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Interview of Venkatesh Narayanamurti by David Zierler on January 22, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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This is an interview with Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Engineering and Applied Sciences Emeritus at Harvard. He recounts his childhood in India and he explains the origins of his nickname “Venky” by which everyone knows him, and he explains his transition from a career primarily rooted in lab work to his more current interests in science and national public policy. He describes the imperial British influence that pervaded his upbringing, and he discusses his education at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He explains the opportunities that lead to his graduate work at Cornell to study solid state physics with a focus on defects in crystals under the direction of Robert Pohl. Narayanamurti describes his brief return to India before he was recruited to work at Bell Labs where he ultimately rose to serve as Director of Solid-state Electronics and as head of the Semiconductor Electronics Research Department. He contextualizes his decision to join the faculty at UC Santa Barbara after working at Sandia National Lab against the backdrop of the impending breakup of Bell. He discusses his work at Dean building up the computer science, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering programs before he decided to come to Harvard where he was the founding Dean of the Engineering and Applied Sciences. He explains his interest in joining the Kennedy School as he became more interested in public policy. At the end of the interview, Narayanamurti conveys optimism that higher education in the United States will be equipped to study and offer key solutions to some of the key scientific and technological challenges of the future.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is January 22nd, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Venkatesh Narayanamurti. Venky, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Yes, great. Very happy to join you. And, of course, I have a great love of physics and the American Institute of Physics.
Venky, to start, right with your name, I'm curious, what a delightful nickname. Does this go all the way back to childhood or perhaps in your professional career, it was just—made things easier for you.
It goes almost to the childhood. Of course, there was a lot of British influence in India and I went to a high school, which was run by Irish missionaries and there, it got westernized and I went to St. Stephen's College in Delhi, where—there were courses associated with British faculty from the University of Cambridge. So some period during that period, it got Anglicized.
So everybody knows me as Venky. Universities can be quite formal. At University of California, that’d be Chancellor Yang, Dean Venky. Same at Harvard. Harvard is even more formal, but. [laugh] And Drew Faust, President of Harvard, that I go by this one name (Venky), and she made fun of me that I was like Madonna.
[laugh] Venky, before we go back to the beginning, your family background, I'd like to ask a question very much in the present. And that is, of course, over these past 10 months in the pandemic, with the social distancing, physical distancing, in what ways has your research agenda been affected? Your interest in policy, your work as a scientist, your work as a public intellectual. On the one hand, I can see all of this isolation might be good for getting work done. But on the other hand, what has been lost as a result of not having those in-person collaborations?
Well, I think that's an extremely important point. In the plus side, because people aren't traveling, and my writing a book with a co-author who's got a regular job and is kind of busy, but now it is different. Before the pandemic I travelled a lot because I'm on so many national committees, international committees advising India, China, that I've been stuck at home and actually got the things done. So that's the positive. The negative, I strongly believe that technology, science, all of these fields, we evolve through social interactions with other peers and colleagues. It's a social endeavor. There's nothing like actually meeting in-person. So there are things which just happen spontaneously in conferences which do not happen in Zoom, etc. I miss terribly the things I'm doing for the dean or the faculty. I would solve it. I'm a walk-around manager. I just walk around the corridor, find people in their home, etc. That’s how you do physics. People go to conferences, not so much to attend the formal talks, but to actually get in the informal gatherings in the corridor over lunch and beer. So this is so important that science, physics, engineering, everything is a human activity, the social activity. It is a very important thing which we often in science and engineering don't realize.
Yeah. Now are there—
Am I being clear?
Absolutely. Are there experiments that you're involved in now that had been impacted by the pandemic?
Oh, I used to be an experimentalist. I've always had a lab NSF-funded, but I gave that up around 2012. I didn't want to hire any more graduate students given my age, and as I got into policy, that's what I want to do. I want to influence national policy. I still think national policy needs significant improvement.
We all remember Vannevar Bush because things have changed since Vannevar Bush, okay? So that's what I've been spending my time on. And I also felt very strongly about teaching. I feel educating the next generation is absolutely the most important thing for me, more than even research. It is really the young people. And I actually developed courses at the intersection of technology and society. So that's really important that you actually connect physicists and engineers who think kind of hardcore math and rigor of really becoming to know how to relate to the larger social, or I'd like to— or as you may know, I like to call them Renaissance engineers. And then I wanted the social science and other humanists not to think of technology as just a black box, but rather understand how physicist and engineers think and solve problems. So I always wanted to teach a mixture of those two. I mean, that is not easy. There is no book for it. So I've spent my last few years— really, that's what I've been seriously interested in besides national science policy talks. So I really think it's very important, the sciences have to evolve. We live in a cocoon when we think they're objective, evidence-based, which is true, but we're also social, and therefore, we have our own biases. As Max Planck or somebody once said, if you want to do a new theory, you've to wait for the old guys to die, and then only you can actually make sure it's accepted.
I couldn't think it, so.
Venky, to talk about national science policy, we're two days into the Biden administration. Only yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci got up to the podium and he said, (and I’m paraphrasing), It's liberating that science can now speak freely. What are your feelings about this period of transition we’re in, and what opportunities do you see with this incoming and now, the new Biden administration?
So I think one of the tasks which I'm going to do tomorrow is this co-authored book I spoke about earlier. The book is quite scholarly, but I want to write position papers more for the general public and for policies. I just printed the article. I haven't read it carefully because a colleague sent it to me, "Venky, you’d be interested in this." President Roosevelt wrote to Vannevar Bush about what to do after World War II, right? Physics was king of the hill because of the atom bomb, okay? They forgot all the chemists and the engineers who actually made it happen, but that's okay. [laugh] And so Eric Lander has been appointed President Biden’s science advisor. I know him. He's a Harvard and an MIT colleague. He's an absolutely brilliant person. It's a terrific choice. They couldn't have thought of a better person because he's both intellectually very strong, and interpersonally, very strong, which is what you need, and a good communicator. Good communicator.
And so, Biden has written him a long letter of what all he expects. I have not digested it. But I think already whoever spreads the information to Biden, one of them is my colleague, John Holdren because John Holdren has been—and I succeeded John Holdren, and then he's come back, and he's actually heading it again, which is great. I had one thing. I'd be able to interact with John much more than I was able to before because he was even busier than me, being concurrent with the political world. Now, he has time sitting at home. [laugh] So he has advised. And so I think science policy needed to change, even though we revere Vannevar Bush a former Harvard PhD, and MIT, Dean of Engineering, credited the successes of World Wat 2 mainly to science and physics, neglecting the cyclic nature of the interplay between science and technology.
Venky, let's go all the way back to the beginning. I'd like to start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
So my parents are both from southern part of India. And actually, my father grew up in a small town in southern India called Kumbakonam, and it produced some of the greatest mathematicians for India, and that neighborhood produced people like Ramanujan. I don't know if you know or heard of Ramanujan?
And then, in nearby came Chandrashekhar, Raman, and all of these people. It just somehow—you never know how these things happen. My father would always say, “There's a famous river in South India called Kaveri River. And if you drink the water of the Kaveri River, you'd become a genius,” so [laugh]. But anyway, my father did a Chemistry Masters, and then went for a Ph.D. in Germany during Hitler's time, and, actually, ultimately was one of the world's leading experts in wood technology, and he actually was sent during World War II by the British to work in London. When I was born, he was in London or underground working on lightweight aircraft because wood was very light, and he knew how to design them structurally strong and so on and so forth. So my father was very much a scientist-engineer, okay, because you can call him a chemist. You can call him a chemical engineer. You can call him a scientist. You can call him whatever. And my mother and he were married at a very young age. Parents arranged these things in the old days. So I learned from my father sort of love of science, and from my mother, all kinds of aspects of what it is to be a good human being in terms of people skills. She was extremely well-liked. And she and my father were very close. She literally—my father taught her English and everything else, and she typed his thesis sitting on his lap. This is old stories. So I'm very fortunate that I had very stable parents who gave me a good set of values. So that's, I think, is really—I'm always very grateful to them.
Did your father involve you in his career? In other words, as a kid, did you know what it meant to be a scientist?
Yes, in fact, very much so. So he had a lab. There's one famous, the only—there's a very big Forest Research Institute in a town called Dehradun. It is about 150 miles north of Delhi. And it is now the capital of an Indian state. And it's quite a famous Institute. My father was very well known internationally because of what he had done during the war and actually got Order of the British Empire from His Majesty for his service to the British.
And when I went to this Irish School where the school-leaving exam, the graduation in your senior year, your exam went to the University of Cambridge or some affiliate there for grading, and you waited six months to know whether you had passed or failed, okay? So the normal curriculum is June to June, but this school ends in January or December, and you get to know what happened. And then, you start college in the summer, June, July of that year. But those six months, I went every day to my father's lab, and I did experiments at age 15, 16. And my first three papers, which are all really on wood technology and the rigidity and Young's modulus of various species of wood under various chemical treatments, I had three papers with my father.
And I didn't realize this. I mean, I was just doing something mechanical doing this. And in those days, we didn't have any computers, but we had lots of data, and we had a hand calculator.
Venky, what were your family's experiences during partition, and what do you remember as a boy from those years?
I work remotely. So I have a home at the Cape (Cod). It's much easier. And I can walk without a mask all the time. I wandered here and it is because I always admired Gandhi and a painting of Gandhi is on a wall next to my desk in my home at the Cape.
Boston, I'm always in masks. I follow the rules. But here, there's nobody. And I have a picture of Mahatma Gandhi on my left. I admire him because he was not just secular, he believed in all religions and all these things, the kind of ultimate human being in my view. And Gandhi was, of course, murdered by Hindu fanatics, is usually what happens. One of your own fanatics would kill you, i.e., you're viewed as a traitor. And I still remember it was just little bit after partition, and my father was at that time Chief Research Officer at the Forest Institute, and there were, of course, Muslims in the Institute as well. But a Hindu fanatic killed Gandhi because he was appeasing the Muslims, right? And I was always afraid because there was so much hostility between Hindus and Muslims, not everybody, but among the poorer classes, and that they (my father and his colleagues) would patrol the streets at night to see and make sure that there was no violence. And you're always afraid whether he would come back home. I still remember that.
