to me. I need to take that exam again. I mean, you can't decide not to allow me to do that. I've just got to move on."
And when it was time—
And they finally got tired of my pushing and yacking and they...
And when it was time to move on, what was next for you? What did you want to do next? You had the two-body [?] problem at this point, right? You were both looking for your next opportunity?
At that point, Karen was born because we had delayed having children until some of this was finished and resolved. And I actually thought that maybe I would be transformed into the person I thought I should've been to begin with. [laugh] But I couldn't hack it. I really could not—I've been thinking about that recently. I remember when I was a child that life somehow, day by day, things came to life when my father came home from the outside world and my older brother came home from school, which was also part of the outside world. And I just needed that contact with the outside world. I needed to be part of that outside world. And when I myself began to go to school, life began for real. And here I was back in a situation where I was drowning. I could not have survived in a situation where I was home taking care of the family and washing and cooking. I couldn't do it. And it was after a few months—and with Phil's not only acceptance but with Phil's push—because miserable as I was, I made him pretty miserable, too, you know—it was then that I began to look for a position. And it was hell. It was real hell.
But I did find one, again with Kusch's help.
And what was that first position?
It was as a member of the technical staff at Bell, but it was a position that was understood by everyone who had such a position directly following their PhD degree, it was a postdoc position. It was sort of an unwritten understanding that it was a two-year postdoc position.
You must've been excited at the prospect of Bell Labs because it was such an incredible place?
It was just incredible. It was full of energy. It really was an incredible place.
What group did you join when you got there?
My immediate supervisor was Ted Geballe. And what happened was that, after I spoke to Polykarp Kusch and I asked him for his help and we spent, oh, just maybe a half hour arguing about it—because he didn't think I should be looking for a full-time job. He had gotten his Nobel Prize at that point, so he was a very well-known person, luminary. But he had lost his wife within the past year and he was terribly distraught by this. And when I came to him and asked him for his help, he said, "Look at these shelves full of green volumes," the Physical Reviews. "What's it all worth anyway?" [laugh] He was so down and so disillusioned with his life because he missed his wife so badly. And he pushed very hard for me not to follow the road I wanted to be on. "Why don't you teach part time?" This is what was getting in my way. And when I first went to him a number of years earlier and asked him to help me get into graduate school, this was directly—well, it was after my bachelor's degree—he gave me a long lecture about the fact that I would never be able to get married if I did this. A physicist can marry a cabdriver's daughter, but a cabdriver is never going to marry a physicist, you know.
So he was very much part and parcel made of the same fabric as everybody else. I was, too. But, at the time, although I was not able to interrupt him because he wouldn't let me, I wanted to tell him, don't worry about my getting married; I'm getting married at the end of this summer. [laugh] There's no problem. There's no problem. He insisted on giving me this long lecture. In the same way, when I went to him for help when I was looking for a job, he had just lost his wife and he was terribly broken about it. He just tried so hard to argue me out of it. But to his enormous credit, he helped me anyway. The conversation finally ended. He asked me, "What is it that you want to do research on? What burning question is it that you must answer?" And I said, "I don't know. I don't know. I just want to do research." And it all ended when he finally looked at me and he said, "I don't know why you want to do this, but we did train you and we owe you a chance to try." The very next day, I got a call from Bell. It was Sid Millman. It was Polykarp Kusch, who obviously knew everybody in the field, including everybody at Bell, who had called Sid Millman. Sid Millman was head of physical research at that point and Sid Millman, I guess, talked Ted Geballe into interviewing me, and Ted Geballe took me on. And I never actually worked with Ted Geballe. I did my own thing. I think it was at that point that I started to chart my own course.
I've been waiting for you to say that. [laugh]
Yes. I don't know why but I did. I was just not really all that interested in what he was doing. At the time I didn't know very much about it. And my choice of measuring the resistivity of those alloys at Bell that led to what's now called the Kondo effect, was because it was precisely the sort of experiment that appealed to me. It was simple in execution and, although it seemed trivial, it was possible that it would answer a question that had bugged physicists for 30 years. It could possibly answer or provide the clue for a longstanding puzzle. So it may also have been one of the reasons why it was under appreciated for so long, because measuring the resistance of a substance as a function of temperature, it is such a straightforward measurement. It's sort of high school level almost, that—the truth of the matter is that many discoveries come from improvements in methods of detection, in the timescales, distance scales that are accessible to measurement and so on. That was not what I was doing. I was using a high school level measurement to probe a 30-year-old problem.
And the term "Kondo effect," you were using this term? That was sort of what you were specifically after?
No, no. There was no Kondo effect at the time. The thing that was really quite interesting is I was totally unaware of Kondo or any such thing. It didn't exist at the time I started these measurements. I don't know when Kondo became aware of what I was doing, whether he was aware of the experimental results I was getting or whether it was just something he happened to be calculating. But we arrived at the conclusions we drew quite separately. I became aware of what's now called the Kondo effect, namely his calculation, after I had written up and submitted for publication all the results of my measurements. When I received the page proofs, I then at that point had become aware of Kondo's calculation because he sent me a preprint. And I was in a quandary. What do I do? Do I withdraw the paper and rewrite it? What do I do? And the solution was found. The editors allowed me to add a note when the thing was published, it was in the form of a “Note added in proof: a recent theory by J. Kondo… (to be published)..gives the observed linear dependence on concentration, and apparently gives the correct temperature dependence.” I had presented my experimental results at a conference on magnetism and magnetic materials. It was on a Friday afternoon of a long conference, maybe five days long. This was the last afternoon of the conference, and it was at a session in a big hall where there were, like, 11 papers on the program. And the session started with 11 people in the audience, namely the people who were presenting results but nobody else because they all went home. But the result of the measurement was—it's not in the proceedings of that conference but it was in the program booklet. So it was public knowledge, although nobody knew about it. Whether he saw it, I don't know—he must've become aware somehow of this because he sent me a preprint of his theory—how else would he know—before my paper in Physical Review was published. Essentially what happened was that I approached the problem experimentally not knowing what he was doing, and he approached the problem theoretically. Whether he did or didn't know what I was doing, I don't know, but it was pretty much simultaneous. And it all came out at the same time. And nobody remembered the experiment I did for so many years.
