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Photo courtesy of James Symons
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Interview of James Symons by David Zierler on May 3, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Timothy James Symons, Senior Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and recently retired as Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences, for which he ran the Lab’s programs in high energy and nuclear physics. Symons explains how the Lab has responded to the pandemic and the wide range of physics research he is following at Berkeley and beyond. He recounts his childhood in England and his early interests in science and the opportunities that led to his undergraduate education at Oxford where a tutor focused his interests in nuclear physics. Symons explains his reasons for remaining at Oxford for graduate school and the relevance of the SU(3) shell model for his thesis. He describes his postdoctoral work at the UK Science Research Council, and the opportunities that initially led him to Berkeley to work with David Scott on low energy nuclear structure. Symons provides a history of the Bevatron and the many reasons that compelled him to take a staff position. He describes the challenges in replacing the Bevelac, and the import of the ISABELLE cancellation at Brookhaven on Berkeley’s decisions. He provides detail on the interplay between laboratory experiments and DOE policy decisions and he explains the significant administrative pull of his work for NSAC. Symons reviews broadly the state of U.S. nuclear physics in the 1990s and the value of the APS as a sounding board in shaping policies for the decade. He does the same for rare isotopes in the early 2000s and how the Lab became involved in DUSEL. Symons describes his world as Associate Lab Director and he discusses his interactions with the Lab Director which gave him a high-altitude appreciate for the broad range of research across the Lab. He explains the Lab’s contributions in energy research which stems from Steve Chu’s directorship. At the end of the interview, Symons reflects on the significant changes in the Lab’s scope and mission over his career, the overall trend that once-disparate research areas are now increasingly on a path of convergence, and he conveys optimism on the fundamental discoveries that are within reach for the near future of nuclear physics.
OK, this is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is May 3, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Dr. Timothy James MacNeil Symons. James, it's great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you, David. I'm really pleased to be here.
To start, first things first, that's quite a mouthful of a name that you have, and yet you only go by James. What's the story there?
Well, you would have to ask my parents, both long gone sadly, but I do have a bunch of first names. The MacNeil part is easy because my grandmother on my father's side was a MacNeil from Barra, which is one of the islands in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. Some of them moved to Australia in the 19th century and had interesting careers over there. My paternal great grandfather was an engineer and businessman who worked on building the railway line from Adelaide to Perth. Once they reached Perth, he stayed there and built railways there! Somewhat earlier, in the 1850s, a Henry John Symons had moved from the southwest of England and settled in Ballarat, in Victoria. I have a family history of the Australian branch of the Symons family and there were lots of Henrys, Johns and Jameses. I don't really know where the Timothy came from, whether Timothy was a family friend or something, but it was never used when I was growing up.
So if somebody calls out, "Timothy," you won't look up, you don't associate yourself with that name?
On the contrary, I do look up and I'll tell you why. It all changed on September 11, 2001, because, of course, my driver's license and my passport say Timothy James MacNeil Symons (and I have always published as T.J. Symons) but before then, it never mattered that my boarding pass said James Symons. After 2001, these things started to matter a lot, and I started getting sent to secondary screening because the agents would be confused. "Who is this person with two different names?" So, then my boarding pass really needed to say Timothy James Symons. The next thing that happened was that Google came along. And let me tell you, even though they have these little options, which say things like, "Tell us what you would like to be called, blah, blah, blah, blah”, you can never really get rid of your first name once they know it, so Timothy Symons is now all over the place and very hard to suppress. In a strange way, I am OK with it. After all, it is my first name, but it does cause some confusion.
And it's a good thing you have the Y for Symons because obviously, there's another James Simons out there.
Indeed! I've never actually met him, although he's had some peripheral impact on our field. [laugh] In fact, my colleague, Barbara Jacak, who came to us from Stony Brook, did meet him a number of times because he funded various initiatives there. Here in Berkeley, he has endowed an important Mathematics Institute, and he has an important cosmology institute in Manhattan, which has become a serious competitor for our lab in recruiting excellent early career scientists!
So, on a more official note, what is your title and institutional affiliation?
So, right now, I'm a Senior Scientist, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab for short. I retired from the University of California on September 1, 2020. Before my retirement I was the Associate Laboratory Director for Physical Sciences responsible for the lab’s programs in high energy and nuclear physics, a position which I had held since 2012. But I am still keeping an official connection for this year, maybe the next; I don't know what'll happen after that. But most of us hang around.
Yeah, I've learned there's no such thing as physicists really retiring. That never actually happens.
Well, I am not sure about that. It varies. But for now, apart from the COVID difficulties, it's going well. I'm still connected via Zoom, but it would be really great to be able to go to the lab more often.
Now, the title Senior Scientist, is your understanding, to the extent that there is a parallel to academic rankings, that that's the equivalent of a full professor at the lab?
Yes, although I have to qualify that statement, because the lab is a very big place now, and the academic parallelism is more pronounced for some fields than others. And so, what I'm going to say now is more relevant to, say, high energy or nuclear physics perhaps than biology or computer science. Anyway, it goes back to the origins of the Lab when Lawrence, who was a Berkeley physics professor, created a laboratory where teams – which included not only members of the university faculty and their students, but also full-time scientists, engineers, technicians and so on – could work together to build complex apparatus, particularly accelerators, a field which he had pioneered.
The Berkeley Physics Faculty is certainly first-rate and it is obviously in the lab’s interest to have the highest quality staff as well. Senior scientists are expected to have accomplishments comparable to tenured faculty at a leading university, and although the lab cannot offer tenure, we do make efforts to retain senior scientists during funding downturns. We also try to bring in the best early career scientists that we can, and back in the seventies a special category called divisional fellow was introduced to match tenure track appointments. I had one of these fellowships, which allowed you to advance to senior scientist on a rapid track and that certainly influenced my decision to stay at the lab.
So that's it for our side of the house, but in some of the other divisions, where they're doing bench-top research and things like that, many of the PIs are already also faculty members. And of course, then, the university pays part of their salary, and the groups might often be structured with a PI, post-docs and students and maybe a technician or two. The importance of having academic career staff is a little bit different in those parts of the lab, but for us it has been very important. And, I think in terms of recruitment and retention, it's been very helpful. Because people have that feeling that the lab considers them to be first class citizens and would support them during financial swings. Also, just for the record, our two most recent physics Nobel laureates, George Smoot and Saul Perlmutter were both lab staff when they did their Nobel-winning work. The campus only offered them joint appointments once it was clear that they might be headed to Stockholm!
As an experimentalist, you're well-positioned to comment on how your science, in particular, and the lab more generally, has fared in the pandemic, where there's this need to be at the lab, but then there are these mandates to be physically distant. How have you specifically fared, and how has the lab more generally fared over this past year-plus?
OK, let's take the big question first. The lab has fared astonishingly well, I would say. And frankly, our director, Mike Witherell, has done a fantastic job and should take much of the credit. He's really a people person. Not all lab directors are. I think he set a very good tone in his communications to the staff. That’s the first thing. Then, the second thing is, in high energy and nuclear physics, over the last decades, there's been a consolidation of facilities. So, if you're doing experimental nuclear physics or experimental particle physics these days, you're quite likely to be working on an experiment somewhere far from home. Your experiment is either down a mine in Canada, or Italy, or something like that, or it's at CERN, or it's at Brookhaven. And for that reason, you've got these big collaborations with national or international participation. So, people have been collaborating over large distance for a while – not using Zoom, because Zoom's a fairly new tool, and turned out to be particularly effective during the pandemic – but we've been working effectively with time differences, and all that kind of thing for years.
So, it wasn't really new, but obviously it's new doing it from your kitchen rather than from your office at the lab. So that's one thing. But I would add a rider to this because, and this is a personal opinion, the lab is not running at 100%. Don't kid yourself. The productivity is not the same. Maybe the productivity for the operations groups, important support jobs, procurement for example, maybe you can do it with very high efficiency from home. But I don't think that's true for science. And the reason I bring this up is, and I may be in the minority here, but there are a lot of stories in the papers now about this miracle of remote or hybrid work: solves the space problem, solves the parking problem, blah blah…
So, we're going to be living with it. But people like myself and Ian Hinchliffe, coming to the lab from the UK in 1977, we certainly did not come to sit in an apartment and talk to people over Zoom. You could probably live somewhere a lot cheaper than the Bay Area and do that! Young scientists come because they want to be part of a lab, and meet people, and not just people in their own fields, and go to seminars and so on. Especially for the young people, I think it's really such an important part of the training to be able to drop in on somebody's office and talk to them.
And that's as true for theorists as it is for experimentalists, of course.
Absolutely. In fact, if you go to the lab now, outside building 50, where my office is, there's a whiteboard and some pens because there was a hope that the theorists could come in and chat in the open air. And they're doing some of that. But fortunately, right now the vector is on the upswing. We’ve got through, science in general has gotten through, but it's been a very difficult time for everybody.
Just as a snapshot in time right now, what issues in physics are interesting and compelling to you right now? What papers have you been reading, what papers are you writing? What's going on circa May 2021?
In terms of what's interesting, I start with Elements, our lab newsletter, and Physics Today, and the AIP for the Washington news, things like that. I’m very sad that we have lost Glenn Roberts who was the science writer for our part of the Lab for many years. I click on the links when I see something that interests me, dig down to find the primary paper. More often than not, that will be related to the connection between cosmology, nuclear and particle physics. I have been very fortunate to live until LIGO turned on. I heard the pitch for gravitational wave astronomy twenty-five years ago in a seminar by Barry Barish, but I never for a moment, thought that it would work in my lifetime. Not only does it work, but they are correlating the gravity wave signals with gamma ray astronomy! This is an extraordinary new capability for science and as the detectors become more sensitive, it can only get better. I am certain that it will deliver surprises.
But in terms of writing, not so much, because I didn't really do research for a long time because I was doing more administration. Anyway, I decided it would be good to try and learn about the physics of the Electron-Ion Collider, which is the next big facility for nuclear physics. Currently, there's a machine at Brookhaven, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which our lab was involved with in the early days. We'll probably talk about it a bit later. The next incarnation for RHIC is to add an electron beam. And that's a very different kind of physics. And the collaborations are being forged right now. So this seems like something that may be good for an old-timer to come in and help a little bit. So that’s what I am doing.
Well, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. You mentioned your father is from Australia. I'd like to hear about him, and also your mom, where she's from.
So, I was born in Tunbridge Wells, which is a town outside London on the Kent and Sussex border in the southeast of England. However, as I mentioned earlier, my father was from Australia. He was born in Ballarat, which is a city near Melbourne. He qualified as a doctor at the University of Melbourne. But at that time, if you lived in what's now called the Commonwealth – the former colonies – it was common to go to England for advanced studies. So in 1938, he came to London to study eye surgery and worked at the Royal Eye Hospital. Then the war broke out, he joined the Army, and he was in London and other places. He told me stories of pushing firebombs off the roof of the Royal Eye during the blitz. In 1943 he married a young woman he met in Moreton Hampstead in Somerset where he was stationed at the time. So when the end of the war came in 1945, it was a little bit like myself coming to Berkeley. Initially, his plans had certainly been to go home, but then plans change. He didn't go back to Australia after the war. He had a practice in England and stayed there. So that's my father.
And my mother was Catherine Muriel Rees. Rees is a common Welsh surname, and she was a Welsh speaker. She grew up in Llanarth, a village on Cardigan Bay, on the west coast of Wales. When I was a small child, it was a great thing to be able to go and visit my grandfather in his house there. We'd go twice a year and see him for our holidays.
So those are their backgrounds. All sort of Celtic with Reeses and MacNeils. So there's a lot of Celt in me. I grew up in Southeast England, but I didn't really have roots there. It’s just where my family ended up after the war.
And between your parents, and not being from there, and also the amount of time you've been in the United States, your accent is a bit of a blend, I would say.
