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Interview of Robert C. Dynes by David Zierler on March 30, 2020.
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Robert C. Dynes, Research Professor, Emeritus President of the University of California, and Emeritus Chancellor of UC San Diego. Dynes recounts his childhood in Ontario, his early interests in science, and his decision to attend the University of Western Ontario for college. He explains his decision to pursue a PhD at McMaster University, and he describes some of the advances in superconductivity that were exciting at that time. Dynes discusses his postdoctoral research at Bell Labs and he emphasizes that the research culture was geared exclusively to basic science and had nothing to do with financial considerations toward Bell’s business. He describes his political engagement during the Vietnam Era and he describes the changing culture at Bell during the breakup in the 1980s when he was Director of Chemical Physics. Dynes discusses his research on thin films of metals at the atomic level, and he explains the circumstances leading to his tenure at UC San Diego. He explains how the university was building up across the sciences, and he conveys how important teaching was to him. Dynes describes the process leading to being named Chancellor, and he reviews his challenges and accomplishments in this role. He compares the Chancellor’s responsibilities to those of the UC President, to which he was named in 2003, and he describes his efforts to remain active in research even as he was running the entire UC system. Dynes describes the existential challenge of being president at a time that the state was defunding public education, and he describes some of his key successes in faculty recruitment. He conveys his delight when his term as president ended and he was able to return to the physics department in San Diego. At the end of the interview Dynes cites integrity and creativity as the characteristics that he sees as most fundamental to success in science.
All right, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is my great pleasure to be here virtually with Dr. Robert Dynes. Dr. Dynes, would you tell us your current title and institutional affiliation?
I am, my current title is Research Professor. That means retired research professor, University of California, San Diego. And emeritus president and emeritus chancellor. President of the University of California, Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego.
Okay. All right, so let's start right at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your early childhood in Ontario.
Okay. Born and raised in London, Ontario. It's in the flatlands of Ontario. London was a nice city for me to grow up in. We could ride our bikes pretty much anywhere in the city. It had a population of about 100,000. And of course, in those days... I was born in 1942, so by the time I was riding around the city, it was probably the early 50s. And we could ride anywhere. There wasn't much traffic, of course, because there were not a lot of cars in those days. And we could literally ride from one end of the city to the other, and we were allowed to do such things. So,with a group in our neighborhood, we just did that a lot. I played all the sports that people played in those days. Hockey, baseball, football... The school that I went to, the grade school I went to, was literally half a mile away, so that was easy to go to. And the high school that I went to, these were all public schools. And as this discussion evolves, you will hear my passion for public education. Which I've spent some substantial part of my career at. And the high school was either a bike ride in the spring and fall, or a public bus in the winters.
Now were your parents from Ontario?
Oh, yes. They were of British and Irish stock, but my parents were both from Ontario. My grandfather was a Baptist minister, so I grew up in a slightly strict environment, which I have since reacted to. That was my mother's side. And my father grew up on a farm not too far from London, Ontario.
What did your father do for a living?
He was a product of the Depression, and finally achieved a job with a shoe retailer, and ran a shoe retailing store in London, Ontario. My mother and my father both had been trained in what was then called Teacher's College. This was not university, it was a teacher's college. My mother taught kindergarten and first grade pretty much all the time I grew up. So in many ways, I was a latchkey kid before they were called latchkey kids, but nobody worried about that.
Yeah, yeah. Now, when you were young, did you demonstrate an early aptitude in, in the sciences and math, or you developed that later on?
I don't think I did. I did have a passion for taking things apart and putting them back together. Trying to figure out how they worked. Much to the grief of my parents sometimes, because sometimes I didn't get them back working. Things like clocks sometimes. I took some time to get them back working again, I used to like to do things like that. I used to like to take my bicycle apart and figure out how the gearing worked and condition it quite regularly. More for pleasure than for keeping the biking running well. So I used to like to take things apart, put them back together. That was about the extent of it.
The University of Western Ontario. Was that, is that pretty close to where you, where you grew up?
Yes. Yes, it's in London as well. It's in London, Ontario. And so I lived at home when I went to college. In part because we couldn't afford otherwise.
What was the tuition? Do you remember what the tuition was back in those days?
I do explicitly remember, because I won a scholarship to pay the tuition. It was $465 a year.
And I won a scholarship from a company that I worked for, two or three summers, the London Life Insurance Company, it was a local insurance company and they gave scholarships. They gave two a year, I think, for students that committed to teaching mathematics and science in high school after graduation. A commitment that I weaseled out of a little later. With their blessing, of course.
Oh, so you were able to keep the scholarship?
I kept the scholarship and they allowed me to finish the bachelor's degree in physics and math and to go on to graduate school. I explained to them, and they were quite happy.
Now, the math and physics, this was a double major you did?
Yes it was.
And what were your career goals, if you had any, as an undergraduate? What were you thinking at that point?
Well, in those days, it was to teach high school. And that was the commitment. And it wasn't until I think the end of my junior year, the department chair, he was a head actually, the department head came to me and said, "You know, you really should go to graduate school. I can assure you that you will be awarded a National Research Council of Canada graduate fellowship," because the top student in every class in Canadian universities got that. And that allowed me to go to graduate school. In fact, I remember very clearly it was $3,400 a year and it was tax-free in Canada. And $3,400 a year tax-free seemed like a pretty good deal in those days, because the starting salary for teacher was, in science and math, was $5,200 a year. $100 a week. I remember that very explicitly. And it seemed like the $3,400 a year to stay on campuses, where it was much more fun than going to teach, seemed like a good deal. So I had, I committed to go to graduate school in Canada.
So you were really at the top of your class in undergrad?
Yeah, it wasn't that large a class, but the answer is yes. I was awarded the gold medal for the top of the class.
Were you more— this is for both math and physics?
Math and physics.
Uh-huh, uh-huh. So you went straight to the master’s program. You didn't think about taking any time off?
Nobody took time off in those days. Nobody could afford to take time off, and in fact, in Canada, it was just not a pathway.
Uh-huh. But then you decided at McMaster to focus exclusively on physics.
Well, it was because I'd gone to visit several universities in Ontario. Again, I didn't have an expansive view of where to go and what to do.
I mean, London, Ontario's a fairly— was a fairly parochial town, and nobody left the city. And so I went and visited a new university called the University of Waterloo, I visited University of Toronto, I visited McMaster University. Couple of others that I could drive to. And met a person at McMaster that was a senior graduate student in the area that I did a PhD, and I found him a lively guy and I liked him, and so I decided I was gonna go there. It wasn't a much deeper decision than that. Because I didn't have any really strong visions of what I was going to do. And that was in some sense, an ability to learn more science, and marking time a little bit, because it seemed like a lot more fun than going and teaching high school.
Now, at, at McMaster, how much of your time was split between coursework and lab work?
The Canadian system's a little different. Well, not so much different anymore. I joined McMaster, actually I graduated in May from the University of Western Ontario, and I joined McMaster in June. So I went immediately to that laboratory. I spent the summer learning techniques, learning vacuum pumps and glass blowing, and transferring liquid helium, and evaporating thin films, and things like that. Started the courses in the fall, and the first year was fairly heavy in courses, but I gravitated back to the laboratory, because I was already familiar with the lab, between classes. And then there was a, what was then called a qualifying exam, at the end of the first year, and if you passed that, it was an open ride after that.
Now your affinity, going back to when you were a kid and taking things apart, did that lead you specifically toward more applied physics and away from theoretical physics?
More experimental physics.
Yes, A big, big difference. Experimental physics is trying to ask questions about how things work, and trying to design experiments to test whether you're right or not — or to look into areas that there were no answers. So it's experimental physics as opposed to theoretical physics. My thesis, it turns out, was somewhat theoretical because a person arrived at McMaster who did a post doc at Cornell, was a theorist, Jules Carbotte. And he ostensibly was my thesis advisor, although I had a nominal experimental thesis advisor, so my thesis was fairly heavy computational theoretically oriented, but it had experiments as well.
What was it? What'd you write on?
It was somewhat close to the field that I work on now, and that is electron-phonon interactions in superconductors and whether and why they superconduct— And he and I actually did the first quantitative calculations of, predicting what materials superconduct, and what materials did not superconduct. based on the electron-phonon interaction.
And this was all cutting-edge stuff in terms of learning what we— what materials were, were, had superconductivity?
