Steven Koonin

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ORAL HISTORIES
Koonin credit Kelly Kollar.jpg

Credit: Kelly Kollar

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
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Interview of Steven Koonin by David Zierler on May 14, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/46766

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

In this interview, Steven Koonin, University Professor at New York University, recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and his education at Stuyvesant High School, which he credits for providing an excellent education in math and science. He explains his decision to pursue a degree in physics at Caltech, where Willie Fowler supervised him, and where he focused on nuclear physics. Koonin discusses his graduate work at MIT, where he studied under Art Kerman and focused on Hamiltonian variational principles for quantum many-body systems and on the study of nuclear motion. He explains the opportunity that led him back to Caltech for his first faculty position without going through a postdoctoral experience first. He describes his interest in then doing a postdoc in Copenhagen, where he had more opportunities to collaborate on theoretical nuclear physics than at Caltech. Koonin describes the pleasures of teaching quantum mechanics to undergraduates, he describes the impact of personal computing technology on his research in the mid-1980s, and he discusses his contributions in extrapolating nuclear reactions to get astrophysical rates. Koonin discusses his involvement in national security issues including the Strategic Defense Initiative as part of the JASON group, and his advisory work for the Department of Energy and DARPA. He describes his administrative accomplishments as vice president at provost at Caltech and the institutional advancements that he fostered in biology and high-performance computing. Koonin explains his position to take a position at BP as chief scientist where he had a mandate to push the company to pursue alternative energy resources, and he describes his decision to accept Steve Chu’s offer to run the Office of Science at DOE during the first Obama administration. Koonin describes his focus there on exascale computing and high-energy density science, and he discusses his long-range interest in climate science and some of the inherent challenges this field presents in both the scientific and political realms. He describes his decision to accept his current position at NYU, and at the end of the interview, Koonin describes his goals in founding the Center for Urban Science and Progress. 

Transcript

Zierler:

This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 14th, 2020. It’s my great pleasure to be here with Dr. Steven Koonin. Steve, thank you so much for being with me today.

Koonin:

Happy to talk.

Zierler:

OK, so to start, tell me your current title and institutional affiliation.

Koonin:

I'm a University Professor at New York University, with primary appointments in the Stern School of Business, the Tandon School of Engineering, and an affiliation with the Department of Physics.

Zierler:

And now let’s take it right back to the beginning. Tell me about your family background and your early childhood.

Koonin:

I was born in the early ‘50s in Brooklyn, New York. My parents—my mother is still alive at age 89. We were a working-class family. My mother had one year of college education. She was 20 when I was born. My father served in the military during World War II, was a photolithographer by training and trade, eventually opened up his own business. I have two siblings, a brother who is a Broadway musician in New York City, and a sister who passed away about four years ago, who was a graphics designer.

Zierler:

Were your parents native New Yorkers?

Koonin:

Yes. My mother was born in Hoboken, my father in New York City, and they lived in the New York metropolitan area all their life. Well, toward the latter part of their lives, they moved away from the city. I was educated in New York City public schools, a wonderful set of teachers through high school. I went to Stuyvesant High School and got the benefits, again, of a wonderful public education there.

Zierler:

How was your commute to Stuyvesant from Brooklyn?

Koonin:

It was about 40-some-odd minutes, by subway, and I would get on the subway every day at 6:30 or quarter to seven. It was fine. It was really a quite great existence. I got to take advantage of some of the cultural opportunities in the city—museums, shows, that sort of thing. It was a lot of fun.

Zierler:

Now, Stuyvesant was co-ed in those days?

Koonin:

No, it was all guys. And in fact, Caltech, which we'll get to in a bit, was also all guys up until my junior year. I graduated high school early, at age 16 and a half. I skipped a grade of elementary school. I'm a December birthday, and so my ambitious Jewish mother got me in to kindergarten six or eight months early. So I was always the youngest kid in the class.

Zierler:

Now, it’s hard to know it in real time, but looking back, do you feel like you got a world-class education at Stuyvesant in math and science?

Koonin:

Absolutely. I think many of my teachers were PhDs. Some of them had been involved in research. The student cohort was wonderful. It was competitive but in a good way. And absolutely, I think I got the kind of education that these days mostly you have to get in a good private school.

Zierler:

That’s right.

Koonin:

I expect it’s still the same way. I've not been back to Stuyvesant since I graduated. Of course, it’s in a different building now as well, but I gather it’s just as good.

Zierler:

Now, when you were thinking about colleges to apply to, were you specifically thinking about physics and physics programs?

Koonin:

Absolutely. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I think I had known what I wanted to do since I was ten years old, but I didn't know what it was called.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

Fortunately, I was good in math, and I had a curiosity about the world. I still do. And so I knew I was going to go into physics. And at that time, Caltech had a reputation as both being world-class and really hard. And it was the West Coast, and it was the late ‘60s. And so what could be bad, right?

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

I didn't apply to many schools. So at age 16 and a half, my parents—I'm amazed—let me go across the country. And there I was.

Zierler:

Now before you knew it was physics or astrophysics or things like that, what was it as a ten-year-old that captured your imagination?

Koonin:

It was trying to understand—well, first, I think to measure the world, and then to understand how the world works. I think a formative influence was my father, who unfortunately passed away at age 50 from leukemia. My father would sit and explain to me—he was not formally educated very well, but would explain to me, about the moon, about the natural world. And I think that instilled a curiosity and a sense of wanting to just understand how it worked.

Zierler:

Now, a nice boy from Brooklyn—I'm wondering what your impressions of Pasadena were when you got there in 1968.

Koonin:

Let’s distinguish Pasadena from the Institute. The Pasadena environment was strange, interesting. I mean, where was the winter, right? Plastic holiday decorations. Much more suburban environment than I had grown up in. I grew up in the middle of Brooklyn, which was quite urban. But I think for many of those years in my undergraduate time, I was really focused on the work; the campus was just wonderful. Two hundred classmates like me who were eager to both tell you and engage you in what they were doing. And of course world-famous names, you got to at least get exposed to, if not hang out with.

Zierler:

Was the counterculture a big issue on campus?

Koonin:

There was music. There were hallucinogens. But I think for most of us, we still focused on what we were there to do. But performing music was part of my life, and continues to be, just for fun. I was trained as a pianist from about age five, and at about age 14, discovered playing pop music of the day, played in bands in both high school and the early undergraduate years. And still today, I very much enjoy doing that – playing the standards on the piano.

Zierler:

Who were some of the professors in the Department that you became close with at Caltech?

Koonin:

So just to go through names, my freshman advisor was David Goodstein. One of the people in my early education was Bob Leighton—I'm sure you know the name. My undergraduate advisor in the latter years was Willie Fowler. I had some interaction with Dick Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, but not very much. Felix Boehm, I worked for him for a couple summers.

Probably the biggest influence as an undergraduate was Tom Tombrello, who was an experimentalist/theorist working in the Kellogg Lab. And Tom kind of took me under his wing after I took a course with him in nuclear theory and was a good friend and mentor throughout my career until he died a couple years ago. So those were some of the names.

Zierler:

And by the time you graduated, how well-defined were you in terms of the kinds of physics you wanted to specialize in for graduate school?

Koonin:

I knew I would do nuclear physics, and I think it came in part from having read the Lawrence and Oppenheimer book when I was a kid, and then having hung out at the Kellogg Lab with Tom Tombrello and Charlie Barnes and Ralph Kavanagh, Willie Fowler, and also Felix Boehm as well. So I knew I would go do nuclear theory.

And so they did two things to help me along. One is they arranged a summer job at Los Alamos as a graduate student, which I did for three summers, during my graduate time, and got exposed to the Los Alamos culture as well. The other was the expectation that I would come back as a faculty member—maybe; one never knows about these things—and be the theorist for the nuclear physics effort at Caltech. So I was very fortunate in that way, to have people—

Zierler:

Did you have a senior thesis?

Koonin:

I did do a senior thesis. Actually, I did the equivalent of two. One was an experimental thesis on radiative electron capture, something called internal bremsstrahlung, where a nucleus grabs an orbital electron and emits a photon at the same time—it’s a second-order process—and to measure the spectrum of that, which had been predicted by Paul Martin and Roy Glauber back in the ‘60s. And I did a measurement of it working with a guy named Borje Persson [?] who worked in Boehm’s group. We measured it in beryllium-7, manganese-54, and chromium-51.. That work resulted in published papers.

And then a second piece of work I did was with Tom Tombrello on an extrapolation of the carbon-12 (alpha, gamma) radiative capture cross-section, which is the astrophysical source of oxygen in the universe. It’s a rather difficult extrapolation from laboratory measurements, which were just going on in Kellogg at that time by Peggy Dyer and Charlie Barnes, down to astrophysically relevant energies. Tom had an idea about a new way to do it, and I helped refine and implement it.

Zierler:

I assume that two senior theses is sort of above and beyond what the expectations are.

Koonin:

Yeah, of course. But I have gotten to know many Caltech undergrads as a faculty member and I would say it’s unusual but not unknown. The really good students just fly after only a bit of mentoring.

Zierler:

I wonder, was this your own initiative to do two theses? Or did you have equally strong relationships with two professors, and that’s how this played out?

Koonin:

That’s a good question. I was just interested in doing stuff. I think I actually set up to do the experimental work in my junior year, and then took Tom’s course maybe during the junior year as well, and then Tom said, “Why don’t you try to work on a problem?” So that’s probably how I wound up doing those. It was just great fun. I was just interested in doing science! And I sort of learned how to do research and learned how to write papers and so on.

Zierler:

At what point did you determine that you wanted to go straight to graduate school? Did you ever consider going into industry?

Koonin:

Never. I was headed to be an academic physicist. It was the role models I saw. I was having a great time. Why would I want to do anything else?

Zierler:

What programs did you apply to? Where did you want to go?

Koonin:

That’s a good question. So MIT, which is where I wound up. Princeton. And I'm trying to remember where else. And I'm sorry I can’t—there may have been a third. In the end I went to MIT because it was, at that time, I would say the center for nuclear theory.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah.

Koonin:

Tombrello had introduced me to Art Kerman already, and so it was kind of understood I would go work for him when I showed up there. And I did.

Zierler:

So you had a specific professor in mind even before you got to MIT?

Koonin:

Yeah. As I said, there were these introductions that the Kellogg guys made, to a staff member at Los Alamos, Ray Nix, who was a fission theorist and whom I worked for during three summers. And the introductions at MIT. I should say about the undergraduate experience, another formative thing during that time was that I and another student in our senior year—so the other guy was Alan Breakstone, who went to be an experimentalist ultimately at SLAC—we were allowed to teach a section of Physics I in our senior year. So we had this group of 20, 25 freshmen, and it was one of the probably ten sections. And so we were responsible for working the problem sets, providing supplementary material, and so on. So it was a very good formative experience in pedagogy. So had a lot of fun with that.