Absolutely. Almost 44 years now. It must be some kind of a blend. But people will still say, "Are you from South Africa (Australia, New Zealand, etc….)?"
It's not California.
It's not quite, but there must be a lot of California in there.
Tell me about your early education, what kind of primary school you went to.
Well, I went to one in England that we called a kindergarten for ages 5-7. The formal title was the Mead School, but it was in the house of a spinster named Miss Lewis and everyone called it Miss Lewis’s. It was a small school, probably 25 children or so, and I could walk there from home. So that's where I started. And then it’s a little complicated, because in the UK, the names are not exactly parallel to the States, so after Miss Lewis’s I first went to something called a prep school from 8 to 13 which was to prepare me to go to a public school, but the public schools are actually private! The prep school was called Yardley Court and was in a town called Tonbridge about six miles away. I travelled there each day by bus. And then, after that, I went to a public school called Tonbridge School, which is in the same town, but I went there as a boarder. My parents wanted me to be living in this school to get the full experience, I guess, even though it was close to home. So I was there from age 13 to 17. I left just before my 18th birthday.
When did you start to get interested in science? And perhaps, what were some of the big events that might've been happening internationally, the space race, the moon landing, the nuclear arms race, that may or may not have influenced your interest in physics specifically?
Well, that's a good question. Because I have to be really honest with you here, the system over there was very different at that time. (And it's actually still a bit different today as I know because one of my children went back to the UK and did two years of high school and then university there.) Yes, of course, exciting things were happening. The space race was going on. We'd follow that. It was really interesting, and I was always interested in science and those things. But to be honest, the system there guides you more than here. Here, I would say, great efforts are made to maintain breadth, at least through high school, and even into college, it takes a year or two before you have to decide on your major. The system in England in those days was different. Basically, you would be moved ahead at whatever rate you could handle academically. You weren't even in the same year as all your cohort. If you were in the top part of the class, they'd move you ahead a year.
So, in my case, I was better at maths and those things than I was at French or Latin. So there was kind of a little bit of a guiding thing going because of that. So by the time I got to the equivalent of high school, I was pretty sure that when I went to university, I would study science.
But not physics specifically at this point?
No, well, I'll tell you a little story about that. I was being guided a lot by my talents, if you like, at school. But I was the third son, and since the first two hadn't really shown any scientific inclination, my father was getting a bit worried. He really wanted me to be a doctor. There's no doubt about that. So, for him this science focus was all a great preparation for when I would finally go to medical school! Anyway, by the time I was 13 or 14, I was doing more science and other things. And I think it was fairly clear I was not going to be a mathematician. I was good at math, but I wasn't going to be a Newton or someone like that, [laugh]. Initially, I enjoyed chemistry the most. I don't know, some of it was the systematic aspect of it and the lab work was cool. And also, a lot of basic physics, studying sound and optics, especially before you have the mathematical tools to figure stuff out, it's kind of dry.
So initially, I found physics a bit dull. But at the same time, that you're having the physics classes and chemistry classes, you're moving on in math. So I was taught elementary calculus in my second year at Tonbridge, but it was taught completely without any connection to how you might use it in science. It was just like, "Here is the next topic. This term, we're going to study differentiation," or whatever it is. So it was really a very old fashioned way of teaching the field. I think today, they would already be trying to give you physical context to the math, the reason why you want to do this kind of thing, because of course it was originally developed by a physicist (Newton). We had none of that. The physics class was the physics class, and the math class was the math class and ne’er the twain shall meet. [laugh] They had no connection at all.
But one day a year or so later, my physics teacher, Ian Snowball, set us a problem to do there in class, and it was an important day in my life because I still remember it today. The problem was to calculate the extension of a spring hanging under its own weight. I had done plenty of problems about massless strings and springs with weights on the end of them, but in this case, you're talking about just a spring hanging there under its own weight. If you hold a spring up, it'll kind of sag down because of the weight distributed along it. This is not a problem you can solve without calculus. So, I guess he maybe told us, "You need to think about how to do this."
So in this lesson, I was able to figure it out, how to write down the differential, then integrate it to get the length of the spring. And that really changed my direction in life. Because I saw that you had the connection, where if you knew the mathematics, you would be able to calculate things and understand things that would be impossible to understand without it! It's not just something you can pick up a book, read a book about physics, and do it. You needed these mathematical tools. So that really changed me in terms of thinking I would do physics rather than chemistry. Maybe I'd have been a better chemist, I don't know, because I'm not such a fantastic mathematician. But that really made me like physics a lot more. So then, when I went to Oxford, I chose to read physics.
And this is important to zoom out for a second because, of course, in the British system, you have to have these decisions more or less worked out upon arriving for undergraduate.
Oh, absolutely. But basically, as I was telling you, when I was 14, it was already set that I was doing science, and probably not biology or mathematics, but the decision between physics, and chemistry was still open. But certainly, by the time I came to apply to University, I was applying to read physics. Interestingly though, when I went to my college for interview, I was interviewed by the chemistry and the physics tutors so maybe they weren’t so sure.
And I'm always curious, the Oxford, Cambridge thing, if you get into Oxford, is it assumed that you're also applying to Cambridge because that's also within range? Is there a particular reason why Oxford and not Cambridge or vice versa? How did these things work in your mind?
Both my brothers had gone to Oxford. And that was my first choice, to go there, because of that. I didn't really know whether Cambridge or Oxford was better for physics. It was more that I wanted to go where my brothers had gone. So, I actually only applied to one place, and only for one subject, which was physics at Oxford. And I got in, so that's where I went. I only put in the one choice because if I hadn't gotten it, I would've tried again the following year and probably would have applied to more places. I wasn't anyway planning to go immediately to university because I was too young.
Arriving at Oxford in 1969 must've been quite interesting. To what extent were you alive to the counterculture, the antiwar movement, and things like that? Was that a big deal at that point?
Well, I'll tell you, that's a good question because in retrospect this is one of the interesting things about my education, and this isn't really about physics, but about the five years I spent at this boarding school. You've probably seen movies or read about these places, all the rules and discipline and whatnot.
I'm thinking Harry Potter, of course.
Yeah, sure, but more like Lindsey Anderson’s If, if you have ever seen that. So, when I arrived there in 1964, it could've been the same as arriving in 1923, or something like that: strong academics, very serious about sports, cadets on Friday afternoon and lots of rules enforced by the senior boys. At the end of two weeks, I had to take a test on all the rules: where you could walk if you're a first-year student, which pockets you could put your hands in, all these kinds of things. Just crazy stuff. And because I was kind of a book person and had a reasonable memory, and didn’t want to break any rules by accident, I learned all these rules. When I left in the summer of 1969, it was all gone. Literally, from '67 through '69, inside the school, there was a huge transition that went on. '68 was the Paris student uprising. One of my classmates went to Paris to take part and then came home pretty shaken up and with a drug problem. It's not that people were deliberately setting out to say, "Oh, we're going to change everything because the world's changing," but somehow, it seeped in to where we were, which was a very traditional, closed system in a small town in England. People just stopped obeying the rules.
And the management kind of gave in, "OK, yeah, perhaps we don’t need quite such a rigid system." So it was a very interesting time. Then, when I went to Oxford, I still have the group photo from my College from when I arrived, and we're all standing there, and we're all wearing a sports jacket, shirt, and tie, and so that could've been taken in 1969 or 1909, if you know what I mean? So it hadn't completely changed yet, but things were changing rapidly. And I think, actually, it affected my generation a little bit. When they send you newsletters from school, the ones who graduated in '68 and '69 are invisible. [laugh] We’re not senders-in of news maybe, whatever it is. I think it was obviously an important transition for society, but it did affect us in some ways in terms of our respect for authority and institutions.
Now, coming in with conceptions of physics at the high school level to Oxford, what most surprised you as you were becoming enveloped in this world of physics at Oxford? What was new? What were some of the things that were going on that immediately expanded your vista?
Oxford has this college system, so I went to lectures in the Physics Department, but I also had tutorials which were one on one lessons with a “Tutor” who would be one of the physics faculty affiliated with the college (St. Johns in my case) Because there would only be a handful of physics faculty in any one college, it was a bit hit and miss on their expertise but you certainly had a lot of opportunity to discuss problems and so on with someone who had much deeper knowledge. On the other hand, we didn't have the same opportunities that students have today to engage in undergraduate research. So, my life was not spent in the physics department except for lectures and labs, it was in my college, doing what people do in college, and I had my work to do, and my friends were not all physicists by any means. The work was actually a lot harder than school. In the first year we spent half of our time on Mathematics. I had a really excellent tutor for math which gave me a very sound basis for the years to come, and it enabled me to choose theoretical physics as an option for my senior year. So, it was challenging but manageable.
Honestly, for me, I didn't have any thought when I went to Oxford as an undergraduate, that I would carry on doing physics after that. And in fact, my father only allowed me to do physics as an undergraduate. (I didn't actually have to have permission of course, but you know what I mean) with a condition, "Well, OK, I guess it's all right. But you will go to medical school when you're done, won’t you?" In fact, with his encouragement I had stayed on at school for a couple of extra terms to do my biology A level before I went to Oxford. So, I went there to read physics, but with all the requirements to start at medical school afterwards without having to catch up. I was doing physics, and it was interesting, but I wasn't really planning a physics career.
So probably, the next formative thing, starting in my second year, we were doing more specialized courses, and I had a really excellent tutor, who was a nuclear physicist. And that, obviously, had an impact because I think if he'd been a particle physicist, it's possible I might've ended up as a particle physicist rather than a nuclear physicist! So that of steered me when I did decide to stay on and do a PhD. That was what drew me to the nuclear physics side. But I wasn't really working in somebody's group or anything like that.
Now, did you consider leaving Oxford to pursue graduate work elsewhere? Or you were on a good momentum, you were happy at Oxford, it just made sense to stay?
No, when I was in my third year, they said to go talk to the career counselor. Maybe it was in the second year, I don't remember. Anyway, after that, I took the civil service exams, which would have led to a professional career in the government. At that time, there was a big thing about being in a profession: doctor, lawyer, all these kinds of things.
Physicist did not make the cut.
Professor was OK, but I had no interest in going to law school, or accountancy, or anything like that. But the civil service had a competitive exam to get into. I think it probably still does. I could've done that next. I was obviously still pushing back on my father and the medical school thing. Fortunately, as it turned out, I did very well on my final physics exams, and I got a couple of calls from the physics department: the first from Rudolf Peierls, who was a very well-known theoretical physicist and had given quite challenging lectures, who called me at home and asked if I wanted to do a DPhil in nuclear theory; the other was from Ken Allen in the Nuclear Physics Laboratory offering me a place there. The theory offer was flattering, but I decided that the experimental one would be better suited to my abilities!
Did you have any idea who your advisor would be before you committed to graduate school at Oxford?
Well, actually, I had hoped it would have been Jurgen Rose, my nuclear physics tutor as an undergraduate. But for whatever reason, he didn't have an opening for a student that year. So, I started with Ken Allen, who was Professor of Nuclear Structure and had his own research group as well.
What were some of the big questions in experimental nuclear physics at this point? What seemed like a viable area to focus on for you?
Well, it didn’t work exactly like that. There was actually a pretty lively department there. You probably wouldn't know these names, but there was a famous English nuclear physicist, Denys Wilkinson. And he had been involved in the Manhattan Project and those things. And subsequently, he was a professor at Cambridge.
Back in the ‘50s, under the guidance of the Motts and some of these other people at Cambridge, Cambridge decided to move out of nuclear physics research. They decided to focus on solid state physics and biology, but the country wasn’t quite ready for that, was a little cautious if you like. So – and this is late 50s, early 60s – they decided to build a new department for particle and nuclear physics in Oxford. Wilkinson who was the leading nuclear physicist in the country, moved from Cambridge to be the head. It was set up to have one floor of particle physics, one floor of nuclear physics, a lot of technical resources, shops and so on, and there was an accelerator in the basement. Actually, there were two accelerators, one in the basement, one in the tower.