Absolutely. Absolutely. We were publishing like mad and this work is referenced today as the early work on both superconductivity and electron-phonon interaction. That is, the temperature dependence of the resistivity of metals. As you cool them down, the electron-phonon interaction is quite strong until the phonons freeze out, because they're bosons. And then electron impurity interactions, and electron-electron interactions dominate. So we studied all that, and I, in parallel, did experiments to look at some of these superconductors to try to measure the electron-phonon interaction. And that was following some earlier work that was done by John Rowell) and Phil Anderson at Bell Laboratories. So those calculations were the lead in for the experimental physics part of my thesis.
Do you remember the title of your dissertation?
Oh, gosh. Uh... It's on my shelf at work, but I'm not there right now.
Okay, no problem.
Probably... No, no, but it's an electron-phonon interaction in lead-based materials, or something like that.
And it was both theory and experimental.
Who was your main advisor?
The main advisor, my nominal advisor was an electrical engineer by the name of Colin Campbell, who was a Scot. But the guy that I spoke with every day was this young theorist who had just come from Cornell as an assistant professor. In the physics, department, Jules Carbotte.
Uh-huh, uh-huh. Now, when you started at Bell Labs, you actually started there before you defended?
No, no, no, no. You couldn't do that in those days. I started graduate school in '64 and graduated in May of '68. Defended that, and then in the summer, I did some more experiments that were left over and I wanted to finish up. In the meantime, I'd applied to the consulate, the U.S. Consulate in Toronto, to get a green card. And in those days, with critical skills, you got a green card pretty quickly, I had a green card by the end of August, and entered the country as a green card holder in September of '68, and then drove to Bell Labs.
So when exactly did Bell Labs offer you the position?
It was a post-doctoral position. And it was offered to me in May or June, contingent on getting a green card.
I see, I see. And did you think at all about... I mean, was your intention in graduate school to enter into industry? Or were you thinking about—
Perhaps a faculty job?
No, it was, it was a faculty job. It was always a faculty job. And I remember sitting around with my colleagues, fellow students, and they were all talking about where they thought they wanted to go, and I said, "I think I want to go to the US and see whether I'm good enough to compete with the best."
And you had that sense? You had to go to the United States—
To see what the best was?
Well mostly the United States. I, I had been awarded, again, a National Research Council of Canada post-doctoral fellowship. So it allowed me to basically go, take my own money, or take Canadian money, to go anywhere, and I wrote to a person at the University of Cambridge, I wrote to Mike Tinkham), who had just moved to Harvard, and I wrote to John Rowell at Bell Labs, whose experiments I was following. I was fairly undecided whether I would end up in an academic— go to a university on the post doc. But Bell Labs was of course the Mecca in those days, in what I did, and they invited me down in May 1968 to come and visit Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. And I have to say, after spending a day there, that was where I wanted to go.
Why? What was the first impression that Bell Labs made on you that made you feel that way?
Well, firstly, the way we recruited for years at Bell Labs, we'd have someone come in and then they would give what we called a "thesis review." And so young people would come and talk about their thesis, and it was quite an experience— Anybody could show up, for this thesis review. People voluntarily show up, and I remember there were 20, 30 people in this talk. And I remember the free exchange. Well, I knew what I was talking about, and so the exchange was really stimulating. And I remember walking up and down the halls in this almost monolithic building in Murray Hill, and looking at the names on the doors, and thinking, "Oh my gosh. Look at those names. I know, I know of those. I know of those people."
And it was just, it was very impressive. And I was also recruited in May, and New Jersey in May is actually very pretty. But it was just, it was the— You could feel the electricity in the building.
Yeah. Did it have, did Bell Labs in those days, did it have an academic feel to it? Obviously, you're not teaching, it's industry—
But in terms of the research, was there an academic feel to it?
Yes. It was all academic— In the research part of the Laboratories— Bell Labs was a huge place. And research was only a smaller fraction of that whole place. But in that environment, it was like a university, except that— all day every day, you could just work on research. All day every day. You had nothing else to do. Good science was the currency of the realm.
Were, you know, corporate profit considerations—
Did that ever— That was never a part of your world?
No. In part because AT&T in those days was a regulated monopoly, and as such, AT&T, made the commitment to the Justice Department, to the country, that they would deliver universal telephone service. They would deliver telephone service to everybody in the nation, and in return, they were a monopoly, and allowed, with negotiations, they were allowed to charge a fee for that universal service. Inside that fee, a couple of pennies that people paid in their bill went to basic research at Bell Laboratories. So we were funded from rate payers. And as such, , we ended up having to write only about one page a year to justify our work. That was a huge advantage.
That was it, that was how we were funded. It wasn't as if people from Bell Labs weren't asked to leave occasionally. That happened. And I learned all of that in my management times at Bell Laboratories. So it culled out people. They're much like universities, but the environment was so different from universities, it was just a remarkable environment.
And I can explain it in some detail.
Yeah, I mean it's such a— historically, it's just such a unique arrangement, that there's really no other place like it. So I'd love to hear more.
Well, as I came to realize, and as I came to help manage, I became one of the directors of one of the laboratories. That is — a laboratory was about 100 scientists.
Yeah. You're talking about the chemical physics laboratory?
That's right, chemical physics research. There were three physics division research laboratories. They go under the uninspiring names of 111, 113, and 115. 111 was the basic physics, 113 was chemical physics, and 115 was semiconductor physics. Uninspiring, but inside those organizations, and inside departments in those organizations were outstanding people, I think there were five or six departments in my laboratory at that time. Inside there, there were physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, engineers, material scientists. There was no distinction. It didn't matter what your credentials were. Once you were there, your credentials were irrelevant. What you did was the only relevant thing. And so, I literally had applied mathematicians, I had mathematicians, I had high energy physicists. Everything in my own organization, and part of the job and part of the responsibility is to make connections amongst these people, so that they can use the abilities, the skills, and the knowledge of other people inside Bell Laboratories. And as such, no scientist really, had their own budgets. It wasn't, "This is my money." Because they weren't allowed to do that. And that's a huge distinction between Bell Labs and universities. Where universities build up empires on the basis of research budgets.
Right? Professors have empires. Professors have their own hierarchy. This didn't exist at Bell Laboratories, And so members off staff— We were all called members of technical staff, MTS. And for the most part, you had a technician, and some that were looked upon with more favor, would have a post doc as well, and that was the group. There were no others. And so, if you wanted to learn how to do something, if you wanted to borrow a piece of equipment, if you wanted to learn some skills from somebody else, you had to collaborate with them. And so you would spend time roaming the halls, finding people who had a particular piece of equipment that would help you do an experiment that you were trying to do. And so it was by design and part of the management responsibilities was to have a broader umbrella view of what was going on in their own organization and in adjacent organizations, and suggest connections that members of staff perhaps didn't know.
So you never felt pressure to monetize your research?
No. one of my responsibilities occasionally was to go and visit Western Electric plants. It was all part of the Bell system. So there were Western Electric plants that manufactured, built semiconductor devices, built equipment for AT&T, and as a manager, a department head or a director, you had a responsibility to go and visit these places. Give a talk. Talk about what was going on at Bell Laboratories, and listen. And often, you would come back with problems that people were trying to solve in Allentown, Pennsylvania, or in Phoenix, where they were drawing copper wire and things like that. And pointing people to those problems, as to whether they could make impact on the problems that were in Western Electric, but that wasn't monetized in anyway. It was to utilize the skills at Bell Labs for the issues that AT&T were facing.
Which did have a, obviously, a financial component, but that was—
Separate from you?
Of course it had a financial component, but it wasn't... There was no measure of my financial impact. As a member of staff or as a director. Other parts of Bell Labs, there was, but not in the research part of Bell Labs. This is part that you probably know of as historically famous.
So what were some of the projects you were working on at this time?
I did all sorts of things. (laughs) That was the beauty of it. You can just go off and do stuff.
And so you'd find collaborators. I had one really close collaborator, turned out to be a very close friend, and we did a lot of things together over several years. And we looked at the thermodynamics of materials down at low temperatures of disordered materials. We looked at the thermodynamics of liquid helium at low temperatures. Mostly lower temperature work, because that's the way I thought. But, we looked at optical processes. So many different things. Next door to my laboratory was a guy that was probably a chemist, a physical chemist. He was growing gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide in those days, and he would come into my lab, and I'd be working in my lab, and he said, "Bob, come here. You need to look at this." And he'd look into a little flask of liquid nitrogen, and say, "Look down there, there's a little piece of gallium phosphide down there." And he said, "I got a wire connected to it, and we're gonna pass some current through there." And it lit up. This was 1969, understand. So gallium phosphide lit up, and it lit up for about 10 or 15 seconds, then it burnt out. And he said, "You know, someday, these things are going to be in phones." And I thought, "Oh, come on, Ralph." Ralph Logan was his name. "Come on, Ralph." And he said, "Nope, they're gonna be on phones. These things are gonna be on phones." Right now there are too many impurities. And so the impurities cause dissipation, the dissipation causes it to burn out. And he said, "As we get better at growing this stuff, it's going to be cleaner and these things are gonna be on phones." So around my laboratory, there were guys that were learning how to draw glass fiber, there were guys that were learning molecular-beam epitaxy, there were guys that were looking at, applied mathematicians looking at pulse compression algorithms. There were guys that were just doing material science on glass and garnets. And they were literally within 20 or 30 yards of my laboratory. And we thought, I thought at the time, that I was hired just because I had done a really good thesis, and I could do whatever I wanted. And that was all true, but someone with some wisdom, and I I learned who that was, identified what areas to hire people and then let them go. Just let them explore, let them interact with each other.