Zierler:

Coming from Caltech over to the other institute of technology, MIT, what were your impressions when you got to Cambridge and about the Department of Physics there? In what ways was physics different at MIT, and in what ways was it the same as Caltech?

Koonin:

The Center for Theoretical Physics, CTP, which if you've ever visited, even at that time, was a palatial, somewhat intimidating setup for a student, and did not have the informality whereby you could just walk by somebody’s office and stick your head in. At least it appeared to me that way as a first-year graduate student. But then of course I got to know people and it became somewhat easier. I was exposed to more high-energy physics there than I was otherwise. Not so much condensed matter because that was housed elsewhere. And also to the more mathematical people— people like Francis Low and Herman Feshbach.

So it was an interesting broadening of the experience. I missed the contact with the experimentalists which I had had at Caltech, but after about a year, those things got reestablished. Eric Cosman was one. Oh, gosh, I'm trying to remember other names now. But anyway, I more or less managed to plug in with them.

Zierler:

And during your first few years at MIT, what was the rough breakdown of course work versus lab work, for you?

Koonin:

Course work was, I would say, maybe 30% of what I was doing. The rest—I got started immediately on problems with Arthur and later Herman Feshbach. And John Negele, then an Assistant Professor, was an early collaborator and mentor —so I think the course work was kind of secondary.

I remember taking a course from Steve Weinberg on field theory. OK, that was interesting. He was working on the weak-electromagnetic unification at the time. I don’t remember very many of the other courses, frankly. But that was also true at Caltech, you know? At least in the early years, I would not go to many of the classes. They were kind of boring. Still managed, of course, to do pretty well. So I was already a kind of independent learner.

Zierler:

And what was the process for developing your dissertation topic?

Koonin:

Well, I had as usual been working on a number of things. If I just look back over the three years that I was there, Art Kerman and I did a piece of formal work on Hamiltonian variational principles for quantum many-body systems; Arthur, Herman Feshbach and I did a formalism for a class of nuclear reactions called pre-compound or pre- equilibrium emission, where when a nucleon hits a nucleus, it’ll spit out a couple of high-energy nucleons before it thermalizes and makes a compound nucleus, and it has an interesting spectrum. So we worked on that, and that has been quite highly cited.

And then probably the most enduring work was something I started, studying nuclear motion numerically. People had been describing the static or near static properties of nuclei with what are called Skyrme energy functionals, and had done a pretty good job of that. And I got interested in “could we solve the coupled non-linear partial differential equations on a computer using that same energy formalism to describe large-scale nuclear motion?” So think heavy ion collisions. And I learned the numerical methods. I recruited Paul Bonche, who was a visiting postdoc for two years at MIT from Saclay in France, and John Negele, who had worked a lot on staticversions. And the three of us together figured out how to start first just colliding one-dimensional slabs of nuclear matter on the computer on a grid, and then going to ultimately two dimensions and then three dimensions. Most of that happened after I left MIT.

So this so-called time-dependent Hartree-Fock description of nuclear collisions was another seminal thing I did then. It led to some really interesting later research which maybe we'll get to. And that was largely me, I'll say with humility - “Hey, this is interesting. Paul, why don’t we try to do this?” John said, “Wow, that’s pretty interesting.” So there were about three or four things. My formal thesis ultimately was on the reduction of the time-dependent Hartree-Fock equations to hydrodynamics. There’s something called a Wigner transform that you can do that can make those equations look like hydrodynamics. And so I did that. It was not a spectacular piece of work, the thesis. But the other stuff was more significant.

Zierler:

Why did you choose that as your thesis and not the other projects that you were working on?

Koonin:

Oh, I think it was just something relatively easy to write up, and there it was. Again, the thesis was kind of—it was not that big a deal for me. I was working on all these other things already that were really quite productive. And the hydrodynamic bit was all my own. It was not done collaboratively with anybody else. But looking back on it, it was not a great contribution to the world’s knowledge. Whereas the other things, as I said, were more enduring.

Zierler:

Now, when you defended, had you already had the opportunity at Caltech? Was that already in motion?

Koonin:

It was wired. And there’s kind of an interesting story associated with that. I didn't really understand the departmental politics at the time, but the expectation— by Willie Fowler, Tom Tombrello, some of the other faculty I had known—was that I would come back when I finished my PhD. And of course I had to give a job talk. It wasn’t called that in those days.

So in January of ’75, six months before receiving my PhD, I gave the Thursday afternoon Physics Research Conference. So if you've ever been to one, you’ll know it’s held in a lecture hall of about 200-and-some-odd seats, and after tea and cookies, the faculty and students would sit down at 4:15 and there would be some speaker.

Zierler:

I'm intrigued by this idea that you were doing a lot of interesting work at MIT, and you felt like your thesis was not at the top of that work. And so I'm curious—the way that you presented yourself at Caltech, did you talk about the sum total of all of your research, or was there a particular topic that you focused on?

Koonin:

I focused on the pre-equilibrium reaction work. And let me just set the scene again, because there’s a little bit of color to it that’s interesting. So the lecture—the Physics Research Conference, as it was then called, and I think it still is, happened every Thursday afternoon at 4:15. The lecture hall of about 220, pretty steeply raked. As an undergrad, I would sit in the back and watch the fun. And part of the fun was that Dick Feynman was in the front row and, in Dick’s way, would harass the speaker in very enlightening ways. So January of ’75, I find myself down in the front giving a talk, and of course there’s Dick in the front row. A little bit intimidating.

Zierler:

But it’s intimidating just because of who he is, not how he’s conducting himself, right?

Koonin:

Yeah, absolutely. And so I get about halfway into the talk, and he asks a question. He says, “I don’t understand—” And I try to explain it to him, and five minutes later, he comes back again. And I did my best, but I just pushed on, figuring I had blown it entirely. So the talk ends, and he jumps up out of his seat as the audience is breaking up, and he says with a smile, “Don’t worry. I was just testing you. You did fine.”

Some deal was cut ultimately among the faculty—I don’t know the details—that they would hire three fresh assistant professors that year. And I finally got the offer, probably in April. Myself, David Politzer, and Roger Blandford. And all three of us came on as Assistant Professors in different parts of the division: David in high-energy, I in Kellogg, and Roger in astrophysics with Kip Thorne’s group. So that was how I wound up at Caltech. It was a lot of fun.

Zierler:

Now, I have to ask—coming back to Caltech, was it difficult for you to establish a self-identity as a professor and not an undergraduate?

Koonin:

Yeah, absolutely. I was always the kid. And it took me about—there were about three or four years where I was not quite as productive as I would have liked to have been. Either it was just the natural rhythm of things—I mean, we pushed very hard on the time-dependent Hartree-Fock work, and that got quite a bit of notoriety. Did some other nuclear astrophysics. So it was certainly good enough for me to have gotten promoted and earn tenure.

But I have to say that period from about 1975 to ’82 or ’83 was not my most productive or impactful. Here’s another interesting stint where I did actually do some good work: it was decided I needed to do a postdoc or the equivalent of a postdoc somewhere.

Zierler:

I was curious about that. Generally, you do the postdoc right after you defend, but you went straight into an assistant tenure line position.

Koonin:

Right. And again, the guys in Kellogg—Willie and Tom and others—decided, “You really need a year in which to do your research.” And so they arranged for me to get a leave of absence, and off I went to the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

Zierler:

Wow.

Koonin:

So I spent a year there, my wife and I. We were without children then, so it was both fun and a little bit stressing for her. I got immersed in this international world of nuclear physics. And I think I did certainly one paper there that has stood the test of time. I realized that when two nucleons come out from a heavy ion collision in nearly the same direction with nearly the same speed, there will be an interesting final state interaction between them. And the details of that interaction, how it emerges in their spectrum, can tell you about the source of those particles. So it’s a little bit like Brown-Twiss interferometry for stellar sizes.

And so I figured out how to do that for protons, connected it up with the experimentalists, and within a year or so, people started measuring those patterns to learn about heavy ion lifetimes and sources. We since extended that to pions from heavy ion collisions when I got back to Caltech. And that again turns out to be a pretty interesting tool. It has been given a name now by others - it’s called femtoscopy. But I wrote one or two of the first papers.

Zierler:

Steve, I'm always curious how these things work. So you get to Caltech, and then there’s this general idea that you should go to Copenhagen and do the postdoc. So the question obviously is, as an intellectual atmosphere, what are you able to do in Copenhagen that you can’t do at Caltech? In terms of your development.

Koonin:

I was the only theoretical physicist at Caltech focused on nuclear stuff. And so I had good interactions with the experimentalists, but was a little bit—actually, a lot—cut off from other theorists to bounce ideas off of. They wouldn't know what I was talking about, et cetera. At Copenhagen, almost everybody was doing either nuclear physics or nuclear astrophysics. And I established some very good collaborations, and in one case, a lifelong friendship, with some of the people who were there. Oh, one other physics bit of color—when I went, Willie decided that a very beginning graduate student should come along with me, and that guy was Dick Bond. And Dick is a pretty prominent cosmologist these days in Toronto. And so I helped Dick a little bit during his early career. That was a lot of fun.

Zierler:

So when you got back to Caltech, you were still essentially representing your own field, but you had a more solid grounding as a result of your collaborations in Copenhagen.

Koonin:

That’s right. More things to work on, and more connections, and so on. And I would say I focused on nuclear physics up until about 1988 or so. It was pretty much exclusively nuclear stuff of one sort or another.

Zierler:

Right. And were you taking graduate students right from the beginning?

Koonin:

Absolutely. Five grad students and six postdocs was the peak size of the group. Some of them were visitors from abroad that came with their own money. I was supported by two NSF grants—one a theory grant, and one a Kellogg Laboratory grant. In those days, money was more plentiful (and looser). Again, my seniors made sure that I was well-resourced.

Zierler:

Now, at the danger of forgetting to name some people that you could always add into the transcript later, I wonder, who were some of your top graduate students? People that really you had successful collaborations with.

Koonin:

So, can I include the postdocs as well?

Zierler:

Of course.

Koonin:

Karlheinz Langanke, who just stepped down at GSI, was a very long-time, a very fruitful collaborator. Yoram Alhassid, who’s a professor at Yale, was also a very longtime and fruitful collaborator, postdoc. David Dean was very productive. He’s at Oak Ridge. Ming Chu, who was an undergrad at Caltech and then a graduate student, working with me—he’s at Chinese University of Hong Kong now. Again, these were some of the more productive people. I'm sure if I look over the list, I'll find others. They all don’t stay in the core of nuclear physics. They go off and do many other things. At the undergraduate level, I'm very proud by happenstance to have taught Peter Shor quantum mechanics—

Zierler:

Oh wow.

Koonin:

—when he was a junior at Caltech. I taught the kind of junior-senior level quantum mechanics course, and Peter was one of the guys in the class, in the early ‘80s. [laugh]

Zierler:

What were some of your favorite courses to teach undergraduates at Caltech?

