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Credit: Reidar Hahn
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Interview of Melissa Franklin by David Zierler on August 7, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Melissa Franklin, Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics at Harvard. Franklin notes her affiliation with the ATLAS experiment, and she discusses the importance of remote data analysis from CERN which is possible in the current mandates of remote work. Franklin recounts her childhood in Edmonton, then Vancouver, and then Toronto, and she discusses the alternative educational experiences she pursued through high school. She describes her undergraduate experience at the University of Toronto and her decision to study physics and the summers she spent at Fermilab making a tagged photon beam. Franklin discusses her graduate work at Stanford, where she was motivated to work at SLAC with Martin Perl and then Gary Feldman. She describes her postdoctoral appointment at Berkeley working on an experiment at Fermilab, and her decision to join the faculty at the University of Illinois before accepting an offer to become a junior fellow and then an assistant professor at Harvard. Franklin describes her work on the CDF at Fermilab and measuring the mass of the W and the Z, and she surveys her style as a mentor to graduate students. She explains how she became involved with ATLAS and her interest in fundamental questions like the possible coupling of the Higgs to dark matter. Franklin describes her efforts to make the Harvard physics department a more caring place for postdocs, graduate students and support staff, and why she believes physics education research needs to be more rigorously incorporated at the department level. At the end of the interview, Franklin reflects on the significance of the discovery of the top quark, and she conveys her ambition to build a very small accelerator with a very high energy.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is August 7th, 2020. I am so happy to be here with Professor Melissa Franklin. Melissa, thank you so much for joining me today.
It's a pleasure to be here.
(Laughter) We only have up to go from here. That's great. Okay. Melissa, tell me, please tell me your title and institutional affiliation and, in addition, all of the major and exciting collaborations that you're currently a part of.
Okay. I'm the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics in the Physics Department at Harvard University. And I am a collaborator on the ATLAS experiment, which takes place at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.
Now, absent the pandemic, would you be at CERN now more likely than not?
Yes, I would be there usually during the summer, and some of my students and postdocs are there now.
How well are you able to do CERN stuff remotely these days?
Well, we can analyze data remotely. I think being collaborators on a 3,000-person experiment that takes place many thousands of miles away, we've already learned to do many, many things remotely. It's not so bad for us. I can't actually touch anything or look at oscilloscopes, which is too bad, but we do have people there who can. On detector upgrade projects where it really requires physically being there, we have people there who take data and then we look at it remotely. It's kind of normal, actually this remoteness.
Right. All right, Melissa. Let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I want to hear first about your parents and their incredible life stories, as well. So, let's start with first your father and where he is from.
My father is from England. He went into the Second World War in the Navy, the English Royal Navy, and he came out of it and moved to Canada.
Why? Why did he choose to go to Canada?
My understanding is that all of his friends were dead in England, and he felt like Canada offered a fresh start. He wanted something new, I guess. It was pretty depressing, is my understanding. He was in the Navy for six years. I guess he stayed after the war finished, too, on a minesweeper.
Did he ever talk about his experiences in the war?
Right. Did you ever try to get anything out of him?
I wish I had tried to get more out of him. I was surprised when I was going through his papers recently and I found a letter he wrote giving money to some charity for amputees from the Second World War. And in it he said that he= this is the first I heard of it- in it he said he was there, and maybe this is the connection, actually, taking Canadian troops to land on the beaches of Normandy. Yes. And it is the first time I knew that he was there, and that his job was to ferry the Canadian troops there. That was weird. Yeah, he never talked about anything.
What about your mom, where's your mom from?
My mother is from Canada. She's from Ottawa.
Where did your parents meet?
They met in the theater. My father was writing plays and my mother was an actress in local theater, neighborhood theater.
How did your father break into that very different career path?
Different? Oh, no. He was a journalist who wrote plays on the side. I don't know how he did that. I guess he knew how to write English and he was a personable guy, so I guess you can be a journalist. Neither of them went to university, but that was sort of circumstantial, I think.
And where were you born?
I was born in Edmonton, Alberta. That's a place in Canada (laughter).
I've heard of it (laughter).
Yeah. And then, very soon after that, we moved to Vancouver, which is in British Columbia, also in Canada (laughter). And I grew up there very close to the beach, and my mother had a bookstore which was on the beach.
You spent your whole childhood in Vancouver?
No. I moved to Toronto when I was about six or seven. And then I lived in Toronto.
So, to the extent that talents in math and science have a genetic component, where in your family might you have gotten some of your abilities from if not your parents?
I think my father was good at math.
When did you start to realize that you had this special aptitude, perhaps even before your formal education?
I don't really have a special aptitude (laughter). I have to say that. I mean, I like math and physics. I always have.
Well, I can say that for you, and many of your colleagues can, as well.
(Laughter) No, I always really liked arithmetic and mathematics, reading, and I think early on I found learning to be easy, but also it seemed hard to just sit still in a class. Both things were true. So, they accelerated me to get me out of the classroom (laughter).
Were you a standout student in math and science in high school?
No. No. In high school, no. I don't think so. I only did the normal ninth grade in regular school. I did fine, but I wasn't a perfect student at all. I quit normal school when I was thirteen and we started a free school and that was a lot better for me because I didn't have to sit in classes.
Was this your decision? You made it with your parents?
It was my decision, and my parents were okay with it, yeah.
Was this a thing to do? I mean, had you heard about this idea, or did you just make it up yourself?
No. I used to ride my bike around the city a lot, and I met some people in the summer reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in a park, a group of young people. I just leaned on my bicycle and listened for a while, and then I started talking to them. And I wondered who they were. They were starting a free school in the basement of the Young Men's Hebrew Association. And I just thought, wow, this is more fun than what I would normally be doing. So, I just applied to that school, which was the first year it existed. And that was an interesting school. We just learned from people in the community.
So, I can see how a community member might be able to help out teaching English and history and things like that, but how might you have kept up with math and science in that kind of environment?
The Board of Education gave us three teachers, I think, and one was a math teacher. Unfortunately, with math we just decided to go through the normal math books that were supplied and just do them really fast, that is, do all the problems and finish. It's not a great way to learn mathematics and I think I suffered from that. So, we did that. And we found people to teach us biology and physics from the university which was nearby and those professors would just donate their time.
Did you finish high school at the same time you would've in a traditional environment?
I didn't get a high school diploma. I didn't finish high school.
Does that mean that there was a diploma that you could've gotten at the free school and you didn't do that, or you just mean by virtue-
No, I didn't do that. I went to the free school for two years and then I left and moved to England. I wanted to travel. And from there I sort of enrolled in a school called the Lycée Français. It's a French government school. And I never got a degree. I got one A -level in Physics.
So, just for the record, the first woman to receive tenure in the physics department at Harvard is a high-school dropout?
Yeah. Dropout is a strong word there (laughter). I- actually, dropped in. Yeah. I did go to school and I did learn a lot.
How did you navigate your acceptance to the University of Toronto absent the high school degree?
That was interesting. I just went there every day for something like thirty-four days in a row and I talked to different people, and I said, "You know, I think you really want me here because I know what I want to do and I'm reasonably intelligent. And it's a big school so you'll never know."
And when you said you knew what you wanted to do, what ideas did you have at the time?
I wanted to do physics.
You did? So that early on you knew it was physics?
I did. Yeah, yeah. I became interested in physics when I was in England.
Oh, how did that happen?
I was at a French school, which is a pretty serious thing, French school. And I wasn't being very serious according to them, so they said, you need to be serious and you need a goal in your life. So just to be a kind of badass, I said, "Okay, I'll do physics." I started in the middle of a two-year physics program for the A levels. I just started in the fourth semester of a four-semester course. And so, I started learning physics. And then, at the same time, I was reading books by some of the people who founded quantum mechanics. And they were sort of books which were not so much science books but books about their thoughts and the walks they took and the ideas they had when they were coming up with quantum mechanics. And that I found very interesting.
Even before your formal education at university, were there popularizers of physics that sort of captivated your attention, sort of public intellectuals, physicists who would approach broader audiences that you paid attention to?
I mean, relatives used to always give me Popular Science books and I didn't read them (laughter). I read books by Heisenberg and Pauli and Planck. I was interested in philosophy and science. These people who came up with quantum mechanics also somehow knew how to write, and I loved reading those books. And I remember I would go to the library and just read those. But sadly, I didn't read any of the popular books. And I had a bad attitude, actually, toward them. I don't know why. I recall being given Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and putting it on the shelf never to be read.
Looking back, is there an origin story toward experimental particle physics that sort of explains that route in terms of your early interests?
Is there an origin story? When I was- I think I was possibly in grade school, I read a book about this German science student who had a hunchback, and he was a really good student but he wasn't allowed at the graduation ceremony because he looked so bad. And I totally related to that. I know that seems like a strange thing, but the idea of being an outsider and still doing well at physics or being able to do physics motivated me.
An outsider in what way? Just being a woman?
In every possible- well, no, not just being a woman. I am someone who mostly just read books. I was reading everything, philosophy, a lot of literature, everything, and then becoming a scientist was a little outside-
Yeah. But, Melissa, everybody in high school is an outsider when your purview is academic physics. Who's an insider at that point? And I guess my real question there is, probably you continue to think of yourself as an outsider?
Yes. That's the point.
No, no. I am (laughter). I am an outsider.
You're a Harvard professor. You're as inside as it gets.
I know. It's in your head, you know.