And luckily, nothing happened, and it was peaceful there. But there are parts of India on the Pakistan border which suffered terribly. I mean it's one of the human tragedies. I actually blamed part of it on—Gandhi was very much against the breakup of India, and I think he was right, but Jinnah and Nehru compromised. And I think we created a religious state in Pakistan and a secular state on the right-hand side, and we've never kind of forgotten the separation—the people are the same. The food is the same. It's almost like Northern Ireland is and the rest of Ireland, the Catholics and the Protestants has somehow this seems to pervade the world. I've come to the conclusion that humans are tribal, and academia is tribal too. Physics is tribal too, so. I don't know. I tend to wander. But at my age, you begin to philosophize.
Thank you. What kind of schools did you go to as a young boy?
So I went to—there were private schools. There are public schools too, but me and my older brother went to private schools and first a protestant school, St. Thomas' school, and then St. Joseph's Academy, really an Irish missionary school run by Irish priests. And it was an English medium, and that's where I went until my high school graduation. And then I went to St. Stephen's College in Delhi, but also was affiliated with Cambridge University and did always—in the sense it had Western and, I would say, Christian roots.
Was your curriculum in math and science, was it strong in high school?
Yes, I think I would say—I mean, I don't want to brag. I skipped two grades. So basically, I graduated at age 15. But in India, especially, I think people are strong in math. There's something about it. I don't know. It may be the Kaveri river my father used to say. My grandfather was a professor of mathematics, my father's father, in a college in India. And so, I think the math training is pretty good. We studied under the British system at St. Stephen’s college. In the undergraduate level, we were as good or better than United States. Where US becomes much better at the graduate level with the free thinking, the kind of openness with works and so on and not as hierarchical, the US wins hands-down in that area. So that's my personal view. So obviously, it varies. I mean, Harvard is a great undergraduate school as are many others and so on.
And well, the other thing is, in the Asian culture, especially in the Indian culture, education is valued a lot. So that is really quite important. That's not always true, and I worry about our own culture. That's what we talk about the damage done someone not valuing education the way it needs to be valued. I worry a lot as an American.
Is the Indian system more like the British or the American system for college? In other words, when you are thinking about school, do you have to focus on a major right away, or can you take time to decide later on?
No, it’s more like the British where you'll have to usually focus on a major right away. I decided I wanted to do physics, and I was admitted into the Physics Honors Program. There are also minors in chemistry and math, and so on.
What schools did you apply to? What was available to you coming out of high school?
Well, high school, I mean there could be—there are many universities, I mean, Indian universities. The big universities were modeled—they're old, ancient Indian universities, seats of learning, but not on the Western model. The Western model came through the British, and in about 150 years ago in 1800 something, they created the University of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, the big metropolitan areas, supposedly modeled after the British leading universities. And there are pluses and minuses because Britain was a colonial power. They didn't quite give them the autonomy, which, of course, Cambridge and Oxford have. And because they were managing as well. They were the government, so they managed it which then has caused a little confusion because the government is more involved than they should be, in my view, okay? They don't quite have the autonomy. Though Nehru did construct something very good because of his own background, the Indian Institute of Technology which are purely on merit, and the poorest could get in and so on. So I mean, it's complicated, but the Indian system has not kept up in research. China is doing much better.
Venky, as an 18-year-old declaring the major in physics, what did that mean to you? Did you know the world of experimentation? Did you know the world of theory? Did you know what you wanted to pursue, or it was just physics generally that you wanted to learn?
So first of all, it was at age 16. I went into a college at 16 because I skipped two grades, so. It was very odd, but I'd go into a lab, and then, somehow I guess, I took some of my father's genes, and I wanted to do physics. I didn't know what physics. And it was only after my Masters degree—I did a Bachelors of Honors degree, and then I stayed on for a Masters degree, which is a two-year program.
And at that time, India was mostly—the labs weren't as strong, and it was a lot of theory. I wrote a theoretical thesis on Bremsstrahlung Cross Sections —field theory had just become prominent in physics, all Feynman diagrams and all these people. So I actually calculated Bremsstrahlung Cross-sections, and I realized it's not my calling to do theory—I was reasonably good at math, but somehow, I didn't enjoy it—I also found that I wanted to then apply for a Ph.D. to the United States because that was the place for research. And I decided I wanted to be part of an experimental program and not big teams like high energy physics or nuclear physics was very big at those days. And so I chose places where I could do Solid State Physics —what was the beginning field of materials physics, condensed matter physics and I applied just to a few places.
And one of my classmates had earlier gone to Cornell and Cornell admitted me, and that was kind of it. I decided to work in, what I would call, small-scale physics, experimental physics.
Did you get the advice—
I decided that I was much more on the experimental side. I'm very much for connecting theory with practice. I actually believe that is the essence of great physics. I have arguments with my students here as friends. They're very good at Harvard. I was their Dean for a while. But ultimately, they've got to relate it to something in the real, natural world. That's what physics is all about in my view. Otherwise, they’re doing mathematics, which is great. There's nothing wrong with it but it is not physics.
Venky, because of your talents, and perhaps even your ambition as an undergraduate, did you receive advice that you would be best served going abroad for your graduate degree?
So many of my classmates joined the Indian Civil Service. It was the coin of the realm. Professors and teachers weren't paid very much. It’s very different now. Now, you can get pretty good salaries as a faculty member because people have realized that and so on. But I did not want to go into the civil service. I did want to do research. There was a temporary period I took a job in an industrial firm, and I realized that was not it, and I decided to go to graduate school.
And so, the emphasis placed in India is that the places to go to were universities like Oxford or Cambridge. In India, Oxford and Cambridge are like the holy places to go to. It's like in the United States, the pinnacle are places like Harvard and ambition becomes kind of a problem— parents sometimes try to flex the system, right? As you know, they got into trouble. Anyway, so I was nominated by my college for a Rhodes Scholarship. St. Stephen’s College always produced the Rhodes Scholars. And I was a finalist the first time, and normally, they call—and usually, the one who was the finalist this previous time gets called again and gets the call. So, I was obviously second. I got called again the following year to come for the Rhodes Scholarship interview with the idea that almost certainly I'd have been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. But—I had already applied to Cornell. And when Cornell came through, I said, "I want to go to America. I don't want to be a pipe-smoking Englishman." That's what happened, and I've never regretted it. Cornell is much better than Oxford for physics.
[laugh] Did you apply to other schools in the United States, or you were focused on Cornell?
Oh, I don't know why. I guess I knew mass spectrometry. I applied to Cornell. I applied to McMaster University and the University of Minnesota. Don't ask me why I did those three. But I remember there was some good atomic physicists in both those places. And Cornell had many people in both solid-state-physics and high energy and all the fields. And I got admission to all three, and of course, I chose Cornell.
Had you been to the United States before, or this was your first time?
It was my first trip abroad. That was in 1961, a long time ago.
What were your impressions of Ithaca in the early 1960s?
Yeah, well, this classmate of mine who'd gone the previous year, he met us at the airport, and we had very little money. In those days, you could not take any money out of India. Look, I mean basically, we had $50 or something between my wife—and I met my wife in college, and we told our parents we wanted to get married and go to America. It was a big move for our parents and everything else suddenly, and me, finding my own wife whom I met in college, and we came with two suitcases and I think $50. And so, my friend met me, and I'd gotten Cornell student accommodation. And I think the department gave me my assistantship, and maybe advanced me the first month's salary so that I could survive. They were very good, the physics department staff helping me with that.
Venky, when you started at Cornell, how well--
Yeah, so in November, Thanksgiving came, and suddenly, there were snowflakes. I was amazed with how the weather had changed. [laugh] So that was a—it was a— and we got old used heavy coats because we couldn't afford to buy new clothes, so that's how we survived.
When you got to Cornell, how well defined were your interests and talents? Were you open to theory? Did you know you wanted to focus on experimentation?
Yes, by that time I knew I wanted to focus on experiments. And I looked and there's a very good laboratory of nuclear physics. Bob Wilson was there at that time before he went to the Fermilab and so on. But I decided – I don't know why. I was really interested in condensed matter physics. And it was just the beginning of the field. And I've never regretted it mainly because it was a very collaborative department where I see graduate students produce a coffee with me socially, and that was so important. And also, I developed a healthy— my thesis advisor was a young assistant professor. I had various choices. They were very senior people. I don't know. I got attached to this young professor. It was the best thing which happened to me. I was his first PhD student. I was never afraid of setting up a lab because I had to set up the lab, and he taught me that you grow your own samples. You develop a healthy respect for the crystal grower, and then, you do the physics, not just say that is work of the technician or that's not physics. And that's really important how we teach our students. So I'm actually grateful to my thesis advisor. I still correspond with him. He's retired. He’s 90, and he now moved back to Germany. He's a well-known physics professor's son, Robert Pohl. His father wrote many of the books in German optics, and so he was a well-known professor from Göttingen, and his son was my thesis advisor—and quite a very fine advisor. I was very blessed that I had him as my advisor. He inculcated in me the right spirit of cooperation, teamwork, and not belittling somebody who's doing materials as that's a technician's work. You get your hands dirty. That's why I'm so much opposed that—and here at Bell Labs, the theorists worked closely with experimentalists, Bardeen sat next to Brattain when they invented the transistor. People seem to forget that. Somehow, that is beneath your dignity. I mean, America was always different, you should not forget, unlike the British [laugh].
Venky, what were some of the most exciting things going on in physics, broadly conceived, when you were a graduate student?
Oh, well, one of the things which happened, Cornell used to have a series of lectures by famous people called the Messenger lectures. And I still remember at my very first year, Feynman gave a talk. I was just completely floored. I mean, he was a captivating speaker. So I think that—just the excitement of physics, Feynman certainly was one of those charismatic people and I had the good fortune that he was giving a whole series of lectures, and I remember (Freeman) Dyson also gave public lectures when I was at Cornell. Physical Review started at Cornell. The first editors of Physical Review were from Cornell. I forgot their names, Richtmeyer or Kennard. So that's it. And so it was kind of exciting, both the physics colloquium as well as the solid-state physics colloquium. Those days, it was not condensed matter physics. It was laboratory of atomic and solid-state physics.
Right [laugh]. How did you—
But I was a solid-state physicist.
Yes. [laugh] How did you go about developing your thesis topic?