Koonin:

I taught the advanced quantum mechanics course a number of times. I developed a course in computational physics. So this was about 1982. The PC had just come out from IBM. And I was on leave at Santa Barbara, at what is now KITP, then just the ITP. And one day, some guy from IBM calls me up and says, “I want to come visit.” And I said, “OK.” So he comes in with three or four big boxes and says, “This is a PC. We're just bringing it out, and we’d like to put it in the hands of academics to see what you can do with it.”

Zierler:

Any idea why he singled you out? Was there something about your research that was conducive for computers?

Koonin:

Of course I was doing heavy computational work on the Time Dependent Hartree Fock calculations. But I think the connection came from Allan Bromley. So Allan was, at that time—I don’t know where he was in his career—I knew him because they had tried to get me to Yale a number of times. And Allan sat on the board or advisory committee for IBM. And my guess is Allan fed them my name.

So I got this machine. I played around with it for a while. I started writing programs in BASIC, pedagogic programs, and finally decided I would do a course. Caltech acquired 25 machines. I started doing problem sets and lectures and eventually turned it into a book, published in I think ’85—Computational Physics—which was one of the first texts of that kind—it came with a diskette, had the code, and I think helped teach a lot of people how to do physics with a computer.

Zierler:

I'm always curious, in these early years of applying computational power to physics, do you feel like the research that you were doing always had to wait for the computers to catch up, or the other way around?

Koonin:

It was a mix. So with the time-dependent Hartree-Fock, which was the biggest computational effort until we get to the shell model Monte Carlo, we were always pushing the limits, and always looking for more computer time. When I was in Copenhagen and we were doing those calculations, the largest system there at the Bohr Institute had a rule that if your job ran under two minutes, you wouldn't be charged for it.

And so what we did—I and a guy named Bjorn Nielsen, we cut the computation up into sequential 90-second chunks, and just had one start the next and that start the next, etc. So we were able to get a lot of computer time that way, kind of under the table. And eventually we were running on machines in Oak Ridge, in Livermore, in Los Alamos, and so on. Basically anywhere we could get cycles.

Zierler:

Can you talk a little bit about your work in statistical mechanics and thermodynamics during these years?

Koonin:

That got started in about 1988, where we realized that we could—and this was through conversations with a faculty member at MIT named Shimon Levit who was there working with John Negele—that we could adapt the technologies for time-dependent Hartree-Fock to do exact Monte Carlo solutions of nuclear shell model problems. So we could get the thermodynamic properties of nuclei, level densities, pairing gaps, masses exactly. And we started that effort in ’88 with toy shell models, as usual. I think the first paper was published around ’88. And then it came to fruition in the early ‘90s—’93, ’94. And I was still publishing papers on it until ’97. So I think that’s about the largest involvement into thermodynamics I had was through what’s now called Shell Model Monte Carlo or Auxiliary-Field Monte Carlo.

Zierler:

In terms of classical and quantum mechanics, was that mostly in terms of your teaching or were you doing focused research in these areas as well?

Koonin:

I was doing research, and I found out, like many faculty at a university, that when you teach a subject, you really learn it very well. And so there was that synergy. And occasionally I would entrain some of the students in what I was doing.

Zierler:

As you said, at the beginning of your tenure at Caltech, you were sort of a one-man show in terms of the subfield that you represented. I wonder if that stayed the same, generally, or if the general growth of the program included more people working in your subject areas.

Koonin:

No, we brought on an experimentalist in the early ‘80s who became, and remains, a good friend, Bob McKeown. Bob was a professor at Caltech up until about nine years ago and is now deputy director at the DOE’s Jefferson Lab. Bob and I are the same age, and Bob is at least as capable a physicist as I am, although with a different mix of strengths. He’s an experimentalist, but he can more than hold his own in theory. And so Bob and I bonded and worked together a lot. I don’t think we published many papers together, but you'll see him acknowledged in a number of my papers, and I in his.

Zierler:

In terms of collaboration with your peers outside of Caltech, who were some of the most important people who you worked with during these years?

Koonin:

So Tom Davies at Oak Ridge. Mort Weiss at Livermore.

Zierler:

At Oak Ridge, was that more on the computational side of things?

Koonin:

A lot of this was computational, but not always. A guy named Jørgen Randrup who’s at Berkeley. And we met at the Bohr Institute. He’s a Dane but moved to the U.S. And he was a close collaborator during those years. So a lot of it was at the national labs. Berkeley as a whole, a lot of collaboration there with the nuclear chemists as well as with the nuclear physicists. Art Poskanzer and Kevin Wolf, who were experimentalists.

I was what the theorists would call a plumber, or more likely, a phenomenologist in many ways. I like to deal with the data and see if I can find theories that will describe the data, rather than writing grand formalisms. So I got to work with the experimentalists quite a bit. John Schiffer at Argonne was another. John Negele who continued from my graduate student years as a close collaborator during those years.

Zierler:

What were some of the most important conferences for you to attend and share your research with your peers?

Koonin:

The Gordon Conferences in the early times were a big influence on me. I don’t think I need to describe them for you, but I went quite routinely. I think I even was a chair of the nuclear chemistry conference one year. Used to bring along some students; one I brought along one year was Ken Libbrecht. Ken was a Caltech undergrad. He has been many years now a professor at Caltech in physics. And so I helped move Ken along in his career, early on.

Zierler:

Before we get to your administrative duties at Caltech, I wonder up until this point, what did you see as your primary contributions to the field, in your capacity as professor of physics at Caltech?

Koonin:

Well, first of all, of course, it’s the students you train, like any professor. But beyond that, I think it was methods for handling the nuclear many-body problem, both the computational and some formalism methods, as well as some of the extrapolations we did in our nuclear reactions to get astrophysical rates. I think those were the main things.

Zierler:

What were the circumstances leading to you becoming chair of the department? Was it your turn, so to speak?

Koonin:

I was never actually the chair of the department. I was chair of the faculty for a while.

Zierler:

Oh, I see. OK.

Koonin:

But that happened in ’91. But I think if we want to go chronologically, it would probably be good to talk about the national security stuff a little bit.

Zierler:

Sure.

Koonin:

Because that’s when it entered my life, about 1984 or so. So let me talk a little bit about that. I think that sets the stage. So one day—I had already been serving on a lot of nuclear physics advisory panels, in part again because there weren’t very many young people in my field, and I was in a prominent university. I got invovled in the science advising apparatus for the NSF and the DOE. I think I was at the first NSAC long-range plan meeting. So I had a little bit of sense of how scientists interacted with the government. And then one day a guy who I never knew or heard of from IDA—the Institute for Defense Analyses—calls me up and says, “I want to have lunch with you at the Athenaeum.” Or dinner, I can’t remember. It was about ’83 or so.

Zierler:

Now, did you have any idea what aspect of your work got you on his radar?

Koonin:

No. And so I go meet this guy, who turns out to be Bob Roberts. Bob was a chemist by training, actually I think he had done a postdoc at Caltech, but was somewhere in those days in the middle or upper middle of the IDA administration. And he says, “I've got this idea for a program to entrain young academic scientists in national security matters.” And I said, “That sounds kind of interesting.” And one thing led to another, and Bob formed the first cohort of what’s now called the Defense Science Study Group, or DSSG. Do you know about that? Or otherwise I can—

Zierler:

No, I don’t. Please elaborate.

Koonin:

The rationale was that post-Vietnam War, a lot of the academics became disengaged with national security, and he wanted to bring that back. So the idea was, and what happened ultimately, was Bob gathered a group of about 20 of us, scientists and engineers, from the universities around the country, and we spent three years doing what can only be described as national security summer camp. We met in Washington. We learned about the armed forces, about the intelligence community, about the interactions with the Hill, about DOD, and so on. Some of these folks were formal mentors to the group, and others came in to brief. At a pretty high level. I think we had the secretary of defense at some point come talk to us.

Zierler:

So I assume this is a classified setting?

Koonin:

We all got secret-level clearances, no more than that. I had had DOE clearances when I worked at Los Alamos, but had given them up when I finished graduate school, so got clearances again at the secret level. And the most fun part was of course we went all around the country in two-week stints during the summers or spring breaks, to visit all these places. And so we went to Cheyenne Mountain. We went to Offutt Air Force Base where SAC was headquartered. We were out on a frigate in San Diego. We went out to Pearl Harbor. Et cetera, et cetera. And so we all bonded. Some of these people remain good friends and colleagues even now. And I got exposed to what national security was all about. And I was fascinated.

Zierler:

And I'm curious, Steve, during these years, especially the early and mid 1980s, to what extent was containing the Soviet threat the dominant topic of the issues you were—?

Koonin:

Oh, it was. I mean, this was the height or middle of SDI. It was, as some of the old-timers called them, the Russkies that we were most concerned about. And we got good exposure to the whole strategic apparatus. I think we did two years of that, and then one of the mentors, Bill Press, whom you must of course know about—

Zierler:

Of course, yeah.

Koonin:

—Bill was and remains a good friend—invited a couple of us to join JASON. So starting in the summer of ’88 was my first year in JASON.

Zierler:

In what ways were these groups complementary? Before you joined JASON? Were they ever working at cross-purposes? Was it ever redundant? What was the relationship?

Koonin:

Again, just to describe it as it was, there was no relationship. We often referred to DSSG as “the junior JASON”.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

In the DSSG, people are just getting exposed to the system and issues. The work product—not much was expected, and it was more learning the ropes. And in fact, DSSG continues now. It’s about to have its 35th anniversary. More than 300 or 400 people have been through the program. And some of them have joined JASON, more than a few. So it is in some ways a feeder, if you like. Although JASON also takes people who haven't been through DSSG.

Zierler:

Was your sense that this was a training ground for JASON, like the minor leagues, so to speak?

Koonin:

I don’t think we thought about it like that. I mean, JASON was out there, and had a lot of mystique about it, and it was something that I think some of us maybe aspired to, at the time.

Zierler:

I wonder if there was more opportunity to influence policy as a member of the JASON group.

Koonin:

Oh, yeah, absolutely. The DSSG—the expectations in that way were low. We did “think pieces”. We kind of practiced framing issues and writing reports. But JASON had then, and maybe still does, have much more influence than the DSSG did. As now an IDA trustee for the last four or five years, I see that DSSG is a very important part of the national security scene in terms of getting new people into the system to understand what the problems are and so on.

Zierler:

As your work in these groups developed, how did you understand your particular background and expertise in terms of contributing to what these groups were trying to accomplish?