Right, right (laughter).
Yeah. At Harvard, the Department of Physics can be a group of outsiders, can it not, right?
Sure. Of course.
Anyhow, I think that outsider view is fine. I guess what I'm saying is I think this story that I read when I was young made it seem like an exotic thing to be an outsider.
But more recently I've actually discovered a role model.
Please, who's that?
I now have a role model. Her name is Maria Goeppert Mayer. And, although she was not an experimentalist, she was really a badass scientist, a desperado, a sort of chain-smoking, somewhat alcoholic, brilliant theorist.
And very little is known about her. And lately I've been just reading everything I can, and I just came back from her archives in San Diego, which you would like. Actually, you would like this. I'm a physicist so I'm not used to going into the archive room and getting the boxes of stuff and going through them. So fun!
There you go.
But I found something surprising, like 150 letters- letters from Edward Teller-
-to her. Very, very close friends. Really interesting. Yeah.
What compelled you to do this little research trip?
She did her work while she was in an office at University of Chicago, although not paid by University of Chicago. And the University of Chicago decided recently to claim her, her Nobel Prize-winning work on the nuclear shell model. And they decided to have a Maria Goeppert Mayer annual lecture. I was asked to give this lecture and I said, "Well, what should I talk about?" And the person inviting me said, "Anything you want." I started reading about Maria Goeppert Mayer and I just got completely fascinated. She's basically like all the really amazing female intellectuals of the twentieth century. Can you just picture her- I can show you a picture of her, cigarette in one hand, bags under her eyes, intensely figuring out whether gold could actually be made in normal star collapse or whether you have to have neutron star collisions in order to make it. That's how cool she is.
Yeah. She's so cool. Sorry. I went off track there a little bit.
No, that's fine. Obviously, University of Toronto is nearby, but did you have a sense also of just how excellent it was in the math and sciences?
No. I didn't know, and I didn't think like that. In Canada, we don't really have such an idea of hierarchy. You go to university somewhere you can go, and it doesn't cost too much. I lived two miles away. But I did have the sense that it was a fine school. It didn't occur to me to think, oh, well, it's not as good as McGill or Harvard. I didn't even think like that. I was sixteen.
It turned out to be an extremely good school.
Did you live at home for your undergraduate?
I lived at home for part of it, and then I sort of moved around. I used to live in- when people went away for two months I would live in their apartment and wear their clothes (laughter). I lived with Buddhists one year. I wasn't at my parents’ home the whole time. But I did not live in residence. And I didn't have any friend (laughter).
Did you declare the major in physics right away?
I don't even think you declare. Actually, I didn't get a degree in physics. I don't think you declare. I don't know. You just take all your courses and then they give you a degree. They gave me a degree in science.
General science, because I didn't want to take one class because I didn't like the professor, so I just didn't take it.
But physics was the bulk of the classes that you took?
Physics, philosophy, and religious studies.
Physics, philosophy, and religious studies. Wow.
Did you know that you wanted to go on to pursue a graduate degree in physics right away or that took some time?
No, no, no. I never wanted to go on, so no (laughter).
(Laughter) But you did, so at some point you must've made that decision.
I did. No, no. I think that's just something that happens, because you're in the middle of something and then you want to keep doing it for a while. You realize that the next thing you have to do is to continue. I didn't really have this idea of having a PhD or being a professor. On the street that I grew up on, there were a couple of professors and they were great, but kind of narrow and snooty in a way.
Melissa, did these Buddhists that you lived with, did they have a formative impact on you? I'm sensing like a Zen passivity that's sort of- you're a particle floating through the wind. You don't really seem to have a grand plan in play here.
Well, I don't know. It's possible that- well, did the Buddhists- yes, of course they did. It was interesting learning about Buddhism and living that lifestyle. I don't know whether this is normal, but as a young woman it didn't occur to me really about what job I would have. I wasn't thinking about jobs ever or that I could have one. I can remember the first time someone gave me a job and payed me $50,000 a year. I just thought, oh, my God, how did this happen? It wasn't like it is now where you're thinking ahead, and thinking, is that where I want to go? For me it was basically a random walk, with drift.
You were clearly- senior year you were not diligently filling out graduate applications to all of these amazing physics programs that you knew you wanted to go to; that was not your scene?
I did apply to a bunch of places, yeah. I did. I applied to a bunch of places. Because I'll tell you why; I knew about it only because I'd spent two summers in the U.S. at Fermilab. I learned there what to do, that you could go to graduate school and that you would apply, and people would write you letters and all those things. I became sort of a bit Americanized when I went to Fermilab.
What kind of work did you do at Fermilab?
Oh, it was great. We made a tagged photon beam. It was a fixed-target experiment, experiment 25, E-25, which is- well it starts at 1. And you basically make a photon beam where you tag the energy of every photon and then you make it interact with hydrogen or with protons and you see what happens. And it was really exciting, it was incredibly exciting because that year, before I had gone to Fermilab for the summer, the charm quark had been discovered. November 1974. And it was an amazing thing. It just happened that the day it was announced a physicist called Murray Gell-Mann, who came up with the idea of quark model, was giving a lecture at our university and he just gave a lecture about the new charmed quark, and it was incredibly exciting. Everybody was there from all around Ontario. And the charm quark was sort of the discovery that made it clear that there really were quarks. So, it was incredibly exciting to then make the J/psi particle, which are bound states of charmed quarks, in my experiment that summer. And that was pretty great because most of what I was doing during the summer was sort of building a railroad for the detector to move along or gluing photo-tubes onto lead glass blocks. So very physical things; driving a forklift, driving trucks, doing things like that, working all night. And then, in fact, we produced the particles that had just been discovered for the first time the year before. So that was very, very exciting.
You fell in love with protons and never looked back, right?
No, no (laughter). I like electrons. No, no. 'Cause my graduate research was with electrons.
But I'm not really wedded to a particular particle (laughter). I just like to see what happens when things interact.
Did the experience when you said you got a little Americanized at Fermilab, when you were thinking about graduate school, were you thinking specifically about the States? Did you want to study in the United States?
Yes. I only applied in the United States.
Where else did you apply?
Where else did I apply than where I went?
I applied to Yale, Princeton. I didn't apply to Harvard. I applied to Columbia. I applied to Chicago, Santa Barbara, and Stanford.
And how was your batting average?
I really wanted to go to Columbia because I had met Leon Lederman at Fermilab, and then he had hired me to work at CERN the summer after college, which was incredible. But I didn't tell him I was applying, and I didn't get into Columbia. That's the sad part of my life.
I think my life would've been different.
Had you told Lederman, you felt like you would've gotten into Columbia?
I don't know. It's a good idea to at least tell the person you're working for who's a professor that you'd like to go.
You never know.
No. I got into Yale and Princeton and Stanford and Santa Barbara.
Why Stanford? Was SLAC really exciting to you?
Yeah. Having been at Fermilab where there's an accelerator, I really wanted to be near an accelerator. But also, my mentors at University of Toronto told me that I may not fit in in the Ivy League (laughter). Like, Princeton and Yale I may not fit there.
Tell me a little bit about your summer at CERN.
Summer at CERN was incredible. I was working on an experiment at what was called the ISR, the intersecting storage rings. That's just protons, proton-proton collisions. And I was working on an experiment Lederman had two experiments at that time. He had an experiment at Fermilab, which was what that summer discovered the bottom quark.
And then he was working on this experiment at CERN which discovered nothing pretty much. But all the theorists at CERN knew that I was working for Leon and they knew something was coming because, of course, everybody hears rumors. And so, they kept inviting me places trying to get some information about what was happening with the discovery of the bottom quark. It made it a little bit more fun to be at CERN because otherwise it's kind of lonely. I worked on a number of things at CERN, but I didn't discover the bottom quark.
But I did get into a situation that made me infamous somehow, which is that I was at a pub with some theorists, including John Ellis, and we were playing darts - it was a long story. I used to tell jokes, and when I went to CERN the invitation I received said, you can come and we will pay you $100/week, but you have to tell us the penguin joke when you come. And the funny thing was, whenever I had previously told this joke, people would laugh all the way the through the joke, but at the end nobody would laugh, and that was also funny. I never told the joke at CERN, but there was essentially what we now call a penguin joke meme. It was sort of a running gag. And I said that if I won the dart game John Ellis and Serge Rudaz and Dmitri Nanopoulos, Mary K. Gaillard would have to use the word penguin in their next paper. Their next paper turned out to be an interesting paper, and they made a Feynman diagram that looked like a penguin, and they called it the penguin diagram. And to this day, it's called the penguin diagram. I'm not really famous in any other way. I guess what I'm saying was it was a time when physics was happening, things were being discovered, and to be in the middle of the people making that physics was very exciting to me.
I think going to Fermilab as an undergraduate made such a big difference to me because I was immediately working with people who are actually making knowledge, right there. At Fermilab say you have nothing to do at night and you're just sitting on the tenth floor of this amazing building called the Hi-rise, looking over the prairie and there's this insanely creative physicist, Leon Lederman working there, and you can start talking to him. And you just think, wow, what field can you go into where almost immediately as an undergrad you have access to the most interesting people in the world? That's kind of exciting.
I'm not sure it's true anymore, because the collaborations are so big, and youngsters are shy.
Culturally, what were some of the big differences between Fermilab and CERN in terms of working in a big science kind of environment?