So, and I am sorry that this is such a long answer to your question, I joined the nuclear experimental group that used the local machine. I didn't have the choice to, say, go off and do a solar neutrino experiment in Gran Sasso, or whatever the place might have been at that time. I joined a group working on the local accelerator, and we did nuclear structure experiments, which was fine but not necessarily earth shaking. My grant supported me for three years. So it encouraged everybody to get on with it. And it took me a little bit longer than three years, but not too much. Because when the grant money runs out, they'll pay you to do work in the experimental labs for a little bit of time, but then the pressure's really on to finish your thesis. So three and a half years later, I got my DPhil. I enjoyed the work, stayed on for another year as an SRC Fellow which I spent mostly designing a large magnetic spectrometer. I also had the opportunity to do some tutorial teaching which was interesting.
What were some of the issues in theoretical nuclear physics at this point that may have guided your thesis research? Or was your research really not connected to what was going on in theory at that point?
No, absolutely not, there was a strong connection. These things are a team sport.
That's a good way of putting it.
And so, it's not just your group you're working with. In the group, a new student would usually come in each year. We had to work pretty hard because we had to cover the night shifts on the accelerator, and all these kinds of things. But in this nice new building, up on the top floor, there was a nuclear theory group! And there was a young nuclear theorist there, John Millener, (who later went on to Brookhaven and had a long career there), who was doing something called SU(3) shell model calculations. Nuclear physics is kind of tricky. Unlike the atom, where you have this nice heavy nucleus in the center, and can use perturbation theory, it doesn't really work so well for the nucleus.
So the modern approach would be to buy an enormous computer, which can load all the possible configurations, and diagonalize the Hamiltonian, but we didn’t have that option. At that time, there was still a lot of interest in saying, "Can we use physical insight into guiding the calculations?" So with computers of the size that were available at that time, you could then calculate the spectrum of the excited states of the nucleus. And John used the SU(3) shell model for that guidance because it introduced deformation in a natural way. SU(3) was fashionable in a way because it was also the appropriate group for understanding quarks and things like that in high energy physics. So it had a little bit of cachet to it! He was using group theory to understand nuclear spectra, and we were doing the measurements. And it was really great. We'd have a run, and we'd find a peak in the spectrum, and we'd go and talk to John. And he'd look at it and say, "Oh, maybe that's the 13/2+ state," or something like that which he predicted in his calculations. It was a lot of fun; we didn't discover that the neutrino had a mass or anything like that, but I think I did a nice thesis on high spin states in 19F. I also learned some really useful technical skills along the way.
How did you know that you had done enough that you were ready to defend?
Well, as I told you, the first thing is that the money runs out.
That's a good sign. You better write it up.
Exactly. That can be a big problem if things don't go well in your experiments for some reason. The first year was spent getting to grips with the group, the equipment, and these things because, as I said, I hadn't really worked in research as an undergraduate, other than doing the lab courses. Maybe these days, it would be different. So I didn't really know what to expect in the group. And, initially, that was kind of scary because there seemed to be so much to learn with the computer, the electronics, getting things built in the shop, and all these other things. But then, like a lot of things in life, it turns out to be manageable after all.
In that first year, we also had to do some coursework, so we were quite busy doing some more advanced quantum mechanics courses, but also taking part in experimental runs. And then, I guess, the senior student left at the end of the first year. So actually, by the second year, I was the senior student. My advisor, Ken Allen was also the head of the department, and we didn't see a lot of him. So I was pretty much in charge by year two, and we did experiments every other week. And then, by about year two and a half, I was spending a lot of my time sitting in the library, trying to write this stuff up. And I didn't quite finish on time. It took me three and a half years. But then, I was ready to go.
Was there an emphasis at Oxford on good writing? In other words, was it all about the data? Or was there an expectation that your thesis needed to be up to snuff in terms of the prose?
Not explicitly, but that’s an interesting question. Because when I talked about school, before I went to Oxford, it was clear that I was stronger on the scientific side than the language, so I focused on that. But that doesn't mean I did zero other things. I did six years of Latin and French and three years of Greek and plenty of history (with an English bias of course). So certainly, at school, they expected you to learn how to write an essay and some of that probably did carry over to what was expected of the thesis, that it would be readable. But there was certainly no explicit statement that it had to be publishable in Nature. [laugh] But it leads me to something else. I'll tell you a little story about writing my thesis, which sort of connects with your question.
So these days, one of the reasons it takes people forever to do their theses is that they have software, Microsoft Word, whatever it is, and you can sit there and fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, fiddle forever. When I wrote my thesis, it was just on the cusp of when word processing software was becoming available. We're talking 1975, early 1976. On the Digital Equipment Corporation machines we had in the lab, there was a program called Runoff, where you could type in your paper and correct it. But it wasn't quite in time for me. So, when I was writing my thesis, you would take it to one of the departmental secretaries, who would type it up for a little bit of extra money on the side.
So I took my first couple of chapters to this young woman to do this and she said, "Great, thank you." And maybe she typed it into Runoff or something like that. I don't know how she did it. But anyway, she typed it up, and gave it back to me, and I looked at it, and I went through it, made some corrections and took it back to her. She was very friendly, and still smiling, and said, “Thank you, I’ll do the corrections." And then, a few days later, she gave me the corrected version, which I again took to my desk, and saw lots of ways to improve it, but when I took it back to her, she laughed and said, "No. This is not how it works. I'll correct things once, but that's it. I'm not going to redo it."
This is just a comment on how things were a little bit different then from now. You had to get it mostly right the first time. You hear stories about Hans Bethe, that he just wrote his papers out in longhand, and they were right first go. And he'd just give it to the typist, they'd type it up, and they'd send it off. Well, obviously, I wasn't anything like that. But there was definitely an emphasis that you couldn't fiddle with stuff for too long. You had to write something that was legible first or at least the second go.
Of course, this story sounds a bit sexist, because another way that things were a little different from today was that all the secretaries in the department were indeed women, which would not be true today. However, not all the physics graduate students were men, and in this respect, I think that the UK was actually a bit ahead of the States at the time.
Tell me about your post-doc position at the UK Science Research Council. If you would translate that into American terms, would that be like an NSF grant?
Yeah, but more like an early career award. The Science Research Council the equivalent of NSF, supported the graduate students and the postdocs. It allocated a certain number of slots each year to Oxford. And that would be based on the size of the department, the facilities that were available, this kind of thing. There was a throttling mechanism in there on the number of people who would progress at each stage.
For the people who, once they'd finished their PhD, were going to stay in the academic line, they had these Science Research Council fellowships you'd apply for, and that would give you funding for the next step, while you tried to become an assistant professor. It was competitive, and only a small fraction of the graduate students would get them. I remember going on the train to Manchester for the interview. However, I also wanted to spend some time in the States. So, I suspended the fellowship when I went to Berkeley, but I never went back to complete it. I think it was going to be a three-year fellowship or something like that.
But I stayed at the same lab doing slightly different work for one year. I designed a magnetic spectrometer, which is a large system of magnets. It was a bit complicated because there are aberrations like in optical physics, and I had to find experts to talk to and write some computer code. It actually got built after I left. And then, they closed the accelerator down a few years later. The spectrometer was quite new, so it was moved to Texas A&M University. I went on a review there some years ago, and they gave us a tour, and there was the spectrometer sitting there in all its glory! That was satisfying. So I had this technical job to do, and we were still running experiments, and I got to do some teaching, but I would say in terms of evolution of my thinking about life, and career, and things like that, I was marking time. I should've left as soon as I finished my PhD, because things didn't change enough. It was just too similar to what I had done in the previous three years.
And that's a self-criticism. You should have, at this point, gone onto something less connected to your thesis research, you're saying?
Absolutely, 100 percent. Because there's always some pressure to carry on in the experiment you know and understand. And it's partly just the culture. Particularly, these giant CERN experiments. If you've done your PhD on ATLAS, you're marked. You're an ATLAS person. And so, there's sort of this conveyor belt pressure where the ATLAS graduate student will get offered postdoc opportunities by other groups in the ATLAS experiment. They may go to another institution in another country, but it’s very much the same work.
So, in retrospect, I wasn’t as productive during that year. And although I can point you to a large instrument, which I designed during that time and I did some teaching, it wasn't career development. And so, the next stage in my career, then, didn't start until I arrived in Berkeley.
Now, were you specifically looking for opportunities in the States? Was your sense that that was really where the exciting stuff was happening at that point?
Well, yes and no. Other people I knew had done post-docs over here, but the plan from my old boss, his kind of career development plan if you like, was that I would go to LBL for a couple of years, learn some new things, and then I was going to come back to the department, pick up my SRC fellowship and then get a job in the UK, preferably at Oxford which would've probably been just fine, but I didn't do it. I stayed. And so, when I came to the States, I came because there was just more happening here than in the UK, and I needed the experience. But I didn't come here to take a career job. My expectation when I came was that I would go back to the UK.
So why did I stay? Well, one of the very first things you asked me about was the senior scientist appointments. So I arrived there in '77, and by chance, they advertised a divisional fellowship in spring of '78. That's one of these jobs that gets the accelerated process to become a senior scientist. I applied for that job although I didn’t really have the experience of some of the other applicants. But then, I got it! So at that point, I was in a position where I was kind of set. In five years time, if I didn't screw up, I was going to become senior scientist. So going back to the UK was no longer about finding a job, it was about whether I wanted that job rather than the job I had in Berkeley, and I was enjoying the job in Berkeley very much. So I ended up staying.
Now, did you apply widely in the States? Was Berkeley something specific that you were focusing on?
Well, I'll tell you how it played out. And this was, if you like, my old boss looking after me. I finished my PhD thesis, and it was accepted May '76 around then. I remember the date because it was the bicentenary, and I was starting this SRC fellowship, but there are conferences held every summer in the States called Gordon Conferences. They're mainly in New Hampshire and Maine, at one of the many liberal arts colleges up there. I don't know when these started, but they have many of them in different fields. So I had the opportunity to go to the nuclear physics Gordon Conference in the summer of '76, and I landed in Boston, and the Royal Yacht Britannia was in Boston harbor which was cool, because the Queen had come over for the bicentennial celebrations!
This was the first conference I had ever attended so that was very exciting, and the first time I had travelled to the States. In those days, pre-internet, our contacts as students to the work outside Oxford were limited and came from printed journals and conference proceedings, attending seminars, and meeting visitors when they passed through. These days, graduate students go to lots of conferences and can find any paper they want in the Archive. The only trip I made while I was at Oxford was to Groningen in Holland to look at their Q3D magnetic spectrometer. From this point of view, the particle physicists did better because they were doing their experiments at CERN or at the new lab in the states, but I got a lot more hands on experience than they did, which had its own value in the long run.
Anyway, back to the Gordon Conference, once it was done, I visited Yale, Brookhaven, Princeton, Penn, and Michigan State, and gave a talk at each place on my thesis work. I didn't go everywhere I might have applied to, but I did get the opportunity to visit those five places and I got offers from all of them. Then a bit later when I was back in Oxford, I got a phone call from LBL saying, "Why haven’t you applied here?" So that was in, I guess, probably February of '77 or so and I had been leaning towards MSU until then. So I thought about it, and I did actually choose to come to Berkeley even though I hadn't visited. It’s always very instructive to visit because you don't have to spend more than a half-day or a day at a place to understand what it's all about and whether it will be a lively environment. Michigan State had passed the test on that score, but I was confident that LBL would too.