Ah, so in my group Professor Pohl was working on defects in crystals. So, defects, point defects in crystals are obviously critical because they alter properties a lot. And semiconductors really work because of defects, which then alter electrical conductivity. I think that's how transistor happened. So my professor—and of course, when you're working in an academic lab, they look at idealistic systems. Alkali Halides are idyllic systems, and you dope them with impurities and study their various properties was what my thesis advisor was doing. So He was studying thermal transport. He was interested in phonons, and so they were studying thermal conductivity, specific heat, and those kinds of properties of materials doped with impurities—and Bobby Pohl eventually won the Buckley Prize for his work in that area. So he was an expert in that, but I knew when you're putting those defects, that actually spectroscopy was very important. I had him get an infrared spectrometer as he was using defects, like putting small defects like molecules into crystals. Water and OH radicals into sodium chloride, potassium chloride, cyanide molecules into this, and I realized if we wanted to understand what happened because they assumed there were some molecular or resonant states which were scattering the phonons and changing their thermal conductivity. So I said we should do the spectroscopy, and so I developed the low-temperature spectrometer. Harvard threw me a 75th birthday celebration, a few years ago. My thesis advisor came to the celebration with the original figure of my first sole author Physical Review Letter published in 1964 on Rotational Degrees of Freedom of Molecules in Solids. And he was so kind. He said, I discovered it, and I should be a sole author. He should really have been a co-author, but he wanted to give me the credit.
That's another thing I learned is share credit and give people credit. Sometimes, you forget that. Too often in science that is not so even Newton was very protective about his work, and sometimes you're overprotective. And as an aside, but I'm telling you from a philosophy. And the reason it was important, Linus Pauling, who got, years ago, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, had published in 1930 a theoretical paper that showed that molecules in and crystals could rotate almost freely if put in the right environment. That was my thesis. Eventually, it became my Ph.D. thesis. My thesis advisor sent this Physical Review Letter to Linus Pauling, look what this student has measured or discovered. And I got this very nice note from Linus Pauling. You don't know what it meant to me. This Nobel laureate, and you look at him as God writing to this poor graduate student congratulating him on that observation. So, I think those were very important things in my life.
Venky, I'll test your memory. Who was on your thesis committee at Cornell?
My thesis committee at Cornell had Robert Pohl, who was the chair then, another well-known theoretical physicist, who was president of the American Physical Society, I think, James Krumhansl. I think he was also president of APS. He was on my committee, and then, we always had a math person. Even if you're going to do a theoretical thesis, you had to have worked in an experimental lab and vice-versa. Those are important cultural things people sometimes tend to forget in the way physics is done. And there was a third person who actually was from math because also, math was my other minor. And even though he wouldn't comment much… I think, by the name of Rosenberg, but I'm not so sure—I don't remember that as well.
Venky, looking back, what were the principal conclusions of your thesis research, and how were they responsive to some of the broader questions of the field at that time?
That time, first, if you put a molecule like cyanide to replace an ion like chlorine in sodium chloride, it is not rigidly bound. Within that cavity, it could perform rotational motions. Not exactly free, but so that was relatively new at that time. They were not completely free, but there was a potential barrier. And so there was a transition occurring. If you heated the sample enough from low temperatures, then, of course, it would become more and more free as the bonds get loosened. So it actually went more into oscillatory states than a free rotational state. And so it went from what is called a vibrating mode to a free rotation. And so that became—and it affected the thermal conductivity because there were some low energy states. These are all at low temperatures. And those low energy states would scatter phonons because phonons could be absorbed, etc., and re-emitted. And so there were a whole lot of experiments done later.
I never realized the impact it would have because then my thesis advisor was working with, just as an ion, lithium in potassium chloride. And he found the thermal conductivity of lithium in potassium chloride was very similar to what I had for cyanide in potassium chloride. You could explain cyanide with a thermal exchange, and then they assume the lithium was also having some kind of thermal exchange. There was a potential barrier and a hump, and it means the Lithium ion was so small in diameter, it did not sit at the center of the cavity, but sat off-center, and it was in a double well potential.
So that was then 10 years later, which is why my advisor won the Buckley prize, so he got his reward in the end, because amorphous materials have very unusual conductivity, and they show an enormous specific heat. Phil Anderson and colleagues explained the enormous specific heat of amorphous materials arose as a distribution of tunneling states which give you both the low thermal conductivity and specific heat. So, it had impact vast beyond what I had thought of, but if you look at the old physical papers, you will find my thesis advisor for which he won the Buckley prize correctly so.
Venky as you were considering your postgraduate opportunities, or maybe this occurred to you before, when did you realize that you would be making a life for yourself in the United States and you would not return to India?
So I thought, I was idealistic. I stayed on as a postdoc for a year, that I'd go back to India and try to make an impact in India. And I did go back to India with my wife in 1965 after my degree, and I had several assistant professor offers. I went as assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, which was the premier Indian Institute of Technology. And India was in a bad economic state at that time, in the sense, there was a food crisis, water, all these things, foreign exchange. India is a very different place today. It's much better. And after a year, I communicated back with Bobby Pohl, "I really can't do any research anymore here." And he said, “Come back to Cornell. I'm going on a sabbatical. Maybe you can run the group for a year, and then you look for a job.” So that's what happened.
And then, I applied to various universities. I did get a couple of university offers. And this Bell Labs recruiter came to Cornell, and he would come and interview people. And obviously, somebody had told him, and I said, “I'm looking for a university offer. I'm looking for a university.” He said to come and visit Bell Labs. And I went and visited Bell Labs. And as soon as I went there, I just felt that's the place to go. I turned down a couple of university offers. I had a very nice offer from Michigan State at quite a high salary. They really wanted me. And in '68, the job market was tight again because they had a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and others, and suddenly, there was less funding. Then, of course, physics funding has gone up and down with the wars and all these other things. So, it was just a stroke of luck in that sense that this Bell Labs recruiter invited me to visit Bell—and I still remember going to Jim Krumhansl’s office and asking him, "Where should I go? Should I go to the university or Bell Labs?" And we flipped a coin. [laugh] But it was clear.
Venky, as you say it, it seems like it's not so much that Bell Labs was so prestigious. It's that you intrinsically understood what excellent science was being done at the time there.
Yeah, there was just this vitality and excitement. That's really right. That's exactly right. Yes, it's more—yeah, I mean, I didn't know much about Bell Labs at all. You know what I mean? And I wondered, why is this guy inviting me? And then, I went to this thesis review and then, I saw the enormous press of excitement there. I cannot explain to you, but I wrote this book because I realized I thought I was a great leader and manager. I felt very humbled. These people 50 years before me had constructed this right organization with the right attitude.
What was your initial work at Bell Labs, and who were your key collaborators in the early years?
So, my initial work at Bell Labs, I thought, well, I would do some more spectroscopy, and my thesis advisor—I had offers from several groups. Bell Labs was quite a competitive place in that sense. Recruitment works two ways. There are many laboratories and many departments and so on. And the physical research laboratory itself had at 6 departments, and then, there was also chemical physics research laboratory and solid-state electronics research laboratory. The transistor physics lab became three laboratories way back, okay? First, it was just a transistor physics. It was a physics laboratory, and it became the transistor physics laboratory after transistor was invented, so so much had to be done. Anyway, and it always combines theory with experiment, materials, and everything else.
And I joined a group which was headed by Stan Geschwind in the Physical Research Laboratory. I had multiple offers competing, and I could make a selection. The recruiter calls you. He said, "All these departments are here. Which one is it—what is your choice?" The departments give their choice. The recruiter is a neutral person. And I chose, what was called, The Quantum Physics Research Department and Stan Geschwind was its Head. And in that department, before me the predecessors had been Art Schawlow, Paul Richards, etc. And I still remember Art Schawlow had already gone to Stanford. the department head’s, job was mentoring and connecting this young person with more senior people. So I talked to Art Schawlow. And Art Schawlow told me, "Venky, here's what I recommend you do. Go to Physical Review of the 40s and now redo them with all the new things, new instruments." That was Art Schawlow's recommendation to me, okay? And it was very interesting. I feel very strongly about tools and why engineering, like physics are such important, essential part of Physics. Essential part of Physics. So, anyway, that was one.
And Paul Richards had just left (for Berkeley). He visited often and was a spectroscopist. And so it had a good resonance for me. And so because Bobby Pohl's group was well known for thermal transport, I had wanted to say that thermal transport is too rough a way. I should work on —a new technique which was recently developed at IBM called heat pulses. When you put a thin film and instead of having a continuous form, you do a pulse and you could actually see different acoustic modes, etc., of the spectrum. So I wanted to do that and my department head (Geschwind) was slightly skeptical. But he told me talk to Conyers Herring. He was one of the gods at Bell Labs. They said he was a walking library. He would carry everything in his briefcase. I was so nervous and afraid to talk to this man. But anyway, later on, we've played tennis together and Phil Anderson and others.
So I had a lot of mentors—so I started first doing heat pulses, and then there was still this skepticism because things, lasers had only been discovered a few years earlier. Everything was supposed to be monochromatic. Even for doing optical spectroscopy, one didn't use tungsten lamps. We used lasers. So how could you do acoustics in more monochromatic laser like way? And at that time there was work going on in Bell Labs on tunnel junctions, superconducting tunnel junctions and superconductors are superconductors because there's a energy gap and that gap can lead to—generation of monochromatic phonons at the gap frequency.
So, John Rowell who was doing research in superconducting tunneling – Giaever actually discovered, but he did some of the seminal work with Phil Anderson. So Stan Geschwind told me, "Why don't you go talk to John Rowell, and maybe you can work with him and get them to collaborate with you?" John Rowell was heading a department then. And there was a young man called Bob Dynes, who was a postdoc, who joined Bell Labs the same day as me. He was a postdoc, and I was a regular member of the technical staff. And so, John told Bob Dynes to collaborate with me, and that led to about 50 papers between the two of us in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review. And they were experts in making tunneling devices. And so they made some tunneling devices—I told them I can design a sample where I can tune the energy levels of the defects. I'd learned a whole lot about defects. And we will try to make them resonate with the phonon frequency of the superconducting gap. And that turned out to be the case—and then, we wrote a Physical Review letter.