Fermilab is really like a cowboy place. A lot of people rode horses and drank bourbon. It's sort of somewhere between the wild west and some kind of sixteenth century Chinese poem. It has both aspects of it. You're doing these amazing things in the lab. You're building these huge structures to look at incredibly tiny things, and somehow also thinking about poetic things, infinity, the universe, the Big Bang, atoms etc. And it is nice just to sit and think about quantum mechanics in your experimental hall. But to build things that can actually measure things about quantum mechanics, that's something which sort of covers many ranges of wavelength, let's say. It's something that brings together two things that are wildly disparate and somehow connects them. And that is the most amazing thing about particle physics.
Were you building at CERN also?
I didn't finish about Fermilab. Fermilab is the wild west. People didn't follow the rules too carefully. For instance, if it was nighttime and someone had locked a cabinet and you needed a tool from that cabinet, you wouldn't wait, you would just take a hammer and a little screwdriver and you would take the hinges off the cabinet and just take the tool. That was a different view than at CERN where things were much more contained, it seemed to me anyway, and that there were technicians that did things properly (laughter). So, there was a different view of the whole enterprise, and people were a little more contained and serious. CERN is an amazing place where, behind every door, there's some person who knows an amazing amount about something. And there are so, so many doors. There must be thousands of doors at CERN. At Fermilab there's really not the thousands of doors. Somehow these thousands of doors also made me feel lonely though- especially when they were all closed at night.
Melissa, especially after the November revolution coming out of SLAC, did you have a sense at CERN that there was a competition there going about where CERN really had something to prove to make sure that it stayed at the cutting edge and did not let what was happening in the United States overtake it?
I didn't feel that then. I do think CERN made some interesting decisions. For instance, it made the following decision- it had this proton synchrotron called the PS, their first machine, and instead of just building a bigger one, a more energetic one, they built the proton proton collider, intersecting storage rings, which was a really interesting idea. Not a lot of big discoveries came out of it. Not any really big discoveries. So, I think that they were on their own path and I think that's very interesting. I don't get the sense that, maybe I'm missing it, but I get the sense that many times these big laboratories have made decisions which seem strange, but which always led to something new. For instance, the intersecting storage rings was kind of a fascinating place. While I was there for that summer, everybody was there in that place, everybody in my field. In the building where I worked, there was Simon van der Meer, who got the Nobel Prize for figuring out how to cool antiprotons down in order to make proton-antiproton colliders. There was Carlo Rubbia, who later got the Nobel Prize for W and Z. Leon Lederman was there, who got the Nobel Prize for the B quark. Sam Ting was there, who got the Nobel Prize also for the J/psi particle. There was this incredible group of people working on a collider that tried every new thing in accelerator physics and yet kind of missed all the big—missed the J/psi, for instance. But so much came out of that ISR. So, it's kind of interesting. Clearly, probably after that, they felt absolutely terrible they missed not only the J/psi but also the B quark, but so much of what came later in accelerator physics relied on what they did learn. That was the first time they had cooled antiprotons. It was the first time they had used superconducting magnets. It was the first time they had used stacked proton beams. So, yeah, I think people felt like they missed something and that was too bad, but I think they also felt like they were contributing a lot. I don't know. I was young. Maybe I don't really understand what they were feeling (laughter).
When you got to Stanford, obviously, you were pretty well settled on focusing on experimentation. Theory was never going to be something for you to focus on?
No, no. Again, my math background was sort of more an engineering math background, so I didn't have the skills to be a theorist. And also, I can't sit still. I like using my hands. That's what I'm saying. I liked the fact that you could do all different scales of things as an experimentalist. You could make electronics and you could do things that are really tiny, and you could solder tiny things, and then you could build big things and drive big trucks, and I like that. And you do calculations also when you're an experimentalist, but I could not imagine sitting in a room with some paper and just doing calculations. That's not enough. For me at least.
But also, I would've been a terrible theorist.
Right. I often wonder when I talk to theorists, getting a sense of what they do, and they say, well, I went into a room and I sat, and I thought (laughter).
It's, like, what does that even mean? So, I totally get that. When you got to Stanford, did you have a good idea of who you wanted to work with or that was a sort of process?
I knew who I wanted to work with. He had also come to the University of Toronto to give a talk. This is going to sound funny because it's very bizarre. His name is Martin Perl and he had just discovered the tau lepton, the third lepton. And he came and gave a talk and I thought it was- obviously, it was incredibly exciting, this discovery, and also, I liked his talk. And then I read the book he wrote, the textbook he wrote, and I thought that he would be a good person to work for. But I also was completely enamored with the accents of these American physicists. Coming from Canada, you then had these people coming from New York city, a lot of them with these sort of pretty thick New York accents. And I found it sort of exotic. So, actually, Feynman, Perl, Gell-Mann, all these people, Lederman, they all had these accents, and I found it kind of an appealing, and exotic and I liked that.
All of these Jewish New Yorkers in California?
Yeah. Yeah. I really liked the exoticness of the accents and that big city savy. And I know that sounds strange, but- Ontario doesn't have that.
Right, right. Where would you interact with Feynman, on one of his visits to SLAC or to the department specifically?
Feynman, I just saw him give a bunch of lectures. I once went to Caltech to give a talk so I could meet him, but he was sick; he was not there. But, in a way, I'm glad I'd never met him because he was such an enormous hero of mine that it was good that I could admire him from afar. I mean just the way he writes about physics, talks about the electron going "pip, pip, pip," I mean, I was so totally in love with his way of thinking. So, it's kind of good that I didn't meet him because the only thing that could happen there is that I make an idiot of myself and then I feel-
Or that he's not the legend in your mind that he is in person.
Oh, no. I'm pretty sure he probably was.
What was Martin Perl working on when you first got to start up with him?
Martin was working on the tau lepton still. I mean, he continued studying the tau. And that actually- at some point after four years, I said I didn't want to do a PhD thesis on the tau. And he said, "Well, then get someone else to be your advisor." So, for the last year someone else advised my thesis.
Who was that?
That was Gary Feldman who was a research scientist in Group E, the Perl group.
I interviewed Gary a few weeks ago.
Oh, did you?
Yeah. I'm doing a big oral history project for SLAC in general, so I got to him through that.
Yeah. Martin was kind of interesting and off-beat. He was a very interesting guy and quite nice, but not maternal at all.
Gary was? That worked out for you?
No, no. Gary was not maternal at all (laughter).
(Laughter) Perhaps if it was looking for maternal- were there any women professors you could've worked with?
Not really. There were two women who were there, but they weren't professors. There was Gail Hanson and Vera Lüth, both very good. But I don’t think they particularly felt drawn to me. I had somewhat of a question-authority personality at the time.
I don't know where that came from.
Did you ever interact with Mary K., either at CERN or at Berkeley?
Oh, yes. So, Mary K. was- so remember when I was talking about the penguin story?
Mary K. was one of the four theorists who were writing that paper, so I met her at CERN that summer and knew her. Yeah. I like Mary K. So, I had a hard time in graduate school because I wasn't a very good student and I couldn't concentrate very well. I think if it had been now, I would've been definitely taking Ritalin to concentrate. But there were a couple of people who made a big difference to my life. Martin Perl was very supportive. Burt Richter, incredibly supportive. Burton Richter, I thought he was great, he was the sort of head of group C, which was the biggest group at SLAC. I was in an experiment in which there were two groups, group C and group E. Martin Perl was group E, Burton Richter was group C. And Burt was sort of the leader of that experiment, the Mark II. And he was just incredible. He was sort of a bad ass, too, sort of like Maria Goeppert Mayer. I loved it because he wore shades and polyester suits all the time. I loved the idea that- he was sort of like a gangster, in a way. Very cool and incredibly nice, incredibly supportive, smart, everything. Yeah. I think he changed my life.
Also, while I was at Stanford, I got really interested in nuclear weapons and arms control. And on the theory floor at SLAC, which was on the third floor or one of the buildings, or maybe it was the fourth floor, there was a little room, and in that room were all these books about arms control. And there were two people who were interested in arms control, in the theory group, there was Panofsky, Pief, who worked in arms control, and Sid Drell, and they were both really great and nice to me. And they used to let me go into their little room and read all this stuff. And then I got interested in that and went to a Pugwash conference and we started a seminar at Stanford about nuclear weapons. At that point, we were worried about the fact that they were going to be using the accelerator, the electron accelerator, to make photons to calibrate and study weapons, which they do. And we decided we wanted to understand that better and maybe we didn't want to be a part of that. It was kind of interesting. We had a lot of people involved. People came up from campus and spoke. And so that was kind of nice to have there. And then, both Pief and Drell wrote serious things about arms control and seemed on the right side of things.
Did you ever pursue that interest in nuclear weapons and arms control?
You mean further than that?
Yeah. No, I thought about that when I graduated with a PhD, I thought about-there was a place at Princeton. I'm trying to remember the name of it. It was a little group of people with Frank von Hippel who were working on- I forget what it was called. Anyway, they did arms control among other things, energy, arms control, and I thought about doing that. But then life intervened and I just took a postdoc at Berkeley.
And when you say, "life intervened," in what way?
I fell in love. I was living with somebody who was at Stanford and so I didn't want to move across the country.
Who was on your committee at Stanford?