The department at Oxford, was and still is a terrific place to learn, and one of the reasons is because everybody takes tea breaks over there, you go to the tea-room twice a day, 11 in the morning and then 3:30 in the afternoon. And you'd probably go there to eat lunch as well unless you were a professor who could go back to his college! And to tell the truth, we went to the nearby pub quite often in the evening followed by an Indian meal, so discussion continued there! So, when I visited the group at Penn, and they're sitting in their offices in the physics department with no other groups in evidence and no sign of a tea room, and everybody cleared off at 5pm, it was pretty clear it was going to be a quiet life if I went there. There was none of this churn that I had felt in the department when I was a graduate student. So, the visits were very valuable from that point of view. And it was also great because I'd never been to the States. It was really exciting to travel around. I took a few days between stops to go to Washington DC, and New York, and so on. I really enjoyed it.
What were your initial impressions of Berkeley when you arrived?
Well, do you really want to know?
I absolutely want to know.
[laugh] We had some acquaintances, people that my family knew, who were living in Daly City near the airport. I arrived on whatever it was, PanAm 125, I think. It was a brand-new plane, a Boeing 747 SP, a special, long-range version, very exciting. They met me there, so I spent the first night in Daly City. And remember, this is pre-internet. So, I had got as far as going to the library to look at a map of Berkeley; but it was not topographical, it was just a street map. The lab had booked me a room into the Faculty Club which is on campus and I found it on the map and said to myself. "Oh, excellent, that's going to be an easy walk to the lab in the morning." And I had this mental image of what it was going to look like, which was probably a little bit like the MSU campus because I'd really enjoyed visiting East Lansing, which is of course as flat as a pancake.
The next day, my friends put me on BART. I took BART to Berkeley, and then my new boss, David Scott, picked me up at the BART station. He took me straight to the lab. He had this big, old station wagon. He was sitting there, one elbow on the window, driving one-handed. We didn't have automatic transmissions in England in those days, so this was kind of interesting, floating along. It was a beautiful day in September, very sunny, very nice. But then, we started to go up hill. We had to go almost straight up because the lab is on the side of a hill. And I had no idea. [laugh] My mental image of what it was going to look like was completely off.
So, we pass the campus, we head on up, and it gets steeper, and we go up into the hills where the lab is. He took me up to the building where the HR people were to sign me in, I got out of the car, and there were these eucalyptus trees and pine trees with incredible scents and a huge view of the Bay Area. It was like being in the Mediterranean. It was completely unexpected. Of course, it might've gone in the other direction, where I was expecting something wonderful, and it turned out to be not so great, in the middle of a difficult neighborhood or something. I have to say that it was a nice place to arrive.
What group did you initially join?
My supervisor was David Scott. He was from Oxford and I must admit, that's part of the reason why I came, why I chose to go to Berkeley, because I knew that he was really good. So I joined his group, or rather the Scott-Hendrie group, and there were actually two group leaders. There was another scientist, Dave Hendrie and they shared the responsibility. In fact, it was really Bernard Harvey’s group, but he was up the hill serving as Division Director and had left Dave and David in charge!
As you might guess there was a bit of competition in the air. But it was clear that I was David’s post-doc. And there was another post doc, Karl van Bibber, who started about the same time as me, who was working more closely with Dave. It was a good group, and they were both very energetic people in their forties, but with quite different personalities. Dave was extremely stubborn, so there were a lot of heated discussions at the group meetings, which he enjoyed very much, especially if he could find ways to change his position just for the sake of argument. And David, my boss, would just fall for it completely, and get red-faced [laugh] with anger. It was fun, and I discovered I could survive and hold up my end in the discussion. It was a good group.
What was David working on at that point?
As I told you before, at Oxford I did low energy nuclear structure. Very low energy physics with a tandem Van de Graaff accelerator. LBL had a cyclotron, the 88-Inch cyclotron. I have to digress a little here, because the reason that LBL had things like cyclotrons, and LINACs, was that there were two formative forces for the lab. One was physics, with Lawrence, Segre, Alvarez, and their schools, and the other was chemistry under Seaborg. So modern nuclear chemistry, which is a field that Seaborg created because he was very interested in nuclear science, and idolized Lawrence, but happened to be a chemist – very amazing man who led the discovery of more than a dozen new elements and had an exceptional career as a university and government leader. The 88-inch cyclotron, which had been built in the early 1960s, and was still a fairly new machine by the late 1970s, had been built by the Nuclear Chemistry Division, Seaborg’s Division, to do bombardments to make heavy elements and isotopes.
To get back to your question, while he was at Oxford, David had been trying to learn about nuclear structure in a different way using higher energy nuclear beams using a cyclotron at Harwell and he took that interest with him when he went to Berkeley. So that was what our group was doing at the 88. But what made the whole thing really interesting at that particular time, and why, as I say, my life really changed when I arrived there, was that, there was still an old particle accelerator on the hill, the Bevatron. It had been built in late forties, before they'd discovered the property of strong focusing, so it weighed 10,000 tons or something like that. The magnets were physically much larger than on modern accelerators. Any synchrotron built since 1950, from light sources to the LHC, will have a strong-focusing lattice and much more compact magnets. Nevertheless, the bevatron, in its day, had been ‘the place’. They discovered the anti-proton and various other thing and won Nobel Prizes for Segre, Chamberlain and Alvarez. But by the early 70s, it was done, because new machines were coming on around the world with much higher energies.
The staff at the lab saw that coming of course and in the mid-60s, designed what they wanted to build as the next machine. They called it the 200 BeV machine (BeV was for Billion electron Volt). It was far too big for our site here in Berkeley, but they would've put it in the Central Valley, probably near Davis. This was the natural evolution of what the high energy physics group at Berkeley wanted to do, to build a successor to the Bevatron. But in the US, you don't always get to do exactly what you want. Because where big facilities end up depends a little bit on who's going to push for it and who wants it, but also on who has the political support to pay for it. So, in the end, the machine was built at a site in Illinois, which became Fermilab. The first Director was Bob Wilson who had been a Berkeley Student under Lawrence, and who had gone on to build accelerators at Cornell. I don't remember the name of the senator, but there was very strong support from the state, and from the local university in Chicago, and the many strong universities in the Midwest. This is a long preamble to the answer to the question.
That decision had been made in the mid 60s when Seaborg was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington, (the predecessor to the DOE), and it was obviously a blow to his home lab, and from that point on, all the experimental particle physicists in the lab had to become outside users. They were going to work at SLAC, or Chicago, or Geneva, or whatever it might be. But Bevatron was still there. And a scientist named Al Ghiorso, who had been Seaborg's right-hand man for the heavy element discoveries, also had a very creative technical mind.
He had his own accelerator, the HILAC, higher up on the hill. And then, there was the bevatron down here, which was this ancient proton machine. And the HILAC was pointed at Sacramento or something like that, and the bevatron was 200 feet down the hill pointed in the other direction. But he said, "Well, we can do something new here at a very reasonable cost. We can take the beam out of the HILAC, build a beam line down the hill, and connect the two accelerators, and accelerate nuclear beams in the Bevatron." So, although you would never have built the bevatron for that because the cost would have been prohibitive, it allowed, if you like, the creation of a new capability, which was to accelerate nuclei to high energies.
And just to interject there for a second, is the existence of the instrumentation the creation of the field? Or is there a theoretical basis for the field, and we can do it with this machine?
Good question. So history is complicated. On the one hand, Ghiorso thought that the hybrid accelerator would allow further creation of new superheavy elements, and that was why he proposed it. There wasn’t really a theoretical prediction of that, but it was his gut instinct. That didn’t materialize, but many other things did. I should also say that although this was the first high energy nuclear accelerator, it was not the first time that high energy nuclei has been observed, because of course, there are nuclei in the cosmic rays. People had been doing experiments in cosmic ray physics, with nuclei at high energies, for 30 years before this, going back to the 40s and early 50s.
You may have seen these pictures of what happens when a nucleus goes into a bubble chamber or a photographic emulsion. These are impressive events. So, there was enough data available at that time, to map out fragmentation models of how nuclei would break up when they hit each other. So no, strictly speaking, it was not a new field. People had been thinking about high energy nuclear collisions for a while. And one of the questions in their mind was, of course, why are their high energy nuclei in cosmic rays? How are they being generated, where are they coming from? That's cosmic ray physics. But the Bevatron was the first accelerator where you had high energy nuclear beams unavailable and could now do nuclear physics experiments with them and try and learn about nuclear structure and other aspects of nuclear physics.
So it was serendipitous, but not unmotivated. The motivation, which was came from the theoretical side, was to explore the nuclear phase diagram. When you do experiments like I did in my thesis, low energy nuclear structure, you've got a nucleus as a binding energy of many GeV, and we were looking at states that are a few MeV. At these energies, you are barely tickling the nucleus. But there was a lot of theoretical speculation that there could be other phases of nuclear matter. TD Lee, a very distinguished physicist, wrote a paper suggesting that there could be other phases of nuclear matter than the normal phase, and that there might even be places in the universe where you would find these phases. For example, in the center of neutron stars, or in neutron star collisions. And that would certainly be very new physics. So, there was definitely theoretical interest in the new capability to collide nuclei at high energies.
And to go back to our earlier exchange about the interplay of theory and experimentation, to what extent was your group integrated with the theorists, and to what extent were they providing guidance on what you were doing?
So, we've kind of drifted a little bit. As I told you, I went there to take a job at the cyclotron doing experiments there. There was a strong theorist at LBL at the time, Norman Glendenning. He had been hired by Seaborg in the 60s to support the cyclotron group. And he'd done a lot of important work on that. But, by the time I got there, he'd decided he was done with that, and he wanted to do astrophysics. He was thinking more about the equation of state of neutron stars! So, by the time I got there the local theory group really wasn't very interested in the work at the cyclotron. But they were very interested in the Bevalac physics and once we started work there, there was great support.
Now, we've become untethered a bit from the chronology. At what point do you become divisional fellow, and is that tantamount to on your why to a permanent position, like the assistant professor level?
That's correct. So I arrived there September '77, and I got the division fellowship in early '79 as I recall. So a year and a half in.
And was this the point where you let go of the notion that you're going to return to the UK?
No. [laugh] I was still telling them, "My research is going well, give a few more years, I’ll be back.", but I never went. The truth is that I could go back to live in England tomorrow and be happy there. I like the place and the people. But it was more that the work in Berkeley was more interesting. It would've felt like moving backwards a little bit. Over time, things kind of build up, and suddenly you realize, "Well, no, I'm not going back." But that was a few years later. It wasn't in 1979!
But you were happy. Berkeley was working out for you, the science was good, everything was working out nicely.
Absolutely. And it was moving fast. I went there to work at the cyclotron, and was able to participate in the bevatron experiments, which I was absolutely not expecting. That was really fun and very productive. And then, fairly soon after I'd become a divisional fellow another opportunity opened up. There was another accelerator that was nearing the end of its life at that time. It was called the Intersecting Storage Rings (ISR) at CERN. That was the first particle physics collider built in the 60s, early 70s. So that was coming to the end for a number of reasons. The main one was that they wanted to build LEP, a very expensive project, and they could not afford to continue running the ISR as well. But in the last couple of years of the life of the ISR, they decided to put light nuclei into it. And this was pushed for the same reasons that we were putting nuclei into the bevatron.
The ISR was a much higher energy accelerator. This would be really going to high energy collisions that the theorists wanted. But there only were very light nuclei available, because they weren't going to invest in the kind of upgrade we had invested in, that would allow them to put heavy nuclei into the accelerator.