And I'll tell you one other story. We (Bob and I) had to agree on author order of our first paper. John Rowell was Bob’s Department Head and wanted Bob to be the first author. Rowell was a very competitive person. He was backing Bob Dynes. I told Bob, "We can't collaborate if we keep competing as to whose idea it is. We will flip a coin, and then every paper, we’ll write we would ask whose idea it is. We'll just alternate."
So if you look at the papers with me and Bob Dynes, you will find that that was quite common. People wondered. And we both did reasonably well. He became president of University California system. I came to Harvard. So we wrote a lot of papers. It was a burgeoning field at that time to get high-frequency acoustic waves to study solids.
Venky, to come back to an earlier comment you made about the way that theorists and experimentalists worked closely together at Bell, in what ways was theory useful at that time to what you were doing in the experimental world?
At that time, it was much more experimental for me, okay? But obviously, if you look at its history, John Rowell became famous for tunneling because he first collaborated with Phil Anderson. Phil Anderson was perhaps one of the greatest theorists of my lifetime. I interacted with him more in my later years, and I could see the enormous energy and drive he would bring. If you asked me, there are two people who in my early career, other than Feynman, but from my field, whom I admired from a theory side were Bardeen and Phil Anderson, in very different ways. Bardeen was like a calm, unassuming person who you would never think would win two Nobel prizes, but you knew he had great wisdom. And Phil Anderson would see the other side. A dynamo, who would have 5,000 ideas coming at you, and immediately going to the lab, putting pressure on John Rowell. I remember one of the times I was doing, he would call me every day, what have you done? You know what I mean? It just really—it was not as a—it was a scientific pressure, but showed how excited he was. So, both are, of course, important. And both Anderson and (Bill) Macmillan were extremely critical in John Rowell's success because he then did some of those critical experiments just like Bardeen and Brattain were I had a very good relationship with all the theorists because that is always an exciting area. You've met them. When I became department head, I always had a theorist in the group, and we would always learn to work with each other. So I personally didn't write those papers, but I could see it, and I was part of that environment. So we never know how it will turn out—mine was a very experimental kind of a work.
As you moved up in seniority at Bell Labs as Director of Solid-state Electronics, as head of the Semiconductor Electronics Research Department, was it difficult for you to stay close to the science or the culture at Bell was even with these administrative responsibilities, you could still do the work?
Yeah. So there were three laboratories, the Physics Research Laboratory in the Physics division. Physical Research Laboratory, which is where I started, Chemical Physics Laboratory, which is where actually Brattain originally came from, and the Solid-state Electronics Laboratory, which was really became the modern version of the Transistor Physics laboratory. And where a lot of the Shockleys and other technologists who started at Bell. It was hard to imagine. So when I went to the semiconductor electronics area —and then already, sadly, a little bit of a pecking order was developing, sort of at the physics level, it was a little more basic, where solid-state electronics because it was concerned with electronics was thought to be little more applied. I was going from Phonon Physics and they wanted me to head the Semiconductor Electronics Department. People wondered, "Hey, Venky, why you're leaving the pure Physics you're doing now? You're going to be doing some electronics." It was the best move I ever made because the managers knew what to do. So I am a strong believer that you combine physics with materials and with devices, and that was the birth of the transistor. Do you give Bardeen more credit—or you give Brattain more credit, or eventually you give Shockley more credit? It's actually for different reasons, all of them.
And so in my group, the Semiconductor Electronics Research Department, I always made sure that there was a materials person, device people, and theorists. I had Michael Schluter, a well-known student of Marvin Cohen who did a lot of density functional theory. But in my group, I also had both Physics and devices always the same place. So, when I got appointed as Head of Semiconductor Electronics Department, multi-layered materials were becoming important. Molecular-beam epitaxy was becoming important. We could grow materials in a very well-defined way and structure and see the effects of quantum mechanics with real materials. So quantum mechanics was moving into the real world. And people had already discovered that you could do all kinds of things for lasers and optical work, and we wanted to study transport properties and see if they can be effective. So there was a member of staff, Ray Dingle, and I said, maybe we should start working on transport properties and electrical properties of these materials, and somebody brought to our attention a young person by the name of Horst Störmer. Horst Störmer joined the group, and he started working on messing with the transport properties of these materials. And then one day he came to my office saying. “I can alter the electronic properties”—and the thing was when you have a—to make a material conducting, you have to add an impurity. The impurity can also act as a scatterer and reduce the conductivity. Störmer came to my office and said, “Venky, I think I've got some new principle. I can separate the donors which give the impurities from the electrons which conduct, and we can increase the mobility of samples a lot.” So, I remember. And I went to my boss, (Joe) Giordmaine, who was then the director, I said, "Look, this guy may have done something really new--" and he was a temporary worker. I said, "He should be made permanent. He might have done something very important." But Giordmaine first asked me, "What's the mobility?" I said, about 10,000. What's the best mobility in pure GaAs? Several 100,000." But I said, "This is a new principle." And of course, a few years later, Störmer and Gossard made these million mobility samples and then discovered new physics.
So the point really is Störmer, was he a materials person? Was he a device person improving conductivity to study electronic materials, or was he a physicist? He was all woven into one, and then, he discovered one of the most important discoveries in the last 50 years in physics. And I was so excited —I remember going to Arno Penzias' office directly. I said, "They've discovered the fractions in the quantum Hall effect. I don't know what this means, but something new." And all kinds of number theorists were surprised—Arno came to my office with Stormer, coined up the first paper's title. We didn't want to call it the quantum Hall effect because already Von Klitzing had discovered the quantum Hall effect. And then, it became Fractional Quantum, whatever, and so on. So that really, really is a very interesting story from my own perspective.
I feel fortunate that I've been to Stockholm a few times. What I'd like to say, I'm the bridesmaid, and Störmer, you can take some people. And I’d been already two years earlier. I was a chief recruiter for Bell Labs at Cornell. You never turned over Recruiting to Personnel. It was always the laboratory directors, heads of groups who would go personally to universities, know the faculty members, and recruit. And so this was true. So Bill Boyd recruited Art Gossard from Berkeley, Kumar Patel would do Stanford. I would do Cornell because I was from Cornell and my first recruit to Bell Labs from Cornell was Doug Osheroff. And Doug Osheroff and I would go back to Cornell, and I made Doug Osheroff part of my team, and we used to go back to Cornell and recruit people. And I would always joke to Doug that my mother would write to you with all your degrees in the British way, and you'd one day have the name NL across your name, Nobel Laureate, and it turned out to be actually true. And I went to his Nobel award ceremony. My main thing was really becoming his friend and recruiting him to Bell Labs. That was my contribution. Of course, the work was all his and his advisors. But I got to know the professors and test them.
The point that I want to make is that the Bell Labs recruiting system is very special. You've got to know the professors. You've got to read between the lines and identify them and also encourage people to go where their research takes them. I could have told Störmer, "No, you were supposed to do this applied problem of improving the conductivity of materials." I'll let him go and do the physics. That's the point. Too many funding agencies won't allow you to do that today. Am I being clear?
Yeah. Research is about the unknown. It's not about basic or applied. It is a, what is new? What is it different that you have done? Just don't break it up. It's just like diversity and inclusion. You do not compartmentalize. I very strongly opposed the old Oxford view or even Harvard view. Namely, they brought Harvard leader to change and the country and philosophy, which was for a long time in Europe, where theoretical work and mathematics was at the top, then there was physics, then there was astronomy, then there was chemistry, and then there was biology and so on. Makes no sense.
Venky, this system is not only special, it's now unfortunately a historical relic because what Bell represented really doesn't exist anymore. My question is—
Oh, it is a very serious problem. I think China is trying to replicate it. And we'd regret it if we don't follow that.
So my question is, by the mid to late 1980s, were you starting to read the writing on the wall about the changes afoot at Bell, and was that part of your decision-making to move over to Sandia?
Yes. So, I think indeed that is true. This is the '80s. I don't know some people have an ability to think long-term. I don't know where it comes from. I cannot prove it. That's why I gave the credit to my predecessors. They really were able to think long beyond what needed to. I do have personally have that capacity, to not become what I would call a boiled frog. To realize, to read the tea leaves that go on. And you always move on early. It's a philosophical thing. The same with research. I always believe that no matter how good you are, you should change your field every 5 to 10 years. You know as much and after that, a new person should come in. Same with, I believed, at management. It's really quite as important philosophically.
So, by the '80s, you could see the handwriting on the wall because they were breaking up the monopoly in Bell Labs. People mistake it, “Oh, it is a monopoly.” There are lots of monopolies. They don't have any good research. There are lots of utility companies. There were a lot of very farsighted managers who wanted to position Bell for the future. It was more than just a monopoly. But with the way it was broken up, I always also believed the reasonably justified physics and engineering research at Bell Labs or any such company, it is ultimately related to manufacturing. You cannot say you're just going to be funded. If there's a small number, you can be. You can always fund… but the scales we talk about, you have got to relate to why would you get public funding unless you actually impact society?
So when AT&T was separating its manufacturing part (due to the anti-trust suit and the 1984 agreement with the U.S Department of Justice), I knew it was a dangerous thing. So I was actually offered—I was a director, and I could transfer people. Bellcore was created. It has very complicated legal issues as well. And I was first offered to go with the Bell operating companies that wanted to set up their own research, but there will be seven masters. New Jersey Bell, New York Telephone, California Bell. I said this is never going to work, okay? I turned it down after first dabbling with it. And I'm still wondering what I was going to do. I mean, of course, I could stay at Bell Labs. It's a complicated history. Anyway, actually, MIT called me to head the National Magnet Lab. And I almost went to MIT, and MIT is a great institution, but again, there were certain aspects, the way MIT was supporting it, that bothered me. Eventually, actually, MIT lost the National Magnet Lab. It went to Florida. That's a different issue. It's complicated. And I don't want to get in trouble on it. But Sandia—Bell had a tradition for a long time of doing public service. Bell Labs had played a major role with the MIT Rad [Radiation] Lab in radar in World War II. 1n 1947, President Truman wrote to the President of AT&T/Western Electric to take over the management of Sandia National Laboratories, “as exceptional service in the national interest.” It goes back to World War II—
AT&T wanted to be in the good graces of the government, because they, of course, were tied up as a monopoly and wanted to be sure there were no conflicts of interest. And an agreement was consummated with Bell Labs as the prime contractor for managing Sandia as a no-cost, no fee arrangement. They didn't want to make a profit. They didn't want to make any money off it. The only thing was, they would be indemnified. That is, they would run the place. That is, they would send the president of Sandia, the vice president of research, the chief legal officer and a couple of other officers, and they will run it. So AT&T basically, it has made a separate Sandia corporation, no profit, no fee, and public service in the national interest. I went there in 1987. And I found it very invigorating. Public service people tend to forget, it’s really important, but sadly, what President Trump has done, maligning everybody as unelected. There are a lot of dedicated people. They just want for the good of the country. Anyway, so, it was a very unique arrangement. And of course, later on (after nearly 50 years), that arrangement ended. I left in 1992—so Sandia was a wonderful experience for me because I broadened my horizons a lot. I learned about all the other problems, energy and environment, defense, etc., computing and others. Bill Brinkman, a former, past president of APS, was my predecessor.