Who was on my committee? Hmm, that's a good question. Well, I guess there must've been Gary Feldman. There was Ian Hacking. Ian Hacking is a philosopher who I really like, philosopher of science, and he's a philosopher of many things. He was great. And who was the third person? Hmm. I don't really know. My academic advisor was a guy called Sandy Fetter, but I don't really know who the third person was. I guess I should look it up. So, Ian Hacking had written a book called Representing and Intervening, in which I think a couple of chapters of it were about the polarized electron gun at SLAC which is the electron source at the beginning of the accelerator.
And he had a really beautiful sort of operational way- but beautiful way of thinking about scientific reality that I liked. And it was nice to have him on my committee. He was just an incredibly brilliant person.
Now, I know graduate students generally, and I'm pretty sure specifically, not you, were thinking such grandiose thoughts about the relevance of your work to the field, but what did you see as some of the bigger questions about electrons that were being asked at that time, and how was your graduate research responsive to those bigger questions?
We used electrons, but we weren't studying electrons at that point. We collided electrons and positrons, and we made resonances, we made particles that lasted just for a little while and then decayed to particles, which included charm quarks. And we were just trying to understand those resonances really well. There were a lot of puzzles. I think my thesis has a puzzle in it that still isn't answered, and one of the reasons it's not answered is because the calculation is too hard to make. The energies are too low, and the coupling is too large, so it's very hard to actually come up with a theory. But the other thing we were doing was seeing if there were new states of matter that we didn't understand, and that was the other part of my thesis. It was an observation of a new resonance which we thought might have been made up of gluons. And we didn't know exactly its provenance. We were doing a kind of spectroscopy, trying to understand how these charm quarks made resonances by combining with other quarks, and then by looking at how they decayed we sort of were understanding what their properties were. I guess it's just charm spectroscopy is what we were sort of interested in. And this was all part of trying to show that quarks were actually real things and not just a good way to- not just a model that helped us think about things. They were actually real. So that's what we were doing.
When you got to Berkeley, was that an opportunity to continue on with this work or were you looking to take on new things?
The job at Berkeley was to work on an experiment at Fermilab using protons and anti-protons this time.
So why Berkeley? Why didn’t you just go straight to Fermilab?
Because there was this guy I was living with. You know, love is important.
Love is very important.
I think, in general, I always tell my students to fall in love and physics will follow.
That's good. That's good advice.
I'm not sure it's good advice. I know I give a lot of advice, often unrequited advice. And often I stop people on the street and just start giving them advice (laughter). So much of being a professor is giving advice that I'm now on sort of automatic pilot and I have to stop myself a lot of times. So that was kind of an exciting thing I was doing at Berkeley, working on building a detector from the ground up for a new experiment at Fermilab. That was kind of exciting. Being in Berkeley was great. It's an incredible place with really brilliant people and incredible coffee, which is the most important thing, that you drink outside.
Yeah. I'm from Toronto, so there was not a lot of drinking coffee outside at that time. And also, I loved Fermilab. Fermilab is my home. I just love being at Fermilab. I love the prairie. I love the sort of can-do cowboy thing. So, yes, I joined that experiment and built the detector and then installed it and commissioned it, which was I think the most pleasurable thing I've ever done.
Why? What was so enjoyable about it?
One thing that I like about it was there was always lots of friction and fights, controversy. You install your detector and say it's got a lot of noise. And so, you say to the other person with their other detector, "You're making noise," and they say, "No, I'm not," and I say, "Yes, you are." And then you show them a signal. It's interactive but it's also problem solving.
You're not just sitting alone solving problems, you're actually fighting and stealing tools from other people. It gets emotional. It gets emotional, and I like that. I like that it's not contained. Also, it's physical. One of the things that happened is we built this detector and it turned out that it didn’t fit! The scaffold was this huge piece of iron that people had welded in such a way that you couldn't fit the detectors in, so we actually had to, saw all the detectors to fit them in. That's kind of very physical, and, yet, in the end, what we're learning about is the top quark. That's what we eventually discovered. So very, very exciting. You also get to go up in these Lift-A-Lofts and put the electronics on your detector three stories high. That's kind of exciting and very physical. I don't know. I guess this isn't exciting to everyone. Maybe I should've been a construction worker. I love that aspect of things. I love learning those things like when you're on the road and you see some truck that's gone off the road and fallen into the ditch, and then you see how they get it out of the ditch and you think, wow, that's really a smart idea. That's interesting. I wouldn't have thought of that or would I have thought- that's kind of the part of physics that I think is underrated.
Sometimes people say, is that physics that you're doing? And I say, well, I don't know. It doesn't really matter, right? It seems like if you ask yourself how many minutes of the day are you doing physics when you're a physicist, my answer is just, all day, because I'm thinking about physics, but a lot of what we're doing people call engineering or just technical work. You can start to become kind of brain addled if you start thinking about these questions. I know you're looking at me like I've wandered so far away from your question.
Not at all, not at all. In fact, the fun of this is you're really conveying what it's like, which is so hard to get so many people to talk about. So, this is great. I'm there with you. I really feel like I get a sense of what you were doing day to day.
So, for example, how do you saw a detector and not ruin it?
Well, you're sawing through G10. You don't saw the business parts that you could hurt (laughter). But the parts that fit in and sort of catch another part, slip into it, catch another part you can saw. It's amazing what you can do, actually, when you're building a big detector, because maybe, let's say, fourteen universities work together in a lab to build an experiment, each building a different part. And then you build your piece at your university and then you bring them all together at Fermilab. And then find, oh, dear, these don't fit together. They don't fit in many ways, like the cables don't fit. There's always this sort of insane time at the end, of trying to assemble this detector and make it work. And then there's always this question of, oh, this detector works fine but it makes an enormous amount of noise for this detector. How did we not think of that? It's complicated, and I find that kind of problem solving very fun. Yeah.
I don't think everybody has the opportunity to do that these days. These days, it's sort of like this: There's huge experiments and a student is sort of air-lifted in to one little part of this experiment and then they say, okay, can you fix this little thing here? Can you make this work? But they don't have an idea the whole thing. They don't have the big overview. And, in the experiment at Fermilab which I worked on for thirty years, I knew where everything was. I knew what every cable was and who put it in and what it did. Now at CERN, there are actual rooms I haven't been in that have electronics. And I say to someone who's working in there, could you take some pictures for me and tell me what's there? Because I feel like I'm a little bit distant from it, and a lot of people are. I guess I really loved that, being a postdoctoral fellow and an assistant professor at Fermilab because I learned everything. I knew everything. I felt like that experiment was mine.
And was your style- would you take on mentors to learn how they did it, or did you have an independent streak where you wanted to figure it out, blank sheet of paper for yourself?
Well, I think both. I mean, obviously, it's crazy to figure something out if someone can just tell you easily. But usually there's both. Usually someone tells you something and then you have to see if you understand it.
I'm trying to think about mentors. I worked for someone, Bill Carithers at Berkeley, who was an amazing person to work for, mostly because, not being a very, very strong physicist, I didn't have a lot of confidence. And there are some people who you work with who can just give you the confidence. I don't know how. They have confidence in you and all of the sudden you have confidence in yourself. And he taught me lots of things. Yeah. I'm trying to think of somebody else. I don't know. I pick things up just by listening to people, I guess.
Did you know at LBL that this would turn into a four-year experience? Postdocs are usually one or two years and then you go somewhere else.
No. In particle physics they're usually four years.
Yeah. So, in particle physics, it used to be postdoc four years and then assistant professor.
And now it's more like postdoc four years, another postdoc for two years.
Yeah. It's harder. But it's a different model. Because in particle physics, you can't really do much in two years in experimental particle physics, so it's hard to sort of finish a project in two years.
How intensively did you go on the job market after those four years? Did Illinois reach out to you or you were putting in applications a lot of places?
I think I applied to four places. I mean, some of the times people want you to apply 'cause you're a woman and then they said, yeah, we interviewed a woman.
Yeah. Not that you're cynical or anything.
No, I'm not cynical. I mean, that is what happens. I mean, it still happens. The reason is, it makes sense- and also if they don't interview you, they can't find that you're actually good.
So I'm not cynical that- I'm not saying that people did it knowing very well that there was no chance in hell that they were going to hire me; I'm saying that it wasn't hard to get on an interview list, I think.
But I wanted to stay on the same experiment. And I think I applied to Michigan and Illinois and- I don't remember where else I applied. Oh, maybe UCLA sort of.
Did you have intentions to stay longer at Illinois than just that short amount of time you were there?
Yeah, I absolutely did. I loved Illinois. It's a great university. They're incredibly nice and really, really good people. It's an incredible physics department, first of all. It has a different style, which is very midwestern. I call it midwestern 'cause that's-
It's nice. It's a nice place.
Yeah. But, not only that, the people are really smart but not assholes.
I think they must have the no asshole rule there. I know you're not supposed to say those words, so let me say it a different way (laughter). There's no other way to say it.
Dale Van Harlingen really put it- he didn't use that word, but he put it in a way that conveyed exactly what you're saying. It’s just people are really impressive but are also nice and supportive and collaborative with each other.