The head of the heavy ion program at our lab at that time was a physicist named Howel Pugh. He was well-connected with some of the people at CERN who were doing this. And one of them, Bogdan Povh, had called him up to say, "Well, do you have somebody who could come over and help us with this run at the ISR?" They were going to put the alpha particles into the machine. Long story short, I was asked, because I was young and mobile, "Would you like to go to CERN for a year?" And I said, "OK. Fine." [laugh] I'd never actually visited CERN when I was a graduate student because I was doing nuclear physics. But then, in April 1980, after going to Berkeley in '77 and doing work on the cyclotron and bevatron, I was now at CERN, getting ready for an experiment at the ISR that summer. It was an exciting time!
Now, just to foreshadow to the mid-1980s when you become director of the nuclear science division, are you slowly but surely taking on additional admin responsibilities prior to this?
Well, not yet. As a Divisional Fellow, when I came back from CERN, I had my own small group doing experiments at the Bevalac. We did interesting experiments, and they helped pave the way for the rare isotope facilities which have been built around the world. But fairly soon, the first rot started to set in. We had been working at the bevatron with a group of cosmic ray physicists from the space sciences lab, extremely knowledgeable and talented, and they were building a new spectrometer, which would function as a user facility at the Bevalac and I planned to be one of those users. And so, they were building this facility, but it wasn't going awfully well. Everything was done except for the detectors which were very late and way over budget. So, at some point, it was decided to change the management. The division director at that time, Joe Cerny, asked me if I would be willing to become the group leader of this HISS facility, the Heavy Ion Spectrometer System. And I agreed to do that.
That was probably 1993 or something like that. And it was tough because I was still in a phase of my career where I was usually the youngest person in the room. When you're a student, by definition, you're going to be the youngest person around the table. But I was now at a point where I was still on the young side, but I was in charge. [laugh] And that's very different. Some aspects of the situation were quite difficult. Some of my friends and mentors pulled out. We got through it, but with a smaller team.
And then, what were the circumstances of you being asked to become director?
Well, as I said, I was leading the HISS group, and the situation had improved. We had scaled back the scope of the drift chambers and redesigned them. I was allowed to hire a physicist to help with the work of building and commissioning the detectors. Fortunately, I was able to recruit Howard Wieman, whom I had met at the Cyclotron a few years previously, when he was working for Dave Hendrie. We also had a really excellent Japanese physicist visiting at the time, Toshio Kobayashi, and an exceptional electronics engineer in Fred Bieser, and many others, but that was the core group. It was a very strong team and Howard and Fred knew how to work with the staff in the mechanical shops which not everyone can do. We pulled it off. Howard ended up winning the Bonner Prize for his construction of the STAR TPC for RHIC later on.
I mentioned that Joe Cerny was the division head. He was quite competitive with Dave Shirley, who was the lab director at that time. They had chased each other up through the ranks in chemistry at Berkeley and both were Lawrence Award winners. Joe didn't want to do a second term as division head under Dave, so he decided to step down in '85, and subsequently had a distinguished career on the Berkeley campus. So they had to find somebody else to do it. And there were some obvious suspects, the right people to do it, I would say in retrospect. But for whatever reason, I ended up being chosen. And I don't know that we need to go into all these details, but they asked me to do it, and I was too naïve or too stupid to say no.
Yes, I was a group leader at HISS, and yes, I was a supervisor, and I was comfortable interacting with the senior staff, but running the Division was another matter. I really had no idea how the division ran, how the money worked, how the DOE relationship worked, all this kind of thing. But the systems were in place for the division to run. It wasn't a dangerous appointment in the sense that the DOE was going to come by and say, "What, you're putting him in charge? Maybe we won't fund you." It wasn't a situation like that. It was a very stable group. But it was obviously an unexpected choice.
Were you not naïve enough to recognize that this would pull you away from the science a little bit?
Well, yes, but maybe I was arrogant enough to think I could cope with that balance better than I did and in fact for the first few years, while we were pushing a Bevalac replacement, I was still strongly involved at HISS.
And in terms of your hierarchy, the organizational structure, who did you report to, and who reported to you?
So when I started in 1985, I reported to Dave Shirley because he was the Director. And I was an Associate Director, and Head of the Nuclear Science Division. There weren't ALDs at that time. A few years later, Dave decided to introduce an ALD layer, so then I reported to Roy Kerth who was the ALD. And basically, in terms of who reported to me, there wasn't a lot of management structure at the lab in those days. It wasn't a complicated hierarchy. The senior scientists were the group leaders. So, once I became the division director, all the senior scientists, probably 25 people or so at that time, reported to me. And that's not a classic management structure. A bit of a flat organization. That was the way it was. They were also quite strong minded.
What were some of the big projects? What were some of the challenges that you inherited, and what were some of the opportunities to improve things?
So this is now getting to the heart of it. What I didn't really understand, looking back, was that there were some challenges, and in the end that made the job very interesting.
So the first challenge, which I didn't understand fully when I took over--which I should've been able to work out--was the Bevalac, and its replacement. We had been pushing since 1978 or 1979 to build a higher energy Accelerator at Berkeley to pursue high energy heavy ion physics. We called it VENUS which would have been a 20+20 GeV machine. But like the high energy guys previously, with their 200 BeV machine, which ended up at Fermilab, this one went to Brookhaven and the reason in the end was simple enough. In 1983, a high energy physics accelerator project at Brookhaven called ISABELLE was canceled because it had run into technical problems and the particle physics community decided to move on to the next thing, which was the SSC, rather than solve them. So around 1983, they decided to cancel ISABELLE. But they'd already built the tunnel out on Long Island!
There was a lot of pent-up energy in the system to put something into that tunnel. Frankly, the Brookhaven nuclear physicists had not shown a great deal interest in relativistic heavy ion physics up to that point. But once they realized that the field was heading towards proposing a high energy machine, their ears pricked up, and the nuclear physics establishment moved into action. Allan Bromley, who was head of the Nuclear Structure Lab at Yale, became involved. I had been fortunate to meet him when I visited his lab on my tour of the East Coast in 1976. Later he became the White House Science Advisor under George Bush, Sr. He had recently decided the future of the electron scattering community, as Chair of the Committee which recommended that a new facility be built in Newport News, Virginia. In short, he was the most influential member of the nuclear physics community at that time.
So, Bromley shows up at the first Quark Matter Conference held at Brookhaven in 1983, and he was asked to give the conference summary talk, which was a little surprising since he had never worked in the high energy field. And he stood up (and here I paraphrase of course) and gave his verdict: ‘Well, this has all been very interesting, and has shown us why, of course, we need a new accelerator for this new field, and that it has to be 100 on 100 GeV’. This, by the way, was the energy that matched the Isabelle tunnel, and it wasn’t going to fit in any tunnel we could possibly build here in Berkeley! Soon after, NSAC endorsed the Brookhaven proposal in its 1983 long range plan, and RHIC was born. For the field, this was a tremendous advance; from our local perspective, it presented a challenge.
So this had happened two years prior to my becoming division director, but we were continuing to work on lower energy, less expensive, accelerator options which would suit our location and which would have been complementary to RHIC scientifically. The first was the Tevalac a higher energy synchroton, then a modest upgrade to study nuclei far from stability and continue to pursue heavy ion cancer therapy, and finally (and perhaps most interestingly) a much lower energy collider to study baryon rich matter. Anyway, it was my job to find some future option. What I didn't realize, due to youth and inexperience, was that there was barely room in the budgets for the field to do RHIC, and anything else would have to wait a very long time!
How much was this about protecting jobs, and how much of it was you making the case that there is actually non-redundant science that's happening here?
Both. The science was complementary and one way or another the capability we proposed is now being built in other places, thirty years later! But I can't say it was completely not about jobs because budget matters. Budget pays the overhead. [laugh] So that there's an HR person when you come to the lab to sign your paperwork and a paycheck is processed at the end of the month. So budget certainly was a concern, because we had a large accelerator division. Anyway, in the end that concern was addressed in a different way by something called the Trivelpiece Plan.
This was in the mid to late 80s when Alvin Trivelpiece was Director of the Office of Science, and all the labs were trying to get new facilities, and it was very competitive, and the labs were talking to their congressional delegations. Brookhaven was trying to get RHIC built; Oak Ridge wanted to build a reactor for neutron research; Argonne wanted a light source; our director, Dave Shirley, also wanted a light source. So, Trivelpiece, said essentially, "OK, gentlemen, please. I've got a plan. Brookhaven, you're going to build RHIC. Oak Ridge, you're going to build a neutron source. Argonne, you're going to build the APS. Berkeley, you're going to build the ALS. Please stop fighting each other, and certainly stop attacking each other in public, and support the plan even if you have to take your turn." The plan worked, and by the early 2000s all four facilities were in operation. The only change was that Oak Ridge had to settle for a spallation source rather than a new reactor, but the science was the same.
And the interesting thing about that list, of course, is that the SSC wasn't part of the Trivelpiece Plan. Because at this point, the SSC was already in a different class because of its cost. I think, by the end, it wasn't even being managed in the Office of Science. It was such a big project that it was really another level altogether. But the plan at the level of RHIC, SNS, APS, ALS, if you like, the general purpose labs, was successful.
Anyway, the Bevalac’s days were numbered, but, believe it or not, we actually did some great science in those last years from ’87 to ‘93, after some of the bigger shots had left to work at CERN.
That's interesting…I wonder to what extent there was urgency to do excellent science at this point.
I don’t know if the DOE felt a sense of urgency for us to do new things, but I certainly did. And then, there was a feeling that part of the problem with the Bevalac was the instrumentation hadn't been that hot. We needed a new, bigger detector. Howel Pugh, the same man who'd sent me to CERN in 1979, wrote a nice proposal for such a detector. But it was going to cost $13 million or something like that which was already a large sum at that time. And of course, it would've been at least double that because that was a physicists' educated guess at the cost. And we talked to DOE about it, but there was no way that DOE was going to spend $20 or $25 million on a detector when they'd already decided to close the machine down!
The head of the DOE Nuclear Physics Office, by this time, was Dave Hendrie, my old sparring partner from the cyclotron. But he wasn’t entirely unsympathetic. He told me "It's a really nice project, but I can’t support it. You need to come back with something a little more modest." So in the end, two things got done. We built the Dilepton Spectrometer. Lee Schroeder was the leader of that before later becoming my successor as NSD Director. We also built a 4 pi detector but at much lower cost. We took the HISS magnet – and this was Howard Wieman's idea – and put a time projection chamber (TPC) inside it. We called it EOS which is a name Howel had coined. And because we used custom analog integrated circuits designed at the lab to do the readout, a new technology, we were able to get this done at a reasonable cost.
There was a lot of pressure because we knew the clock was ticking, and they wouldn't be able to keep the machine running for much longer. You're always one budget crisis away from closure in that situation. If DOE gets a bad budget one year, a new president comes in or something like that, and all of a sudden they're looking around like, "Where can we save $20 or $30 million?” and that would be our operating budget! But we did get it done, Dave gave us a few extra months, and that detector worked perfectly. EOS ran for three months solidly in the fall of 2002, and put data on tape which people analyzed for the next five years! And it was really good data. So it was sad, in a way, to see it go. But we were able to keep the science going in those last years and we definitely had a sense of urgency, and the technology Howard developed would be used for heavy ion experiments at the SPS, RHIC and the LHC. So, the field was a winner also.
Now, when you stepped down in 1995, was this sort of like, "Ten years, time to ring the bell"?
Yeah. Actually, when I first came to the lab, the lab director was Andy Sessler, a distinguished accelerator physicist like his predecessors. Before him, the directors had been director indefinitely. Lawrence was director until he died, 25 years or something like that. McMillan was director until he couldn't do much anymore. So, when Andy came in, he was mid-career and very energetic. But he also said, "Look, we do not want people sitting at these jobs forever. So all these management jobs are going to be for a term, including my own. And I'm only going to do it for five years." And that was his policy while he was director. But you noticed that I did ten.