And so, in fact, usually what happened in the old days, was that the Vice President of Research came from Bell Labs Research and then came back to Bell Labs as an Executive Director or Vice President from a former position. It was sort of like a training ground for future leaders of Bell Labs. Sandia had a tremendous record of really building reliable systems with engineering excellence with strong underpinnings of science, just like at Bell.
And it was wonderful until we started imploding because of the aspect with safeguard of nuclear materials and so on. And I could see the handwriting on the wall. James Watkins (then Secretary of the U.S Department of Energy) wanted to run Sandia, not in the scientific way but like a defense lab, subject to all kinds of controls and for a fee operation. And it didn't fit any more with the Bell Labs’ research culture. And I was just lucky that my friends at so many universities started calling me (in the early 1990s), and especially, Santa Barbara called me, and I was just—I'm really happy that I went to Santa Barbara. It was one of the best places in condensed matter physics and materials physics, and so I was going to a good place, and that was very nice. So I'm very lucky.
I really enjoyed Sandia, but the last couple of years became very stressful because of the changing in the management system. I could see that AT&T would no longer want to run under the—because Admiral Watkins was the then Secretary of Energy, came from the Nuclear Navy. He wanted to run a research lab like a Nuclear Navy. You can’t do that. A nuclear Navy has some very serious responsibilities where you really have to be disciplined and all that—but research, you're undisciplined. So they don't understand the dichotomy.
Venky, did you have an appointment in the Department of Physics at Santa Barbara?
No, at Santa Barbara, I didn't. At Harvard, I did. It so happened they were for political reasons. So I made so many successful joint appointments, not only with Physics, but with Chemistry as well. The Physics Department was very open. It was not an issue. The reason I didn't take the appointment, there was so many Physicists in the engineering college, they (faculty) thought Physics would dominate. And he was a dean who came from Physics. So, I said, I’ll just stay with engineering, so. At Harvard, it was a different issue. I wanted to be sure that physicists accepted me and so on. So this is more complicated. So at UCSB I was actually Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Electrical Engineering as a field really grew out, of Physics which itself was identified with natural philosophy.
Physics and Electrical engineering—was Faraday an Electrical Engineer, a Physicist, applied Physicist? He was all of them. And you might not know the case of Maxwell, that people think Maxwell was one of the greatest theorist? Well, I think he's on a class by himself, almost like Einstein because he made the connection between electricity and magnetism and light. But Maxwell used to work with the British telegraph submarine cable system. And he wanted to study transmission of signals. And he wrote these Maxwell's equations, which were 20 equations which were complicated. And actually, it was Heaviside who actually figured them out. He was an Electrical Engineer who wrote in a Trade journal. not in a Physics journal. He reduced Maxwell’s equations to the modern version (four equations) which are what we all learned in the textbook, and Hertz was the one who discovered the waves. So they were used to be referred to as Heaviside, Hertz, Maxwell equations. And one day, Einstein decided it should be just Maxwell and somehow it became the Maxwell equations. But Maxwell was obviously a great man.
But what I'm saying is that Physics and Electrical Engineering had intimate connections with these roots, right from the days of Faraday, Maxwell, and Hertz, Heaviside. They were all of a certain kind. So, actually, there's one center which you should always work with for certain parts of physics is actually the History of Physics at the IEEE History Center. The IEEE History Center runs a good—I actually donated some money for them because I feel they do a very good job of some of the iconic events in the field of communication. And even the Computer Sciences, I have to keep telling them, they have to depend on the devices which Physicists and Electrical Engineers produced because all computers require—and now software and hardware are merging. Just don't forget the Electrical Engineers. They are the inventors. They are the ones who created Silicon Valley. Shockley went from Bell Labs and so on. And that's what has made Physics a prominent field. I am very much against division. Santa Barbara was very good. So, I will give credit to the Physics Department because they hired Fred Wudl and Alan Heeger into that department a long time ago. Alan Heeger was working with organic materials, and Fred Wudl is actually an organic chemist really growing novel materials.…but the Physics department had the wisdom and hired both of them. And Alan Heeger, until he got his Nobel prize, was slightly outcast in the bigger physics community because many people didn't believe his early experiments.
Poor guy was honest, but there were powerful people in Materials. It was very unusual behavior that often happens. In the end, he was right, okay? So, but anyway, and of course, then rest is history. But what I wanted to say is Physics was very open. The Chemistry department at Santa Barbara at that time was a more insular closed department. At the same time, the Materials department at Santa Barbara was building up its capabilities in both inorganic and organic materials, and I had faculty members like Tony Cheetham. He's a fellow of the Royal Society. He was a chemist, and he needed chemistry graduate students. So I went to the provost of Letters and Science. And I said, "Look, Tony Cheetham is a material scientist and also a chemist. He needs to have relations with Chemistry. I'll do you a deal. I will pay Tony's salary full-time, and transfer a quarter of his FTE to Chemistry. And he’ll teach quarter time with Chemistry. You can hire graduate students from Chemistry. We’ll build these relationships, and then the only thing we'll agree, is when Tony Cheetham leaves UCSB, the quarter time salary would return to the college of engineering. It was a simple act, and it made the deal.
And after that, there were many more joint appointments, Galen Stucky and other well-known academy members within Materials Department. So I wanted to serve as a neutral person. As a dean, I decided, therefore, not to take an appointment in Physics. But then, I built relations with chemistry and everybody else. I didn't quite know that's what I was going to do, but that's what happened. At Harvard, it was different. In fact, the first department, probably people like David Nelson knew as they wanted me to be a part of Physics because the way I was—I had developed Santa Barbara. So there were some faculty members in Physics who were very interested that I be appointed there so that I have a stake there. So there's human dynamics, of course.
Venky, what research were you involved in—
So the faculty matter and the legal matter.
I do believe both are important. You want to have 1,000 flowers bloom, somebody has to feed the flowers, and somebody has to kill the weeds. Somebody has to build the relationships and nurture it. That's why mentoring and all these things are important.
And in your capacity as Dean, to the extent that you had time to do research, what were you working on in those years?
So there's another couple of philosophies at Bell Labs and other places, and what I always bought. You always kept your own personal research going and balanced it with your management duties. Both in your research as well as in what you do, you must make change every 5 to 10 years. So when I went to Sandia—the only time I didn't do research as it was a nuclear lab and I could not easily bring my post docs. At Bell Labs most of the Research Managers did personal research. I mean, Kumar Patel did his research. I did research. Bob Dynes later on became Director. He did research. You would get some extra support. I'd always get postdocs paid by the company, but it kept my toe in the water. I'd go to Physics meetings to know what the best work is and so on. And I felt it was very important at Santa Barbara to do that too. So I had a lab, and I wanted to do something different from low-temperature physics, it was past for me. I used to be an advisor to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, their Microdevices Laboratory. And they were developing a new technique called Ballistic Electron Microscopy. So I decided Santa Barbara, given its strength in materials, that I would start studying those kinds of materials by this new technique. I learnt it, and I had a hard time getting funding when I went to Santa Barbara because, oh, I'd been Vice President of Sandia. I'd been at Bell Labs. I'd been Vice President at Sandia. I'm Dean. You couldn't do any work. You could know—and luckily, of course, I had a startup package, and one NSF manager took pity on me. He gave me a small grant. As risk capital, they can give $50,000, and I'm grateful to that person. And I made it a point to invite all the program officers to my lab and showed them that I understood what they were doing.
Then, I started getting funding and so on despite the fact that there is a great bias against administrators. Culture is really important. Physics is just as valuable as many others and so on. So I wander a little bit, but I'm trying to give you a feeling for what it takes to build a great research organization. I feel very good about what little I've done in Physics, but what I feel best is the people I've mentored, and that's really important. And my own advisor was a good mentor, and so that really—so you derive your success, not by winning all the prizes, but the people who you work with who won the prizes.
Venky, academically and administratively, it's clear you were very happy during your Santa Barbara years. And of course, Santa Barbara, it doesn't get any better than that in terms of places to live. What were the circumstances of coming to Harvard?
So I never thought I would leave Santa Barbara. I mean, I was offered a couple of directorships in National Labs and looked at it. And I decided against it. In fact, my friend Bob Birgeneau who wanted me to very much become director of Brookhaven. He tried to recruit me as Director of Brookhaven National Lab, because he knew that I knew how to lead. But it was not in good shape. Brookhaven is a very good place. It should not be a criticism. But there was an issue with tritium and other things. And we were being managed by Batelle. It was not the same as—I look for the boss, who are the leaders which are already there? So at Santa Barbara, I never thought I would leave, but there are always that, what do you call—the Dean of the Faculty at Harvard writes to me, and I would get lots of letters from deans, "We're looking for somebody who'd be of help. We were trying to revitalize Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard. We're looking for a dean. Can I--" so this Dean, I just ignored for a while. Then this Dean, right, calls me again. He had an outside—as soon as I—an outside Advisory Committee, which I told him to go talk to me, okay? So suddenly, he says, “Can I come and visit you?” I said, "Of course, especially if you come on a Saturday on a weekend, I'll have no interference. And you come to my office." So he came with one of his administrative people, Dean Jeremy Knowles. He's a well-known biochemist, a terrific person. Absolutely super achiever. And he was charming.