Yeah, yeah. And that was kind of also a really interesting time at Illinois. Because that's when a bunch of the interesting people showed up at Illinois and we were all new there. Stephen Wolfram was there and that's where he started to make Mathematica, and also a group of people who had been at Santa Cruz who worked on chaotic systems were there, dripping faucets, things like that. Norm Packard, and xxx.,. So, all those people were there, so that was very fun because they were also people who just arrived and were interesting in lots of different ways. Those are the people who went to Las Vegas with a computer in their shoe and tried to beat the system. I don't know if you ever read that book, The Eudaemonic Pie. And I spent a lot of time at Fermilab and some time at Illinois. But I had been living with someone in San Francisco who moved to Harvard and then, before we split up, some people at Harvard thought, oh, we can get you a fellowship at Harvard. And that took a long time. While I was at Illinois at some point, Harvard asked me to apply for this fellowship in the Society of Fellows, a junior fellowship, which is an incredible postdoc position which means you don't have to do anything for three years except eat really good dinners and drink really good wine.
Now, of all of the men I've talked to who did this, the idea is that it makes a gentleman out of you.
Was the idea for women to make a gentlewoman out of you, as well?
Well, I did use it as a kind of finishing school because being at Fermilab when you're just driving trucks and things, you're-
Little rough around the edges? (laughter)
I was a little rough around the edges anyway. Yeah. But I did learn to smoke cigars there and how to roll a small glass of cognac over my cheek into my mouth.
Are there any pictures of you smoking cigars? I would really like to see that.
I don't think anybody took pictures then. We didn't have cell phones then.
It was a long time ago.
Anyway, I went there for a year. I thought that would be really fun.
Were you doing physics that year?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was doing exactly the same thing at Fermilab and flying back and forth to Chicago all the time. But the Society of Fellows is such an amazing place because when you- often when you go to a university, you just meet the people in your department pretty much.
And the Society of Fellows, at that point took eight people a year for three years, and those eight people were in all different disciplines. And so, you just got to meet people and talk to them about all kinds of different things, which is really what the university is about, and that made it particularly exciting for me. And because I did that and because I met so many of those people, I now have a much richer experience of Harvard than I would have if I had just come into the physics department directly. I have a lot of friends in art history and English literature and film and everything. I thought I was going to just come for a year, experience it, and then go back to Illinois but, at that point, a job opened up in Toronto-
So, you were on leave from Illinois, you didn't resign?
I was on leave. I didn't resign. I was on leave for a year, and I thought it would be a really great year. But then, I always wanted to go back to Canada because I'm Canadian, and a job opened up in Canada and I applied for it. At some point after Canada had offered me a job, I resigned from Illinois. But I didn't end up going to Canada because they didn’t actually want me.
Even though they offered you a job?
They eventually offered me a job. It was a long ordeal that went through two job openings. The first time I applied, according to the people on the committee, I was the first choice, but then some of the professors complained and said that they would leave if I came there. I have a great personality (laughter). A little rough around the edges.
And perhaps your reputation precedes you?
Well, I had been there as a student so I thought they would like me but apparently not. Anyhow, they hired somebody else. And then, the second time they had a job, I said, I'm not applying for that job. And the dean called me and said, please, we promise this time all that stuff won't happen. The stuff that happened was actually criminal, but let's just say they promised me it wouldn't happen again. And I applied and they offered me a job, but the offering of the job was convoluted. And the things people said to me once I visited, after they offered me the job were so awful that, at some point, a math professor here at Harvard, who was a friend of mine said to me, "This sounds like an abusive relationship. You wouldn't marry this place. Physically by joining the department it's like being married. You don't want to start off if it's an abusive relationship."
It was really hard because, at that point, I didn't really have another job.
I'd given up my job at Illinois and I decided I couldn't take the job at Toronto, and eventually Harvard just said, okay, you can stay here as an assistant professor. In those days, assistant professor at Harvard didn't really mean very much.
Meaning that there were almost no prospects to get tenure?
It still means a lot to be offered a job at Harvard. I mean, you know, it's Harvard.
No, I don't mean that it wasn’t a good offer. I didn't mean it that way. I'm not undercutting it. I'm just saying that what people said in those days was that getting an assistant professorship in an Ivy League institution was a glorified postdoc.
Not only that, but I'm sure you were acutely aware that the physics department literally did not tenure women. You were the first, so, by definition-
Oh, by definition, yeah. It was kind of interesting. So, I just stayed here, and just by incredible luck and you're going to say this can't be luck because someone actually died but one person went away to be the- Roy Schwitters left to be head of the-
-Superconducting Supercollider. And Marjorie Shapiro left because she fell in love with a person who worked at Berkeley, so she got a job as a professor at Berkeley. And Frank Pipkin died. So, literally, there was nobody left, so they kind of had to hire me. I think I was the only person left. Well, there was some much older professor who was still here—two much older professors. Anyway, in a way, I had a large role to play because there was nobody around. And then I think Harvard just decided it was time to make a woman a professor and they just looked to see who was around (laughter).
You're very good at self-deprecation. I have to give you that.
No, no, no. This is actually- I think if someone wrote a real history, this is what it would be. It turned out okay in the end, but that was the hardest experience of my life going through this idea that you felt like the whole country of Canada was rejecting me in such a way that they don't actually reject you. For instance, they said, "We can't actually offer you an assistant professorship." I said, "What? What are you talking about? I'm already an assistant professor at Illinois." And they said, "Yeah. But your CV is not very good." This is after they-
Yeah. Which is a really weird thing to say to somebody. And I said, "Well, you just offered it to someone else." They said, "Yeah, but his CV is a lot better than yours." And so, I said, "Okay. Well, I'm not going to come here as a-" In that day, they had something which became an assistant professor. I can't remember what it was called. But I said, "I'm not going to do that. That's crazy." And then the president of the university said to the physics department, "I'm going to give you the money for the position."
And they had a meeting and unanimously rejected the money. They don't want money which is- even though I was hired, not because I'm a woman, they don't want money which was because I was a woman, right? I would've been the first woman in the physics department at Toronto, which has, like, eighty-five faculty. So many things happened there that were quite interesting.
You know, you usually associate more progressive thinking with Canada, and this is like real dinosaur-level group think.
No, you must understand that- well, certainly not in academia, I don't think there's anything progressive. It's not just me. There are very few women even now in the physics department at Toronto. No, no. There was nothing forward-thinking about it. The U.S. was twenty, twenty-five years ahead in this respect. Yeah, it was really, really painful. But it's fine.
Who among the physics department did you interact with during your Society of Fellow days?
From the physics department?
Yeah. Or what entrée or window did you have into the physics department before you joined properly?
Oh. I had met Howard Georgi and it was he who nominated me for the Society of Fellows. He is this amazing theorist, and I had met him in California. I had been at some dinner after a talk. And he had been telling this story about the difference between- I think a friend of his came up with this difference between theorists and experimentalist, and he was telling the story. And the difference is, you've probably heard this, like truffle farmers and the pigs who find the truffles.
That the theorists were like the truffle farmers and they took the pigs to the right place. And then the pigs, sort of were good at going and finding the truffles. And then the farmer would just hit the pig on the nose and take the truffle. And then I remember just saying, "You're a fucking idiot. I'm never going to listen to another theorist." I just remember having a very lively conversation about that. And I had visited Harvard before when I was thinking about graduate school. And, during that time, Harvard had a graduate student insurrection. The graduate students went on strike because they were very upset with the faculty and how things were done there. And that's when I visited. And I remember visiting Ed Purcell, who was great, and, in fact, I bought the house next to his house just so his brainwaves would come into my house.
And I remember meeting Sidney Coleman at CERN when I was at CERN that summer after college, and I felt like he was the most amazing person I'd ever met in my life. Sidney Coleman was this theorist who wore very thick glasses and wore polka-dot shirts but could do calculations in his head that were kind of remarkable. And he smoked and he was funny, and he read science fiction. I'm just trying to think of how I knew people. And he always made fun of me, which was good. Howard Georgi, Sidney Coleman, Ed Purcell. Yeah, that's it. Oh, yeah. No, I had met a bunch of- sorry. I had met a bunch of people from Harvard when I was an undergrad at Fermilab, but I think they were mostly gone. I think that's my whole connection with Harvard.
I also think Howard Georgi was the one who basically thought it would be a good idea to give me a permanent job. Yeah.
What was your research when you started as assistant professor; what were you working on that point?
I was working on the same experiment, the collider detector at Fermilab (CDF), which was proton-antiproton collisions. And I guess that was about in '87, '88. And we had not discovered the top quark, but we were measuring the W, the Z, and the Z mass, and W mass. We were sort of measuring things about the Standard Model and looking for something new, not finding anything yet. We were just on the point of discovering new things, but we were still making the experiment work really well. At Berkeley I had helped build the Hadron Calorimeter and at Harvard I helped build the central drift chamber for CDF, the experiment I was working on, and the muon chambers CMX that go at the endcap region. And then, basically, doing data analysis looking at fundamental parameters of the Standard Model.
Did you take on graduate students or did you think you would not be there long enough and that that wouldn't make any sense?
It's not only that I took on graduate students, there were a bunch of graduate students and nobody to advise them. I inherited a bunch of graduate students, and they were fantastic. They were fantastic. They were great. Some of them were older than I was (laughter). They were wonderful. Yeah. It was a really great time. I think it was so much fun. We worked together on all possible aspects of this experiment, and I learned as much from them as they learned from me.
Harvard didn't keep you in suspense for too long. At a certain point pretty quickly you must've stopped assuming that you wouldn't get tenure and started assuming that this was becoming a real possibility?