Why? I mean, it's so famous now, why did it take a long time for it to gain traction?
I don't know. I don't know. Because it was technically trivial, maybe. Because it was done by somebody very young with no credentials who was also a woman, and women's work was in many ways considered inconsequential.
This is a comment, Myriam, about how you might've been regarded more broadly in the field. What about the environment at Bell Labs specifically, was it a welcoming place to be a woman?
I made a huge number of friends at Bell. I owe much of my professional career to the connections and the friendships, the real friendships I made while I was there.
And you were taken seriously as a scientist among your colleagues there?
Not really. I just don't know. These assumptions are so deeply buried, including within my own self, that you don't even know how to weigh their consequences.
But some things are specifically overt, like that conversation with your graduate advisor, and some things are not.
That specifically—what did you say? Some things are specifically...?
Like the conversation with your graduate advisor.
No, no. No, this is not overt.
This is something really unrecognized when it exists. And, as I said, it exists 'til now in all of us.
Right. Of course, of course. It's still around and young women in the field—
—will hear your story and they'll say, that's my life, that happened to me yesterday.
These are not things that are 60 or 70 years old in the ancient past. Not at all.
Myriam, what did you want to do after Bell Labs? Did you think about pursuing a career fulltime there? Was that something of interest to you?
Yeah. Yes, I actually wanted—I looked everywhere, but I what I wanted was a fulltime faculty position, and it was not on the table. It was not possible.
Right. Yeah. I mean, Bell Labs is basic science, but it's not teaching, it's not taking on graduate students, it's very different, and that's what you wanted, you wanted to be in that academic environment?
Well, I actually would've loved to stay at Bell, but most of the people who did have postdoc positions at Bell, and there are many, did not get offers for permanent positions. Bell really regarded this—I don't know what they regarded it as, but very few people who did postdocs were actually retained by Bell. And I would've given my eye teeth for it. In retrospect, and actually soon after I left Bell and I was at City, I realized that maybe it had been a blessing in disguise, because if you stay at a place like Bell and if you hit a dry spell as we all do and you don't really have any brilliant insights or ideas for a period of time, your existence at Bell is really shallow and empty. While at a university your function is so much broader and has so many different aspects, you teach and you help run the department and you contribute to developing whatever, new courses, new programs. And you participate in governance of the university and on and on and on. And when you hit, and if you hit a dry spell, it's not a dry spell. Look at how many other ways you can contribute. You can be active. You can be productive. While, at Bell, if you don't do the research you ain't got nut'n. So it may have been blessing in disguise.
And so then what did you do next? What was your next move?
I went to City. I haven't given appropriate credit to Erich, the guy with whom I did my thesis. Erich had gone to Bell. Erich was the bright light, the shining, rising star, and he got a position at Bell—no, not at Bell, at IBM, working with Ian Gunn, I think, on hot electrons for two years. And then he went to City. He was on the faculty at City when I applied, and he had been at City just a couple of years maybe. I don't want to reconstruct the chronology right now. But when I applied to City, Erich said, "You have to hire her. She's terrific." And he kept pushing for it. And actually City made me an offer that was the only single offer that I got for a faculty position. I had gotten parttime teaching offers, and a postdoc offer. I had already done a postdoc. Nowadays, people do postdoc after postdoc because the market is very different. But at that time, you did one postdoc and you did no more than one, and I was being offered temporary positions I got one postdoc offer. Big deal. City made an offer to me at the assistant—first of all, it was a fulltime offer. Second of all, it was a faculty position at the assistant professor level. And City College was a place that had a mandated set of salaries that was open knowledge to everyone. I got an offer that was in every way commensurate with the offers that were being made to faculty who were men in physics. And I was promoted along the ladder in precisely the same way. City College really was gender blind at a time when that was just not possible in a different sort of institution. So I really do owe a lot to City College.
And Myriam, when you got there, what research projects did you take up? Were you looking to take on new things or was this an opportunity to continue with what you were doing at Bell Labs just within an academic environment?
I continued in the beginning. When I first arrived at City, I established a lab. Some of the people at Bell helped me. Actually, Bell donated the equipment I had been using over there, which was really very helpful and very kind. And I continued the work that I was doing at Bell. I did not venture off in different directions. And it was six years after I arrived there—I had been promoted to associate professor in 1967 and then to full professor by Jnuary 1970. I had even become a fellow of the American Physical Society. But then I had—as is now well known but which I have not spoken about in many years, there was the loss of our younger daughter. And it just absolutely flattened me. I just was totally unable to develop any interest at all in any of the questions that I had been asking in my research—it just didn't exist for me for many years. And it was actually on my return to research when I was in my early 50s that I began to really branch out in totally different directions. When I came back, the issues that were being considered during my earlier time were no longer center stage. I couldn't have done anything in the area that now had progressed well beyond where I had left it, I had to do something. In order to get in, I had to do something different from what I had done before because the field was different. The questions were different.
Myriam, experiencing this tragedy, the worst possible tragedy that could ever be visited upon anybody, was it so great that at times you thought maybe about leaving the field entirely?
Or was physics always a source of—
Listen, your question assumes that leaving the field means entering another field.
That was just not part of where I was—it was not part of my reality at that point.
Was physics a source of comfort for you in your darkest moments, things that would keep you active, would occupy your mind?