Koonin:

Some of what we did was nuclear-like. My first JASON study, which I actually led, was on muon-catalyzed fusion, and that set me up really well for the whole cold fusion discussion a year later. So there were nuclear things, and I did those. But I also plunged in, I think with a good deal of eagerness, into learning about all manner of other things—radar, undersea acoustics, satellites, and so on. And I think my contribution to that was, like all physicists, first of all asking the dumb questions, but also being able to frame the discussion, frame the report, and so on. And so pull together a disparate group of people and ideas and documents and put it into something coherent.

Zierler:

Who were the most productive and impactful government offices, both military and civilian, that you worked with?

Koonin:

DARPA, certainly, in the early days, until we got fired by Tony Tether. That’s a whole story in and of itself. And the DOE was strong. ONR, the Navy, and parts of the intelligence community, which I probably can’t say too much more about.

Zierler:

What about OSTP? Any involvement with them?

Koonin:

Not so much in those days. OSTP doesn't have much money and so didn't sponsor studies. Of course, they listened. They would be eager for some of the outbriefs. But studies directly sponsored by OSTP, no. Among the people I got to know in JASON—just, again, in the spirit of names and influences—Ed Frieman, Bill Nierenberg, Will Happer, Mal Rudermann, , Walter Monk.

Zierler:

Oh, wow. Yeah.

Koonin:

These people are just—they're icons, and it was such a treat for me to be working with them and sharing offices with them, as a relatively young researcher. It was and it remains the most fun thing I do in my professional life.

Zierler:

I'm curious, between ’89 and ’91, with the Cold War winding down, how that changed the mission of the group and the kinds of things that you were focusing on.

Koonin:

It did. In just the beginning of my time, JASON did an influential study—Sid Drell led it; I was one of the contributors—on “could the U.S. manage in the absence of underground explosive testing?”. The Clinton administration wanted to sign up for a test ban. Could it do that and still guarantee the safety, security, and reliability of the stockpile? And we did a report which I think was quite influential in getting the Administration to sign up, but also in scoping out, and helping Vic Reis scope out, what stockpile stewardship really was about, and how it would look.

Zierler:

On the question of stockpile stewardship, were there existential questions being raised about America’s nuclear arsenal with the absence of a Soviet threat?

Koonin:

Well, I'm sure some people did, but I think among the people I was working with and we were talking to, it was pretty well understood nuclear weapons were not disappearing, and even if the Russians were gone, there was still the Chinese and at that time, I think India and Pakistan had already demonstrated a capability. So I think there was an acknowledgement of the need to maintain some kind of stockpile. How big it was and so on was evolving. And certainly the capability. I mean, in many ways, stewardship is about capability.

Zierler:

Right, right. And that gets me to my next question, which is, to what extent did you compartmentalize offensive and defensive capabilities?

Koonin:

You need to know of course both sides to do an effective job of one or the other. And certainly within JASON there was no such compartmentalization. We all worked on both sides. And JASON was active during SDI days, critical input, but also on the stockpile stewardship side.

One more national security thing—which was extra-JASON but is probably worth mentioning—I served two terms in the early ‘90s on the Defense Science Board. Again, sort of a young academic in the group. I got to meet a lot of interesting people that way, and co-led a study, I think in 1994 or thereabouts, on the JDAM, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, which is a precision glide bomb. And the question was, how would you guide it? And the choices were either GPS or inertial navigation, and they had various pluses and minuses. And a guy from Lincoln Labs, Bill Delaney, and I co-led that DSB study and came to some conclusions. The JDAM turned out to be very effective during the Afghanistan War.

Zierler:

Who were the most important consumers of the reports and advisory pieces that JASON put out?

Koonin:

The DARPA Director, the DDR&E, (DOD Director of Defense Research and Engineering). And the DOE. There was no NNSA at the time, but Defense Programs or whatever it was called in those days. Later the head of the nuclear security program in DOE. And again various S&T people in the intelligence community.

Zierler:

I'm curious what if any role you played in the initial thoughts surrounding the SSC, and then what your feelings were about its demise in ’93, ’94.

Koonin:

Yeah, so I was not involved directly in the formulation of it. It was high-energy physics. I was a nuclear physics guy. And you know, the HEPAP is separate from NSAC. I think Roy Schwitters joined JASON after the SSC terminated. And so of course I heard part of the story from his side, but otherwise I don’t know more than what was in the press.

With any of these big projects, you take a technical risk, and maybe we'll talk about the NIF, ultimately, which I also played some role with. And I don’t think the funders really understand how much risk—that one is going to fail, sometimes—it is a risk—or at least not succeed as quickly or as inexpensively as you think. And I think the SSC suffered from that. And Roy did not do the best job in PR with the Hill, at the time. Of course I've known him now for 25 years since.

Zierler:

So I think now’s a good time as any—let’s talk about your work with the NIF.

Koonin:

Again, this was in what was for me a very active time in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s. The nuclear physics work was focusing on the shell model Monte Carlo. I had gotten involved in JASON. DSSG was winding down. I was serving on the Defense Science Board, et cetera. And as the National Academies are wont to do, somebody calls me up someday and says, “We want you to lead a study on inertial fusion.” And I of course said, “What’s that?” I think it was Will Happer who put my name in, but I'm not sure. Because I had gotten to know Will through JASON.

So I led a study, deeply classified at the time, for the Department of Energy, run by the National Academies, on inertial fusion. And the issue at the time was that certain underground experiments had established the principle of inertial fusion, and the question was twofold. One is, should some or all of that be declassified? And two, should the department proceed to think about a laboratory facility that would try to do inertial fusion in the laboratory?

Zierler:

What was the value of declassifying it? Was this just broadly a transparency issue?

Koonin:

No, it would open it up to a much broader class of researchers. Because at that time, I think people were still thinking energy, and certainly weapons-relevant work. And so I ran this study. And as I said, I felt one of the talents I bring to all of this is the ability to synthesize, frame, and write. And that’s what I did. I had, again, a committee of icons. I'm trying to remember some of the names now - Marshall Rosenbluth, who was a great JASON colleague, and Ron Davidson, George Carrier from Harvard. Other people. I'm sure we could look up the names. But again, wonderful people. And we did the study and recommended both declassification and beginning to think about a laboratory facility.

Five years, four years later, I'm asked again to chair a second study. This is about ’95. OK, the field has moved on a bit. Experiments with the NOVA laser and the Z-machine at Sandia had progressed. And we had to make a decision about which of several facilities the DOE should focus on. And we eventually focused on a large glass laser that was being proposed by Livermore. That study generated a bit of controversy. The Academies got sued, because we met with Vic Reis before having actually issued the formal report. My excuse for that is that Bill Colglazier who was the head of the NRC at the time—National Research Council, and the overarching report body—I asked Bill, “Is that OK?” And he said yes. And Bill was in fact at the meeting. So the committee met with Bill and Vic. We didn't say anything different than what was in the report. But I think it gave Vic perhaps some timely confidence that they could go ahead and put the NIF in the budget. Since then, because of that, the Academy committees are now under FACA, and it’s a more constraining environment.

Anyway, so the NIF gets underway. The original cost was 1.4 billion. Fast forward almost 20 years, total cost is now—was three billion, 3.2 maybe. But it works, and it has been doing great science. And maybe we'll still be able to achieve ignition. We're learning an awful lot.

Zierler:

We can return back to the national security stuff as it comes back, but at this point, I want to ask you sort of a broadly retrospective question that sort of you take a viewpoint of your entire tenure in these projects. What stands out in your mind as one of the biggest items where you felt like your work and the work of your colleagues really positively influenced the policy process in a way that advanced the national security of the United States?

Koonin:

Boy!

Zierler:

Because the idea is—there’s so many advisory committees that are advising and giving recommendations in so many ways. And so much of that—I mean, I saw it myself at the Department of State, right—so much of that, as valuable as it is, it just sort of gets lost into the ether of the bureaucracy.

Koonin:

Yeah.

Zierler:

So what’s something that stands out in your mind where there’s a real clear connection between the formation of the advisory work, the process of the recommendations, and the satisfaction in seeing them get implemented in a way that, “Wow, that was really key that we put that together”?

Koonin:

Yeah. There are one or two like that, and I'll think of more than the one I've got in my mind, in a moment. But a lot of the more impactful things are at the next level down. So I think the stockpile stewardship certainly stands out as one of JASON’s greatest impacts. Giving the country confidence to abide by a test ban. We stopped them from doing some stupid things. So let me—maybe I could phrase that—all right, you really want to pin me down to specifics. Some of them I can’t talk about, unfortunately.

Zierler:

Of course. I understand.

Koonin:

But let me go through the catalog of the kind of things that JASON does; that might help put a little context to it. JASON does three or four different kinds of studies—let me start from the lowest level up. One of them is some agency, say an intelligence agency, comes in and says, “We see something we think is funny going on in satellite imagery or intercepts or so on. What do you think is happening?” So, enigmas.

Another is lemon detection. Somebody comes in and says, “I've got this anti-gravity technology,” and we'll spend a day and write a report saying why this is nuts. At a higher level, invention is pretty interesting. Someone comes in and says, “We've got a problem. Can you think of a way to solve it?” And so we invent stuff.

Another is for program review. A program might have two or three options, and how do you decide among them. And then these very high-level policy things. We've just done one of those recently— by “we” I mean JASON broadly, not just myself. We did a study for the NSF about open science and how universities should be thinking about interactions with China in particular. And that has gotten a lot of play and traction. I was a contributor to that study. We inventedthe first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2000…so a little bit of a story about that, when you talk about impact. Tony Tether came to us in the summer of ’01, before 9/11, and said—

Zierler:

Where was Tony at that time?

Koonin:

Tony was DARPA director. And Tony said, “We just got an authorization from Congress to do a prize competition. Give us some ideas.” And so a number of us brainstormed. I was chair at the time and wrote a letter back to Tony saying, “Why don’t you do—” what we called the “autonomous land race.” Namely somebody builds an autonomous vehicle that goes—I think we even said from Baker to Barstow or Baker to Las Vegas; I can’t remember. But somewhere in the desert Southwest. And that turned into the first DARPA Grand Challenge for Autonomous Vehicles.

So is that a national imperative? I don’t know. But certainly prize competitions have accelerated the development of S&T, and we were one of the first people to formulate a modern instance of it. Of course, three months later, Tony fired us, but that’s a different story.

Zierler:

I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the impact of 9/11 on JASON.

Koonin:

I think we tilted more to Homeland Security sorts of activities. Even in 1999, I had run a study for DARPA on civilian biodefense including PPE and hospital surge and detection and testing and all of that. And of course in the last three months, that has become much more relevant again. And then we focused on Homeland Security issues, detecting terrorism airport screening, identity tracing, and that sort of thing. But I would have to say that that faded toward the latter part of the aughts.

Zierler:

So another sort of broadly retrospective question—and again, answering only in generalities in an unclassified environment obviously—what are some of the threats that you have worked on—I don’t want to say that keep you up at night; maybe that’s a little too overboard—but what are some of the things that from your vantage point are real problems as far as national security are involved, in terms of your role as a scientist? The things that you work on where these are long-term structural strategic challenges that the country faces.