You know, I had this sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing going. At the one and the same time I thought, they'd be crazy not to give me tenure, and then I thought, they'd be crazy to give me tenure. Literally, if you think about some of the people in the Harvard Physics Department, a couple anyway, they're so smart and have done amazing things, like Ed Purcell. You can't put me in the same room as Ed Purcell and say we should both be on the same faculty. On the other hand, most of the people aren't exactly- I'm just saying, you have these conversations with yourself where you're saying, yeah, it doesn't make any sense. You'd be an idiot to put me in there. On the other hand, you're saying, well, really?
Right. So, and so got tenure, why not me? It goes both ways.
Yeah. I never thought like that exactly, but I just felt like this thing of yeah, they'd be crazy not to, and yeah, they'd be crazy to.
But being a woman, where is that in your Jekyll and Hyde thinking? You're acutely aware that they-
Oh, no, no. Yeah. Obviously, I don't think I would've gotten tenure if I wasn't a woman. I think it was a good time to hire me- it makes a huge difference to have women in the department, obviously, for all kinds of reasons, but also for students. So, yeah, I think- first of all, I don't know. If I had been a man, I would've been a completely different person (laughter). I don't know. I may have been awful. I don't know. But I do think that Harvard was definitely making a decision to take a chance on someone who wasn't classically brilliant. But, in my field, everybody makes contributions and it's hard to sort of weigh the contributions.
Yeah. But the whole concept of classical brilliance, that works better for theorists anyway. I mean, if you're good with your hands and you have a record of being able to build stuff that produces important physics, that's it.
I guess so. These days, that's not true, actually, sadly. But, yes, I do think the idea of brilliance is overrated. I'm just saying when I was thinking about this question, when I was up for tenure, I was thinking, yeah, I'm not brilliant. But I don't usually think like that because it's a really, really not useful way of thinking. Students spend far too much time thinking about how smart they are. It’s a waste of time.
Well, it's a totally intangible concept, right? You can't quantify brilliance. You could look at your record of scholarship, you could look at who you’re teaching, you could look at what you've discovered, what you've contributed to, right? It's more than the fact that you're just a woman who's there. I'll back you into a corner. To the extent that you had to advocate for yourself in the tenure consideration, obviously you're wonderfully fluent at self-deprecation and talking about how not brilliant you are, and if you were a man maybe you'd be terrible, but obviously you did have to make some kind of case for yourself to say it's worth taking this chance on me?
So, what was it; what was that case?
I think just that I was independent and had strong leadership skills. I think I'm a good group leader and I think that that's huge. I think that I got into a couple of scuffles on my experiment where it was about physics and I stood my ground, and I think I was right. I think that made me look like somebody who could be an independent physicist leading a group there. I think I have reasonably good sense when it comes to choosing what to work on. I don't know. I don't think I said any of this, though.
Did you ever care about being- the double standard as a woman, of course, is independent and standing your ground can be read as simply being a bitch, right?
Yes. I don't think the word bitch was used.
No, no. I'm saying not to you, but-
No, no, no. But I mean- yes. Yes.
-were you concerned about how other people might perceive you in a way that a man never would have that concern?
No, I think a lot of the reason that people at Toronto didn't like me was for the same reason that people at Harvard did like me.
Which speaks incredibly well of Harvard and awfully of Toronto.
Yeah. Harvard is a kind of amazing place, because I think that- the way I usually tell the story, also deprecating Harvard, which is that everybody there thinks they're so smart that you're not a threat to them (laughter). But I think I was a threat to people at Toronto. People actually said things like, I think you'll use your position to do feminist organizing.
And you think- first of all, I was thinking, why haven't I done any feminist organizing yet, then? (laughter)
(Laughter) Well, because you're a secret agent, of course. You're waiting for your time to strike.
(Laughter) And why would that be a bad thing?
So, yes, I don't think Harvard ever had that idea. I do think I have a personality which is on the brash side, on the more like- just say it like it is- side, and that probably hasn't helped me all the time.
But obviously it hasn't stopped you in your tracks, either.
No, I don't think so. And it also, in terms of things like just- it helps me in human relations on the experiment to be straightforward. I think that when I was young at Fermilab, older physicists did quite amazing things. They would take liberties that now you would go to jail for doing. You'd be talking to them and, yeah, it would be two o'clock in the morning and you'd be at the experiment. But then, all the sudden, they'd be pushing you against the wall and their tongue would be in your mouth. And you'd think, what? Things like that, which hopefully don't happen now, although possibly they do. But I learned to quickly do the verbal equivalent of kicking someone in the crotch to get away. I've learned to quickly, when someone does something, I think is not okay, just call them out on it. And that turns out to be more brash than most, but also makes life easier.
When the announcement is made, it's Harvard, and so Harvard in so many ways, for better and worse, really sets the tone nationally in higher academia, right?
Did you care, if not for yourself, but did you consider the significance of the fact that you were the first woman to get tenure in the physics department? Did you recognize that as being sort of a big deal sociologically for women, graduate students in physics around the country? Did you tend to think in those terms? Was that important to you personally or was it just, you know, back to the lab, more physics to do?
I wasn't thinking like that. First of all, being from Canada, Harvard didn’t have the same importance as it has in America to Americans. I didn't really notice that there was a difference between Harvard and Stanford and Yale. I didn't see it that way. And mostly I was just very relieved that I still had a job. I remember it's the first time I ever actually threw up from being drunk (laughter). Harvard had a big, huge party that day. Because, for the physics department, it's a big deal. And it would've been smart not to go out after that (laughter).
(Laughter) It's always the party afterwards that gets you into trouble.
Yeah, yeah. But I still, actually, when I hear that, when I'm introduced somewhere and they say, this is Melissa Franklin; she was the first woman tenured at Harvard, it feels a little something-
Yeah. It feels a little strange, although I also would say that it is really important that they did that and that we started to have women in the physics department. And the women who have come after me are incredible.
I mean, it feels late for you at Harvard- the first woman getting tenure at this late historical stage. And then, Yale, Meg Urry- I talked to Meg a couple weeks ago- 2001. It's like 2001 is just so recent, it's remarkable.
What, 2001 was the first woman tenured at Yale?
Okay. But when was I- I was in '92?
Yeah, I think so.
The idea is whether you thought Harvard was a big deal or not, it's just remarkable how late these dates are in terms of these being achievements.
Yeah, yeah. I hadn't really thought about that. That's interesting. It's funny when you talk about Mary K., because Mary K. was already so well established as a major scientist that it didn't seem weird that she got tenure at Berkeley. I didn't even notice.
No. But it's not even about her individually, it's just about how long it took these departments to recognize any woman with tenure.
I know, I know. Yeah. I didn't realize that.
Like, if it had to be anyone, fine, it would've been Mary K., but it's just so late.
Right. Yeah. I guess I must've been at Berkeley at the time. I didn't even notice. That's how unobservant I am. Yeah. And when I was a graduate student at SLAC I didn't really notice that there were almost no women.
It was odd. Yeah. Thinking back, I think, oh, who was there? And there were very, very, very few people of the female gender. Yeah.
When did you get involved with the Laboratory for Particle Physics and Cosmology; when did that start?
Well, that's just the new name for the High Energy Physics Lab. So that's when I came to Harvard as a junior fellow. I was there. So that was '87 or '88 maybe.
So, you were always involved with that?
Yeah. Yep. That's been my home for the whole time. We've changed buildings but we're still there. We changed the name to include cosmology.
What was the decision, what was the thinking there?
I think we hired someone in the department who was in cosmology, and we thought that there was a lot of overlap. And so, we thought it would be good to change the name and be inclusive but there's actually not that much overlap in real time. There's a lot of overlap in the techniques and things like that and in the interests. And now cosmology is really part of particle physics as well, in a way, they're so closely contained.
But it turns out that there wasn't enough of an overlap for it to grow.
Did you have the sense that part of this represented the idea that there were beginning to be diminishing returns in particle physics and so cosmology was a natural frontier for a lot of these people to explore?
No. I think our department had very little in cosmology. And so, this new colleague who was half physics and half astrophysics faculty didn’t have a home in physics. An experimentalist working on the expansion of the universe, measuring the expansion of the universe, seemed to fit best with particle physics. And I think that was what it was about, really.
Did your role as a mentor to graduate students change with tenure? In other words, was there sort of a permanence to your position now that taking on graduate students would not be an iffy proposition?
I never thought like that. I think you're imagining a person who thinks ahead. So, for instance, when I was at Illinois, I had a graduate student and he just came with me to Harvard. It's never really a huge problem.
In particle physics I don't think it's a huge problem because even if you move places the graduate student can still work on the experiment and be your graduate student.
I was asking more from the perspective of graduate students.
A graduate student who chooses to work with an assistant professor, there's more of a gamble there.
The pro is that, ideally, you get more face to face time than somebody who has a ton of graduate students and they're super famous and you never see them. But, on the other hand, it's like what happens to my career if this person doesn't get tenure or it doesn't work out or anything like that. So, I was asking more from the perspective of graduate students coming to you.
I see. Yeah. I think the kind of graduate students that gravitate toward me don't worry about things like that.
I understand those are things one should think about, but I think you've just gotta go for the gusto. You've gotta go for the physics. You can't decide who you're going to work with based on things like fear. You've gotta go for what you're really interested in and who you think you can get along with and what projects there are.
So that's a good opportunity. I was going to ask you that later, but now seems like a good time. If you're hesitant to sort of talk about some of your most successful graduate students or people that you're most proud of for fear of leaving anybody off, I wonder if you can talk instead about maybe some of the shared characteristics that some of your most successful graduate students have had, that fearlessness, going for the gusto, that kind of thing.