Well, my teaching load at the time Leah disappeared and we were looking for her, colleagues on the faculty—my colleagues, Phil Baumel in particular, took my course loads. I couldn't. I mean, there was no way I could do anything. When the thing was resolved, I had to resume my responsibilities. I could not continue to depend on my colleagues to do the work I was supposed to be doing, so I—before the end of that semester, toward the end, it was time for me to meet my class again. And I actually was in a panic. I just could not see myself doing that. How could I appear before a class again? I knew nothing. I would not be able to answer the simplest question they would ask me. I had a terrible time, but I didn't say that to my colleagues who were finally being rescued from the extra load that I had put on them. I survived that first meeting—re-meeting with my undergraduate classes, and I found I was OK. But it was really an awful experience. I think that staying moderately busy helped me, whether it was physics or something else perhaps wasn't really the crux of the question. And I did a huge amount of mindless needlepoint at the time. It kept me alive. So I had been so used to being busy all the time, that just being busy, having things that required me to take on some role did help me. But I had three graduate students working with me at the time, and I had to get them out. I was not going to abandon them, so I had to do that.
Right. You were not paralyzed; you were carrying on with the core functions of your responsibilities.
Yeah. But I wasn't really all there.
I wonder also, when you sort of did re-enter the field, even though the questions had changed, emotionally, psychically, it was important for you to go on to new things just to establish a separation, a clean break?
No, I don't think so. I think it was just a different time. And I'll tell you, it was a different time and I had more courage because I was aware now that I was very strong and whatever failure or whatever happened, however I failed or discredited myself, it would be terrible for me, but I could survive it. I could survive anything. So I dared to venture into territory where I might be beat over the head or shown to be totally ignorant of anything or everything. I had the courage to do it because I—like, what was going to happen to me?
Right. There was a fearlessness because you had perspective now about the things that were really important.
Oh, no. I wasn't fearless, I was fearful, but I knew that it didn't really matter.
Yeah. So what did you take on when you came back? What did you want to work on?
Well, there was some work being done at Bell on the metal insulator transition by people like Mikko Paalanen and Tom Rosenbaum, Gordon Thomas, Robin Bhatt, very nice stuff about the metal insulator transition in doped semiconductors, which I thought was really, really interesting. And, of course, Phil Anderson's work was deeply influential and actually defined some of those problems.
I always hear the word deep associated with Phil Anderson in one way or the other.
Everything is deep with Phil.
He was an amazing guy, and I got to know him when I was at Bell in my earlier years. He was amazing. So I found stuff—I seemed to be pretty good at finding stuff that other people had moved on from and left unresolved, like in the Kondo thing. A lot of people had been measuring the resistance of some of these materials and it just was unresolved because there was no—the results that were being obtained were just inconsistent with each other. There was just something rolling around that had not been grabbed ahold of. In the case of the work that I chose to do when I came back in the mid '80s, again, it was loose ends that had been left by those experiments, by the people I mentioned, like looking at what the effect of a magnetic field was, trying to probe the spin orbit universality class, what effect that would have on the critical exponents. It was just loose ends that had been not tied down and that turned out to be quite significant. That's the kind of experiment that I gravitated toward. And it did not require new methods of measurement, which is not my strong suit and not what turns me on, although that's what the field does depend on. What can I tell you?
Myriam, coming from Bell Labs, I'm curious if you can comment on the quality of the laboratory environment that you had as a professor.
Say it again.
Can you talk about the quality of the lab equipment, the instrumentation that you had as a professor?
Oh, listen, I mean, there was no comparison.
Just the availability of lots of things. At Bell Labs there were colleagues with whom you had lunch who had measuring rigs that could probe almost anything that you were interested in finding out about. At a university, if you want—for instance, if you're working on a new material, if you want to know its specific heat, you have a couple of choices. One is to get money to establish in your own lab the necessary techniques and equipment to do that measurement, and the other is to collaborate with somebody at some other institution who already has it. At Bell you just sort of tap somebody on the shoulder at lunchtime and said, hey, would you be interested—[laugh] I mean, it's a different world. When high-temperature superconductivity was discovered in the mid-'80s, and everybody, absolutely everybody in the field jumped on that one, I chose not to go into that field because it was clear to me that I would never be able—with the capabilities I had within my own lab or at City College, I could not compete with Bell Labs, IBM, and various other perhaps even university-based places that had a full range of making these samples, of tuning the content, of characterizing them in every possible way. I just wasn't going to be able to compete. So I was in a position where I had to choose problems that I could deal with within the confines of what I had access to.
The other solution might've been leaving and going somewhere else. Did that ever occur to you?
I didn't think, and I probably was right in thinking that I wouldn't get another job.
So what did you do within the limitations that you had? What were you working on?
Well, I worked on these doped semiconductors. I worked on the behavior near the metal insulator transition and probed various questions. I looked at the hopping conductivity. I became very much interested in hopping conduction, the sort of stuff that Alexei Efros and Boris Shklovskii pioneered theoretically. I got into the question, which turned out to be fascinating, of the metal insulator transition in two-dimensional materials, a transition that was not supposed to be possible. And actually one of the pioneers in that field, Sergey Kravchenko, joined my lab as a postdoc when the Soviet Union broke apart, and he was looking to stay in physics, and we worked together for a period of time. That was a fascinating problem, and it made big news. I mean, for the first time I was in a field that was making big news. And I became also involved in a quite different area. Eugene Chudnovsky at Lehman College, which is another institution within CUNY—he is actually from the Ukraine and appeared on the scene when the Soviet Union was coming apart—he joined the faculty at CUNY and he tried to interest me in a problem in magnetism. And the Kondo effect, although I did not actually measure the magnetic response, involved magnetism. So he tried to get me involved in a search for macroscopic quantum effects having to do with magnetism. And I was too busy—actually having hopped back into research, I was very busy, and I did not join him in that. He's a theorist. But few years later I got a totally unexpected call from the Air Force of Scientific Research asking me whether I could write a proposal within five days because there might be some money for me in it. I was totally dumbstruck. I just had no—I mean, that just doesn't happen.