And so, I definitely had a feeling at the end of five years that time was up. But, this was just in the midst of this Bevalac transition, with a lot of uncertainty about the future. And one of the things was to get a leading role in the RHIC experiment, which we ultimately did. But we also got involved with an excellent neutrino experiment, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Also, we proposed and built a large gamma ray detector, Gammasphere which is still operating today as national facility. The siting of Gammasphere was really contentious because the DOE wanted to close down our cyclotron as well. We were really under attack from all directions. So, 1990 was a super critical time, with a lot of things going on and I felt tremendous personal pressure to complete the EOS detector at the Bevalac before it closed. It didn't feel like the time to step down.
And as you say it, in 1990, there needs to be a pivot because existentially, there are fundamental questions about the future of the division.
Absolutely. So we were pivoting around several axes. We were pivoting from the Bevalac to RHIC; we were pivoting to neutrinos, which we'd never done in the division with SNO; we were pivoting to a more national perspective on the low energy nuclear physics: not just building a detector for us to get a Phys Rev Letter from it, but building a detector system, Gammasphere, which people around the community would use. This was a bigger change than you might think. We weren't very good sharers in the old days. It’s very different now. And finally, we were pivoting from chemistry to physics with the arrival of Stuart Freedman in a joint appointment with the Physics Department on the Berkeley Campus in 1993. With the support of Dave Shirley and then Chuck Shank, I had been working on that appointment with successive department chairs for six or seven years. Anyway, I carried on until 1995 with my second five years and it was a very busy time organizing these new projects and making the necessary scientific and managerial hires. But that was it and I was done. The Division needed new leadership.
Now, looking to '93, '94 with the collapse of the SSC, to what extent did this register for your division? Was it a big impact? Or it was really a different world at that point?
It was a completely different world. The SSC was so large that it no longer fit within the Office of Science! For us at the lab in the nuclear science division, the big thing in '93 was the closure of the Bevalac and the start of STAR construction. People don't really say it, but SSC mainly died because of a failure of nerve, because SLAC and Fermilab were not willing to say, "We'll go to the mat for this, even if it means our own accelerators will be closed." Who knows? Even RHIC, which was a nuclear physics project, might have been a casualty if the SSC had gone ahead, because there was such enormous cost growth. I have no doubt that it could have been and should have been built and it would have forced consolidation of the US high energy laboratories as had happened in Europe. So yes, it was a very different world, and the RHIC project was proceeding nicely while that tragedy unfolded.
A last word on RHIC. We had participated in planning the detectors in the late 80s. These detectors are all large collaborations, but you need a lab to carry out the engineering and project management. They had enough people to build one large detector, but they wanted two. So we built the second one for them in Berkeley which solidified our post-Bevalac role in the field, and for which we remain grateful. The detector is still running today and is called STAR. Jay Marx, who had just led the construction of the ALS, joined the Division as the project director, and Howard Wieman (whom you will remember we had hired for HISS back in 1984) led the construction of the Time Projection Chamber using the EOS technology.
To foreshadow to the later 1990s, coming off being division director, are you increasingly becoming involved in national policy with regard to nuclear science? Or do you have sort of a breather for a few years after 1995, and that's only after you get involved with NSAC?
So here's the thing. When I stepped down in '95, as far as I know, that was the end of my career as a manager.
I'm still waiting for you to go back to the UK.
Nice one! That would have been a good time. So I didn't do that, [laugh] but I did look around, and do some different things. In fact, if you look on my CV, it says I was a distinguished scientist at RIKEN in Tokyo. And I spent some time over there because I had some scientific friends from Bevalac times. They were developing a rare isotope beam capability based on the techniques we had developed at the Bevalac in the late seventies and early eighties. But I never spent a really long time there because my oldest boy was born in 1988, followed by number two in 1990, and my wife had her own successful business and career. It would've been a great time to do a sabbatical. But it was a very difficult time with the family to do that. But I did dabble in some different scientific things, including working on STAR and things to do with that. Then in '88, I was put on NSAC and that began to take quite a lot my energy
Fairly soon after that, there was a budget crisis going on for the field. CEBAF had just been completed. That's the machine down in Newport News, Virginia, an electron LINAC which Bromley had recommended, and Hermann Grunder from our lab had built. In parallel, RHIC was now completing construction. They didn't have enough money to run all the existing machines and run these two new things. DOE needed advice from NSAC on funding. I was asked to chair that committee. And so, that, if you like, was my first taste of national politics from the reviewing side of the table rather than being on the receiving end.
Yeah. Let's talk about the 1998 report, DOE and NSF Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. What were the origins of that, and what were some of the key conclusions of the report?
Well, that was the future of medium energy nuclear physics. That was, basically, "What are the scientific opportunities, and how are you going to fit this into the budget now that we have a new accelerator called CEBAF?" If we did it well, it's because we had very good physicists on the committee. I think we did identify the most exciting science to be done in that field, or, based on our knowledge at that time, what we believed were the most exciting things to do. And they weren't all at CEBAF. We didn't just come in and say, "We've built a new machine. We've got to put all our resources into that because that's the way it is." I think we made an honest scientific recommendation in the end. The recommendation was to phase out the MIT facility.
Who was the audience for this report?
The agencies, and the medium energy science community including the laboratories involved. These committees are time consuming, but they are important part of the management of the program. NSAC reports to the DOE and the NSF. But in this case, the machine was being operated by DOE. So the origin of the charge came from DOE.
How much overlap was there between NSAC and your participation in the executive committee of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics?
One of the things that you can do when you stop being a division director or some position like that, is you can take on leadership positions in the APS. I was on the Division of Nuclear Physics executive committee in the late nineties and I was put on the ballot to be chair of the DNP in 1999. But then, I became chair of NSAC, which meant I would be responsible for doing the next long-range plan for the field. The DNP is strongly involved in preparing the community input to these plans so there was an obvious conflict. So the only overlap really was that I had to remove myself from the election process for the DNP Chair.
Now, the other thing I'm really curious about in the 1990s is your work on the US-Russia Joint Committee on Fundamental Properties of Matter. So that's a committee that I think obscures more than it illuminates. First of all, does this have anything to do with the newly independent states and the nuclear security issue at all after the Cold War? Or this is a totally separate thing?
Well, let's talk about that. In those days the Cold War was ending but was not over and I had two opportunities to visit the USSR at that time.
The first was in 1986 when I'd just become a division director. Remember that in the 70s and early 80s, there were a lot of problems between the US and the USSR which impacted scientific collaboration. But the two sides had agreed, in the late 70s, that a nuclear physics delegation would come from Russia to the US, and a similar committee would go from the US to Russia. The Russian one came in '78 or '79, led by Ivan Chuvilo, but then Russia invaded Afghanistan. As a result, scientific collaboration between the two countries was drastically reduced and the US delegation was cancelled.
So, then Reagan becomes President in 1980 and takes on the USSR in a number of ways, culminating in the famous meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985. One of the outcomes of that meeting was an agreement to encourage collaboration on scientific research once again, and the diplomats remembered that there was this old reciprocal agreement on the books and it was agreed that the US would send a nuclear physics delegation to the USSR in 2006. I was chosen to be on that delegation, which was great. I'd never been to Russia. It was a really exciting opportunity to go around visiting all these different laboratories. It was a high level group and it was supposed to be led by Allan Bromley who was an appropriate match to Chuvilo. Steve Koonin and I were put on the committee to represent the younger generation, and Larry McLerran as a theorist. Everything was good.
But then, problems started. The first was the nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl. After a few weeks, it was decided to go ahead, but Kiev was taken off the itinerary. And frankly, I think that most of us were concerned about eating fresh vegetables throughout the trip. Then, Allan had a personal problem. He decided he couldn't go on the trip. This was a week or two before we were supposed to leave. Diplomats know how to handle situations like this, and there were a number of senior people in the delegation who could have stepped up, and who were well known to the Russians, including Louis Rosen the Director of LAMPF, or Hermann Grunder who had just become director of CEBAF. But what actually happened, unfortunately, was that DOE sent a telex to the Russians saying, "Bromley unavailable, family illness. Delegation will be led by the Director of Nuclear Physics, DOE." The Russians were not amused by the replacement of the distinguished D Allan Bromley by a DOE official.
When we arrived there, they found ways to let us know their displeasure. For example, we went to the ITEP in Moscow, where the Director was Ivan Chuvilo who had led the delegation to the States in the seventies. The visit was scheduled to last a day with a tour, a meeting with the Chuvilo and so on. We arrived there in the morning, and the gates were closed. We sat in the bus outside the gates, and finally after about half an hour, they took us to a summer house in the woods where we were greeted by an administrator who told us that Chuvilo was unavailable for personal reasons. Fortunately, the further we got from Moscow, the better things went. We had a fascinating visit to Troitsk including a meeting with the great Ivan Cerenkov who was still Director of his Institute. Our last stops were Novosibirsk and Leningrad, and in both places, we were greeted with enthusiasm and great hospitality.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience. But you asked about the JCCFPM. I joined that committee in the late 80s. Pier Oddone had been our Lab’s representative on the committee, but when he became deputy director of the lab, he decided he didn't have time to do it, so he asked me to represent us.
There were many excellent particle and nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union at that time, but if they didn’t have the approval of the JCCFPM, they couldn’t travel to the States. So basically, it was a committee that would meet once a year and review all the proposals for collaborative research between the US and the USSR in particle physics. The final one that I was supposed to go to was held the weekend when they had the tanks surrounding the parliament building in Moscow. I only went as far as Frankfurt.
Let's get back to NSAC. Is now a good time to talk about the long-range plan for the next decade, the origins of that major report?
So, there's so much to talk about there, but my first question is, to what extent did September 11 loom large in the future of nuclear science in the United States?
9/11 obviously did have its impact on our field, but later. When I became the chair was in the fall of '99 and we developed our recommendations in March 2001, which was before 9/11. The report was not published until early 2002 and it’s sometimes called the 2002 plan.
And this came from where? Did the DOE ask for this?
DOE and NSF provided the charge to prepare the plan. NSAC is a joint advisory committee to the two agencies. Most of the nuclear physics facilities are run by the DOE but a sizeable fraction of the university community is funded by NSF. It’s important to have both agencies on board.
The origins of these plans went back to the late 1970s when the agencies figured out that things would go better if the community was involved with the planning and would support each other, rather than going to Congress, and shooting each other’s projects down! So, the first long-range plan for nuclear physics had been completed in 1979 by Herman Feshbach, a very famous physicist from MIT and it was enormously helpful in setting priorities for the field. To their credit, the agencies have fulfilled their side of the bargain. They have been scrupulous in following the recommendations and go back to NSAC to update the guidance if they don’t have the funding to execute the plan.
The one which I led was the fifth of these plans. The situation, then, when I came in to this one was that RHIC was about to start operation, and JLAB had been operating for a while. It had been a heavy lift to get these two new facilities built as I indicated earlier. What should be done next?
What were some of the challenges in putting together this report? What were some of the things that, looking that far out, were just sort of difficult to extrapolate for?
I did a little research when I was given this assignment. I went back and looked at the previous plans, which is probably generally considered the last thing you should do. [laughs] Anyway, I found some wisdom there, especially in the first one from 1979 which had been led by Feschbach. Hermann had pointed out that if you make the decisions purely on scientific merit, it will be a disaster because everyone thinks that their own project is best whatever it costs and will fight like a tiger (especially the proponents of the small projects) to prove that what they are proposing is the most important and the cost effective.
So Feshbach had introduced this idea of the decadal project. If this is the next big thing for our field for the next ten years, let's put it in its own box and judge it on its merits, not against someone’s pet detector which costs almost nothing. RHIC is an obvious example. It sounds trivial, but that's the kind of thing that you have to do to make the process work. In the end we had three categories: decadal, major facility upgrades (<$150M), and smaller projects.