Set them free.
It was the choice of areas that people were being hired in that was the vision at the time of Bell Labs. On the other hand, people changed fields, changed areas, easily, because they'd get talking to somebody over lunch. Lunchtime was a communal thing down in the cafeteria, and you just talked to people and found out what they're doing. Say, you know, "I know how to do that." And it just went on all the time. So people would change. I mean, we hired a young man by the name of Doug Osheroff, who had just done his thesis on liquid helium and solid helium-3, at Cornell, and he has since won the Nobel Prize for discovering superfluid in helium-3. We hired him at Bell Labs. For superfluid helium-3. Now, you wonder, "Why the hell would they hire someone who was working in that area?" And the answer is, he was really smart.
Now, who was making the decision to hire somebody like that? It's going to come from the science side or from the business side?
The science. Bell Labs was run by scientists. Scientists and engineers. But they were all scientists and engineers., Perhaps one of the flaws is that they promoted from within virtually exclusively in those days. And so they were all scientists and engineers that came up through Bell Labs, and some went to corporate AT&T. But they were all scientists. I'll give you a very simple example, and you'll get the point. Somewhere, somebody in the late 40s looked at the telephone network that had all these large switching stations. I don't know whether you're old enough to have ever walked into a Bell System Switching building.
I never have.
All the logic was done with amplifiers that were tubes. Vacuum tubes. And somebody looked at this and thought, "You know, as the U.S. grows and telecommunications grows, we cannot do the logic with these things that dissipate so much power." And so meantime, there were people working on these odd materials called semiconductors. And they knew that they could modulate them and change carrier densities, and said, "We've gotta figure out how to get low power triodes." Basically, (laughs) amplifiers, low-power amplifiers. And so there was an effort put forth, and of course the story is clear, that was Shockley, John Bardeen, and Bill Brattain, were working on a transistor. And they built the first transistor Shockley was an engineer. Bardeen was a physicist. And Bill Brattain was a material scientist. And they built a transistor in a lab which was geographically in the space that I was manager of later on.
So it sounds like the interdisciplinary nature of Bell Labs and the emphasis on collaboration was key to all of the advancements?
Absolutely key. And I think that's what most people missed when they thought, what made Bell Labs so dynamic? It was that people were allowed to wander around, and wander around intellectually, and do what they wanted to do. But they were in an environment where the environment was created by people with vision.
So how connected were you and your colleagues to the outside world? I mean, with all of these amazing discoveries that you were making, what were the modes of communication that, how you conveyed all the things that you were learning to the broader world?
Well, it was intimate. We were part of the physics materials community. We went to all the meetings, Gordon conferences... In fact, there was a while when Bell Labs so dominated, what was then called solid-state physics, I mean, (crosstalk 33:52) physics, physics of soft materials. We so dominated that that the number of "Bell Labbies" that would be invited to go to meetings was restricted.
They need a quota, is...
(crosstalk 34:01) conferences— It had to be restricted. And I remember I had just done what I thought was an important experiment, and I was restricted to going to a Gordon conference in (Wolfeboro 34:13), New Hampshire, and I was furious. I was just upset, I said, "My work is being talked about, and I can't go."
And so I called up the organizers, and they said, "Well, if you stay in a motel outside, you can go." But yeah, no, we were very much dominant. I have a friend who's here at UC San Diego, who argues that Bell Labs, in our field, which was condensed matter physics, we were the police. We didn't allow flim-flam to go too far.
And how would you define, how would you define "flim-flam"?
I'm going to be very careful here, because it's going to get close to people... Articles that are demonstrably wrong. Articles that are a wish and a prayer, one measurement, and there's a glitch in there, and they'd say, "Well, we've seen 'duh-duh-duh.'" And we would say, "Well, no you haven't." People who actually fabricate data. We looked at that, and we had what was called a Journal Club every second Friday. Where really smart people, would give us papers or pre-prints, and say, "Would you stand up in front of the group," whoever wanted to go, "and talk about this work, talk about whether it's good, whether it's bad. Where it's going to go. Just hold forth on this work." Right, so we were talking all the time amongst ourselves on things that we didn't actually know what the hell we were talking about, but having the interaction has allowed us to look at these pre-prints, or even rumors of work, and sort of pick it apart with the collective wisdom of 30 or 40 or 50 scientists.
It's ironic, because what you're describing sounds to me like a much more purely academic environment than what's happening at universities.
Oh, it's absolutely the case. I've lived my life in both places, and I know that academics in universities aren't allowed to do science anymore. They're too damn busy writing proposals, research progress reports, all the unfunded mandates that have been dictated to us by the federal government. And they don't have time anymore to literally go into the laboratory. And the restrictions are such that they have to protect their own grants and their own students in a way that they're not really as easily allowed to go and interact with their colleagues.
Right, right. I—
It really is true. I mean, it's really true. We literally have to force interactions amongst our colleagues in academia.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the process of citizenship. How long was the green card good for, and when did it end?
It was basically good forever. I think I had to sort of put my hand up once a year and tell them that I was still here. But I got engaged in materials physics and condensed matter physics, with some of the laboratories in Los Alamos, and it was clear at one point that they wanted me to go inside the fence. The classified areas.
And to do that—
You mean working for the Pentagon, essentially?
No, just the... Not to work. I was advisor. I mean, I was a Bell Labbie.
And I was an advisor, and it was clear that they wanted me to look at some of the things they couldn't talk about if I didn't have security clearance.
Uh-huh. And you couldn't get security clearance without citizenship?
Correct. And so I took out U.S. citizenship. And then security clearance. And so that all began in Los Alamos, probably in the mid-70s, sometime in that era. I don't remember exactly. I could look it up, but it's sometime in that era. So I probably was ten years as a green card.
Okay. Uh-huh. Okay, and so some of the projects you were working on did have a defense component to it, to them?
Well, of course. Everything that was physical weaponry is related to materials or the physics of those materials at some point or another. And so the basic platform of understanding materials allows you to improve or even speculate on new and better and more efficient ways to build defense materials and defense instruments. Or, in the case of Los Alamos, nuclear weapons.
Yeah. Now, during your time at Bell Labs, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there's a lot of stuff going on politically in the country. Were you mostly aloof from that as a scientist?
Oh, no. Oh no. (crosstalk 40:01)
You were more involved?
We were, we had very active groups of anti-engagement in Vietnam. The, it turns out, the anti-ballistic missile program was a program that AT&T was a major contractor with, and so the research people were a thorn in the side of other people at AT&T, because we were screaming about it, saying it's not... "What we've seen of it," of course we didn't see all the classified things, but, "What we've seen of it, it's impossible to do what they claim it can do. And so what the hell are you—?" And I remember the New York Times writing an editorial at one point, saying, "Who's opposed to the ABM? The people who are gonna build it, that's who." And they compromised journalism to imply that we and the basic physics people were going build the ABM. No, we were just criticizing it.
Yeah, yeah. How vocal were you personally in these matters?
I was engaging in marches and things like that. Not as a leader. But I was engaged and vocal.
Because the basic premise being that science should not be put toward violent ends, is that the—
The basic idea?
No, no, it wasn't that. No, the science and scientists have a moral responsibility.
Oh. What is that moral responsibility?
The moral responsibility is to defend our nation, and do things that are not used in abuse of public good.
Mmhmm. Were there tensions amid these protests, as with corporate at Bell?
Sure, yes. Yes, yes. Our vice president at the time was an advisor to the US president. He was a brilliant chemist, and he was an advisor. He was not happy with what we were doing, but there wasn't much he could do about it.
Yeah. Yeah. Did you see— I mean, you were at Bell Labs really during the heyday. Did you see where it was headed in terms of the break up, or this was—
This was after your time?