So I called Eugene, and Eugene is remarkable that way, he said, "Don't worry about a thing. We'll write a proposal." When I first got that call, my first instinct was to say, well, I don't know anything about magnetism. [laugh] But I had come to recognize some of the blunders I had made in the past and I said to myself, Myriam don't say no. You've got five days to say no, and just think about it—so I just listened very carefully and hung up and then I thought to myself, what in hell's name am I going to do about this? And then Eugene popped into my mind and I called Eugene. He said, "Don't worry about a thing, Myriam. We'll do it. We'll do it." And we wrote a proposal. He actually was the one who did most of the writing, which we submitted in five days, and we got a whole bunch of money.
And it put me into the middle of another field entirely, namely the search for the macroscopic quantum tunneling of magnetization (MQTM)—and that turned out to be an absolutely fascinating adventure also. We actually found the first solid evidence for MQTM. The student who worked with me on that problem was Jonathan Friedman, now on the Faculty at Amherst College. He had worked with somebody else in the department, that hadn't worked out, and he came to me. I was looking for a student, he was looking for a mentor. So we decided to work together, and we sat around for long periods of time trying to figure out what sort of experiment we could do. He chose to do this 'cause I was working on various things, and he said, "I want to work on that." I said, "But look, Jonathan, it does not look very easy or promising." He says, "That's what I want to do." So we sat around for a good bit of time thinking, what can we do to actually come up with a definitive experiment that shows this? OK, the problem was to try and get ahold or to realize a system, a mesoscopic set of magnetically identical particles. And that's hard to do. People had been working on collections of monodispersed particles that were pretty much the same size, the same—all kinds of other characteristics. But even when they were close to identical in every other way, they were just not identical magnetically because of dangling spins and unpaired spins here and there that were uncontrolled and uncontrollable. So there were experiments being done on organic crystallites that were magnetic---they came in powder form only. And the thing that intrigued me about those was that they could perhaps be used to find a set of particles that were monodispersed magnetically because they were composed of magnetic molecules where the magnetism was determined by the chemical composition. They occupied particular sites in materials and were forced to be magnetically identical by the chemistry. There were groups in Europe that were doing experiments on these materials, and they were homing in on something but not getting there. They had some hints in their experimental results that something was going on, but they just couldn't get the evidence, although they were close.
When we entered the field I had started to collaborate through Eugene with Javier Tejada in Spain and Ron Ziolo from Xerox was also part of the group. We arranged to meet at CCNY for—I forget how long—maybe a week or two- to review the field, to discuss and to plan. During these discussions, we became aware of some very strange, inexplicable experimental results that people in Europe had been getting in Mn_12-acetate. And when Ron Ziolo left, he came to my office to say goodbye and he said, "What can I do for you, Myriam?" We exchanged greetings and how wonderful it was to meet together. And I said, "Look, if there's one thing I really would like is if you got me some manganese-12." So he said, "It's done." At the end of that summer, he sent me a bunch of manganese-12 crystallites in powder form.
How special is this? How hard is that to come by, manganese-12?
How hard is that to come by, manganese-12?
Not hard. You just have to know how to do it. In fact, I think the material was made, and she is a co-author on one of our papers, by an undergraduate who worked on this in Ron's lab over the summer. So it's not hard for a chemist. I can't do that, but I could learn how to do it. Anyhow, so we got this manganese-12 and Jonathan began to measure the magnetic response—we had just an ordinary MPMS, a commercial magnetometer. It didn't even go down to very low temperatures. It was like 1.8 Kelvin. And he began to do measurements and he came up with these very strange results. So the key which Jonathan actually got onto was that this powder was a bunch of little crystallites and the results were peculiar, but they didn't speak with clarity because, in a powder, each one of these crystallites is oriented differently. I mean, it's a powder, right? And if it's magnetic, it means that its magnetization axis is all over the place. So whatever information was contained in those powders was averaged, just smeared out by the fact that these the crystallites were not lined up. So Jonathan took it upon himself to make a sample which is an oriented powder. What you do is you take the stuff, you put it on a big magnetic field, you put it in epoxy or paraffin or some other thing which is liquid, and you let it solidify in a field. And sometimes, if you're lucky, you then come up with a solid where the crystallites have a preferential orientation. The powder has solidified in a configuration which is partially polarized – simulating a single crystal. It is a procedure that is often used in X-ray crystallography. Jonathan then measured the magnetization with our standard MPMS and he found this incredible set of steps in the hysteresis loop. He came to me and said, "Look at what I found." We had no idea what that was all about. So I said, "That looks absolutely fascinating. It's got to have meaning. Don't stop measuring." And I would ask him Monday, Wednesday, Friday, "Are you still finding those steps?" And, yes, he was finding those steps.
And we had submitted to that fall's magnetism conference an abstract that was accepted which basically reported the peculiar hysteresis loops we were getting for randomly oriented powder, but by the time the conference actually took place, we did understand. We understood what we had found. We had found quantum mechanical tunneling in the oriented powder. The tunneling event for the particles were either in one direction or the opposite direction along the magnetization axis, and there were enough of these lined up in the direction of the field that was used when it was solidifying that you saw the actual tunneling events as they occurred while sweeping the field. That was an amazing find. And, in fact, after that, after Jonathan left and took his position at Amherst, we there was another student in my lab, Yoko Suzuki, who was stubborn and insisted on following up on another thing that happens in these materials, namely that sometimes, instead of this regular sequence of steps, you get a full throw of the entire magnetization from one direction to the other, an avalanche. These avalanches propagate through the crystal with subsonice verlocity because, as the magnetization flips locally, it releases energy which flips nearby neighbors and so on. It’s like a fire, a chemical reaction that travels through the crystal, and it does it very rapidly. So we had an enormous amount of fun. The different directions that my research took were partly an effort to show myself that each thing that actually happened in my lab was not by accident. Somehow, I had to prove that I really was doing these things, that it wasn't just a lucky, serendipitous event, never to be repeated. I somehow had to prove to myself that I was doing this.