And here is where Harvard, of course, has a name. I'd never wanted to leave. I had views about Harvard because there were a lot of good young people who I recruited at Bell Labs who never got tenure at Harvard. But there was a bias about tenuring junior faculty. They always look for those with proven ability. It's very different now. Very different now.
But there were two things. The leadership at Santa Barbara had changed, but I was still happy. They really admired me. We still had a good relationship. Santa Barbara in my field? Was order of magnitude better, Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, and Materials Physics. But I knew that Harvard undergraduates were second to none. I always had a view of Information Technology because of my Bell Labs past in Communications. And Harvard has a very checkered history. Bill Gates didn't graduate. Steve Ballmer did, and so on. And they, in fact, had told Rudentein, the then-President, Harvard has got a very bad and checkered history in CS and Engineering. And you need to get somebody from outside Harvard. The world is changing due to information technology. And the previous deans had all been theoretical physicists, Paul Martin, Harvey Brooks, John van Vleck, they were my three predecessors in the modern history of the division. And Jeremy Knowles was sent by Rudenstein to scout the country. And I didn't realize he was not just coming for my advice, he was actually trying to recruit me because then we have this half, full day conversation, lengthy conversation, and I always was interested in education in undergraduates.
So Santa Barbara is a public university. Still gets good undergraduates, but not like Harvard or St. Stephen's College, I mean that was the very best. So that was important, and I always had this view of technology. I've been to a liberal arts college in India that you really want to connect technology and social science. And true liberal arts of the future must involve both humanities, social sciences, and technology. In fact, it's all really true now because of what has happened with Computer Science and the emergence of social media.
And so I picked up Computer Science. I had built very good materials. This was at Santa Barbara because I saw the importance of these connections, Electrical Engineering, its connections with Physics long-term and with computation. So there's now really three axes. There's experimental, there's theoretical, and then there's computation. It's really a new era. Anyway, so Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates gave money to Harvard to really build a new building for Computer Science, Electrical Engineering. That was a hole in the ground when I was recruited. There was a Dean of the Faculty who was a well-known chemist and biochemist, and really good and really energetic. Was almost like a Bell Labs person. And he calls me back and says, "Will you come and visit Harvard?" I said, "I'm not looking for a job. I'm happy at Santa Barbara." He says, "No, you must come. And I won't let you meet anybody from the faculty. I'll just have a very small group of people come and meet you." They put me up in a hotel, and I had to come to Harvard only to meet the president, and all the others, George Whitesides and David Nelson, all well-known people came to hotel to meet with me and have dinner with me and lunch with me. Obviously, they were all interviewing me, okay? [laugh] That's how it worked.
Then, a few months later, I get a call from the Dean of the Faculty that they would like me to come. So then I looked at it. And I could see that Harvard wanted to change. I could see that the undergraduates are second to none. I did have a love for the East Coast, and I’d done Santa Barbara 7, 8, 10 years. It was that. I did it. And it was that both the President of Harvard and the Dean of the Faculty were so committed that I trusted them. I said, "You have to support me to tenure faculty in Computer Science, all these other teachers." That's another question of culture of excellence. Bell Labs has that culture.
And the University of California, in particular, had a great culture of excellence. It has been corrupted a lot because of the way political things are working. University of California, it was the greatest public university system. It was setup correctly by Clark Kerr who wrote the master plan for the UC system. And it could have been that Berkeley dominated Santa Barbara. No, they allowed Santa Barbara to develop because Santa Barbara had a visionary Chancellor, and then eventually, it had a visionary engineering Dean, my predecessor in Mehrabian, followed by me, and then followed by Matt Tirrell. So that tradition got set up, and we all kept our research going throughout my time there—and so on. Same with Harvard. I told the Dean, "I'm going to a smaller place because Santa Barbara's already a bigger place in Engineering and Applied and all these other fields. But that was not—size is not the important element. It's what you do and who you are. And again, I did something different at Harvard.
Venky, what was the administrative relationship when you were Dean of Physical Sciences, at the same time, you were Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences?
It was complicated. The Natural sciences in the FAS were split into two the Division of Physical Sciences and Division of Life Sciences. Initially there was no natural candidate for Dean of the Life sciences. I was doing double duty The Physical Sciences were very closely related to the Division of Engineering, and Applied Sciences, especially Condensed Matter Physics with Applied Physics, and also Earth and Planetary Science with environmental science and engineering, and DEAS also had growing programs in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and chemical and bioengineering and all of those were missing, which of course, I built up concurrently.
But the one big issue, which often people don't understand, so I really was doing two Dean jobs with a lot of faculty, almost 200 faculty. Believe me, managing faculty is more than a full-time job. They are independent. To win their trust means you’ve got to walk the halls and corridors and get a pulse of the place, and so on. Many deans fail because they don't understand what it takes. It's not easy. Just not easy, so.
But I had to understand the culture of different disciplines—the Math Department, very—they basically have three, four Field Medal winners and so on. And I said to Larry Summers, I said, "Leave them alone. As long as you do great math, a small number. The Applied Math will be done in the School of Engineering, and we'll connect that." That's what we did and so on. Anyway, so it was hard because as a Dean of Physical Sciences, I didn't have an independent budget. It came through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' dean. While as Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences, there was big endowment with the Gordon McKay bequest, which is another reason I went to Harvard. The budgetary situation in California was getting bad.
And Harvard has this endowment for the School of Engineering. So I knew I could actually make appointments which I could not anymore do at Santa Barbara. It was a very important element. I forgot that. Oh, that's an important element. And so the endowment, in a sense, even though it was a relatively small engineering school or division, it had a wonderful environment to make change. That's how I built up Computer Science, EE, and chemical engineering. Then, of course, I raised a lot of endowed chairs myself, and now it is an even bigger endowment. The endowment makes a huge difference in terms of flexibility. So as Physical Sciences Dean, I did not have the endowment. The endowment was controlled by the Dean of the Faculty. So that was not—it was hard, but I've managed to survive it, but it was not the same.
And so when time came when they wanted to make me Dean of the whole Faculty, although it was such an honor—I said, no, I'd rather stay with the Engineering and Applied Sciences. I never looked for power. I was looking for excellence.
I want to ask an intellectual history question. Before your appointment to the Kennedy School in 2009, obviously, you were already thinking about science and society and policy issues. Otherwise, you never would have switched into a policy school. So I'd like to ask generally, over the course of your career at this point, Cornell, Bell Labs, Santa Barbara, Sandia, what were some of the big items that you were thinking about that you wanted to systematize intellectually and as a public scholar?
I think you are asking a very important question. You can only go back into reflection. There's something about Bell Labs training. The Bell Labs people were intrinsically very broad. And even the leadership of Bell Labs was also involved with public things. Bill Baker [Vice President of Research when I joined Bell] was involved with Washington a lot. And then, of course, the Sandia connection after the war, and even during the war. During the war, Vannevar Bush had two key advisors, Frank B. Jewett. He was a former Bell Labs president, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and James Conant, president of Harvard. If you go back and look at your files, they're the key people. And so there was this outward-looking part. And even when I was a Member of the Technical Staff—I was very close to the director of the Physical Research Laboratory. Joe Burton. Go back and look at his history. Joe Burton was treasures [of APS]. I was very close to Joe Burton. He would get me involved, including in various ways with the American Physical Society. And when Millie Dresselhaus became president of the American Physical Society, she talked me into joining the panel of Public Affairs, and also to head the committee on Science and International Affairs. And at that time, China was just opening up in the '80s after the culture wars in China, and we were trying to make outreach and so on. So it involved a lot of physicists and others in these outreach activities as well as in the larger policy issues because of the Physics and the way Bell Labs trained people and of course, the American Physical Society.
And the Sandia experience, where I really became involved with energy and environment besides nuclear weapons and defense, really broadened my thinking. And I realized as I started thinking about education, because Santa Barbara already have started, was that we needed to change engineering education a lot. Engineers are much better in Math than Physicists, but just requires so much Math. It is sometimes epitomized, in a derogatory way, the word nerds, sometimes means, right, engineering nerd, socially inept, and so on. That's not correct. So anyway, so I wanted to actually connect Engineering with Social Science. And I became Chair of the Engineering Advisory Board of the National Science Foundation. Joe Bordogna (who was then in charge of the engineering directorate at NSF), who came from University of Pennsylvania, had similar views.
So he and I championed reform of engineering education a lot, and I started teaching. I encouraged entrepreneurship of looking outward. So Santa Barbara had collaborators like Professor John Bowers in EE and others where we started teaching new courses. We had the entrepreneurship course for the undergraduates which involves economists, social scientists, and law others. So I was a part-time teacher there because I said it was the right thing to broaden people's horizon, to be an entrepreneur and not just invent, but take one’s inventions to impact society more broadly. How to form a company. It's true for engineers. It's true for physics. It's true for all sciences and true throughout academia. And then, I realized that Harvard would be a better place for that because, in fact, it would actually, and so during the time I was Dean, especially for 10 years, first I was building up the School. Then, I had double Dean duties and all kinds of things. For 10 years, the Dean job was I would turn down a lot of outside engagements. I considered the Dean was really more important. We keep getting calls. I remember, when President [George W.] Bush was president, their office called me. They wanted to serve on a Mars commission. I said, "I'm not an astrophysicist." They said, "No, they want somebody like me to be on it." And I decided I didn't want to do it because they were under an enormous time commitment, and it would've been a great honor to decide on the future missions for Mars and so on. But I said, "No, my job comes first." So that's another different point here. But I wanted to impact education more directly.
So I wanted to teach a course at Harvard. The reason I went to Harvard was more because it is a great private university, but also because of the undergraduates. That was the reason I went there. That's the reason I kept the school in a unique position—that I created the School of Engineering jointly within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, because you want the Harvard college students, the future Gates-es and the Ballmers are all to come out who understand all of these things. And so I started teaching and developing this course. That was my purpose. So I said during my sabbatical year, I'll develop this new course. That's what I'd teach undergraduates, which is what I did for five years, Introduction to technology and society. And I took a sabbatical in both the business school and the Kennedy School. And I spent some time in each place. And then I quickly realized that the business school was not quite the right place because it was too structured, too corporate. I wanted a more open environment.