The anti-trust suit was in the early 80s. I was a director at the time. And so at the time, there were two anti-trust suits. The justice department had brought two anti-trust suits. One to AT&T and one to IBM. And we were not... I remember not being happy with the way AT&T was defending the role of AT&T in the nation's well-being. I watched the IBM defense, and they were much more aggressive. And they won their anti-trust suit. We lost ours. And so I was really not happy, because I knew that it would slowly unwind the Bell system.
And you recognized that this incredibly unique scientific community at Bell Labs—
Would be gone.
Existed, it existed because of its monopolistic—
Yes. Yes, yes, it was clear that this was in some sense a jewel in a crown. But more than that, it was an investment by a company that was responsible for telecommunications in the U.S. and elsewhere. AT&T owned Northern Electric, which was Canadian. And there was a variety of things outside. And I recognized that this could, that Bell Labs couldn't exist without this internal freedom. And that internal freedom was paid for by a couple of pennies on everybody's bill. And otherwise, we would be scrambling— We never scrambled for money. We just worken in the lab. We never wrote proposals. Ever.
Right, right. So was this realization part of your decision to leave?
No, it was the manifestations of it. We lost the anti-trust suit in the early to mid 80s, and I was the director of chemical physics. And over the next several years, life just got worse and worse. And we were—
How so? How so?
Well, we were downsizing, and we were shrinking and budgets got tighter, and I spent a lot of time having long conversations with people about where they should be looking for an alternative job, because they were— And we weren't recruiting as much as we could have been. I mean, part of the joy was recruiting young people.
And that was drying up and my boss at the time, the vice president of research, was Arno Penzias. And he was— kept a stiff upper lip, but I'm sure he was going through agony as well, and it was pretty clear. I said at one point, I said, "I'm out of here. I have to leave."
So just from the basis of experimentation and discovery. Broadly conceived, what do you think was lost after the breakup?
Oh, what was lost was the ability to wander down the halls and find a collaborator who had not only the knowledge, the skills, but the equipment as well, to do an experiment— I'll give you an example. This should explain it very easily. What we did is now illegal, but I'll explain it anyway. I was a department chair of a department that did mostly work on liquid crystals. Okay? You know what liquid crystals are?
Okay, good. I didn't know much about them until I became department chair, but then I learned, because I knew what people were doing. And this was the early, the time when people were talking about high magnetic fieldsused on humans to do mapping. And I knew that liquid crystals, smectic liquid crystals, went through what was called a Fredricks transition in high electric fields and high magnetic fields. And so I said, "You know, these three Tesla magnets, you can't put humans in them. It's going to kill them. It's going to cause these transitions in their lipid bilayers, which is going to do bad things." And there was a biophysicist there. And we were having lunch. We were downstairs in the cafeteria, and the biophysicist, I think he was a retreaded, probably, chemist. And the biophysicist, guy by the name of Angie Lamola, said, "Nah, nah, nah, you're crazy." Because he was doing NMR, he and Bob... I'll remember his name, were doing NMR on animals at Bell Laboratories on mice. And he said, "No, no, no, no." And I said, "Come on, let's see if that's true or not." And Kumar Patel was there at the table, and Venky Narayanamurti was there at the table. And they said, "Okay." This was Friday. And we were having lunch. We always had lunch early for some reason, I think everybody got hungry about 11:15. And said, "Okay, let's—" Kumar said, "I have a room temperature access 10 Tesla magnet." Because he was doing a spin-flip laser work in those days. And Angie said, "Okay. It's room temperature access. I'll go get us a couple mice. Let's go see if they can survive 10 Tesla." And so Venky and I went up to Kumar's lab and cooled down that cryostat, cooled down the 10 Tesla magnet. Angie brought two mice over to the lab. You think about it, you can't do this now. (laughs) Angie brought two mice. I got a quartz tube about that diameter that, just fit in this room temperature access magnet. And we put the mice in this tube. And had the mice sitting there in the middle, and then we ramped up the magnet to 10 Tesla. And they just sat there. And I said, "Well, you know, maybe the important issue is the time dependence of field (dB/dt 49:55). Maybe it's the time rate of change in the magnetic field, which would cause large electric fields." Maxwell's equations tells us that. And so we said, "Okay, let's try to change the field rapidly." And you can't do that in a superconductive magnet, because there's huge inductance to these magnets, but I could take the tube and just go like this. (makes swift noises) And move the mice in and out in a fraction of a second. They had, they were going through the (inaudible 50:26), magnetic field dB/dt, very large dB/dts, and the mice just sat there and kinda looked at us, and we let 'em go. We took 'em back to the mouse house that Angie kept. Kumar said, "OK the experiment was a failure." Then I said, "No it wasn't. It wasn't a failure." I said, "Angie, watch these mice for a couple of weeks. And we were finished that experiment by five o'clock on Friday afternoon. You can't do that anywhere. Anytime. You can't do it anymore,. But you couldn't do that in a university environment. You couldn't bring those resources together to do that.
So that's a good example of the point.
Uh-huh. And that's because—
It came up from a one-time conversation.
And that's because, what? Why can't you do that? Because of lawsuits? What's stopping that kind of thing from happening nowadays?
A variety of things. But the hierarchy, the balkanization of universities into groups, large groups, and students who have a thesis, and that's what their appropriately single-focus is on. And there's nobody who has the— well, almost nobody who has the independence, the freedom, and the ability to go out and do an experiment like that in a day.
And the funding. Who would pay for the helium? Who would pay for the mice? Who would, you know— we wouldn't've thought about that.
Right, right. It's a truly unique experience and experiment in history.
We never thought, we never worried about who was going to pay for the helium, liquid helium. Who was going to pay for the mice. It just, pshhhh, that was all just for the taking.
What was the research you were doing that led to the Fritz London Prize?
That was some work that... I guess that came about, I had developed a technique for growing metallic thin films at low temperatures. So that you would evaporate these metals onto a very low temperature substrate. So you could grow thin films of metals atomic layer by layer, almost. And there was no thermal activity, so when they hit, they stuck. It's like throwing balls into velcro. They hit and stuck. And that could do measurements on them in situ, because I'd make a film, I'd make a monolayer film, and then measure the electrical properties, and then make up another layer, and measure the electrical properties. And we saw that this, we went through a metal insulator or a superconductor insulator transition at a fundamental number, e2/H(bar), these are fundamental constants, it turns out that has units of resistivity, and at about 10,000 ohms per square, everything, everything went through the metal to insulative transition, and superconductors went through a superconductor to insulator transition. So there was a fundamental transition that occurred there that came as a surprise. It was implied by some work by, Phil Anderson and Nevill Mott, They implied that from some of their work that there was something fundamental, and then David Thoulesslater on really, really worked hard on that quantum transition. But we showed that it didn't matter what the material was— we make gold, we make lead, we make aluminum. We make whatever metallic films you want, and those that were going become superconductors went through a superconductor insulative transition. At that same number, gold and copper, which didn't become superconductors, went through a metal insulator transition, and it was universal and only depended on the resistance. That generated what was later, the work that Phil and Don Licciardello did, and David Thouless and Elihu Abrahams, on weak localization.
Uh-huh. What was the patent process like at Bell Labs, when discoveries were made? Were the scientists involved in that, or that's when the lawyers got involved?
Oh no, no, we— there was at least one lawyer assigned to each, probably, division, as really novel, and we were working in fields where novelty could sometimes spin out into George Indig and later Mike Urbano would keep in touch with me and ask occasionally whether there was something in my notebook that we should look at its practicality. These patent lawyers, who were usually scientists-turned-lawyer. That was the track that they followed. And they'd come over, and they'd sit down and say, Lets go through your notebook and if they thought they saw something that was really of some potential intellectual property, you'd spend an hour with them, and then they'd go off and they'd write up a disclosure, send it over to you. Or carry it over. These were the days of paper. Until later on. Carry it over to you, and they'd say, "Did I get it right?" And so you'd eventually work together to write up a disclosure which ended up in intellectual property. And it would be filed. And that lawyer was responsible for filing.
So towards the end of your tenure at Bell Labs, what was the thought process where you were thinking about your next move?
Academia. I think everybody at Bell Laboratories wants to go back. You go back to your cradle.
And your cradle is academic, you think that's the golden life. I think probably everybody who's had a pleasant time in their academic period, decided they wanna go back and do that.
Now you think that the breakup precipitated that? Would you have been happy to stay at Bell Labs your whole career?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I would have stayed. Oh yeah, there was— I mean, we knew, we knew how great it was compared with the academic world. We knew that, the freedoms that we had. We knew the way we were treated, the way we were allowed to do things. We knew how good that was. And so I don't think many people... there were some, that had a strong attraction to academia. And if you look back at the record, you'll find that a lot of people went back to their cradles. The thing that impressed me enormously when I first went to Bell Labs is, a large fraction of the scientists were from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, Cambridge, Chicago, institutes that were really premiere institutes. So not so many people that came from smaller places like I did, and so I think if you look, you'll see a substantial fraction, and I'm only guessing, went back to these places. When they decided that it was time to go back and what they perceived as enjoying the good life of a professor. Turns out, not so good anymore.