And you did, you did prove that to yourself.
And I did, yes. [laugh] Listen, it was all an effort to validate myself, having started at a place where I was learning a lot, but I really wasn't up to what I was doing. I was up to it. I showed that to myself.
I wonder, Myriam, how well this coincides with when you start to become really involved in advisory work. Because serving on advisory committees and things like that, there's really the message there that the broader community is sincerely interested in your input and they respect what you have to say. And so I wonder if that internal validation is coming roughly around the same time as this external validation is with regard to all of the committees and advisory boards that you've served on?
Well, let me make two comments. First of all, on a different matter, the dawning of my real understanding, my really deep understanding of some of what was going on was entirely due to the fact that I had to teach it. Because when I had to teach it, I really had to dig down and ask myself, what am I teaching? So the teaching part of it, although I really never did it as well as I wanted to, I just was not a natural-born teacher, but it really was responsible in very large measure for my ability to finally understand some of it. Concerning the validation by others, it's probably a feedback loop. And, in fact, when I was elected to the academy in the mid '90s, I really had not even begun some of the work that I'm now best known for. And I was hugely surprised when it happened because everybody had forgotten or never knew about my earlier work on what became known as the Kondo effect. Nobody was aware of it except just a very few people. So I was very, very surprised that I had made it into the academy. And it, again, gave me the courage to go ahead. Concerning this business of serving on boards and serving on advisory committees and all of that, you have to remember that I was one of the very few senior people—senior in terms of age—who were women at a time when people became actively interested in trying to remedy the absence of women. So I, and I know a number of women who followed me, were inundated with requests to serve on boards and advisory committees. And the truth is that, in an effort to satisfy those requirements, which were important, there were many women who simply didn't have enough time to continue the sort of work that was going to make them leading contributors to the field. And I can tell you that I—it was satisfying, and I felt I was doing a service that was an important service, but it was difficult for me to keep up with all of that. The fact that I was being asked was not unusual. They needed women of my age to participate. It was not a question of my being selected instead of others. It was that I was being selected because there were no others, or very few.
Well, we can probably dispute that, but I'll leave that one alone.
Of your advisory work, what committees or boards were you part of where you felt like you were doing the most impactful work, either in terms of the way that the federal government supports science or the way that you wanted to effect change in the science, either from a women's perspective or from a more general human rights perspective, which, of course, is something that I know is very dear to you?
I would need more time to think about that. I don't know that anything I did really had a very large impact. The thing that does come to mind, though, is when I was elected to be a member of the Council of the American Physical Society, and it was at a time when the Hong Wen Le [?]—was that the name?
Wen Ho Le.
Wen Ho Le was being hounded and persecuted for his alleged involvement in spying, which might very well have been correct, but I don't know the truth in that case. What I do know is that I was very disturbed by the fact that he was not being given his right—to me it was an unproven case. That doesn’t mean it was a false case, but it was unproven and there were no efforts to provide circumstances that would allow him to clear himself or not clear himself. It wasn't clear to me. And I was upset about it, and many of us were. As a member of the council, that was an issue that we all had to deal with and to discuss because, whether or not the society should take a position on it or what even the position should be, was a subject of discussion. I was a new member of the council, so I didn't feel that I really had the standing yet to get into this, but I got into it with both feet. I did not succeed in getting APS to do what I felt it should do, which was not to take sides in the dispute but to allow the dispute to be considered more fairly and more openly. But it was, I think, a time when I felt that, although I had not prevailed, I had been in a position where I might have been able to made a real change. I'm not sure how much of an impact I've had altogether, but I think what matters is to have tried to be in the discussion and to do the best you can to steer the thing in the direction you feel it should go. Very few of us are in a position where we can do that, and I'm not sure I ever was.
How much better were you positioned for that, not just by being on the council of APS but assuming the presidency? In what way did that position better situate you to work on these things that were important to you?
Well, certainly, it's better because it comes from a higher level, but the influence of the president is really based on a four-year schedule because you come in as vice president for a year, and then you're president elect and then you're the president. And then you still sit with people as the immediate past president. So it is your participation in the overall discussion which generally leads to the position that is publicly taken by the president that makes the difference. And certainly at that level I felt I had more influence than as a new member of the council. But then you have to ask yourself, how much influence is that anyway, right?
So you look at what's happening in the world now.
Who has the influence?
Meaning, of course, that people are not paying nearly as much attention to scientists as they should?
That's right, but they're not paying attention to each other in various other ways, too.
Yeah. Myriam, how did you stay connected to research as you were becoming more and more heavily involved in administration and advisory and service duties?
What was the question? How...?
How did you stay connected to the research while—
How did I stay connected to the research?
I just did, but the connection does begin—well, your ability to keep up with all of that diminishes as you get older. I was 70 when I was president of APS. I continued to be connected and to my research, but it became increasingly difficult for me to do all of it well. The one thing that I really wanted to stay with and do well was the research, because, when all is said and done, that was the source—my happiness, my satisfaction with life depends on my being productive. Without being productive I'm not well. [laugh]
But you're defining productivity as part and parcel with the research; that's what being productive means? Right.