Yeah. I'm trying to think of all my graduate students. I've had fantastic graduate students and they're all doing interesting things, whether they're doing things in physics or not. When you say successful- I have a number of graduate students who are now professors. That's successful. I also have graduate students who- I have one, David Kestenbaum, who works on This American Life, which is a radio show.
I think all the kind of people that gravitate toward having me as their advisor are slightly complicated, curious, smart people. I don't know- and this is probably what every professor thinks but I don't know how I get such good graduate students. They seem amazing to me, and they're all different, but they're all kind of a little insane, like, a little intense. There's an intensity about them that I kind of like. There's nothing about our group which is well balanced or well adjusted, and I kind of like that. I kind of like the idea that what we're really doing is- we are riding horses and we're going someplace where no one's ever been before. It's a little uncomfortable, and we have no idea what's about to happen. I kind of like that. I sort of treat every day like that and I think a lot of my graduate students do also. I mean, I've had such different graduate students. I don't know which are the most successful classically. You have graduate students for five or six years. You get such a sense of them. You feel like you know them incredibly well. It's hard not to just be their cheerleader forever.
What kind of career advice do you give in terms of do you specifically avoid giving advice about trends in the field, like this is where you think things are headed so you should set yourself up? Do you think that that's a good approach or do you tend to avoid that kind of advice?
The first day I got to SLAC- so I'm a graduate student at Stanford, and you go to SLAC and you say, can I play? And then, the first day I met a graduate student who took me aside and said, "Don't do it. Don't go into this field. It's nowheresville. It'll be awful. Everything is bad." And that just made me want to do it even more.
Like, if it's that bad, something must be interesting about it. Do I give advice? Yeah. I'm pretty honest about things. Right now, it's not very good. I mean, there are really good postdocs, really good, who aren't getting any jobs. Part of the advice is to say, you should be doing this because you really want to, not because you think it's going to lead you somewhere and then you're going to get really disappointed because it's possible that that's not- try to just have as much fun as possible as you're going.
But I do give advice. For instance, I'll say to the student, why don't you go work on dark matter next? People are very comfortable. They get to know an experiment, they kind of want to stay there after they graduate and be a postdoc and then a professor, and I'm sort of pushing people to sort of get uncomfortable. I'm not sure anybody takes my advice (laughter).
Or maybe you have advice and, just like you, they run the other way with it and that serves them well.
Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Now, in the lab, when people are running into a wall in terms of something that they're building or the data is not working out, how hands-on or hands-off are you in terms of seeing the value in letting them try to work it out for themselves before getting so frustrated that they want to jump out the window? What's your general style in terms of that?
My general style is really hands-on at the beginning and more hands-off later. So, you can't bring somebody in and be hands-off at the beginning, I think, because there's just- a huge amount of what you learn in particle physics is by osmosis. You can't just read a book and then you know all these things. You can't ask yourself all the questions because you don't even know what questions to ask. So, at the beginning I ask a lot of questions, like, did you think about this; did you think about that? Let's sit down together and do this together. Let's look at these things together. Let me tell you how you can make plots or histograms, but how do you look at them? How much time do you spend looking at them and what do you do? I actually had one student, I sat with her at CERN for so long that she cable-tied my chair to my desk so I couldn't actually come over to her desk. At the beginning, hugely hands-on. I want to convey a style which I think is correct, and then afterwards not so much hands-on because they have to-because it's so great for them when they solve the problem and come up with a new idea and make it happen by themselves. It's like a huge, huge deal. Yeah.
Now, your collaboration with Fermilab, the CDF collaboration, this has been ongoing?
Well, the CDF is over now.
Oh, it is?
It is over, yeah.
When did that end?
People are still doing a little bit of data analysis, but my part of it ended seriously about 2005, I would say. Everybody was still in the collaboration and papers were being written from the data, but it was kind over 2005 to 2010, yeah. There is still some good physics coming out, but we haven’t taken data in a very long time.
And how soon after that did you get involved with ATLAS?
I was involved with both ATLAS and CDF for a while and then I just started doing mostly ATLAS.
But ATLAS precedes you? Was ATLAS going on before you got involved?
Yes. ATLAS has been going on since- they started designing and doing everything in, like, '88 or something, I think, to '90.
Yeah. So, yeah, I was late to come to ATLAS and so a lot of what I've been doing is just making sure the detectors work. We built a lot of stuff at Harvard, but I didn't build it. I wasn't involved in that very much. And now we're building the replacement for that detector. I'm involved in that from the beginning. So, yeah, coming into ATLAS was a little hard not having built my own detector.
And what was your entrée to ATLAS? Did they ask you to join? Was this something that was really interesting to you?
There were already people from Harvard on ATLAS, so I just joined the group. And what did I do? Nobody actually talked to me very much. It's a very different feeling, ATLAS. It's more professional, in a way, and it's less immediate, the immediacy is less. You can be distant. There's lots of people in ATLAS who have never been down to see the detector. So that just gives you an idea of- or if they have been down, it's not to do any work. There's something very distant about it, and so I'm always getting my students to make sure any chance they have to go down and do any work in the pit, even if it's cleaning-
You're there; you're doing it.
-they're there, yeah. Because you have to have that feeling. Otherwise, it's so strange.
Yeah. So that's why I'm very excited about what we're about to do. We're about to put in a detector that we built- we didn't build the actual detector, it was built overseas, but we built electronics, and it's not a very good detector, but we're going to put it in, and that's going to be really exciting for the students, I think.
For some broad-based perspective of ATLAS, twenty years prior to your involvement, thinking from then to 2008 and all the way up to the present, what were some of the original big questions that were being asked that compelled the ATLAS experiment to get started, how had those questions changed by the time you got involved, and where are they relative to now in the past ten, twelve years?
I think the questions are the same. First of all, the original idea is just to go to a higher energy to see what happens independent of any theory. We always know that new physics is on different energy scales. Different physics happens on different energy scales, and as you go up in energy you could reach a new energy scale where there's new physics. So that's the basic idea of going from, for instance, my experiment at CDF which was, even though it's proton-antiproton, it's basically doing the same thing as a proton-proton collider at the Large Hadron Collider, just the energy goes from two TeV to fourteen TeV, the center of mass energy. We're going to a new place and we're going to see what happens. Also, there was this idea that something had to happen at the energy scale of one TeV. So, again, when you collide protons, it's actually the quarks inside and the gluons inside that are actually colliding. If you want to get to a scale of seven TeV, the protons have to be more like seven TeV because the quarks inside have only a fraction of the energy. And we knew, both experimentally and theoretically, that something had to happen at a scale of about seven TeV. And we knew because people did calculations in which they said, okay, if you scatter a W boson on a W boson, the probability of that scattering will be greater than 1 if there's not any new physics there. Hm. Like, greater than one; what does that even mean?
We knew something had to happen, and then there was this theory about the electroweak symmetry breaking and the Higgs boson, so we were looking for that he Higgs boson. We were already looking for that CDF, so it was just sort of a continuation of seeing what would happen. But, at the same time, when you go to a new experiment and a new accelerator, and a new energy, you want to measure everything you measured before. You're at a new energy so you want to see whether it agrees with what you expect from theory, so you have some kind of scaffolding of understanding that everything is working, and then you start looking for the new particles, like the Higgs boson, which we eventually discovered. And the Higgs boson, again, is new physics. It sort of explains the physics that we see, but it also has this much deeper sense. If you're thinking about the universe, and you take all the particles out of the universe, so you just have vacuum, you have no particles, nothing, no stars, nothing, you may want to describe that. That seems like a very fundamental description. Like, if you want to understand the world then let's understand it first with nothing in it. Is there energy there? And to me it felt very much like a thing Samuel Beckett would do. You imagine, okay, I just have two things with only waiting between them, sort of Waiting for Godot. And then you say, okay, well, that's interesting. What's there when only two things are there? What's in between them? And then consider just one thing. He wrote a number of novels where one person is sitting alone in a room strapped to a chair, Molloy, Murphy. And then he has The Unnamable, which is just nothing; as if he is asking the same question we are, what is nothing? So, it's a kind of exploration of the vacuum.
And to me, this very fundamental thing we're doing by colliding protons together is to understand what's in the vacuum; what is the energy in the vacuum and when did it come there and how could it change? That's really like the- this is the kind of crazy thing. Like, you could answer that question by building these big detectors and millions of channels of electronics and writing hundreds of man-years of code and colliding billions of protons together every twenty-five nanoseconds. That's pretty amazing. So that's the way I think about it. That's what sort of motivates me is understanding this underlying vacuum state of the universe. We sort of understood when we have some protons, how they'll interact when we collide them together. But understanding this underlying vacuum is even more fundamental. And what are we doing now? Well, a couple of things, the typical things we do. We've measured the Higgs. We know it exists. Now we want to measure everything about it really well. What it decays to, how long it takes to decay, etc. We've measured things not very precisely, and we want to measure much better, in particular is Higgs coupled to things like dark matter?
That's a great experiment. First of all, it's hard to make the Higgs and know you have it. Dark matter doesn't interact, so you won't see it, so it's one of these great experiments where, by seeing nothing, you've discovered something.
And does the Higgs-dark matter interaction, does that tell us fundamental things about dark matter itself or would it?