The Kennedy School is full of political scientists. They're really the opposite of me, the political scientists, but it's very open. And they've this small program, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, which was started by Harvey Brooks, who was my predecessor's predecessor, one of the great people there, and he had the vision to start the program. He realized that Science and Technology must relate to Public Policy, and he was really broad. The people, my predecessors, my faculty, the old guard, they liked me because they felt that I finally was an appropriate replacement for Harvey Brooks. He was much greater than me, but they were looking. Paul Martin was a really great theoretical physicist. Absolutely brilliant, but he didn't quite appreciate these other aspects. So Harvey Brooks became a role model. And John Holdren succeeded Lewis Branscomb and John was the fourth Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program. At the end of my sabbatical year, I thought I'd just be back to the School of Engineering teaching undergraduates and writing my own policy papers. When I decided to give up my lab in about 2012 because of my age, and I didn't want to go on getting NSF grants, and I wanted to write these books and so on. And when John Holdren was leaving, the director of the Belfer Center calls me and says, "Would you be interested in taking this for your post-decanal career just like Harvey Brooks??" And I did it, and that's what happened. And then, I started teaching at the Kennedy School as well, Masters students on public policy. I wanted them to learn about technology. At the same time, I've learned a lot about Social Science.
After ten years now, at least I can argue with social scientists, because they have their own culture and their own way of doing things, and they write in such obtuse choice language. I can't understand, it's worse than physics. There's a huge language barrier.
Venky, I'm curious if your relationship with John Holdren allowed you to see what was going on in Washington to get involved in national science policy issues.
So John Holdren was very careful to be aloof from the Belfer Center after he went to D.C to avoid conflicts of interest. And I've developed a much closer relation with John now, okay? It's not—I would go and see him in Washington to inform him on work I was doing on National Academy panels, but what happened was, I got involved in two ways. In the National Research Council, which is now NASEM, because Chuck Vest wanted me to come as foreign secretary of the National Academy of Engineering. I admire Chuck Vest. He was a great president at MIT and a great spokesman for Science. So, I stood for the election, and got elected, and ex-officio became member of the National Research Council. I served on its division of Engineering, Applied, and Physical Science, all of these others and so on. And in 2007 I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And then Neal Lane who was then on its Council asked me to lead a study panel on Advancing Research in Science and Engineering And so there I would go and meet with John Holdren more in a different capacity. This is what my panel is recommending, and he invited me to address PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology) which was co-chaired by John and Eric Lander. So the relations with John Holdren were more formal. On the plus side, he had left a very good group of educated, young scholars, which I am very grateful for. But correctly, he didn't want to be perceived as Harvard. He was now working with the government.
Venky, I'd like to ask about the book that you published in 2016, and the one that's currently slated for publication in the fall. What were your main motivations, first, with cycles of invention and discovery? What were your motivations as a scientist to write a book that had historical, political, and sociological implications?
So I always had the view that you never lose your home base. I wanted something which would still resonate with a lot, not everybody, of my Physics colleagues. It was all easy for me to take an appointment of Physics and then appointing people that have complicated histories because otherwise, Physics becomes dominant. They won't allow Applied Physics to grow. This is what I learned. And in 2000 Harvard took over a small independent Institute, which was started by the late Edwin Land (who founded Polaroid) and was named the Rowland Institute. It was funded by an endowment and with the goal of inventing new tools and instruments for novel science – a sort of mini-bell labs!
And I'd helped in bringing the Rowland Institute to Harvard as Dean of DEAS and they invited me to give their anniversary lecture on the 10th anniversary in 2010. And I had recently stepped down as Dean. I began to reflect on its purpose and how I got involved with it. It was really—it came into Harvard when I was just begun Dean that represents negotiations, the big endowment to conduct unfettered research like Bell Labs. That's where Lene Hau did some of her work and she was one of my first appointments to the Harvard faculty; Eric Bloch also had been a Rowland Fellow and moved on to Stanford and so on. And so when Frans Spaepen the then director called me, I decided, "Look, we always talk about scientific discovery." Of course, scientific discovery is very important. When we look at Bell Labs and all these other places, it's really the invention of the tool (which leads to discovery) and experiment and theory are all intertwined. It's really invention and discovery. You can ask if the discovery come first or the invention came first. Very often they happen simultaneously. That was the case of the transistor. And I said, this is not understood. So I started giving lectures on Science, Tech, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School to Master’s students of Public Policy. And one of the iconic papers was written by Vannevar Bush, Science, the Endless Frontier. It is beautifully written. I was so enamored by it. It's absolutely—as if science is the only thing. Bush was an electrical engineer, the Dean of Engineering at MIT, but he had, it turned out, wanted to emphasize Science because of the British arrogance of World War II and all the other things. And that's the way I read the history.
So I had a postdoc, Tolu Odumosu, a Nigerian actually, and he's now on the faculty of the University of Virginia who was my teaching fellow of the Kennedy School course. And I said, "Let's just ask because I knew Bush cited the atom bomb." He cited how World War II was won. The atom bomb, proximity fuse, radar, and synthetic rubber. They were four major things which led to the US victory and the world of the Allied powers’ victory.
Now, the atom bomb, you could give physics a lot more credit just because of Einstein and Fermi and so on. I think you cannot neglect the enormous feats of engineering and chemistry which happened to actually bring the atom bomb into fruition, but it’s okay. But when it comes to proximity fuse, I don't think of Physics. I think of Electrical Engineering. We think of radar, you think of Electrical Engineering. Of course, it's also Physics. It's also all kinds of other things. And when you think of synthetic rubber, you don't think of Chemistry. You don't think of scientists. You think of Chemical Engineering. That's what it is. I said, "There's something wrong. It needs--" And so, I said, "Just count the number of times Bush refers to Science and number of times he refers to Engineering." He referred to Science 130 times and referred to Engineering 4 times. It really bothered me. I said, "He has not been quite objective." And I said, "This is not to negate science. Just tremendous value, that really, it is a cycle of Science and Technology." That's why Applied Physics and Instrumentation, all these things are so important. And you really have to unify this in a new way that Bardeen and Anderson really epitomize the kind of theorists we want and the kind of experimentalists we want. That doesn't mean that's the only way, but that is an important way and needs to be recognized.
And just don't separate basic and applied research, it makes no sense. So I started reading the history. I want to go back to every Bell Labs report. Luckily—so I had another undergraduate physics student, Marley Chung. And I said, "Do a survey and go to the Bell Labs library and find out all the original speeches." I discovered there was a Vice President of Bell Labs, [Ralph Bown] who won the IEEE medal of honor, and who wrote some beautiful speeches. He was the Vice President when the transistor was invented of how—he clearly said we don't separate Basic and Applied Research. That it's just research. It's about the unknown. It is unscheduled. And you go wherever it leads you. You don't separate them up. And that was the glue, that unifying thing completely appealed to me. I was just so amazed that these guys had thought about it that way. Very clearly, he wrote that. So that’s what happened.
And then, I wrote a paper in Issues in Science and Technology in 2013. And that, it was clear, that a book had to be written with the proper history including of the National Research Council, etc. Now, people, it's very hard to change. It's just like bias and prejudice. People still like to, but I think theorists are beginning to change. And Steve Chu was a breath of fresh air (when he became Secretary of Energy in 2008 and reformed DOE which is the largest funder of Physical Sciences). He brought new energy. He created Energy Frontier Research Centers, Energy Innovation Hubs, ARPA-E and so on all because of—DOE was sitting there siloed in the Office of Science (from the so-called Applied Energy offices). It's a mistake, especially in Energy. You can't do the Energy without—people who study photovoltaic materials and never make a solar cell, that makes no sense. In Bell Labs, when you actually made them, you actually tried it. That's what Störmer did. That's what Bardeen and Shockley did. It's just so wrong to separate them out. It's like saying you'll have a child alone. Of course, you can adopt and so on, but you need man and woman.
So I looked at detailed history. I looked at the French. I had my postdoc read a book by de Gennes of how critical he was, of the French system. De Gennes wrote in his book about “fractured objects,” and I quote it in my book because he says the French system has been so theoretical for a long time that they don't understand how research gets done. So he would interview graduate students in Condensed Matter Physics. And he said, he would give them a simple problem on the sensitivity of detector, and the student would stare at him for an hour.de Gennes would ask him, "Why are you struggling?" He says, "Sir, I don't know how to write the Hamiltonian." Hamiltonian has nothing to do with it. You've to think physically what happens. You see what I'm saying? You cannot put it in your equations. You can put it in your thing. You don't learn how to think right.
One of the things you've learned is that Science and Engineering are intimately mixed. Physics and Engineering are intimately mixed. One is trying to understand what science is, engineering, what comes out of the mind, the human construction, the tools, the measurements, and everything else. It needs a holistic view.
Venky, Venky to--
That doesn't mean you don't—so you require this broad view without bias and prejudice. I believe it really is the ultimate of diversity in a proper way. Not some favoritism. It is the right way for science.
In what ways did—
So the argument with Larry Summers—so I want to complete this. He came to Harvard in 2000, and Larry came to visit me to learn about DEAS soon after he was elected as president. Very analytical. He says, "Venky, the Bell Labs way was the old way. It was successful. Stanford in Silicon Valley did all this. Harvard will be the center of life sciences and life sciences, you've got a great medical school, and Boston will become the capital of life sciences." I said, "Mr. President, you're right. Life sciences are very important. But biology has much greater synergies with engineering than with reductionist physics. It's an integrative discipline. It's going to rely on computer science. It's going to rely on applied physics. It's going to rely how networks are created biologically as well as synthetically and all of these features.” And I showed him this. He realized it, and that's indeed true. We have biologically inspired engineering. We have synthetic biology. It's all changing. And we have physical biology. So that really needs to be understood, this greater unity. Eventually, they'll be fractionation as well, but this is not a time for reductionism. This is the time for integration.
Obviously, these are ideas that were bubbling up and informed your current book project on the Genesis of Technoscientific Revolutions.
Yes, right. So I don't want to call it just Scientific Revolutions. It's Technoscientific. There's a scientific method. There's an engineering method, and then within this—as they feed on each other. Sometimes, one is ahead. Sometimes, they're simultaneous. Sometimes, one precedes the other. It's like me and Bob Dynes arguing, "Whose idea was it?" We can't collaborate if we don't talk. And the moment you talk, you're giving them some idea, and then, something will occur natively in the brain. "Oh, I heard that." So the brain is a complicated object.