It was for me, but that's only because of the way I am. The productivity is something that's different from person to person, whatever you find that gives you that feeling that you're really producing. And there are some people who appear to be happy without being productive at all. I don't understand that, but it's true. I mean, there are people who just spend their lives being very happy doing nothing in particular, people who derive their pleasure from going on cruises and traveling. So it's all different for different people. You have to find your own niche. And I think one of the things that we really need to do is to leave people alone—not to bother or criticize people whose way toward that is different from ours, right?
For me, research was what fed my soul. What can I tell you?
What you could tell me is you're really a scientist; that's really what you are.
Well, maybe. I turned into one, didn't I?
[laugh] It took a while, but you did. You did.
And so, what were those research projects that you were working on later on, even during or after your leadership at APS?
Well, it's funny you should ask. What occupied my attention was this two-dimensional metal insulator transition. I didn't initiate this.
I was looking at the metal insulator transition in other materials, in three dimensions, in hopping conductivity, but this possibility of having a metal insulator transition in a two-dimensional system originated in the Soviet Union where, for totally unconnected reasons, people were making samples that were far more pure and less disordered than the ones that were available up 'til then. There was some factory in the Soviet Union that was doing this for technological reasons of some sort, I don't remember what. And a bunch of Russian scientists, top-notch guys, found unexpected behavior that looked metallic where it was not supposed to be possible, according to one of the many theories that Phil Anderson participated in. And there was a point where Sergey—as I mentioned earlier, Sergey Kravchenko was looking for a position. He was one of the originators, but not the only one. His brother, who was also a physicist, actually quit physics because he couldn't find a position when the Soviet Union fell apart. Kravchenko, Sergey Kravchenko, didn't want to leave the field. He was looking for a postdoc position and I was looking for a postdoc. And although I felt really rotten about hiring somebody so senior as a postdoc, he just said, "Look, that's my worry, not yours. I want to stay in the field." So he joined my research group and together we worked on this metal insulator transition. The question was whether this was a true transition. There were a lot of people in the field who absolutely did not believe it. One of my well-known colleagues hopped around the countryside giving a colloquium, something about the “so-called metal insulator transition” in two dimensions. The controversy continued for many years, I was convinced that, yes, there is definitely a metal insulator transition in two dimensions. Sergey and I coauthored many papers that supported that conclusion. And when he left my lab and he went to Northeastern, he continued to work on that. We worked together. There were people like Sasha Shashkin who collaborated with us on this stuff, and we kept coming up with different experimental results that showed that it was a genuine metal insulator transition, a quantum phase transition, a phase transition that occurs in the limit of zero temperature, where quantum fluctuations determine what happens rather than thermal fluctuations. And, in the last few years, I working with my postdoc, Shiqi Li, to my complete surprise—
—and consternation have come up with evidence that it's perhaps a phase transition, but it's not a quantum phase transition. It's not what we thought. And it came about because—Sergey, who had joined the faculty at Northeastern, and I had been working together for some time because we were funded in connected ways through NSF collaborative-type funding. When that collaborator grant ended he started working pretty much on his own in a different direction, although we did publish some things together, but we took off in somewhat different directions. And I began to wonder and look more closely at what happens on the insulating side of that transition. And Shiqi, my last postdoc—I was closing my lab already at the time and sort of easing people out one by one without rehiring—Shiqi did a remarkable thing. She had an interest in this area, the insulating side, and we decided to do a careful set of measurements of the magneoresistance on the insulating side. Shiqi given birth to a daughter earlier on, and she was pregnant again, She lived out in Queens. It took her an hour and a half each way to travel to City College. And she now had two kids. She somehow managed to keep keep the experiment going and took an absolutely beautiful set of data that revealed something totally new that nobody had actually looked at carefully. Her data implied that this is a percolation transition that occurs at finite temperature, as had been suggested by several people from the very outset and which I was arguing against. So here I was, disproving my own position. [laugh]
But not many people have yet paid attention to these recent results. I was going to talk about it at the prize-winning talk that I was scheduled to give at the March meeting earlier this year, but that meeting was canceled because of the pandemic.
It didn't go on virtually?
Nobody was prepared for it.
It was called off. It was scheduled to start on a Monday. There were all kinds of events scheduled for the Sunday just preceding the conference. I had reservations on an airplane on that Sunday, and the meeting was called off late Saturday night. Nobody was prepared. There were people who were already there, who had flown in from various places. But if you recall, the pandemic developed very quickly starting at the beginning of March, from nobody really worrying about very much of anything in late February, and a week or two later things were in such a state of uncertainty and unexpected worry that things were being canceled all over the place. I did give credit to the people at APS who decided to cancel the conference because these super-spreading events began back then. And particularly now that we know that a good bit of it came in with people who traveled to the US from Europe, it might've really been one of those super spreading events. The March meeting involves thousands of people from everywhere—
—including huge numbers from Europe. And they canceled—In a recent nite to Phil Bucksbaum I commended the APS leadership for having the courage to cancel it at that late stage. And he wrote back that they felt they had no choice in the matter anymore at that point.
Myriam, what did this level of recognition mean for you both personally and professionally?
Oh, it's very gratifying. I don't want to be an ingrate, but doing it is so much more pleasurable than being lionized for it. [laugh]
Well, you can't be lionized for it if you don't do it, so it works out.