But it was probably good in those days. It was good.
So what was the process that led you to University of California at San Diego?
Well, this is a long process. Several schools in the country had been trying to recruit me for years, because that's the currency of the realm, i.e. good science, and so I had good connections. You name the school, I had good connections with those schools. And at one point, I had offers or offers pending, and just turned down offers, from major schools on the East Coast and the West Coast. I won't name them. And I chose San Diego. After spending time on a lot of West Coast universities. Public and private. And I remember my colleagues said, "You're going to UC-San Diego, are you crazy?"
And you can understand what's behind that, I don't want to name names.
And I said to them, "You know, I visited that place. I visited all these places. I spent some time in many of these places, and San Diego is the most flexible entrepreneurial university I've ever seen." And it turned out to be true. And if you look at the kinds of broad interactions that occur at UC-San Diego, they're much, much broader. We have just gone through this long discussion about Bell Labs and universities. UC-San Diego is the closest to this model I could find.
And La Jolla is a nice place to live. But it's the closest I could find to that sort of style of being able to walk across— I mean, the building where my lab is, it's across the hall, across thewalkway from Chemistry and biologhy. , it's across the road from the School of Medicine. So you can walk over there in five minutes. And that wasn't as good as being able to walk 100 yards down the hall, but it was better than having the school of medicine, that it was on a different campus. Or better than having engineers that are over in some other building some long way away.
So it sounds like the university was just the right size?
It was the right size.. and the chancellor at the time was the right guy, who understood this.
Who was that?
He was the right guy, he's really an applied mathematician, although he's famous for his application to psychology. He really used mathematics to understand the psychological behaviors and statistical behaviors. He was just the right guy. I think within six months, he had me chairing a search committee for a new dean of engineering And I had a search committee made up of engineers and physicists and psychologists and MDs. I mean, that was not the way things were happening in other universities as I saw it. And so we recruited Bob Conn as the dean of engineering at the time. He came from UCLA. Dick Atkinson insisted that I give him at least two names, which I did, and he chose one of the two. Both would have been outstanding people, the other one I won't name because he's elsewhere and has had an outstanding career.It was a great recruit We were asked to do that in an environment that I didn't think was commonin universities and UCSD engineering has blossomed since.
Now, you came on as a full professor, obviously. Was there an expectation that you would teach undergraduate classes?
Absolutely, and I did. And when I was chancellor, I insisted that-all professors taught undergraduate classes. This leads us to my view of public education.
Yes, in the first year I taught a senior course in condensed matter physics and a freshman course in electricity and magnetism. And this course had 200 students in it.
Did you like teaching?
Did you like teaching?
Absolutely, but you know what? It's exhausting.
It is, sure.
I liked teaching, I liked being able to look into the eyes of somebody who was going to end up being a physician, maybe my physician.
And I used that line, I said, "I don't want any cheating here, because I don't want to be lying on the bed, you're going into surgery, and I look up and see a face that I taught and I know you cheated. So I don't want any cheating here, and I'm going be pretty harsh about that, but I want to see lights in your eyes." And so I spent time trying to teach pre-meds some physics; any physics at all.
Yeah, yeah. What about graduate students? Did you take on graduate students? Did you teach seminars?
I taught graduate courses and I took on graduate students, yes. My research was well-funded in those days.
And San Diego had a PhD program in physics?
Yes. Oh yes, Some very famous people came out of that program in physics. San Diego was originally envisioned as a graduate school, not an undergraduate. And then the political pressures drove it to an undergraduate school as well, but from the start, it recruited a whole lot of famous people from Bell Laboratories. Harry Serul, George Feyer, Bent Matties, Lou Sham. There were lots of people that it recruited from Bell Laboratories in the 60s. And they were, they built, they and the other people that were recruited, Maria Goeppert Mayer and people like that, they built the research enterprise at San Diego. But yes, it was originally a graduate school.
And how much during this time— this is before you become chancellor.
How much of this time are you keeping up with the kind of research that you were doing at Bell Labs? Are you still operating in that realm, or that's—
No longer possible?
No, I was. I was and I did. At the peak of the size of my group, I think I had about a dozen graduate students.
So I was well funded. I was funded by several agencies, and so it was a very, very active time. And I pushed them out to interact with other people as much as I could, but it literally took pushing. We worked through, over their first year or two, what their thesis topic would be, and then they were pretty much focused on their thesis topic, and so my trying to push them into interactions with someone over in biophysics or somebody over in engineering sometimes took a little persuasion. But yeah, I had a very active group.
Now, what were the circumstances? I mean, coming in in '91 and being named chancellor in '96, I mean by any measure, this is a meteoric rise in administration.
I was accused of that, yes.
(laughs) I mean, right? You skipped over... were you even, were you chair of the department?
I was chair of the department, yes.
Okay, so you were chair of the department, but you were not a dean of the school.
You went straight to chancellor. So what's the story?
I was for one year, I was vice chancellor for academic affairs.
Equivalent of the provost.
Okay, okay. S—
But it was only one year, and that's because Dick Atkinson was asked to head up the whole University of California system.
So did you come in... I'm curious, did you come in San Diego with there being a sort of implicit understanding that you were going to take on significant administrative responsibilities? Or that sort of developed in real time?
Let me answer that. It's a two-fold answer. I had no intention.
ZIERLER That's part of why Dick Atkinson recruited you, because he had this intention for you?
I guess perhaps because I'd already demonstrated management or oversight skills and still maintained a lab at Bell Laboratories. And there's a— that's not a skill that most professors demonstrate.
Right, right, I see. Okay. So what, did you ever have any reservations about moving too far away from physics as chancellor?
Yes. I was chair, and that was easy. But then when I was asked to be the executive vice chancellor, it's the equivalent of the provost, executive vice chancellor. Academic affairs. I worried about that a little bit, but the office was 2-300 yards away from my lab in Mayer Hall. And so I would walk, toward the end of the day, I'd walk back to my lab, and my students were there, anxiously awaiting me. Or not-so-anxiously awaiting me, depending upon how well they were doing. And so I was there every late afternoon-evening.
Uh-huh. So you were able to keep that up.
I kept it up when I was chancellor.
They moved my lab to Berkeley.
Right. Were you able to still teach as chancellor?
That was too much.
No, I jealously guarded my time as time in the laboratory.
Now, this question applies both to your presidency, but also as chancellor. Did you ever feel, I mean, operating in a non-physics, you know, just in a purely administrative realm, did you bring a physics sensibility to your work, did you feel?
Yes. There were many times, I had a council when I was chancellor. I had a council that was made up of vice chancellors and, you know, the inner circle. And there were many times I would ask questions, and people would look at me and say, "We've never been asked that question before." And it was, I'm not sure it was physics, it was just logic.
It was sort of sequentially taking somebody down the road and trying to lead to a conclusion on what the consequences of what they were proposing were. And that's, you think, that's obvious. But it's not. It's a scientific method that I didn't realize is ingrained in us.
Right, right. And what is the— I mean, you're uniquely suited to answer this, because you've served in both roles. What is the power dynamic between the chancellor and the president of this system? Does the chancellor really work for the president, or is it more like the governor of a state?
(laughs) Slightly more complicated answer. The chancellor is responsible for the campus. So it's like a university president. And they're responsible for all the difficult decisions. I remember thinking, "Why is it all the decisions that come up to my desk are the difficult ones?" And the answer is that everybody took the easy ones.
Yeah, right, exactly.
And I hadn't realized that. And it was even worse as president. But the chancellor is responsible for the campus. It's the chief executive officer for the campus. And they're responsible for running it, making the decisions, allocating budgets. Now the money's a separate issue. That's the president's responsibility in dealing with the legislature, but the chancellor is responsible for budgets, for fundraising. The chancellor is responsible for fundraising, for budgets, for identifying where the emphasis for the campus should be, putting resources where they think, where he or she thinks, it's important to allocate resources. They are ultimately responsible for the faculty. The tenure process ultimately comes to the chancellor, with of course substantial advice from the faculty and from the deans, et cetera, all the way... The only sticky decisions end up on the chancellor's desk, but all of them end up on the chancellor's desk to be approved. So the chancellor is the CEO and really is responsible for the finances, the academics, interfacing the community, awards, misbehavior, media relations. Just about everything. It's a huge corporation.