Koonin:

Let me deal with natural ones first. Certainly even before January, the notion of pandemics was on many people’s minds. Vaccine development, testing, and so on. I don’t need to say more about that. It has now become real. Of the natural things, I worry a lot about coronal mass ejection, solar storms, and that the grid is not prepared for that at all. And so I think that’s another one we're not paying enough attention to.

There’s always the threats of nuclear and bio for different reasons. A nuclear device is all about securing the material and the nascent nuclear states or subnational actors. So I worry about that. I worry a lot about bio. My bio friends tell me not to worry—“We're all ethical people and we train our postdocs and grad students well.” But the potential for real havoc in an engineered bio way is I think something we need to take even more seriously now than we did. On a strategic level, I worry that intelligence capabilities have become commoditized.

Zierler:

What do you mean by that, Steve?

Koonin:

So if you want to run your own intelligence operation to find out about some country or some activity, there’s a tremendous amount of open source material. I can hire commercial satellite imagery. And I can perhaps do a pretty good job—not as good as the national capabilities, but pretty good—just by collecting open source material. So I worry about that, as a threat.

And I worry that we haven't really sorted out how in the changing environment, how do we draw this line between open academic research and things that are truly important for national security. That’s an ongoing conversation right now at NSF, DOE, national security agencies, and we've not figured that out yet at all.

Zierler:

At this point—again, like I said, we can return back to the national security stuff, but I want to—just to retain the chronology, if we can go back to your time at Caltech. So one big question I have there is as you assume these executive administrative roles at Caltech, I'm curious if one of the things you worked on or you were involved in was diversity. That when you got to Caltech as an undergraduate, it was guys only, and obviously that changed at some point. And I'm curious what your perspective was on that transition.

Koonin:

Let me talk first about the undergraduate times. As I said, I think women came in and it was maybe 20 of them in a class of about 220, in 1970. And what did I know? I had gone to an all-boys high school. I have to say I didn’t grow up in an atmosphere where I was very comfortable with girls. And so I kind of watched it from a distance. And in retrospect, they had a really hard time. I've gotten to know some of them as adults, women who were in those first classes. But very strong people to have come to that with as much grace as many of them did.

Since then, of course, academia and physics have gotten much more diverse. I did my own bit. I don’t know the exact number, but I think in the order of 40% of my graduate students were women, and we certainly made a push at the faculty level when I was provost to bring forth qualified women candidates. I think at one point I told the division chairs, who are the equivalent of the deans, that independent of how many faculty hunting licenses or slots you've got, as long as you bring me a qualified woman candidate that the department has approved, we'll hire her. And we did hire some people under those conditions.

Zierler:

So when did that transformation happen at Caltech? When was there this drive to diversify the campus in general and physics specifically?

Koonin:

I think it happened—that’s a good question. At the undergraduate level, I think it was already well underway by the time I came into the provost’s office in about ’94. At the faculty level, it was heterogenous. In biology, already I think 40% or half the faculty were women. So it wasn’t such an issue there. Physics, mathematics, engineering were problems.

And we worked on it. Again, I've been out of Caltech now for 15 years, but I think it has gotten a lot better. And just in my interactions with the physics community as a whole, it has gotten a lot better. I mean, you sit around the committee tables and go to the conferences, and women are quite well represented, not only numerically but in terms of the quality of the science that’s getting done and talked about.

Zierler:

In terms of your work as vice president and provost, I'm curious, in developing a mandate and a strategy and being part of the overall sort of strategic growth of Caltech, who were your main collaborators? Were you working with the president on a daily basis? Was the Board of Trustees part of the equation? Who were the people that were most important for you?

Koonin:

I was of course responsible for trying to formulate and catalyze the strategic directions, as well as keep the ongoing enterprise vital. There were some faculty of course I talked to, some of whom were reporting to me. Dan Meiron was very important; he’s an applied mathematician at Caltech. Of course Tom Tombrello, Charlie Peck in physics. Looking upward, Tom Everhart was president when I came in, and Tom and I worked very closely together. David Baltimore became president about two and a half years into my provostship, and in the early years, David and I worked very closely together. We were very complementary in our attitudes and science skill sets. And I had a great time working with him.

It became more rocky in the later years. We can get into that at some point. And the division chairs. So Ed Stolper, Peter Dervan, Elliot Meyerowitz, Richard Murray were some of the division chairs—John Ledyard—that I worked with closely in trying to put initiatives together. There were maybe two or three things that I felt most proud of having started. One was what we called the Biological Sciences Initiative, which was to connect biology with other disciplines going on, whether it was geobiology, computational bio, bioengineering, biophysics. Remember this was now 25 years ago. Stanford subsequently started Bio-X.

Zierler:

And also during the 1990s, I just want to point out, the NIH budget essentially doubled in the 1990s, with biomedicine and things like that. So obviously this is part of a much broader national effort.

Koonin:

Right. And it wasn’t just the money, of course, but the science was there. I started a set of campus-wide lectures so that the rest of us could learn biology. I think I called it Biology 0.1. And campus-wide. And Mel Simon was a big part of that. And so we learned biology. And my friends now tell me I know enough to be dangerous. About biology.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

So that was one. Another was high-performance computing, and in particular, we secured one of the Department of Energy ASCI (Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative) centers. So it was to accelerate high-performance computing. The Center was about materials under high dynamic stress, which I knew was weapons-relevant, but also Caltech had a lot of strength that we could bring to bear. And so we created that center and secured the cash to do it.

And then the third, toward the latter part of my tenure, Tombrello and I hatched a plan to build a thirty-meter telescope. And if you read Tom’s Caltech oral history, he describes it a little bit. I was the first chair of the board. We entrained the University of California and the Canadians and we got the project rolling with a grant from the Moore Foundation. So the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) I'll take some credit for helping get it started.

Zierler:

What were some of the big research questions that were surrounding the thirty-meter telescope? What were you looking for?

Koonin:

You know, it’s always, can we look further back in time? Exoplanets were certainly a piece of the story as well. I mean, as always, whenever you open up a new instrument or a new window on the universe, you will find unexpected stuff. So yes, there’s a menu of things we expect to find, but what’s really interesting is the things you don’t expect. It was perfectly within the Caltech tradition—you know, much to my dismay, it has now foundered a bit with the resistance on Mauna Kea, but it’ll eventually get there.

Zierler:

Another broad question before we move on to your next role—you had been at Caltech a long time. I'm just curious—particularly again with your perspective as an undergraduate, in what ways broadly had Caltech changed over those decades? What did you see as its change in its overall focus, and in its stature relative to comparable research institutions?

Koonin:

I can give you an answer as of when I left, versus what it has become now. Maybe I'll just stick with when I left. I thought—I hope—I enhanced the interdisciplinarity of the university. I'm trying to remember who won Nobel Prizes while I was there. Zewail. I think the Politzer prize happened afterward. But great stature. I hired half the faculty by the time I left, and I was very proud of that. And some of these big interdisciplinary pushes in biology and computation. Some of the smaller things as well. So I hope I left the Institute in better shape than I found it. But for me personally, it was kind of time to move on.

Zierler:

And so when it was time to move on, I'm curious, how did the opportunity at BP come about? Did they sort of contact you out of the blue? Did you have contacts there from your various contacts in D.C.?

Koonin:

Yeah, so I know in retrospect what happened, or even more or less as it was happening. So I was serving on the governing board of the Argonne National Laboratory. And one of the other members was a guy named Bernie Bolkin. Bernie was a former academic-- I think he had been a dean at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Chemical engineer by training. But had been, for about a couple decades maybe, the chief scientist at BP.

And Bernie was about to retire. He hasn’t actually retired, because he’s still pretty vital doing all manner of things, but he was about to leave BP, and they started up a search for his successor, and Bernie fed my name into the hopper. And I got contacted by a search firm—“Would I be interested?” Et cetera, et cetera.

Zierler:

How much did you understand what the roles and duties of the chief scientist of BP were? Was it more a basic science kind of thing, or was there a specific mandate that BP had an expectation of?

Koonin:

Of course you don’t really understand the role until you're in it. But as it was described to me, it was providing scientific input to the leadership, assessing technologies, nascent technologies, curating a not insignificant major university research program, and being the public face of the company on matters of science and technology. It more or less worked out like that.

But I really had no idea at the beginning. I didn't know anything about energy. And when I complained to John Browne about that, as he was trying to hire me—John was the CEO—he said, “Don’t worry. You'll learn.” And I’d like to say for about two years, I was the world’s highest-paid graduate student—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

—as I went about learning practical energy and the energy business. And it was great fun.

Zierler:

We can talk about this a little later, but I don’t know what the genesis of it is—your views on climate science and climate change policy, were these developed or at least publicized subsequent to your tenure at BP, or were you thinking about these issues beforehand?

Koonin:

Well, of course I was thinking about them. My stance about what to do about reducing human influences was already there or was developed during my time at BP. The BP story was more about the response than about any questioning of the science. And my current stance on climate science really developed starting in about 2014 or 2013, when I ran the APS study.

Zierler:

So let me ask at this point—this is like a freshman-level cynical kind of question. I understand that these things are obviously much more nuanced, but to what extent did you feel like at BP there was an institutional impetus to downplay climate change science and the threat that carbon emissions placed in the world?

Koonin:

No, it was quite the opposite. Before I joined BP, John Browne was one of the first and maybe the first of the big energy CEOs to stand up and say, “This is a problem and we've got to solve it.” And the whole Beyond Petroleum branding was that. And of course when they did that branding, they had no idea of what they were actually going to do. And my job was to come in and figure that out, “What do we do?”

Zierler:

You mean, “What do we do?” as in how to make fossil fuels cleaner, or how to—like the slogan says, how do we move beyond petroleum?

Koonin:

How do we continue to supply clean, reliable, and economic energy to the world while at the same time reducing emissions?

Zierler:

And was that fundamentally what your mandate was as chief scientist? Was that the big question to answer.

Koonin:

They didn't need me to help them find oil, OK? They know how to do that really well. So I was on the nascent technologies with an emphasis on clean. So carbon capture and sequestration, solar, wind, biofuels. I became a big fan of biofuels at the time.

Zierler:

And what do you feel like your most productive work in this role was, in terms of advancing that mission?

Koonin:

I think it was teaching—and this is going to sound funny—I was teaching them how to think about energy. They were an oil company, more recently an oil and gas company. They had no—and this is what I tell my students now—they had no frame in which to think about energy or what the big pieces were, how they fit together, and how they could evolve. So I think that’s the first thing.

And the second is the bio-energy connection was something that I realized and helped the company come along with. So I think those are probably the two big things I did—the Energy Biosciences Institute, the biofuels business more generally, and again, how to think about energy.