[laugh] I don't know. I'm not young anymore and I am not in a position to take—and also because of the pandemic, I'm not in position to take the full measure of it at this point. But, let me tell you, having lived a long life, I've gotten to the point where this is happening to me. If I had died earlier as many people do, I would never have known. And there's more. I think that the fact that Annual Reviews asked me to write this short biography actually turned the thing around for me. When Annual Reviews invited me to write a prefatory article, I hesitated very much at first because I was not—I had not spoken about the events of my life for years. I just couldn't. It's not cocktail type teatime conversation, and there is no way to pull it in casually. And I was very reluctant to talk about it in less casual context because, in the few times that I did, it was a conversation stopper. I mean, it just stopped the flow of information because people were having such a terrible time processing what they were just told that it just stopped communication altogether. So when I was asked to write that short biography, I was very hesitant, but I had felt guilty for many years for not having done so because I had caused Leah's existence to basically disappear. I couldn't talk about it, so nobody knew she ever was. So I decided to do it, to write the little autobiography. And in it, although I hadn't thought of it, as I was writing it, I realized that it gave me the opportunity finally to bring to people's attention what had happened in the case of the Kondo effect. And I think that really made a difference. You know, Kondo was scheduled to present his theory at a 10-minute talk at a March meeting when he first did that theory, and he wrote me a little note asking me - if he could not find the funding to come to the March meeting, would I be willing to present his paper for him. [laugh] I actually had the opportunity at several points—I had the opportunity to try to make people more aware of that contribution. For example, when the APS put out a volume of the hundred best papers on the occasion of its one hundredth anniversary in the late '90s, I was a member of a very small committee that was charged with choosing those papers. And I knew that my paper should have been in that collection of papers and it wasn't, and I did not raise the issue. So I had a number of opportunities and I just couldn't—I don't know why, I couldn't do it. In the beginning, I knew, and I tried and then I just abandoned that quest and I just left it alone. But this annual review autobiography was very short because I was given a very tight limit on the number of words I could use, and I exceeded that limit, not by much but I did exceed it, and they allowed it. So I had to condense everything, but it provided an opportunity to finally touch base with all the things that had mattered to me—it blew my cover as it were. [laugh]
And, although in the beginning not too many people—my very good friends of course read it, but not too many people read it. But it changed things for me. And it was something I did that made that change happen.
Myriam, my whole work, of course, is devoted to recognizing the careers of physicists, but, of course, being profiled in the New York Times is a level of recognition that's really in a league of its own. And so I'm curious, how did that come about, and literally a hot off the press question since it's so recent, how has your life changed as a result of being profiled in the Times?
Well, I'll tell you how it came about. I know how it came about. Just before the pandemic changed everybody's mode of operation, at the end of January of this year, there was a prize ceremony at which three prizes given by APS were awarded. It was at a ceremony at a hotel in Washington, D.C. attended mostly by people I didn't know. And at that prize ceremony, which was held at thee Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington DC—Ken Chang, the reporter for the Times was one of the people there. I didn't know most of the people who came. They were people who somehow go to such things, but I guess for journalists it's not so unexpected. And the talk I gave at that ceremony was something that impressed a lot of people. Ken Chang called me after that, and I got a number of other calls. The Institute of Physics in England called me. They just interviewed me last week. That was triggered by that same talk I gave. Ken Chang interviewed me in the middle of March. It was a telephone interview. I heard nothing from him. And during one of the sessions where, with great zeal, I go through my email to get rid of messages that I don't need anymore, I trashed his message [laugh] because he had not gotten back to me by mid-July—March, April, May, June, July—it was like four months. Obviously, this was not going anywhere. So, OK, to hell with it, out. I got an email and a telephone call around the middle of August from somebody I didn't know at all who claimed to be a photographer for the Times who wanted to take my photograph. I had no idea what this was about, so I called him back and I said, "Listen, come on." I hadn't even heard from Ken Chang for five months. "No way." And it went from there. So that's the answer to your first question, how did that happen; that's how it happened. The second question was how it's changed my life. For one thing, I've heard from people that I have not been in touch with for 50 or 60 years.
They send me emails, and when I look at the name, some of them I recognize instantly because they were good friends that I haven't heard from in a long time. But others, who the hell is that? I've been contacted by blogs and people whose parents were, they think perhaps, good friends of my parents in Cuba—the article mentions the travel through Cuba. I've reestablished contact with old friends, I’ve received messages from people I never knew, requests to appear on blogs and programs. Just absolutely overwhelming. I don't have the energy I used to. I simply cannot follow up on all of it, and some of it is probably not worth following up on. That's changed my life, but so has the pandemic. The pandemic has had a really strong influence on my life, but that's true for everybody.
I think that, now that we are at the point in the discussion where we're talking about literally the very present day, I'd like to ask you, for the last part of our discussion, a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then let's end thinking about the future a little bit. And so first I'd like to ask, you did not benefit from the kind of graduate advisor relationship that you have so obviously given to so many of your own graduate students. And so I wonder if you can summarize professionally some of the things that you convey to your students about the way they should pursue their own research and their own careers?
You wonder how I have...?
When you give advice to students, and specifically I'm asking within the context of you did not have this benefit of your own, you did not have the kind of advisor—
—that would've done this, but you, very clearly and self-consciously, have made sure that you would not pass on that relationship to your own advisees. You have been close to them.
And so I wonder—we can't go over all of them, but if you can summarize some basic points of advice, no matter who you're talking to, no matter the kind of research, the kind of personality, what are some of the most important pieces of advice that you've conveyed to your graduate students that you've found to be broadly or universally true or relevant?
Listen, I really have not advised them directly in that way. I have never sat down with them and said, listen, I'm about to give you some advice. I don't feel I have the right to do that, and it has never really been—not never, but it has not been specifically solicited. But I think the message, whatever message I did give, was implicit on how we did business together. And one for sure was to be honest about what you've done and what you're doing. And, although I don't necessarily think it's a good idea, as I've learned through my own experiences, to divulge to anyone and everyone some of the results you're getting before they're published, and I've had bad experiences that way, it is nevertheless essential that you never lie. But I've never said that to anyone. They just know it from the way things were done in our lab. I can't think of any other message other than work hard. It makes a difference. It really makes a difference. And I don't project that message verbally or directly either. I think I do it by setting the tone in the lab, by working hard myself, and by my implicit expectation that they will work hard. I don't know what else to say other than general things like be a good person. [laugh] Maybe also that you should do, provided it doesn't harm others, what gives you satisfaction, whatever that is. If it's teaching, if it's—whatever.