And what's the line of communication between the chancellor and the president? What are you calling the president for, what's the president calling you for?
We had a well defined governance structure and I continued it, with modifications. We had a council of chancellors which was pretty much compulsory to meet together with the president every month, and they would meet in the office of the president, which is in Oakland, and we'd go through a lot of decisions that affected each of the campuses. Decisions that had to be made at the president's level that would affect the campuses, and of course, each of the campuses had their own renegade factor, right? I always would say, and I still say to this day, that every campus in the University of California has to have programs that is a world leader. Some have more than others, but every campus has to have places that someone who decides that they want to study a particular discipline or subdiscipline, that a particular UC has the campus of choice in the world. And the chancellor has the responsibility of identifying that area, recruiting—
And supporting it.
Putting resources there, and then interacting with other chancellors inside the system to make sure that they are grounded in that decision and not blowing smoke.
And so these conversations would be with the president and the chancellor quite regularly, and then once a month with all the other chancellors around the table.
So as chancellor, you did not have a direct connection with the legislature and the political side of things?
Not direct, although each of the chancellors has a responsibility to keep the legislators that are from that area well-informed and happy, for the most part, and regents that are from that area well-informed and happy. So you had regents and legislators visiting the campus quite often. You would host show and tells for them in the areas that they had an interest. Everyone, of course, wants eternal life, so the School of Medicine is always visited by people. But you had the responsibility of keeping legislators up to date on what the university is doing and how it's benefitting the populace. And of course when there is bad press others want to visit the campus and orchastrating all of that is the Chancellor’s responsibility.
What do you see during your time as chancellor, as some of your key achievements?
Oh boy. That's one of the delights... I go to the campus now regularily, every day when I'm not traveling, because I have a lab still, and I walk around the campus and look at the buildings that are products of my time as Chancellor. And they're basically buildings that represent programs that were created while I was chancellor. Now, you know, I don't often say, "I created them." It's usually a collective agreement in the council that says, "This is where we're going to go." And you have to convince people, otherwise they'll get in the way of it. So you want be sure that you make the compelling case. So, let me list some that I am proud of.... We built a charter school early in the days of the charter school movement, which is a huge success. Now it's something called a Preuss school, so Preuess was the name of a person that we got a lot of money out of, I built the cancer center"I" built. (laughs) We built the cancer center, the school of pharmacy, the school of business was built. Something called Calit2, which was the nearest thing to Bell Labs that I could possibly imagine, which was a, California Institute of Telecommunications, which brought together faculty from many other, disciplines. Oh gosh. Those are some of the major ones that took a lot of persuasion and a lot of raising money to build, because often you had to raise an awful lot of private money to build. I remember I was with the dean of the School of Medicine, at the National Cancer Institute and they said, " You have a cancer program, but it's really small, and we're going to take away your designation." And I said, "No." So we flew to D.C. and I sat in front of the director of the National Institute of Heath and said, "I'm going to commit $100 million to build a world-class cancer center." And we got on the plane, and the dean says, "Where are we going to find $100 million?" And I said, "We'll find it." And we found it.
Did you ever rely on your contacts from Bell Labs in a fundraising context?
Oh, to this day.
A simple example. I recruited Bob Birgeneau years ago to be chancellor at Berkeley. Bob and I were contacts at Bell Laboratories. He was then at the University of Toronto, and when the former chancellor stepped down, I called up Bob and I said, "Bob, I have to form a search committee, but I want you to be chancellor." And he said, "Oh, I don’t know." And I knew he was having battles at the University of Toronto. You must keep your ear to the ground on these things. You know what's going on. And he called me back a couple days later, and he says, "No," he said, "I don't think I want to come to..." And I said, "Bob, that's a wrong answer." I knew him personally very well, and I said, "Bob, that's the wrong answer." And it turned out that I convinced him to come. But that was the Bell Labs connection. Steve Chu, too, was recruited in my organization, and of course, his story is pretty well documented now. Another Bell Labbie. They're all over the place. They are literally all over the place. We're getting old, we're getting gray, but we're all over the place, and we still communicate.
And so what were the circumstances leading to your presidency in 2003? Did you see this coming over a period of years, or this was more of a surprise?
It was something of a surprise, although I saw it coming toward the end, when Dick Atkinson said that he was stepping down, and there were a couple of regents. We had a sizable contingency of regents from San Diego area at the time, largely because of Dick and me, and there were a couple of regents, sending signals that I was a candidate. And so I saw it coming.
Did you, I mean, the same question I posed about your concern about moving farther and farther away from physics. I assume that only intensified as you were considering the possibility of assuming the presidency.
Did it ever. Because I would have had to move my lab to Berkeley. And it was clear that a faculty position at Berkeley would be part of the move.. It had to be approved by the faculty, of course, by the academic senate, and given that the senate would approve it, and I had the credentials for it to be approved, I would have a faculty position at Berkeley and some space at the Berkeley lab, up the hill.
So that was your—
That was a concern.
That was your way of squaring that circle, essentially?
It was. It was probably the only way to satisfy my inner "ifs."
But you know, at each one of these steps, my research got smaller, because I had more demands— And there, the office of the president is not on the Berkeley campus, it's in Oakland. And yet I lived in North Berkeley where there was a residence for the president. I lived in North Berkeley and so I would drive to the office of the president and be there fairly early in the morning, as I'm most creative early in the morning. And then on the way back every night, I would stop at the campus, and spend a few hours with students on the campus. But the period had long since gone where I physically was doing experiments.
That's not allowed by any faculty anymore anyway.
Really. (crosstalk 1:25:10)
You must have been one of the last?
Well no, I mean faculty in general, are spending too much time raising money, writing proposals... And , the graduate students will often just not let you touch the equipment until there's something wrong that they don't know how to solve. The rest of the time, they don't want you to touch anything. It is their experiments and you are the advisor.
So when you were coming in, you know, preparing for the presidency, what did you see as some of the major challenges that lay ahead?
Well, one of the major challenges is still the major challenge today, and that is that the state of California is slowly but measurably defunding public education.
And it continues. I remember giving briefings to the legislature and I had a particular slide that I showed all the time. They got tired of seeing it. It was the funding of higher education, which included the University of California and the CSUs, California State Universities, by year, and the funding of prisons by year. And during the time I was president, I saw the funding of prisons become larger than that of higher education, Now. prisons are much more heavily funded than universities in the state of California, and my favorite line, which they got tired of hearing, was, "Educate, don't incarcerate."
Right. So that means, that suggests that you didn't see this trend towards defunding higher education in economic terms. It sounds like you saw it in political and cultural terms.
Well, I saw it in economic terms. I saw the money disappearing.
No, but I'm saying the reason why it was disappearing. It wasn't necessarily disappearing because the money wasn't there. It was because of political and—
Ideological undercurrents that decided not to put this money into education.
There were times when there were spikes in the opposite direction. When I worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger who was the governor during some of that time and he and I turned it around. And if you look at that curve, you can see where it turned around. He and I made a deal, and it turned around, and then down it went again after we left.
What was it like to work with Schwarzenegger?
I loved him.
I loved him, yeah. He had such a great sense of humor. I'd end up choking to death in his cigar tent. He had a cigar tent in the middle of a quadrangle in the state capital. And he loved cigars. But he had a reverence for the University of California.
Yes, he did. He did.
Do you know where that came from? I mean, he's from—
No, I have no idea but I would like to think that I helped educate him. I had a stock set of talks about how the University of California has made a huge difference in agriculture, in health, in entrepreneurism. I mean, I can go down the list of the agricultural success in California, about the medical success and the medical research in California, the entrepreneurial spirit in California, and how the University of California educates a large fraction of people. Stanford is a great university, but it's tiny, and so is Caltech. Very tiny. And the University of California educates more undergraduates than all the ivy leagues put together, and Stanford and Caltch.
And so I had this standard line, and I said, "If you go into a doc's office, over 50% of every doc has spent some substantial part of their education in the University of California." He bought all that. He understood all that. Arnold did. I'll tell you a funny story, reflecting his sense of humor. I traveled with him, many parts of the world. One trip, we were working on trade deals between California and Canada. And Canada is a terrain that I know very well, and I remember we were in Toronto, and part of the trip was to go to the, what we used to call the sick kids hospital. It's Children's Hospital, in Toronto. And we were up on the top floor signing documents that don't mean anything, but everybody signs documents, signs agreements and stuff like that. And we're coming down to the ground floor, and there were kids all over the place screaming and yelling and shouting and cheering. And Arnold turned to me and laughed, and he said, "Bob, they're here to see the president of the University of California." (both laugh) That's what he was like.