Zierler:

I'm curious if you collaborated at all with peers in similar roles at competing corporations, like if ExxonMobil had a chief scientist, for example.

Koonin:

Yeah, they did. I probably talked to that person once or twice. Shell, similarly. But not in any deep sense. Although subsequently, of course, I've interacted with those people after I left the company. It’s been much easier to do that.

Zierler:

What kind of partnerships did you have with government institutions?

Koonin:

We certainly were—so in the UK—so in terms of research, we were certainly well aware of what was going on in the national laboratories, and tried to—as businesses are wont to do— understand that and capitalize on it, as we could. But the firm partnerships were with the universities, rather than the government institutions.

And just to read them off, some of them were established before I came in, and others I established. There was one with Cambridge on multiphase flow. There was one with the Chinese Institute for Chemical Physics in Dalian on catalysis. There was one at Imperial on urban energy, which came back in my career later on. The MIT Energy Initiative that Ernie Moniz was running was another one that we involved. And the Berkeley-Illinois Energy Biosciences Initiative. So there was altogether about 70, 80 million dollars a year going into those—even before the EBI, which was another 35 million.

Zierler:

Looking back over a decade, your formulation of the long-term technology strategy, how has that worked out in terms of its long-range planning? Is there now an acceptance of evolving technologies and their importance in the energy landscape for the next 20, 30 years?

Koonin:

Absolutely. I mean, everybody’s talking about the energy transition, right? If you go to CERAWeek, you will find that is the major topic. And I had my own questions about how far it is actually going to go and have a material impact on things. But certainly change is afoot in the energy business.

Zierler:

Just to fast forward to right now where we saw this remarkable development in the past few weeks of a barrel of oil going to negative value and nobody’s driving and things like that, what are some of the opportunities and pitfalls that you see in a moment like this, with regard to energy and policy?

Koonin:

First of all, I think as the economies come back—and they will come back; of course they will—we're going to see the demand for oil pick up again. And the current problems are more due to the fact that you can’t shut off the wells on a moment’s notice, and so we've got a lot of that. So I believe oil will come back. Whether the demand will be enough to enable U.S. shale production or not remains to be seen. Remember, shale is among the higher-cost producing technologies. And first we'll see a return of the Saudi and Russian production, and then we'll see what happens after that.

Zierler:

So Steve, you don’t see this as a particularly disruptive moment, where this is the time for alternative energies to really pick up?

Koonin:

Well, they are picking up. There was a headline in the paper today—I think that the U.S. will have produced in the last month almost as much electricity from renewables as we will have from gas. And that’s solely because, or it’s largely because, when demand is down, the renewables produce anyway, and you don’t have to turn on the gas. But once demand comes back up, we will be turning on the gas again. We have built-up infrastructure that’s not going to go away—gas plants, nuclear plants—and they will continue to produce. People are not going to destroy that value. And as the demand comes back, as we hope it will, I think they will be there.

Zierler:

Let’s move on to your tenure at DOE. So my first question there is, of course, who reached out to you, and were you surprised that coming from BP, that the Obama administrations of all administrations was interested in having somebody from BP join DOE?

Koonin:

So, the genesis of it was that I had come to know Steve Chu, both in the course of the Energy Biosciences Initiative and then I had involved him in some other BP activities as well, advisory activities. And when Steve was named as a nominee in mid-December of 2008, he and I were together at some workshop and we started a conversation about would I be interested in joining the department. And whether I first raised the issue or Steve did, I can’t remember. But anyway, that’s how the conversation started.

Zierler:

Did you have any misgivings, or this was a wonderful opportunity and you went for it immediately?

Koonin:

It was the opportunity to do it. I had been at BP for five years. I was getting a little bit antsy in the role. I had done it. My wife was getting tired of living in London. This wonderful quote that I like to use from Leo Szilard—Szilard wrote his own commandments, as you may know. And if you look them up, the ninth one says—he says it much more elegantly than I can, but it’s something like, “You should reinvent yourself every six or even years.” And so it was time.

Zierler:

In terms of the question of reinvention, when you took the opportunity at BP, were you ever concerned that you were leaving the Academy for good, and that it might be difficult to come back? And might that have been redoubled when your next opportunity was also a non-academic position?

Koonin:

No, I wasn’t so worried. Energy was hot, and I maintained enough of a—I didn't become enough of a politician so that somebody would take me back. So I wasn’t worried. And I was again, having been at Caltech for 30 years as a faculty member, and it was just—even at the time of leaving for BP, it was just time to move on. No regrets. A little bit at the beginning, there’s of course trepidation, and “What am I doing?” But looking back on it, it was exactly the right thing for me to do.

Zierler:

Having just spoken with your predecessor yesterday, Ray was—he was dual-hatted as undersecretary and as also the director for the Office of Science. How did that play out in your tenure? Was that now split back into two roles?

Koonin:

Yes. So Steve Chu and I of course had a conversation about that. And because I had had obviously experience in basic science and in energy and also in nuclear weapons at that time, I didn't want to, I don’t know, restrict myself to just being the Office of Science guy. And so we agreed that I would play the role of more chief scientist. You know, not that Steve needed—actually, Steve needed a chief scientist who could push back at him on ideas and have a dialogue, and that we would have somebody else run the day-to-day Office of Science.

And I have mixed feelings about that in retrospect. At one level, it let me be more influential across the department. I didn't have a budget to defend, and I could walk into the nuclear security undersecretary’s office or the energy undersecretary’s office and have a good conversation without wearing a placard, if you like. But at another level, having the budget is power. And I won’t say that Bill Brinkman and I always stood eye-to-eye on what was going on in the Office of Science. So there was some sorting out of that, that happened in the first year and a half.

Zierler:

Can you talk a little bit about how the filtering of policy came down from the White House? In other words, Obama came in with some very specific ideas about energy. How did those ideas get to you, and how in turn did you try to implement them into the policy process?

Koonin:

There are interagency coordinating councils, one on energy and environment, that are run out of OSTP. And I was on—I think I was even a co-chair—of one of those. And they would discuss the policies. Another is that of course Steve Chu and Dan Poneman, the deputy secretary, had more direct connections with the White House, and things came down in that way.

And then during the budget formulation, which is really where it happens, Steve Chu, Dan Poneman—we were all there implementing policy by formulating the budget. The policy also modulated the loan guarantee program. That’s another thing I was involved with, that we could talk about at some point.

Zierler:

Please.

Koonin:

But it was all about stimulus and it was about clean energy.

Zierler:

What about R&D? What role did you play in basic sciences and the broad projects relating to R&D at the Department of Energy?

Koonin:

I was a big champion of two R&D things. One was exascale computing, to push exascale. Unfortunately, I think I was about one administration too early.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

Steve had other priorities. So I didn't quite get there. The other was high-energy density science. We have the NIF as a wonderful tool, but the Office of Science was not taking as much advantage of it to do basic research. And so we got that program spun up, and I think we did it—if I look back on both those things now, they happened, but it just took a while. As you probably heard from Vic, something I took away from his mentoring was, you've got to be prepared—they just have to wait for the right time. And I think both of those took about one administration more to come forward.

Zierler:

What was the state of play with NNSA at this time? It was obviously fully solidified as a semi-independent agency within DOE, but I wonder, as that relationship changed, what was your sense of what was going on with NNSA at that point?

Koonin:

Well, Tom D’Agostino was the administrator at the time, and I talked a lot with Tom. And—one second. I'm trying to get my chronology straight. I helped convince Tom to stay on in the role when we were putting the DOE team together in early 2009. There was a lot of duplication involved. NNSA has its own PR, its own legal, its own accounting. And it was an uneasy interface with the Department. I think it got a bit better since I left. But I think in retrospect, it’s not the best construction, and I would have put it back the way it was before John Gordon became the first administrator of NNSA.

Zierler:

I've heard that all it did, essentially, was add an extra layer of bureaucracy.

Koonin:

I think that’s right. The rationale was, this is a mission-oriented agency which is very different than other parts of the DOE, and also for security reasons, it needed to be sectioned off. I don’t think that has worked as well as people would have hoped. If I had my druthers, I’d put it back again. But I don’t. [laugh]

Zierler:

Can you talk a little bit about your work at the strategic level, both with the strategic plan of 2010 and then also the quadrennial technology review? How did those initiatives come about?

Koonin:

The strategic plan—I mean, all the departments had to be doing strategic plans. Steve asked me, again, because I was in some ways a minister without portfolio, to help pull the various parts of the department together. And I think we helped—why that’s important is it helps represent the department to other parts of the government and tries to get everybody in the department on the same page, or at least to understand the scope of what the department does. So I was pretty proud of that. It wasn’t a major lift for me.

The QTR—the Quadrennial Technology Review—was more interesting. That came about because the department really had no rationale for what energy technologies it was pursuing. And this has long been a problem in the department. And Ernie, who was a member of PCAST, and Holdren, conspired together to get such a thing underway, with Steve Chu of course, and they asked me to run it. And having done the same kind of thing for BP—long-term technology strategy—it was a natural. And again, it’s the frame. It’s “What’s the pieces?”, “What’s the potential for each of those pieces?” And we did that in ten months.

And I feel pretty proud of that. Many people who read it at the time and even now say it really achieved what it set out to do. So, it was useful. It was only a small team of us who were at the core of that effort. A lot of the effort was out in the energy technologies parts of the department. And again it’s the kind of thing—you might have thought that the undersecretary for energy, who—I think Kristina was still in the job at the time, but I'm not sure—would have done. But she had her hands full running a $5 billion a year organization. And so again I had this ability to step back a little bit and think about the bigger picture and the principles.

Zierler:

These things are always difficult to see as they're happening in real time, but were you assuming that your tenure at DOE would have been longer than it was?

Koonin:

No. Look. I mean, well, you've been in the government. You know. the pace inside at the best of it is grueling. The compensation is as much psychological as it is financial.

Zierler:

[laugh] Right.

Koonin:

And while the ability to impact things and the scope of what you deal with is really bracing, after 24 months, it was pretty clear I was going to leave. I stayed 30 months, as I wanted to get the QTR done. We did. And it was then time, again, to move on. The average tenure, as you probably know, in Senate-confirmed appointments, is 20 months.

Zierler:

Right. You were an old-timer at 30 months. [laugh]

Koonin:

Yeah. Again, it was time to move on.

Zierler:

And what was your biggest achievement as undersecretary? What has been the most long-lasting impact of your work?

Koonin:

I think it was the QTR and probably laying the ground for exascale.

Zierler:

Before we get on to your current position, I think now would be a good time to talk a little bit about the development of your views on climate science. So to just sort of build the narrative a little bit, when did you start thinking about climate and energy issues in a systematic way? And to what extent were you always concerned about pushing against the narrative that there is an orthodoxy in climate science among scientists and even as that orthodoxy might be perceived among the broader public?

Koonin:

I first thought about climate science, one narrow bit of it, back during JASON days, starting in about 1990.