Myriam, are there concepts in physics or theories in physics that have stayed close with you for your entire career? In other words, no matter what you're working on, is there a particular aspect in physics that really informs all of your research, or even informs how you understand how the world works?
No. Maybe after we've finished with this interview if I think about it, I may come up with something, but I don't think there was an overall theme. I think the excitement of learning things, even things that are already known by everybody except me [laugh] is just—it's extraordinarily satisfying. And maybe some of that rubbed off on my students. I don't know.
Because being active in research is so important to you, I wonder if you can reflect at all on the research that you've done that's been most important to you personally, not necessarily professionally in terms of how much it's been cited or the awards that you've received for it, but the research that has been most important to you to give you that feeling that you described to me that you need more than anything else? Is there any research that you've done that stands out in your memory in that regard?
Yeah. It's probably true of the work that I did when I first came back to doing research.
I was involved in trying to understand the role of localization and the role of interactions which were both there and are components of many of the problems that people are still trying to resolve. And I was doing it, in the case of the metal insulator transition and doped semiconductors, and I was really deeply, deeply involved in that. And it has not yet been totally understood. What happens in research is that people spend as much resources, time, and thought as is available given the tools that are available at the time, and then they move on to something else. And if it's left unresolved, people get back to it eventually when new tools are available, and they have ways of gaining more information that might resolve the question. I stopped actually working in that area because we had pretty much reached that point. I was unlikely to be able to get more funding to do it because it was a problem that was fading, even though it was not fully understood. And I remember thinking at the time that I would give my eye teeth to know the resolution of that particular aspect of physics. But I left it because I just—it had reached its temporary stopping point and I moved on to other things, which turned out to be fascinating, too. But I remember how distressed and disappointed I was that I was unable to reach the point where I felt that I understood that problem; that people understood that problem.
Myriam, to take it all the way back to the beginning, I'm reminded of when you told me that your father's commitment to Jewish ritual observance was fluid, that it left and then it came back. And I'm curious, over the course of your life, because you had that strong family connection to Judaism, if your own approach to religion or spirituality has changed over the course of your life?
Oh, yeah. I stopped being Orthodox sometime in my late teens. There were areas of real discomfort for me. I was upset about the fact that men would give thanks to God every morning that they were not born as women, for example.
Shelo asani isha.
And I belonged to an Orthodox Zionist organization that ran camps during the summer. I kept asking why that prayer was there because I found it so offensive. I was offered explanations by highly placed people in the organization as to why – but I was unconvinced. I just couldn't accept them. Here’s another example. I was walking up to one of the meetings on a Saturday with a friend and I had a cold and I pulled out a handkerchief and sneezed into it, and my friend said, "What? You carry on Saturday?" [laugh] I thought to myself, I can't believe this nonsense. What does she want me to do? She wants me to sneeze on my sleeve or—[laugh]
We should explain the prohibition to carry outside of an eruv on the Sabbath.
Yes. And then, when I met Phil, he came from a different background. He was Jewish but his parents were the '20s-type socialists. And they were, if anything, antireligious.
Phil wasn't antireligious, he just [laugh] had no connection to it. And he thought it was just a waste of time. And he was puzzled and annoyed with my own self-imposed limits brought by these rules and regulations that made no sense to him.
Which is to say you kept up some of your observances; you didn't let go—
No. But I really couldn't—as I'm fond of saying, I gradually became an agnostic. And now, I became a lapsed agnostic, which means I'm no longer unsure. [laugh]
That I do not believe in a God. I know this is something that, in this country, one cannot say—it's unacceptable. But there are many atheists living on this planet, and I am one of them. I think that once I'm gone, I'm gone. And the time is drawing near. On the other hand—
We can't say, Myriam, that—even if you don't believe in a God, we can hope that you live until 120, as we say.
[laugh] I don't want to live that long. That would be terrible. In any event, I'm in a very different place, but I'm, at the same time, not that far from where I started because I am culturally still who I was brought up to be.
It's still inside of me.
Well, Myriam, for my last question, let's look to the future on a happy note. What are you excited about for the future as your involvement in physics continues, your leadership in physics continues, your connections in physics continue? What are you excited about, either as a participant or a spectator in terms of what the future may hold?
It's hard to imagine. If you had asked anybody to imagine in 1933 what was going to happen in the next hundred years—
—there is absolutely no way they could've guessed either what would happen politically or scientifically, although I have to tell you that Feynman was pretty good at it, right?
I mean, he foresaw things that—it was really amazing that he did foresee them. I wish that my awareness of what's happening could somehow be informed of some of the things that are going to happen. Some of the things—I’m convinced that there's a wealth of things scientifically, not in terms of controlling nature, but in terms of understanding how things really work, like some of these quantum mechanical entanglement effects. I mean, the possible consequences of that are just mind boggling. I wish I could briefly come to life and learn what will be found out as time goes on.
For example, I'm curious to know what will happen when we really get to be in a position where we can keep people alive forever. That looks like it's certainly going to come. It's going to present vast problems, huge problems. How are we going to manage that? Are we ever going to find out how to live with each other and stop killing each other? I mean, there are large questions that I would now give my eye teeth to know the answer to, which I will not know. But it will be—we keep learning new things. We'll never run out of new things to learn.
That's right. Myriam, this has been the fastest four hours I think of my entire life, what we just did.
You're kidding me!
[laugh] You're really a very interesting person. I've never had an interview like this. I'd like to know more about you.
Well, I'm going to hit the end of the record right now 'cause I don't want to talk about myself, so let me just make it official and say this has been my great pleasure and honor to speak with you today, and I'm so happy we were able to do this.
Actually, I enjoyed it, too, much more than I thought I would.