That's great, that's great.
Now, he was really an interesting guy.
Were there any challenges that you experienced as president that you did not see coming? Things that you were—
You know, blindsided by?
Oh absolutely. In fact, often things ended up being a level of frustration to me, and ended up being battles. The surprise of sitting in a legislator's office and they would say, "Yes, we're totally supportive of the University of California. Yeah, yeah, Bob, yep, yep. We're on your side". And then you go out onto the legislative floor, same day or the next day, and they vote against it.
And you think, "Where did that come from?"
And the answer is, that is what's going on today in politics? It's politics. And there were times when I thought there's no integrity in this.
And you realized you were being lied to your face?
Yes, yes, yes. And there were times when I probably offended some people, when I said, "Dammit, you just told me something, and then you just deny it". I think people found, that having a scientist as the president of the University of California has some level of impedance mismatch.
I mean, that's a polite way to say it.
Yeah. (laughs) How did you deal with the issue of students and their frustration with rising tuition? What was your basic strategy on that front?
That's something that is not generalyl understood, because the press, the press, don't want to say it. Drove me crazy. And I accuse the press of this all the time. We put in place a program which is still in place. Janet Napolitano talked about it as well. A program where kids that come from families or environments that have income less than a number, like $50 or $75 thousand, don't pay any tuition. Don't pay tuition at all. And then for the next income level, they pay some fraction of tuition. And then people that come from wealthier families pay the full tuition. It's a subtle form of taxation.
We never called it taxation, but it's a form of taxation, and that's never publicly said in simple, four-letter words. But that's the truth. And so kids get spun up about tuition increases, and the kids that are out there spun up and screaming on the protest lines, aren't paying it anyway.
And that's the truth. And so part of what drove me crazy was vested interests that spun students up and they didn't know they were being spun up. I expect later they understood it.
Now, from the faculty side, obviously California is an incredibly expensive place to live.
How did, what was your strategy on recruiting the best faculty in light of the fact that California is an expensive place to live? What were your basic strategies on that front?
Well, some of them worked, some of them got me in trouble. With the politicos. But the ones that worked, were home loans, home assistance, some ability to go out and spend some time consulting, and getting paid for consulting outside the University of California. The university salaries are all public, so you can't do much about that. They're whatever they are.
But home loans was probably one of the bigger advantages. Home loans that sometimes were forgivable, and but mostly not— Or, on some campuses, the university took some equity in the homes, and so reduced the payments the faculty had to make on homes.
Did you feel like this had a positive effect on your recruitment efforts?
Oh sure. Yeah, absolutely, otherwise we would've had much more difficulty. We had difficulty. I always had the view that people come to teach and be faculty members in the University of California for a variety of reasons. The premiere reason is generally because you come into an environment where you have some really, really great colleagues to work with. And the University of California is big. So it's not a small campus, and you have a much broader menu of people to interact with. So for most people that are driven intellectually and academically, that's the premier driver. Not money. The second driver is—
And you're saying, Bob, you're saying— Sorry to interrupt. But you're saying that you're looking at the University of California as a system, where the opportunities for collaboration can range from Berkeley to UCLA?
Well, yes, absolutely, and I worked on that in building programs that were system-wide But more than that, the campuses themselves are big. So they have have a menu of interactions that are much, much broader than in small privates schools, that can pay a lot more and do pay a lot more. So the first is that you can come into an environment where you don't know where your intellectual passions are going to lead you in ten years from now, but you know that you're going to have access to those, primarily on that campus, or a different University of California campus. And there is some support (money) that allow those interactions to occur. So you can grease that. You can grease those connections between Berkeley and San Diego, or Davis and Merced, or Davis and Berkeley. You can grease those. And so that's the premiere driver. That's the one that I relied on mostly. The second is that California is a nicer place to live. And you rely on too. And the third is money, but if money is number one, you don't usually win, and I didn't want to win if money was the primary motivation.
Because that's not the professor that you want to recruit, if that's all that they care about.
That's not the professor that I want to recruit, and that's a public institution philosophy.
That you have an obligation, you have a public obligation, to the community, to the academic community, to the local community, and to the state of California.
Now, when you took this, the presidency, did you assume or realize that there was going to be an end date to it that would be—
Before your career? Meaning that like, you would go back to being a faculty member. It wasn't the last part of your career that would last—
For 20 years or something?
No, it was a five-year job. I fully knew that because of my own nature, I would have offended enough people in five years. Now, if you make a decision on what you think is right, and each decision will upset approximately 50% of the people it is inevitable that you have disagreed with everyone eventually.
After 10 decisions there are only (1/2)10 of the people you haven’t disagreed with.
And so it starts becoming quite diminished and so I understood that. And so you realized that if you're not political, you can slowly lose support. You have to be political at some level, but you have to maintain integrity. And you have to say what you believe. If I don't say what I believe, I'm not smart enough to remember what I said.
And so you just have to say what you believe.
So when did you know, when did you know it was time to go back to San Diego? Was there a tipping point, or was it a culmination of issues?
It was a culmination, it was inevitable. You knew that you had to keep saying what you believed. You had to keep making decisions based on the academic wellbeing of the University of California, and not the political. And you sort of knew that it was, a finite life. That was just it.
Looking back, you know, hindsight is 20/20. Are there certain issues that you would have handled differently?
Oh, every issue, I think. But, you know, it's too late, you can't do that experiment again.
There are many issues where you think maybe I should have talked to this person before that person, or that person before this person, but you don't know how that ground ball would run out.
You just know it would be different.
I wonder, as an experimentalist, if you, if that continued to inform your views on how things would play out?
Yes, of course. Of course. Experiments you can redo. Physics is determined by the laws of nature. I could have done these political things several times and the results would have probably been different each time.
With these, you can't redo. They're irreversible.
Now the flipside of that question, same question. What do you see as some of your great achievements as president?
We created a system-wide program. I used to use the term "the power of ten." The ten comes from 10 UC campuses. Well it was more than ten, because it included Livermore, Los Alamos, and the Berkeley lab as well. But I used to use the line “the power of ten”. If you look at the University of California as a university, all ten campuses, there isn't a university in the world that is as powerful. And so the manifestation of that was that I started generating programs that were system-wide. Like some healthcare issues, that the hospitals interact with each other now, that didn't before. And the schools of medicine. And physics programs and astronomy. You know, if you come in with that kind of power, you have more access to resources and opportunities than if you come in as a separate, independent campus. And so I spent a lot of time building interactions amongst the campuses, and then letting them evolve. At some point, you grease it, you put these people together, and then they have to do it themselves with a little grease. And so there are programs that are continuing to run today that are programs that I feel personally responsible for. There's a loan forgiveness program for students that end up taking positions in public service as opposed to going into private professions. Those kinds of programs, we generating during that period.
Did you come in in 2003 with a basic framework or agenda?
How much do you feel that that agenda was executed to your satisfaction by the end of your tenure?
Much, not all. The system-wide collective collaborations. Which was one of the major things that, because I came from an environment at Bell Labs where nobody cared whether you were a physicist, a chemist, a whatever. They cared what you were capable of working with them on. And so that was an agenda which I continue. I came with an agenda that believes in public education. Currently there are more students from outside California than there ever were when I was president, and I would have resisted some of that, but that was driven by monetary motivation, to try to balance the budget. I would have probably resisted that longer, but the mantra of being a public institution is one that I have a very strong belief in.
And how do you feel that you advanced that mantra? Which extends, obviously, beyond California to all public institutions.
By opening doors for undergraduates that come from families with no money, figuring out how to get them into the University of California system and through the California system, with some debt unfortunately— We weren't even imagining debt in those days.
But some debt, and successfully coming to UC— So if you look at the economic position of most — University of California students, they're really poor. They're really from very poor parts of the state. And they come, and the undergraduates from California go to all the campuses all over. They're not regional at all, and that was something that I just drove hard, that Berkeley can set their own admissions standards, and UCLA, and Irvine, and Riverside, and Santa Cruz. They set their own standards, but they get to recruit from all over the state.
And what was the value in that?
Oh, the value in that is that this opens young people's eyes. Firstly, they get to go to the University of California which many cannot afford, and they get to study and learn with students from all over the state.
So you have to figure out howthey can do it do it with jobs, and with student support and residential support. And then it opens their eyes. I mean, if someone from San Diego ends up at UC-Davis, it's a really different climate at Davis.