The other thing you have to do, in parallel with just having the discussion of what is the best science, you've got to have some competent people look at the costs. And so, if you like, those were my secret weapons going into this prioritization meeting, to try and have some different categories, so we could agree to rank like with like, and also to try and get some homework done on costing so that we wouldn’t waste time arguing about it or get caught out down the road by a low-balled estimate. Today, cost-estimating has become a more formal process. But there was some history at that time of these committees not always being as careful as they should've been. I think that we did a good job in that regard especially with the biggest thing on the table. However, the estimate for an underground lab was off by a factor of six. It wasn’t really low-balled so much as nobody had a clue what underground work will cost. They still don’t. [laughs]
Now, to what extent was the APS a sounding board or a repository of information across the field that would go into informing the report?
Very important. In nuclear physics, once it's announced that the long-range plan is going to be done, they have town meetings for the subfields. And those are organized by the APS Division of Nuclear Physics. So NSAC is not involved in that. It's a pretty inclusive process, I would say. So, anybody who has something, even down to the smallest category, can go somewhere to a meeting and get time to stand up and talk about it. And if they have the energy to write a white paper, they can write that white paper and the planning group will consider it. The APS is great for that because you want it to be just scientific and keep the politics out of it, but the product of the planning group goes directly to the agencies, it’s not vetted by the APS.
And I think we had, in the end, by the time the planning group got to look at stuff, we had maybe 20 white papers for projects that people thought were large enough that they should be considered as part of the plan. But not all of them were mega projects by any means. And many of them, in the end, just got a paragraph or something, but that was enough, and they were able to get their experiment built. And of course, there were some expensive things in there, and we had more complicated subsequent histories with actually getting them funded.
In terms of the emphasis for the value of nuclear science, particularly in the executive summary or the areas where this is the thing that the decision-makers are really going to read, to what extent was the emphasis on basic science, and to what extent was the value on applied research, applied science?
Good question. The first thing I should say is that DOE is a big organization, everything that I have discussed with you today is funded by the Office of Science which is the basic research arm of DOE. But there are also the applied energy offices and the NNSA for national security. For example, there is the Office of Nuclear Energy (NE) which supports the Nuclear Power Industry, but frankly the underlying nuclear physics of power reactors has been well understood for quite a long time, so the main purpose of the office of science from their perspective is to train nuclear physicists who can work with nuclear engineers! The office of science believes that this is best done by supporting the most exciting basic research the field can identify, whether or not it is relevant to NE or NNSA. So, our plan was a plan for basic research, and we didn’t worry too much about the needs of the applied science than to provide a chapter for the benefit of policymakers which discussed the spin offs from the field, like MRI and PET scanning. 9/11 has changed the dynamic.
Why? What's the connection?
Instrumentation, computation, AI, you name it… many of the skills and technologies we rely on in basic research are relevant to the applied offices. Whether it's monitoring compliance of treaties or looking for strategic materials being moved from place to place, there are obvious synergies between the detectors need on the applied side and the instruments we design for basic research in nuclear physics. Since 9/11, there's definitely been a much greater emphasis at the policy level on making sure that we have an appropriately balanced scientific community so that we continue to train the physicists with right skills for the applied areas.
To what extent were you focused on civilian nuclear energy, and was there any opportunity to work with the nuclear regulatory committee during this time?
I have never worked with them directly. We have people at the lab who do, but they are supported by the Office of Nuclear Energy and work in the Energy Technology Area.
So civilian nuclear energy was really out of the bounds of what this report was focused on?
It was not out of bounds, but no, we didn’t discuss new concepts for nuclear reactors because nobody in the field came forward with an idea and if they had they would have probably been sent to NE unless it really was new physics. In such a case, everyone would have been all ears. As it happens, nuclear physicists are very interested to understand the exact details of the neutrino spectrum from a power reactor because we use those neutrinos to study neutrino oscillations, and it turns out that it’s not nearly as well understood as you might think. We did discuss experiments to measure the reactor neutrino spectrum with great precision. But from the perspective of a reactor designer or operator, these subtle differences don’t matter very much so I can’t claim that we were really discussing nuclear energy.
How was the report received by policymakers?
It was received well. The main recommendation was that we should build the rare isotope facility (RIA). And, as we have just discussed, this was before 9/11, but in a sense, it would've been an even easier decision after 9/11, because this supports the area of nuclear physics that is most relevant for nuclear applications! So, the timing was good. But then, we also said that we should go for an underground lab to be funded by NSF. At that time, high energy physics wasn't too interested in a national underground laboratory because they were focused on the International Linear Collider. And we also recommended an upgrade to CEBAF the electron accelerator in Newport News. And eventually, they've all happened, but with the some turns along the way.
The biggest hiccup was that we had proposed RIA as the top priority and the cost was estimated to be almost a billion dollars. Several senior members of the community had taken me aside and told me, "Well, you've got to get the costs down." Partly, I dealt with that input by having the cost looked at closely. It was a lot of money, but I was confident that the lab which built it would indeed be able to deliver the machine for that cost! I also spoke to the DOE program managers, "Are we asking for too much money?" And they said, "No, no, not at all you just have to ask for what you need." And maybe that's part of their job description, they have to always say that. So anyway, we came in with a price that ultimately was too high for the Department.
So a year or two later, Ray Orbach who was the director of the Office of Science, appointed by George W. Bush, came to an NSAC meeting and addressed the committee. I was no longer on NSAC but I was in the audience. The message was "We really like this science of this proposal, and we have looked long and hard at it, but unfortunately, we can't pay that much. Please go back and see if you can figure out how to do it for half the price. We apologize for the delay and will do everything we can to support this research at facilities around the world in the meantime."
And that was a little awkward because you can't just say, thank you very much we’ll do something just as good for half the price. It’s not credible! Figuring out the impact of a cost reduction like that takes hard work and needs discussion, because the community had endorsed the full program. Maybe the half price program wouldn’t be exciting enough to be worthwhile. It ended up delaying the project for about five years!
Now, what was your relationship to NSAC at the time that the Rare Isotope Beam Task Force report came out in 2007?
After the Orbach decision, the labs who had worked on RIA went back to the drawing board to study the problem from their perspective. There were ways to produce more beam per dollar, but they added technical risk, and R&D was needed. That impacted us in Berkeley because one of the key pieces of R&D was the performance of the VENUS ion source. By 2006, the situation was sufficiently mature to update the long range plan. Bob Tribble, the new NSAC chair was in charge of that, but it was felt that a separate task force was needed to examine the merit of the scaled back facility which was called the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). This was the rare isotope beam task force. Dennis Kovar asked me to lead that, even though I wasn’t on NSAC anymore, and I think his reasoning was partly because of my involvement in the previous plan. To some extent it was unfinished business and it was quite a challenging task. Anyway, we did our work, and I was invited to go to Bob’s long range planning meeting and make the presentation.
Now, back at Berkeley, as if your reign as division director for ten years, from '85 to '95, was not enough, you get pulled right back in.
Yeah. I don't know what to say about that. There was a search which put forward two very strong candidates, but the director at the time, Chuck Shank, didn't want either of them for reasons that I won’t go in to. And he asked if I'd come back and do the job again. We had worked together well in the last two or three years of my first term. Anyway, Chuck asked the question, and I blinked, and I said yes, because in that moment I wanted the job again, and I believed that I could do it well. I’m human.
And you had no inkling that this would last for 11, 12 years?
No, I didn’t.
What had changed in the division since your last time leading it?
Well, obviously, I was older. And I'd just done the NSAC long range plan. I couldn't claim naivety or inexperience as an excuse. Whatever free passes one had from those days were gone. I was now 51 rather than 34, but my colleagues in the Division were older too. The group leaders in my first term were approaching retirement so I was working with a different set of program heads and now some of them were younger than me. But most of all, the DOE was changing a lot in the way they managed us. It took me a while to adjust to that new normal.
And what were the highlights?
Well, let’s take the science first. You asked me earlier about pivots. In that first term we were pivoting all over the place with major changes, some driven by external events and some by internal redirection. In the second term it was more about working to consolidate those actions, to keep the train on the tracks. We had found our niche in building these big detectors, now we had to find the next round. For example, back in the late 80s, we had joined the SNO experiment and we built a big piece of the detector. That was an important pivot for the division. When I stepped down in ’95, SNO was in final stages of construction and they spent the next years running the experiment with the discovery of oscillations in the solar neutrino spectrum – a huge discovery and ultimately a Nobel prize for Art McDonald, the Canadian spokesperson of the experiment.
In 2002 the question was “what are we going to do next in that general area” which is different from moving in a completely new direction. For the neutrino group, this meant pushing the national underground laboratory recommended in the 2002 plan. This became DUSEL and, since it was an NSF project, it had to be run through the Berkeley Campus. There were many interesting trips to South Dakota with Kevin Lesko, who led that work, to visit the old Homestake gold mine which is now home to the Sanford Underground Laboratory. Kevin should write a book about that story. We also joined two neutrinoless double beta decay experiments, one in Sanford and one, CUORE, in Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy for which we were the US lead lab and also made important technical contributions.
That was neutrinos. It was a similar story in the other areas. We built VENUS which demonstrated that the RIA cost reduction could still lead to facility which satisfied many of the original goals. Gammasphere was finished in ’95, and important R&D on a new detection technique was done in the late nineties and endorse by the 2002 NSAC plan. In the second term, we built GRETINA a demonstration array with this technology and now we are building GRETA a full scale array for FRIB. Finally, for relativistic heavy ions, we were the lead for US participation in the ALICE experiment at the LHC and built a new vertex detector with another novel technology for STAR. This was Howard Wieman’s final major contribution to the field and the division.
Another pivot I talked about earlier was the one from Chemistry to Physics. In my second term, we made three more hires in Physics (four if you include Barbara Jacak, my successor as NSD Director) and one in Nuclear Engineering! The Division is now very well placed in its connection to campus.
All in all, I think that the Division did really well, but without the adrenalin level of those earlier years. [laughs]
When did the ALD position get created at Berkeley?
Well, there'd been various incarnations of it. When I was first division director, all the division directors (there were about nine at that time I think) reported to the director, then Dave Shirley put in a management layer, ALD layer. Chuck Shank took it out but had a two-hatted system where the Division Directors still reported to him but one of them from each area was also the ALD. Anyway, Paul Alivisatos, in 2013, decided that he needed a clear management layer for the different areas of the lab. I think by then there were about nineteen Divisions grouped into five areas. Later a sixth was added. The span of the activities in the lab is so great that it was very hard for the director to deal with the problems of each division. Frankly, the Lab’s advisory board had been telling successive directors this for decades. So that's when I became at the ALD and stepped down as the division director.
Well, you were dual-hatted for two years, right?
Yeah, Jim Siegrist had been our ALD, Shank-style for many years and I took over in 2012, when he went to DOE as the Director of High Energy Physics. The Alivisatos model, which is still in effect, did not start until 2013. When that happened, I stepped down immediately and appointed an acting Director while we searched for a new Director for Nuclear Science.
And then, the move over from ALD for general sciences to ALD for physical sciences, again, what are those distinctions? What's the difference between general sciences and physical sciences?
Well, from our perspective, physical sciences was a better name.
Oh, so it's a name change. It's not two different positions.
Exactly, it was a name change. We had always hated General Sciences. So, Paul said we could suggest a new name. We discussed it in the area and Natalie Roe suggested Physical Sciences. We all liked it, so that was our proposal and Paul accepted it, with a slight frown, because typically, chemistry would be considered part of physical sciences. But in our local structure, it works well because the chemists are over in the energy sciences. It also matches well to DOE which is what really matters. We work mostly with the Offices of High Energy and Nuclear Physics, and I think that they are OK with the new name.
What did you learn about the lab from this vantage point that you might not have seen, certainly when you were a post-doc, certainly when you were a staff member, but even as division director? What did you see from 35,000 feet?