Zierler:

1990?

Koonin:

Yeah.

Zierler:

Wow.

Koonin:

One of the JASON studies in maybe’91 or ’92, was sponsored by the Department of Energy. It was to use small satellites to measure the reflectivity of the earth, the albedo. And that’s an important parameter of the climate system. The earth reflects about 30% of the sunlight that hits it. If it were 31%, it would compensate for all of the anthropogenic influence that we have through CO2. So it’s important to know it precisely. And it had been and continues to be measured by satellites that look down at a spot on the earth, see how much is reflected, et cetera. But one of the early ways it was estimated was by watching the earthshine, which is the dark part of the lunar disc that’s visible when the moon is a thin crescent. And if you do precision observation of that, you can infer the earth’s reflectivity and how it changes.

And so I started a project. I got some astronomer friends (Hal Zirin at Caltech and, later, Phil Goode at NJIT). Starting in about ’95, we started serious observations of the moon. And I think for almost two decades we were doing precision observations and inferring changes in the albedo. So I started to learn a little bit about climate science then. But this one rather narrow part of it. I didn't really pay too much attention to the rest of it or how it was really being portrayed to the public, other than that this was a big problem; we’d better do something about it. During my time at BP as I mentioned, I was focused much more on the response than I was to the underlying science.

But the turning point for me on the science came in early 2014. I had been out of the government already. I was at NYU. And I was elected the vice chair and then to become chair of the APS Panel on Public Affairs, POPA. And in 2007, the APS had put out a statement on climate change. And it caused a tremendous flap among some of the membership because it used the word “incontrovertible” in describing the science and its impacts.

Zierler:

And this bothered you right off the bat.

Koonin:

Well, frankly, at the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to it.

Zierler:

But is “incontrovertible” itself—I mean, as a matter of—I don’t know if philosophy is the right word, but I'm curious if that just—I mean, is that a problematic word in science in general?

Koonin:

I think it is. Certainty and uncertainty in science is a whole spectrum. And some things, we know with great certainty. The apple will fall. Right? I would say that’s close to incontrovertible. But climate science is not like that, for reasons we can get into. And of course it depends what thing you're describing is incontrovertible. Is it the fact that the globe is warming? Is it the fact that humans are influencing it? Is it the fact that warming is going to have a tremendous negative impact? I mean, there are various statements here.

And at least at the time—and again I wasn’t paying much attention when it came out—the word “incontrovertible” got a number of people very upset. In fact, the APS had an issue a couple years later a line-by-line explanation of the statement that it had put out two years earlier.

So comes around late 2013, and by by-laws, the APS had to refresh the statement. It could either decide to just reaffirm what it had written, it could decline to issue a statement entirely, or it could put out a new statement. And I was the chair of a small working group of five APS distinguished folks, all of whom were naïve about climate science. Not in a bad way; they just were not experts. And we were charged with coming up with what to do.

And you know, I'm at heart still a very fact-driven, get my hands dirty kind of guy. At that time, the IPCC, the UN climate body, had just come out with its fifth big assessment report. And I thought, “Why don’t we dig into that? And if the science is strong, that’s great. We will reaffirm it for the physicist members of the APS. And if the science is not as strong as we think it is, maybe we should all know that.”

Zierler:

And Steve, it would be very useful if you could define, in assessing this report, what are some of the basic parameters by which you had identified good science versus bad science.

Koonin:

And let me distinguish good science from good science presentation, because they're different, all right? So let me just stick with the science right now. Good science means that when you see variations in your observations and data, you have a good explanation for all of the variation that you're interested in, on the scale that you're interested in. So if you see bumps and wiggles that are comparable to alleged human impacts that you can explain in the past would be an example of good science.

Another is good quantification of precision and imprecision, and understanding of the historical context. And then finally I think it is the validation of models and a quantification of their uncertainties.. And those are some of the things I would say are good science. I later got onto good science presentation. We'll get into that in a little bit.

And so one or two of the committee members and I went through the IPCC report and listed a set of questions that we thought would try to get at these issues, and produced a framing document. And then I was able to convene a set of three experts on the consensus sides, and three experts on the skeptical side, and we sat down for a day, and we talked, in January of 2014 in Brooklyn. It’s all transcribed and up on the web. Many people think it was a pretty good exposition of the state of climate science at the time.

So these are people talking and challenging one another. And I started to realize, “Hey, this science is not as solid as I would think.” The consensus people, when they were asked, “Why don’t you fit that particular feature of the data?” they said, “Well, we'll just tweak one parameter in the code, or we'll change the aerosol forcing, or something.” And you started to realize there were a lot of knobs in these models.

Zierler:

I want to ask specifically—is part of the problem with climate science the impossible complexity of the issue? The number of systems and areas of expertise required to go into the overall analysis of what’s causing the planet to heat up?

Koonin:

Yes, that’s certainly part of it. You've got paleoclimate. You've got statistics. You've got remote sensing. You've got computational modeling. Fluid dynamics. You can go on and on. And then, never mind the economic impacts. All of the dismal science, right? So that’s part of it.

Another part is we are looking at very small physical perturbations on a multiscale system for which we have limited observations, either in temporal or geographical extent, and trying to find small responses that are comparable to natural variability. So it’s a hard problem.

And I can’t fault most of the scientists who are trying to do this work. They approach it with good faith and with the rigor that you would like. But there’s some fraction of the climate science community and the climate science management that has mixed activism and ideology in with the science. And it is that activism carrying the mantle of science that I am most perturbed about.

Zierler:

And you come at this not from an ideological perspective, but from a scientific perspective.

Koonin:

As a scientist. I'll talk about the data. I'll talk about the models. But what we do about this—the ideological part—involves values. How much do you care about environment versus development? What’s your tolerance for risk? Intergenerational equities? That sort of thing. And that’s above my pay grade. That’s not science; that’s politics. But I think our job as scientists is to accurately portray to the decision makers what we know and what we don’t know. And I see a lot of shortcomings in that process.

Zierler:

Which tells you what? Big picture, what does that tell you?

Koonin:

It tells me—you mean about the science or about the communications?

Zierler:

Both.

Koonin:

All right. About the communications—that scientists are not telling the whole story. That they're trying to persuade rather than to inform.

Zierler:

And why? What’s the motivation there?

Koonin:

Oh, I think it’s a mix of things. It is a sense that you're saving the planet. That’s a heady feeling, I can tell you, when you think that. I think another is money, grant money. I think a lot is that there’s now too much built up around this whole issue for suddenly the system to say, “Hey, you know, it’s not going to be as bad as we thought.”

Let me give you another example. If you look in both the 2018 National Climate Assessment and the IPCC AR5 report, you find what’s the net economic impacts of a three-degree warming in 2090. That is, 70 years from now, if the globe warms three degrees, how much will it impact either the U.S. economy or the global economy? And the answer is a few percent, according to the reports. Now hopefully by 2090, ignoring what’s happened in the last over the last couple of months, the economy will be three or four times bigger. And so three or four percent—not in growth, but just in absolute size—of an economy that’s four times bigger is in the noise.

There are many other factors, as we've seen already, that will affect the economy. And the IPCC report says just that. But nobody is willing to say that explicitly to the decision makers or public. The headlines say economic disaster unless we change our ways. And that’s just being disingenuous. And no scientist will stand up in public and say, “No, you got it wrong.” Except for me. I wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal a year or two ago saying that.

Zierler:

Let me ask a big-picture question, and it gets back to this word “incontrovertible.” So bottom line—I mean, everybody agrees that the Earth is warming, right? There’s no question about that. Bottom line in as blunt a way as you can answer it, how confident are you that humans are part of the warming of the planet?

Koonin:

Oh, I think that humans are playing a role in the warming. Is it 10% or is it 90%? I don’t think we know. OK?

Zierler:

How do you translate—so the bottom line is that there’s an element of doubt. How do you translate the reality of the doubt into the most effective response?

Koonin:

Again, I think that’s above our pay grade as scientists. What I can tell you, and other scientists do as well, is, if you want to reduce human influences, here is what you need to do, and these would be the costs, these would be the efficacies, these would be the collateral effects. And so far, I am very pessimistic, skeptical, that the world will reduce its emissions sufficiently rapidly and of a sufficient magnitude to make a difference on human influences.

Zierler:

And so what’s the point of trying to drive ourselves crazy doing all these things if it’s not going to matter?

Koonin:

Correct. And the fundamental problem is a science one, namely that the CO2 persists in the atmosphere for centuries. So our emissions are only adding to what’s there. If we would stop our emissions today, the human influences would be stabilized, but they would not be decreased on any rapid time scale. So you couple that with the need for increased energy as the rest of the world develops, and the low-cost and easy access of fossil fuels, and the long lifetime of CO2, and I don’t see how you're going to make an impact. The U.S. is only 14% of global emissions right now. So even if the U.S. were to go to zero tomorrow, that reduction would be negated by about ten years of growth in the rest of the world.

Zierler:

Another very blunt question—in the grand scheme of things, then, with all of the ink that has been spilled over this, do you see the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Accords as not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things?

Koonin:

Yeah. It’s not a big deal. OK? I mean, look, the Paris Accord, as even Jim Hansen says, and I agree with him, does not have any efficacy at all.

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

It’s voluntary. Voluntary goals. The developed world is by and large not meeting those goals for 2030. China and India—China has only promised a peak in 2030. It’s like a lot of other things. I think the world will talk a lot about this problem but in the end, it’s not going to do anything about it, and the dominant societal response will be adaptation. We're really good at adapting. And that’s what’s going to happen.

Zierler:

Last question on this topic—

Koonin:

Sure. By the way, my stance is not a normative one; it’s a descriptive one. If the world decided to do a crash course in decarbonization, I'll help out. I've already done some of that. But it’s not my decision, so to speak. I can see the other side of the story. There are six billion people who don’t have enough energy.

Zierler:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I guess my general question on this is, obviously in your expertise in physics, you're not an atmosphere guy, you're not an oceans guy. So is your basic stance and your assessment of the science not really as a physicist per se but as a scientist generally? How do you see yourself in terms of your own area of expertise situated within this broader question of assessing the science of climate change?

Koonin:

So yes, I'm a general physicist. I know a lot about computational modeling in some very analogous and much more sophisticated situations, nuclear weapons in particular. There’s a lot about radiation and hydrodynamics. And I look at the data. I can look at error bars. I can look at model uncertainties and just say, you know, what you say about this in public is not the same as what you've written in the research papers or even in the assessment reports.

I'll give you one example. The flows of radiation, both solar and infrared, in the climate system, average over the planet about 300 watts per square meter. The human impact on those flows is at the level of two and a half or three watts per square meter. So it’s a 1% effect on a complicated, noisy system. I know from dealing with other complicated noisy systems that this is not an easy thing to detect or model.