And they won't look back. They may go back, but they won't look back. And you start to see the world with very different eyes. And there are students that need to be in an environment where they are, coddled isn't the word, but they need to be paid attention to, and then there are also students where they just, go. And run free. And different campuses allow that differently. San Diego, for example, has the college system. Where there are seven, now going on eight, colleges. And each of those colleges spends time with the students in an individual way, whereas UCLA, man, you're free running. Or Berkeley, you're free running. And some people thrive in that environment, and other people don't.
And so that's the advantage.
When you got back to San Diego, what were your feelings at the time? Were you relieved to be back in faculty? Did you miss some aspects of the presidency? What were your feelings?
No, I didn't miss any aspects of the presidency. I was very happy to be back. My wife had said, "We're not living in the Bay area. We're coming back to La Jolla." And we did.
Now, did you keep your faculty position? Did you hold your faculty position at San Diego the whole time, or how did that work?
Yes, yes. I think it had to be, again, it had to be voted on by the faculty. I think when I came back, the faculty in the physics department had to redo the considerations. But I'm a pretty good physicist. And I don't think that was a problem.
Yeah. So your plan the whole time was, you knew you wanted to come back to the physics program at San Diego?
Yes, yes.. That was my landing spot, and that's where I am now. I have a lab here in Mayer Hall. And it's not a big lab anymore, but I interact with people in mechanical engineering, with people in biophysics, with people at UC Riverside and UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz. And this was my landing spot.
Coming back to San Diego, did you have to play catch-up with the research a little bit? Or did you stay involved?
Oh, I'll never catch up. (both laugh) No, it just, it moves too fast, to catch up. –When I first went to Bell Labs, I was 25 years old.
You have an energy at 25 that you don't at 77.
And so there's that too. I keep on top of things, my students keep me on top of things. My students come in to my office which is adjacent to my lab and, and prod me "Read this, please." And it's a paper that they've picked up somewhere and read, and want me to read it and talk about it. So yeah, but I think my focus is narrowing. Just because of energy, and the evolution of concepts... When I was at Bell Labs, we all were on top of all of the concepts. You're not in an academic environment and it was go! go! go!
What lessons have you taken from your experience as chancellor and president, and brought those experiences and that perspective, really, back to your faculty position?
Oh boy. That's a tough question.
I mean, because at your vantage point as president, you really see the whole system. And then as a professor, you're really dealing with, you know, like you could think of a student as like the atom and the university system as the universe, right? So how did those experiences, you know, inform afterwards your attitude towards, you know, mentoring, towards teaching, towards research?
Let me side-step that question for a minute, and maybe I'll get back to it if I can think of a better answer, but I right now am doing two things at the National Academy of Sciences. One is I co-chair a board on... the intelligence community studies board. So we stood up a board at the National Academies, which was stimulated by people inside the intelligence communities, the three letter agencies? And this is connected to your question. The three letter agencies went to the Academies and said, "Can you help us make better contact to the academic community? Or the industrial community? We have a bunch of analysts that... in multiple agencies that want to stay on top of what is happening in the technical world. So the intelligence community studies board, and they said, "Can you help us?" And so we stood up a board that I co-chair with a computer scientist from Texas (actually a UCSD alumnus), and we meet. Again, I have a security clearance, so we meet in classified areas, and spend time anticipating threats to the nation and where they should be thinking. Who in the academic or industrial community they should be talking with. And we help them connect on things like that. And we sometimes speculate on wild, crazy threats. And so I'm doing that, and that requires a broad kind of person. And the other thing is that I'm just finishing up a study. You might remember, about 15 years ago, the U.S. and Russia came to an agreement on reducing the number of nuclear weapons?
It's a controversial decision, and part of the deal was, what do you do with the excess plutonium that comes out of those old weapons? Plutonium is not a naturally-occurring element, and so there's just a finite amount of plutonium in the world. This is not a small amount of plutonium, and the Department of Energy came up with a scheme that turned out to be too expensive. And slow. And so modified it to take the plutonium and do things to it and bury it in the salt mines of New Mexico. Congress Appropriations asked the National Academy to make a judgement on that. And I'm chairing that committee. So it's fairly complex That's a fairly broad set of responsibilities and it brings together a whole lot of people from different disciplines. I think that's a skill that I've learned over time from the kinds of responsibilities I had as chancellor and president in the University of California. The other part is, I just think more broadly about interactions, about global interactions, than I would as a professor. I see some of my colleagues that have been professors all their lives, and I wonder what they find interesting about it.
Yeah, yeah. Well, Bob, I think for the last portion of our wonderful conversation, I want to ask you some broader questions.
The first is, I mean, you've had such a varied career. I wonder, as a physicist, if there are certain fundamental concepts in physics that you rely on that you draw on to help you understand any manner of situations, both in the scientific realm or not? Things that are very close to you, that they've remained relevant since the day that you learned them in school?
Well, I think integrity is a really important issue, and integrity has to be based on your knowledge. And not wistful, wishful thinking. And if someone tells you something, you want to see evidence for it. And that's not physics, that's just being based on a belief in experience-based knowledge. That's not physics, it's just, you know, what's... Why do you make a statement like that? And there are times when I say that, and then I realize they're not gonna answer that question. And so, but I still like to know why things work. You know, really, why things work, and I guess I've learned to observe. My wife accuses me of seeing, of observing. I said, "That's what I do. I observe. I watch. I look at things." And it gets stored. And so I think you see more as a physicist. I think you're accustomed to observing and it's not necessarily that that's a piece of data that you're gonna use tomorrow.
But you observe it. And you build up that knowledge, and it's what drives your thinking.
Right. Now I know, as a physicist, I mean, particularly with your work, you know, your very diverse range of work and collaboration at Bell Labs. You were really all over the place, and you speak about that in very positive terms. I wonder, then, not in terms of the work that you did, what area of physics do you feel like you've made the greatest contributions to?
Probably the impact, because I grew up as a, what was then called, a sold-state physicist, you learn solid-state physics based on symmetry and order. I think probably the role of disorder in the world, how disorder affects things in the real world. You know, we spend all our time trying to build things that are perfectly ordered, to try to understand the physics phenomena, but then how does disorder change those characteristics in a way that affects the world that we live in? And so I've spent a lot of time learning about disorder. What disorder implies in terms of time-dependence of things. If you have a very convoluted, complicated structure, be it biological or be it physical, there are slow responses to these things because they have to torque around in complicated gyrations. And that's the consequences of disorder. If everything is ordered, it just falls into that ordered state. That's the lowest free energy and it's not going go anywhere else. Whereas if things are disordered, it's going to evolve in time over logarithmic periods of time. And that's, you know, we studied that a lot.
And where do you see those contributions playing out in the broader world?
Oh, by a lot— I've had several students say, "Where would you go today if you were going to be?" I'd become a biophysicist. Because physics is going to solve the brain, I mean it's... It's these sort of complicated multi-parameter interactions that are, it's going to play out in that area, it's going to play out in the biological world, it's going to play out in every world that has multiple strong interactions. I mean, the whole debate over global warming is just a whole lotta parameters, the models don't work. And people think they do, but they're, every time you add another parameter, it goes into chaos. And so that's just the, how disorder impacts our everyday life. That's, I think that's where it's going to go. I mean, we spent our time trying to grow semiconductor crystals that were completely ordered, and now we're dealing with totally disordered systems.
Yeah, yeah. Well, for my last question, Bob, I think we're going talk about, I wanted to get your ideas on the future. And I'm asking you this, you know, as your role as an administrator, as a manager, as a physicist, and as an educator, you're still admirably active in your field in all of those areas. So I want to ask you, what are the things that continually excite you and motivate you and make you optimistic about the future? In all of those areas?
In spite of what's going on right now?
In spite of it.
In spite of all this that's going on. I guess what I find most exciting and I'm most enthusiastic about, is the creativity of people. Even, I mean, right now, what's going on, you see enormous flashes of creativity. Even if they're jokes on the internet. Americans are amazingly creative people. And I wasn't born here. But many of the creative people in our country weren’t born here. They came here for every imaginable reason but they all took a risk in some form. Maybe that is the distinguishing feature…they took risks But I see an enthusiasm and a creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit, and a risk-taking spirit that is, just gives me joy. I see people, I mean I act as the "adult" scientist for several start-up companies here in San Diego, and they don't pay me anything, I just go there, and they're a bunch of UC alumni, and you see people that are betting their lives on ideas. And that's unique. That doesn't happen in most of the world.
And that's what still gives me lots of joy, and that's why I like to interact with these people. Because I have something to teach them.
Right. Well, Dr. Dynes, thank you so much. It's been a great pleasure speaking with you today. There are going to be so many people that listen to this interview who are coming from so many different areas who will draw on your perspective, and it's just a tremendous resource, so I really want to thank you for your time today.
Well, thank you. It was my pleasure.