The usual things you see from high altitude: more area and less detail! But for me, the most rewarding part was to meet new people and help them be successful. For example, I had worked with many engineers over the years, but always as a customer, when they were building something for me. When engineering reports to you as an ALD, your job is to help them be more effective as an organization. It’s a very different role, and they respond to you in a different way. It was the same with the Accelerator Physicists. That was really the best part of the job for me, it broadened the group of people that I knew at the lab, and there is a lot of satisfaction in learning about their science and helping them to be successful. I have never had a problem being interested in other people's work. So, I'm as happy to sit down with somebody who's working on a laser plasma accelerator or a dark matter detector. Not everyone is like that. They find it very difficult to take off the filter of their own ambitions, their own project. So for me, that was really fun, to be able to do that in a new, broader group.
And what is your interface as ALD with the lab director? And particularly, when Mike Witherell came in in 2016, what strategic directions did the lab go at that point?
Well, I worked with five Lab directors over the years and they were all extraordinary people, but with very different styles. For example, Steve Chu came in –and I was there the first day he arrived – and he gave us a short speech, explaining first that he had “never been interested in being a lab director”, although he had been asked many times! Then he ended by telling us that “since this is the Department of Energy, we're going to work on the energy problem...".
So, Steve did that for four years at our Lab, and then he went to Washington and continued to work on the energy problem as the Secretary of Energy, including founding ARPA-E, and steering huge growth in the applied programs. In the end, though, he ran out of steam and became frustrated with the bureaucracy there. He also had some run-ins with congress over some of the DOE Industrial programs. Steve is a true visionary and because he had such clear vision, he made lasting changes at the lab, and at the national level, but he didn’t have a lot of time for the rest of the lab, and he left us alone, pretty much.
Mike Witherell, in that sense, is almost the exact opposite to Steve, in that he sees the good in everything that's being done and puts high value on the diversity of the lab science, and of its scientists. So from that point of view, Mike is a director who is easy for an ALD to work with because he doesn't have his own axe to grind. He is unlikely to say "Listen up, we're going to build this facility next year, so the rest of you will starve while we do that." His vision is that we are a lab that can do many things for the nation, that the diversity of topics makes the institution more valuable, and that strategically, this will be achieved if we pay attention to core institutional values. The only thing that was a little challenging for me was that he's a very distinguished particle physicist [laughs], and a former Director of Fermilab no less, so he really didn’t need an ALD to explain what is going on in HEP and in NP. For that reason, although I always enjoyed working for Mike as ALD, I felt more comfortable sometimes working with Paul Alivisatos. Paul was less connected to particle and nuclear physics, and really needed an ALD to help him understand what was going on in our fields!
What did you learn about the DOE in this role that you might not have appreciated, even with NSAC?
Not so much really. As NSAC Chair, I had more contact with the senior people in DOE because I would go either with the other Chairs, or with the Nuclear Physics AD to meet with the Director of the Office of Science, and support him in explaining what the nuclear physics community priorities were. As an ALD, your counterparts are the heads of the program offices. This is the level I was working with since 1985. Of course, I learned quite a bit about how the High Energy Physics and Fusion Offices work. They are generally excellent and very dedicated to their fields, because almost all of them move to DOE from research jobs at the Labs (with a few faculty thrown in) , and they really care about their programs and the science. Nevertheless, each office has its own style.
And what about Congress? What opportunities have you had to engage with Congress, and the fact that, ultimately, they control the perks?
If you're a lab manager, it's tricky because it's not part of our job description to do that under our contract with DOE, and we have to be asked by Congress to brief them. Not surprisingly, our Director is asked more often than the ALDs! Staff want to know the Lab’s priorities. But as the chair of NSAC, I could go with the other NSAC chairs to represent the nuclear physics community. That was really eye opening. I also testified in front of the House Energy Subcommittee about the national program when I was the NSAC chair. But the main way in which the community interacts with Congress is through the APS. The APS doesn't have that conflict of being for a particular lab, or facility, or anything. So, they organize visits, and of course, the labs help a lot with that. But it's under the auspices of the APS.
You mentioned the emphasis on energy research. Given the fact that this is a national priority, what advances has Berkeley made in this area in the last five, ten years?
Wow. Well, the Lab’s biggest contribution originally was the whole notion that a physicist could go in and analyze the situation, and you could actually kind of rearrange the technologies and cut the consumption of oil. That was driven by the oil crisis in the 1970s and the OPEC embargo. So, the fact that electricity consumption in California leveled off, even though the population and economy was still growing, owes a lot to the lab driving research on design of efficient refrigerators, compact fluorescents, efficient windows, and all those things. That still goes on at the lab, but, starting in the Steve Chu era about fifteen years ago, we have had more focus on energy production, things like biofuels and artificial photosynthesis.
Now, you could say that has been a bust, because currently biofuels are much more expensive than other technologies, but it’s hard to predict how those costs will evolve as they are industrialized. Look at the price of solar panels over the past decade. Another area where we are playing an important role is battery research which is obviously really important. Solar power isn’t the full answer if you don’t have the storage to smooth out the diurnal cycle. This is an area where we can bring a lot to the table with our expertise in nanotechnology, computation and materials design.
Is the lab starting to talk about post-COVID, vaccinated life returning to normal? Or is that still premature at this point?
The lab is still being very careful about how fast to ramp up the activity on site. And that's because we got to a low level of cases in October 2020, and then the numbers took off again. So, there's obviously some conservatism, which is also coming from the DOE. But as we mentioned right at the beginning of the conversation, a lot of people are actually doing their jobs pretty effectively from home. So there's a lot of discussion right now in how we manage things if we never go back to 100% on-site.
The new normal, hybrid mode.
Exactly. Hybrid mode. And how do you avoid having team A, team B, all this kind of thing. What do you do about offices that are not used all the time? I gave a little rant at the beginning of our talk about how you've got to get the scientists back on site. And I think that's true. But as you may imagine, everybody's moving cautiously on that. There has been some number of cases among the staff, but we don't have any known transmission so far at the lab.
As well they should be as a science organization. They should be at the cutting edge of these things.
Absolutely. Of course. [laugh]
For the last part of our talk, now that we've worked right up to the present, I'll ask a broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. So if we look back at your remarkable career at Berkeley, going all the way back to the 1970s as a post-doc, you were really there, you might consider it, at the tail end of Berkeley Lab founding days, its original mission, what it was built to do. And obviously, fast-forwarding to the present, Berkeley Lab is an extraordinarily different organization in terms of its mission, its science, its structure than it was. So that begs the obvious question, over this period of time, from what you have seen, to what extent has Berkeley Lab stayed true to what it was when you first got there, and to what extent is that connection really tenuous at this point, and it's an entirely different organization?
I save my big questions for last.
No, that's a good question, and you're right about being there at the end of the old days, both in terms of the facilities on site like the Bevatron, and how the DOE managed us. [laugh] They had a much lighter touch on day-to-day management in those days but the lab was still accountable for results. And one still felt the weight of history. Alvarez was still around when I arrived at the lab. Still very active. He was doing the extinction work and mentoring very talented young people: George Smoot, Rich Muller and later Saul Perlmutter. Seaborg was also still a presence, and McMillan and Segre and Calvin too, but they were the last of Lawrence’s inner circle from pre-war days.
So you might ask, if accelerator-based high energy physics was really over with the closure of the Bevatron, why didn't they just give the field up and move on – let Fermilab handle the heavy lifting, or later on, let Brookhaven handle the nuclear physics? And I think there were some people in our senior management, whose expectations were that that's the way it would go.
But the interesting thing is, it didn’t work out that way at all. And part of it obviously is that the lab has technical expertise and we can build unique instruments for these other labs. We have done a lot of that in the past forty years, and we still do today, but it’s only part of the story. The other really important development, and Alvarez paved the way for this in the 1970s, was to find important questions that require complex equipment that a lab can develop but don’t need an accelerator to answer them! We have had great successes in cosmology, astrophysics, solar neutrinos, dark matter, laser acceleration and more. Physical sciences no longer dominates the lab’s funding, but we are definitely pulling our weight scientifically and we are still able to attract excellent staff.
So that's one answer, but there's another aspect to this because I think you mentioned something about the university in there. Because there's always this question of the roles of campus and lab. And that, I think, is going to be a complicated question going forward. Because one thing that's certainly changed in my career is the ambitions of the campus to be a place where the research would be done.
The lab was created by Lawrence to do organized, complicated research as an independent organization, but with active faculty participation. It was a brilliant move which shifted the paradigm for how research is done, and the faculty at that time were happy for it to happen because the equipment really wasn’t appropriate for the campus. It could have happened at Cambridge for example but it didn’t because Rutherford didn’t believe that was the way for professor to do research!
These days, the campus is a research powerhouse and the boundaries are less clear. If you're working with a light source or running a supercomputer, well, it's pretty obvious that it should be at the lab. But when you're talking about gene splicing, or nanotechnology, or quantum computing, a lot of the frontier fields, it’s a lot less obvious where the work belongs in Berkeley, or, at the national level, which agency should fund them.
So, these are kind of issues that the lab is going to grapple with in the coming years and that's why having a director with broad vision is essential now. Before he came here, Mike Witherell had run a National Lab, and had been Vice President of Research at a UC Campus. He knows both sides of the equation and he also understands the importance of developing a more inclusive workforce. He is working hard to get the best outcome for science, for the Lab, for the University and for the DOE.
My retrospective question was on the lab. My last question, looking to the future, is going to be on nuclear science and federal policy. Obviously, your answer will be speculative because I'm asking you to look into the future. But to the extent you can extrapolate based on your deep experience with NSAC, and APS, and everything else, what do you see as the greatest challenges for nuclear science and federal policy, and where are the most exciting opportunities for ongoing discovery and fundamental research?
So let's take the challenge. The first part of the challenge, (and when you're a post-doc or a young scientist, you're insulated from this for the most part), is that what goes up must come down. Berkeley was on a high in the 50s and 60s, then there was a tough time, and some facilities were closed and new accelerators were built at other labs. If you look at the science budgets over the last five or six years, they were generous, especially for the Office of Science at the DOE, which went up by about 40%. This has insulated both fields from the essential but painful matter of closing older facilities to make way for the new, which is an important part of managing big science. It’s very hard to do but it has to be done for science to move forward.
The second part of the challenge is a political one. Presidents are only around for four years at a time, but the Biden administration came in very well organized compared to the previous one and made it clear from day one that they viewed DOE as a mission agency and that Climate Change is what the Department of Energy should work on for the nation. The administration has other ambitious goals as well. Frankly, when the previous administration arrived it had a very hazy idea what the Department of Energy did for the country other than managing the nuclear deterrent, and proposed to cut the research budget every year on general principles. Each year the budgets were restored and increased by Congress which saw the value of basic research, especially in their own districts. [laugh] That was a very unusual time because essentially the work of prioritization was taken away from the agency but I expect that there will be some rebalancing now.
The next years will be very interesting. If budgets are tight, if you've got proposals on the table to develop technologies to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, and if the Administration is serious about giving the climate mission priority, there could well be some pressure on funding for basic research in general and for high energy and nuclear physics in particular.
And you are optimistic. The field is wide open. There's still plenty of fundamental discovery to be had?
Of course, I'm optimistic, because as you may have detected, I'm generally of an optimistic nature! On the other hand, I am not sure that wide-open is quite the right word, because we have discovered so much in the past century, and some parts of the field have been well explored. But there surely will be new breakthroughs and I have no idea where they will happen. That’s why finding and the supporting the Smoots and Perlmutters – scientists who are pursuing creative ideas early in their careers, and who will make those breakthroughs – is so important. A significant fraction of the lab’s discretionary R&D funding is now devoted to this.
James, this has been a phenomenal conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this as part of the broader Oral History Project for Berkeley Lab. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, David.