So anyway, I really think we have to absolutely get this. I feel very strongly about it. That doesn't mean everyone will agree with me, but some people still want to—it's just like racism or sexism or caste system in India. We are humans. We're all going to have (human) frailty—but certainly, for science and engineering, I really think for it. So the biggest thing which I've learned in the last time, Science, Engineering, all of these disciplines are socially constructed. Experts in the field agree on a common set of facts until they are overturned by new research and evidence, But we, as humans agree, is the right thing. Even Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the famous early on in the history of science, and really the history of Theoretical Physics, and how it was socially constructed. We must not forget that. Technology can't be of value just by itself. It must relate to the humans in the right way, and to the broader society.
Venky, in what ways has your appointment at the Kennedy School allowed you to interact with students that you otherwise never would have in the more scientific schools and disciplines?
Oh, wait, I think what really was important is that already we have a way of hiring young fellows with diverse backgrounds in their training. it's very important to have— access to people who grew up in different ways, who think differently. And I have now developed a healthy respect for social scientists as well. Because we in fact, have often to communicate our science under conditions of uncertainty – which is the case with for example the pandemic and climate science among areas of current interest.
You cannot justify large-scale public funding of research without showing its relevance to national issues like defense or human health. The big physics funding arose because we said, "We're going to defend the country after World War II with the atom bomb, with the radar, with the microwaves and all these things." So it really is kind of important that we train our students with a broader perspective. That doesn't mean all people have to go my path. No. But we need enough that it is recognized as important. But we do want to teach students with certain ethics, and really being conscious of the outside world, and that's an important element. Because otherwise, you will not know when to put a brake on something. I'll give the physicists some credit. They realized the dangers of nuclear weapons and tried to transform to peaceful uses of atomic energy, but they were not careful enough. They weren't respectful of the environment and nuclear radioactivity and so on because early on. If we had been there, it might have led to a different thing because nuclear reactors can be very important, of course, for the planet because they're carbon neutral. There is a complicated history here. We know that after the fact.
So actually, we're facing this also with computer science and social media. We've designed the open Internet. But open Internet works well, but when people collaborate in certain ways, they become an echo chamber with no filter. That's the problem. That's where humans come in. So we do have to change it with the Internet. I'm very much for the open Internet. That’s how it is designed, but there are issues with this, very serious issues. We saw that with Trump, in our own country and his twitter following, not just in Iran and Russia which practice state sponsored cyber espionage or spreading false information. We are in some ways no different from Russia and Iran with the difference being state sponsored or more extreme ideologies which exist. So it goes beyond physics.
Venky, I'd like to ask, since we're getting to the last part of our conversation as we've come right up to the present, in what ways has your Indian heritage, your background, the fact that you have a colonial tradition, your father is a scientist, in what ways do you see your background informing all of the different things that you've been involved with intellectually over the course of your career?
Well, I mean, India is obviously itself a very complex society. Highly multi-religious, many different languages. English in many ways became the common language. I grew up in a part of India whether the native language was different from my mother tongue and us children communicated with our parents in English. India is a culture partly my father was a scientist, and the way my mother was, always had an appreciation for Science because she typed my father's thesis sitting on his lap. And somehow, I feel very much for India's secular ideals of kind of freedom of religion and the culture of secular ideals and the same is true (of the U.S). So this is a unifying thing, this integrative way of thinking is really very important to me personally. Not everybody thinks that way, of course. We've had our (U.S) president who was a nativist. And so I actually think it has had a big influence. The liberal arts thinking is still, I think, a good way of thinking. In that sense, the British were not all wrong, or Harvard was not all wrong, but there were too stove-piped in the way they thought of liberal arts. Liberal arts has to be thought of more broadly because it must change with the times. That's the point.
So the modern liberal arts must involve science and engineering and vice versa. The engineers and scientists have to change, and the artists and humanities have to change or at least come to some middle ground. So it really is the kind of liberal arts, secular, diverse, those are ones which I think—I think partly I'm very proud of India in the following sense. We have some great leaders, just like US, I think, survived because, for me, the greatest American president, you can debate, is for me is Abraham Lincoln, right? I mean, obviously, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and Hamilton, all also showed great wisdom. And same with India, Gandhi, and then Nehru, and a few others were retro secular. And democracy is very strong in India. It's stronger than the US. Communist government can be elected and be thrown out, legally. And it's chaotic. It's not China, but I still rather live in India than I live in China. So those kind of—the leadership becomes really important.
So if you take India and Pakistan, Pakistan started as a theocratic religious state. It's gone back and forth between dictators and democracy. India started more—and we start to compare the difference. It's not a proof experiment. But really, I believe very strongly in those ideas. Modi sometimes will be right-wing, or same as in US. What happened on January 6th [the insurrection at the Capitol], was very serious. I'm very afraid it could happen in India someday. But I very strongly believe in this diversity. And I'm talking about as a physicist/engineer. I mean, I'm actually a low-temperature physicist in terms of my original background and training and theoretical physics too, I did Feynman diagrams. But now, I've embraced a more holistic view, and I feel very good about it.
Venky, as you emphasize the importance of convergence in academics, that there should not be these barriers, of course, you are a product, a very successful product of those very barriers, of being a part of specific academic departments. What do you see as your primary contributions, both in academics, in science, and as policy? Do you tend to separate them out in your mind, or do you want to emphasize, in your own intellectual history, the convergence of all of these ideas?
So, first of all, you obviously still want expertise, right? You do want, what some people call, a T-shaped person. He or she knows something well. It may be a discipline, but at the same time is also broad. It's much harder to do that. So you can argue this out. But go back, remember the Physics Department, the Cornell Physics Department was very interdisciplinary from the start. There really were relatively fewer boundaries, especially at the PhD level. And so the culture was good. There were—exactly even what my thesis advisor taught me.
So I think the answer is you do have some groups that are disciplinary focused, but at the same time they should be open to broader interactions when new opportunities arise. So sometimes, you really want experts. It's not to say that you don't want that. It has to be a mix, but you don't elevate one over the other in some odd way to create divisions. We need to have a pluralistic view. We still need a Mozart. We still need an Einstein. We just leave them alone. But most of us are not Mozart or and Einstein. Sadly, most of us aren't even good managers or leaders we want to be. The leader must be one, somebody who mentors and has a vision. It's right for the time. I mean, obviously—and there have been such leaders in Science and Engineering. Vannevar Bush, despite my criticism of what he had to do politically, was a great leader.
Venky, given that you think so deeply about the impact of Science on society, in looking over the course of your career, obviously, as a scientist, you've been dedicated to basic science as a true Bell Labs scientist. In what ways though have you seen your research contributing in a positive way to society?
Well, I think there's one thing that I would just not quite use the word Basic Science. Even though I was working on very low-temperature phonon physics, I recently connected with semiconductors, all kinds of devices and so on and built a phonon mirror just like you would do in optics and others. Is it basic science? Yes. Is it applied science? Yes. I just don't want to have those boundaries so that—and when I do nanotechnology and microscopy. So I would say that's the very nature of solid-state physics, materials physics, etc. So I would want to use that word with some caution.
The larger things with society happened when I became more involved in leadership at Bell Labs because of the way people like Joe Burton and obviously, my interests, they evolved because of my views on reforming both engineering education as Dean of Engineering at Santa Barbara, and also the reforming liberal education in a place like Harvard. I really went to universities mainly because I did have this desire to reform how we teach students especially in science and engineering and their relationship to the broader society. I wanted to make an impact. That's why I stepped down as dean 10 years ago because before I died, I wanted at least to have some impact in those areas.
On the plus side, it's a good thing I'd established my credentials as a physicist early on, in what is a traditional discipline, which gave me the credentials for other things. So sometimes in developing your career, you probably do want to make a deep impression on someone field because that's the way the world works. So I don't want to ever be totally critical of disciplines or that kind of—you know what I'm saying? There's the balance between depth and breadth. You can argue about depth and breadth till the cows come home. It's not a perfect answer. You need both to some degree.
Venky, last question. Let's look to the future. What are the things that you're most optimistic about when you look at the next generation of students, both students that have interests in policy and interest in science, and for you, those students who want to intersect those interests? What are the opportunities, the technologies, the ways of thinking that make you optimistic about what the future can hold?
Oh, it makes me optimistic. First of all, we do need a spectrum, I think you should know. Some of the highly specialized schools, they are still necessary. Sometimes, you really need to know something very deeply and know that well. I don't want to negate that, okay, just so it's understood. But we need a spectrum. In our educational environment, we need a spectrum. So we don't want all engineering schools or all science schools prototyped the same way because we do want some who'll be much more socially relevant, and even physics departments, can't all become social scientists? Then, nobody will know physics. So 90% or 80% should be really knowledgeable in some part of physics and become good at that. But some 10%, 20%—but everybody should, if possible, learn and communicate the results.
We spent enormous time doing our research. Sometimes, it takes years, and don't quite spend enough time in how we communicate the results. So that's a different kind of—so how to take that very seriously is that you build writing skills and other features. So how we educate must evolve. There are places for highly specialized education, and then there are places for the broad And so I think it has to be diverse. It has to be diverse. It cannot just be monolithic. That's why long-term I hope places like India and America will do well.
My main allegiance is to America. I've been citizen here for 50 years. My children, all were born here and we have seven grandchildren, all US citizens, but I obviously still have love of India, and I feel proud of my heritage, both of my parents and Gandhi, I mean, obviously. He is my beacon. He’s like Abraham Lincoln or for the Blacks, Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King learnt from Gandhi if you read his speeches. I just read what the Harvard president sent Martin Luther King's writings to all of us. I hadn't read it in such a long time. It was beautifully written, and he recognizes—so it's worth reading. Some things stand the test of time. There is room for research including philosophy to stand the test of time. That's what—I believe the Bell Labs model will stand the test. It'll be reformed, but it is right. You see what I'm saying?
Well, Venky on that note, it's been an absolute pleasure spending this time with you. Thank you so much for doing this, for spending your time with me, for sharing your insights and all of your energy and optimism. I'm so glad that we connected through our mutual friend, Bob Birgeneau and I want to wish you all the best. Thank you so much.
Yeah, Bob Birgeneau one of my oldest friends. We vacationed together, and even now, we are really close friends.
He's a gift that keeps on giving.