Zierler:

Let’s now move on to how you got involved with NYU. When you left DOE, were you considering staying in Washington, either in a think tank capacity or in another government agency?

Koonin:

No, I was pretty sure I wanted to go back to academia, because I had a particular project I wanted to pursue. And when I was in the DOE, I had sponsored a study that was done by J.P.L and some of the DOE labs, about carbon treaty monitoring and verification. That is, if the U.S. had ever signed up to an agreement to limit its emissions, and other countries as well, how would we know—when the others came back and said, “We did it,” how would we know to trust them?

And so we did a study. Actually, I just sponsored it; I didn't do it. And it came back with the answer as a mix of remote sensing, in situ monitoring, and self-reporting. It’s still out there on the web. It’s a good study. And it got me thinking about, how do we know what’s going on in society more generally? How do I know what the GDP of Kazakhstan is, for example? (apart from what they say it is).

And so I got interested in data about society, particularly energy use, and how we could acquire it and analyze it. And that naturally led to thinking about, well, we should go to where the people are, and let’s see if we can do that for a city. So I gradually put together this idea of, “Let’s go instrument a city.” Big data was just becoming a notion, distributed sensing, and so on. So I put together this idea and pitched it to a number of universities, and could have gone, in the end, to about a dozen universities, all familiar names, including back to Caltech.

I finally—John Sexton, who was president of NYU at the time, called me up on a cold call, and said, “You want to come look at this engineering school that we've just acquired, and do you want to be dean?” And I looked at it and decided I didn't want to do that, but they mentioned that they were thinking about doing something with cities and data and had already been pitching to New York City to do something like that. So in the end, I decided to go to New York. It was New York! NYU was willing to put a lot of resources into it, NYU was strong in the social sciences, not so strong at the time in other sciences. And so I went to go found this organization called the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP).

Zierler:

And who were some of the main backers behind the organization, both within and beyond NYU?

Koonin:

Dave McLaughlin who was the provost. Paul Horn, a physicist who was the vice provost for research. John Sexton himself. It was part of—it was an entry, or had been, an entry into the competition that Bloomberg ran, that Cornell eventually won, to build a campus on Roosevelt Island. This was kind of a runner up, if you like, or second place. And what NYU got was a 500,000-square-foot building that it renovated in Brooklyn, and we were to be, and we turned out to be, the first tenant in that building. So that was the deal. So NYU gets the real estate, I got to do some research, the city got more tech.

Zierler:

And who are the students in this program? Is it a multidisciplinary program from the beginning?

Koonin:

We ran a one-year master’s program. The title was “Masters of Applied Urban Space and Informatics”. We took in students, everything from urban—civil engineering, environmental engineering, data, psychology, economics, a couple physicists, and so on. We were running classes—while I was there, we ran five classes for one year each, up to 50 or 55 students. It was wonderful. We taught them a little bit about data science. We taught them about cities. And then they worked on a capstone project. Very successful. They all found employment either with city governments or corporations serving cities, or some just doing analytics in other fields. So it hit at the right time.

Zierler:

You have several appointments within NYU. I'm curious what you do at the Stern School of Business.

Koonin:

So when I came, they had to find someplace to put me. And I told Dave McLaughlin, the provost, “I don’t want to be a professor of anything. I just want to be professor.” Because I had enough of academic politics in Caltech. And Dave said, “No, you gotta be somewhere.” And so they put me in Civil and Urban Engineering and in the Stern School of Business, particularly in the Operations Research and Statistics part of the business school. And it sort of made a little sense. Of course I have never taken a course in either of those subjects—

Zierler:

[laugh]

Koonin:

—whether it’s business or civil engineering. Finally, the physicists discovered I was on campus and made me an affiliated professor as well.

Zierler:

And have you been able to keep up with more hard-nosed physics research during your recent years?

Koonin:

Not so much. Of course I read and go to seminars occasionally. JASON during the summers is a great way to catch up on all manner of science. But I can’t say I'm doing physics research these days. My main activity has been, apart from the various advisory committees, teaching two courses this year, the first on climate science at a master’s level (no ideology, just right out of the assessment reports, but teaching students how to think about this and opening up some eyes).

And then I just finished a course on energy with a mix of business school and engineering students; it was soup-to-nuts energy technologies. That has taken a lot of time. And then writing this book. So I've got a publisher, done the second draft, and hopefully publish by April.

Zierler:

And what are your long-term plans and hopes for CUSP, for the Center? What do you hope to achieve?

Koonin:

I stepped down as director of CUSP a year and a half ago. I had done what I could, and following Szilard’s commandment, it was time to move on. It has gotten, somewhat to my disappointment, much more absorbed in the engineering school, whereas I think a lot “cities” are about social science. I feel, as I did in Caltech and also at DOE, that for at least for a couple years you just stand away and let the organization mature with the new leadership.

Zierler:

And you think that it’s on solid footing. This is a strong program?

Koonin:

I think so. I mean, urban and data are hot, and you can’t miss. One of the physics things we did at CUSP, which was a lot of fun, was that you can learn about things just by watching. And I involved a couple of astrophysicists, astronomers, and we set up observatories on the rooftops of big buildings using astronomical techniques to watch the city using various sensors. Optical, infrared, hyperspectral, hypertemporal. And you can learn a lot about what goes on in a city just by watching. And so we published a number of papers like that.

Zierler:

And to circle back, just to bring us right up to the present—and again, obviously speaking in an unclassified context—what is your ongoing relationship with JASON? What are the kinds of issues you're dealing with?

Koonin:

So I rejoined JASON when I left the DOE and have been a member since. What are we working on? Some of the things we did—we've been working for the Census Bureau, and that has been interesting, both on the operations of doing the Census, what will the 2030 Census look like, data disclosure and privacy, how do you navigate that. So that has been kind of interesting.

JASON is disrupted this coming summer for obvious reasons, and I think we're still sorting out what’s going to happen with that. But I probably shouldn't say more about specific studies. But we are worried about new offensive capabilities from some of our strategic adversaries, and we're trying to look at technologies associated with that. As the world becomes more space-faring, what the implications of that are for both security and for basic science. So we're worried about those sorts of things. Probably shouldn't say too much more.

Zierler:

That’s fine. And another contemporary issue is, in terms of your ongoing advisory work, you're really heavily involved in matters involving national laboratories. And so I wonder if you can comment generally on what you think the current state of play is in the world of national laboratories and what do you see as the future of the work that they're doing.

Koonin:

Again, let me take out the last three months, which have been quite disruptive. But look, the laboratories are—many people have said this, and it’s trite, one of the crown jewels of U.S. science. They are mission-driven. They are necessarily multidisciplinary, and they know how to do big projects. And the last couple years have been boom times for the laboratories, particularly the NNSA laboratories, but the Office of Science labs as well. The DOE budgets have been very good. Paul Dabbar and the NNSA administrators have been great representatives of their organizations. And I think they've done very well.

There has also been an uptick in stewardship work, stockpile work. I think whether these boom times probably won’t continue, and so they need to worry about that. I think there’s also a danger, particularly at Los Alamos, which has a pit production mission, which is a major industrial operation. That can grow to subsume or displace the more scientific work that the laboratory does. So I would worry about that a lot.

In terms of being able to bring talent in, I think the labs have been doing quite a good job, and not too many worries, other than the pace at which they need to hire, because a lot of the people are getting long in the tooth, particularly in the weapons labs.

Zierler:

Steve, I think we're in the point in the discussion where we've really brought it up to the present day. So I think for my last question, I want to ask you a sort of forward-looking question.

And that is, you've worn so many hats over the course of your career—physics, academic administration, government, strategy, policy, and all of these things—and you're still a relatively young guy. You're not anywhere at the—you're still going strong. There’s a lot for you obviously left to accomplish and to contribute. It’s remarkable, really. What are your greatest motivations in terms of what personally you have to contribute and in what fields are you most interested in contributing in?

Koonin:

When I was younger, I was at the forefront of a couple of different activities and could really move that ahead, hands-on. I've not written a serious computer code in probably 20-some-odd years despite making an attempt to learn Python a couple years ago. It’s just not what I can do, and it’s probably not what I should be doing right now.

I think what I can contribute and hopefully will—my primary goal right now is to try to set the world straight on climate and energy, and find a forum in which to do that. The book will be part of that, and other places where I can just talk about the facts. And it’s kind of interesting as some of the rest of the world starts to realize the facts—what we know, what we don’t know, and so on. My concern is that speaking out in what I think is an intellectually honest way may close off some other doors for me in terms of providing input. To get into politics a little bit, I think there’s no way I would have even the ear of a Democratic administration, given what I'm saying about climate science.

Zierler:

You're saying because there is an orthodoxy?

Koonin:

There is an orthodoxy. Of course. It’s almost a religion. And I think just as an aside, I think we scientists who have the credibility to speak out have not been doing so, and it is a failure on our part.

Zierler:

It’s a failure because scientists need to be more integrated into broader public discussions?

Koonin:

No, it’s a failure because we are allowing the science to be mis-portrayed..That can result in bad decisions, and it also undermines the integrity of the scientific enterprise.

Zierler:

And I would go so far as to suggest that this is on stark display right now with regard to coronavirus.

Koonin:

Absolutely. And again, that’s kind of independent of whether the administration is listening or not. And so I hope that if I can do something in the next few years to just try to get an honest dialogue and portrayal about the realities in the energy system and the realities of what we know and don’t know about climate, to better inform the values discussion, if we ever could get to that.

And then I think I've got a broad enough understanding at not a tremendously deep level about all manner of S&T and would hope that I can help guide various programs in some sort of advisory capacity. I don’t see myself at least at this time taking on some big administrative or executive role. Kind of been there and done that. Again, I've got enough breadth of things I'm interested in. I think any one of those would be too confining.

Zierler:

Well, Steve, I already said it was my last question, but I can’t help—I've got one more. As a physicist, still involved, looking at things that are going on, what are you most excited about in terms of things that are on the cusp of discovery in terms of the way that physicists is going to move into a new phase in the coming decades? What are the things that are most captivating to you?

Koonin:

I think the whole quantum thing is really exciting. I think materials are—I've come to realize—I didn't when I was younger—materials are the heart of almost everything. And so that’s exciting. The ability to collect, integrate, and analyze massive amounts of data is something we've all seen the fruits of already, but I think it’s going to get even better. So those are some of the things I'm really jazzed about. In some ways, they're capabilities. Simulation, of course. Did I say quantum?

Zierler:

You did.

Koonin:

So those are some of the things I see as the growth points right now for physics and related fields.

Zierler:

Well, Steve, it has been an absolute delight speaking with you today. This has been just a wealth of information and perspective in so many fields, in so many institutions. It’s really a remarkable career, and you're not even close to being done, and it has been an honor speaking with you, and I want to really thank you for your time.

Koonin:

OK, great. It has been fun to remember some of these things as we've been talking.