Yeah, I think so. Yeah. So now we're just trying to pin down everything about the Higgs. And then also there's this whole other world of something called supersymmetry, whether there's this beautiful theory that all theorists think must be there, it's symmetry between particles that have spin 1/2 and spin 1, and we see no evidence for it whatsoever. And it's kind of an ongoing search. Thousands of people are searching in all different ways for these supersymmetric particles and no one's found anything. So that's also kind of an interesting thing. Everybody thinks this is such a beautiful theory that it sort of helps us understand and put together in a very elegant way this theory we have, but it doesn't appear to be there. And so, people are saying- some people argue if the theory is elegant it's got to be right, and other people are saying well, maybe not. Experimentalists are less convinced about these things than theorists are.
Melissa, do you feel like you're at CERN for this by default because the SSC was never built? This idea that operating at higher energies- the energies that you're working in, that you're thinking about, would those have been relevant for your work had SSC gone through?
Well, the SSC would've been in a much higher energy, so-
But does that mean too high for what you're working on?
Oh, no, I don't think too high. But I think it actually was a mistake for SSC to say we have to run at forty TeV in the center of mass, because they were nervous about missing the new physics at one TeV. I think it was sort of largely theory driven that it had to be such high- I could be wrong about this. I should read that book Tunnel Vision?
Tunnel Vision, right.
Tunnel Vision, yeah. I think I'd love to be in Texas. There we could be cowboys again. I loved the idea that the experiment is somewhere closer, but I do think there's something really special about CERN compared to the United States. In the United States at the labs it's pretty American-centric. There are lots of people from different countries but it's not as equal players. And CERN is just phenomenally good at bringing people from all different countries and making them almost equal players. And I think it's just remarkable. I really like working at CERN and I would also really like working in Texas. And, at some point in my life, I want to go back and do an experiment at Fermilab.
Melissa, on the administrative side, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your experience at Harvard, first as director of graduate studies and then as chair of the department. What opportunities did you see in both of those roles to change the culture, to improve things, to make the environment better for any number of under-represented groups, to modernize the department? What ideas did you bring to both of those roles?
So, first of all, we have a lot of graduate students, and I think I didn't even realize how many graduate students we had until I got to be director of graduate studies.
Which might even speak to a problem of the culture in the department if you don't even know these things.
Right. That's exactly what I'm saying. We made this board with everybody's picture on it and then we looked at it, and so at some point I just went up to the board and I counted the people and I just thought, wow, there are over 200 graduate students. We definitely need to take care of those graduate students. I remember as a graduate student feeling absolutely miserable. And I remember the one person who I could talk to who made me feel okay was the graduate student's admin, Fannie van Buren. I think was her last name. She made it possible for me to get through graduate school, I felt.
She was just a human being. Every once in a while, you just need to talk to a human being as a human. And I don't think you can necessarily demand of your thesis advisor to be human or to talk to you as a human, but I recognized that there had to be those people in the department. If you're going to have 200 people, there's got to be at least twenty at any one time who are miserable.
When I was chair, I first just put someone in that role. I hired someone who had a PhD in physics, who both knows the physics, and what it is like to be a grad student, who could teach them physics so they would know them as students and could also talk to them. And then I hired just a human. There was a human in the department, and everybody talks to her. Everybody goes into her office. And then people complained that she doesn't do enough work, and I'm saying this is most crucial work of the department.
This is the work of the department, being a human here. I'm not trying to say that physicists are inhuman. It's not that. They're all doing their own thing. I needed somebody who could be there for people. That's Carol Davis, that's the person I was talking about earlier.
But I made that into an actual position. And then I looked at the postdocs and I said, there are 100, 120 postdocs. Nobody thinks of the postdocs as a group of people, other than they're just there. They're not even in the department, really.
I said, okay, I want a person to take care of postdocs, to draw them together and make them feel a part of the department not just their group. Many of the postdocs, are from other countries, and so there's a huge amount of work in visa manipulations going on and things like that, so I hired somebody to be- someone who was in the department already to be in charge of postdocs. We now have postdoc retreats so they meet each other, postdoc lunches, talks, a postdoctoral cohort that you can say, yeah, that was my cohort; that and you will know those people and they will be part of your future. And these postdocs are going to be the professors of the future, so if you have a chance right now to do things that will change the way they behave when they're professors it's a great thing. Is this too boring? You asked me.
Why would it be boring? I specifically asked you this question.
(Laughter) I know. Okay. And then I noticed a lot of the faculty felt kind of disconnected. And I tried to connect them. I tried to give people responsibilities that would bring them in, that would make them be at the meetings, that would make them feel better about the department. It's not that hard, but it's very easy for a professor to get disconnected and then, as one of my colleagues said, to go into their bolt hole. You have your lab, which is your bolt hole. You can hide there.
Then we started a yearly newsletter, a magazine which, amazingly, we didn't have before. For the first time, we had a graduate alumni day. So mostly when people get PhDs places, nobody ever talks to them again. Nobody calls them. They call them for money, but they don't say, hey, what are you doing? Want to come back and be on a panel? So that was incredibly interesting. There's all these connections that we don't make just 'cause we're too busy, and I think it's really rich, I think it's really great for the students to meet those people. Yeah. I'm trying to think, did I do anything useful? I think those are the most important things that happened. But I did feel like it was important to be chair. I think if you have a vision of how the department can be better, you should try to do it. I know you're supposed to say you don't want to be chair and everybody says that, and most people don't because most people don't have a vision.
But you did, you clearly did.
I did, yeah. I clearly did. So, I liked that. That was very fun. There are a lot of things. We’re changing the way we teach. I'm very involved in learning how to teach physics better and using science to do that. So, I've hired some people who are-
You mean, have you gotten involved in the whole field of physics as an educational philosophy?
Physics education research, yeah.
Like, for example, I had the good fortune to interview Lillian McDermott at the University of Washington before she recently passed.
And what an amazing-
Did she die?
Yeah. Yeah. Only a few weeks-
When was that?
A few weeks ago.
Ugh. She was great.
Literally, I interviewed her, I think, a month before she passed, and so it was quite special to be able to do that. Her kids were in the room with her and they were involved in the conversation. It was really awesome. And just hearing from her, you get this wide sense of cluelessness among physics professors who are smart and they're engaged in their work but they really have no training and vary little idea of how to convey physics concepts, not even like physics for poets, but even for people who come to college and think of themselves as science oriented and think that they're strong in science and still how difficult it is even to get through to those kinds of students.
Yeah. No, so I hired some people in physics education. We have this great person here now, Louis Deslauriers, and he worked with Carl Wieman before and he's been teaching a lot of different professors at Harvard to teach in the active learning style. And they do research. I been involved directly in the research, but I follow everything that they do. I'm trying to grow the group to do that. So that was another thing is, can we do a better job of teaching? And usually what happens is someone says, oh, I have a great idea. They don't read any of the literature or anything they just say, I have a great idea, let's try that. I do that all the time, too, but I think it's better this way where the group is writing papers now and they're doing research. And I've learned to do active learning. It's kind of exciting. Yeah. And we've also changed a lot of the way we teach instructional laboratories, and that's something I've been very involved in, much more about understanding what doing measurements is and how you model stuff and how you compare things. In those situations, we always have a professor in the room, which is really great. We've sort of kicked up experimental learning to the same level as theoretical learning. So, before it was just, you'd go into a room, you'd do an experiment and graduate students would watch you, and now it's a lot different than that. There's much more exploration and there are many more of ways for the students to show that they're interesting. Just like in theory you can show you're interesting, and now you can in experiment, too.
So, Melissa, you came up with a lot of good ideas. You implemented a lot of them, and you've been well positioned in the years since to see what has stuck and what has not.
Right. I mean, everything stuck.
Awesome. That's great to hear.
But I think that's because people are probably worried that if they unstick them that I'll-
You're still around to haunt them.
Yeah, yeah. That I'll just yell and scream and rant and rave (laughter). There's a lot of ranting and raving going on. Yeah.
Were there any academic battles more on the substantive side that you had to deal with? I'm thinking like more period battles like Shelly Glashow's attempts to keep the department string free in the eighties for example. Did you deal with any of those kinds of intramural battles as chair during your tenure?
Yes. Each group, subfield feels like they have to make their subfield strong, which is good.
That's good. Some subfields think that maybe they should take over the department. So, because everybody wants to make their subfield strong, there is a lot of sort of tension because people are not always as polite or respectful as they may wish to be. Sometimes that can lead to losing respect, and that loss of respect is a disaster for the department.
And that's really hard, to set a good tone. So usually, it's the older professors who set the tone of respect. Once all those people die, you're in trouble. And I think this is one of the big problems in departments everywhere, is that you need to foster this respect of faculty for other faculty. Even if you don't like particle physics, you can at least respect what other people are doing. One of the problems we face is that people don't really know what other people are doing. They're too busy to actually find out. And so that lack of respect can be detrimental. So, for instance, atomic physics is growing, and particle physics is getting less and less money. In terms of being funded, atomic physics is getting way more, like quantum computing and stuff. Particle physics is getting less and less funding. You can see the tensions there. Maybe the people in atomic physics say, why do you need graduate students? We need thirty, that kind of thing. And I think the chair has to set the tone, also. I don't know what to say. I think that's the biggest problem in departments right now that I see. And I think, even if you talk to anybody who's in a department and feels disenfranchised, it's about respect.
It's always about respect. And I think that's why, actually, getting, for instance, all the postdocs together to meet each other and see what each other are doing is really helpful. They have some clue what these other people are trying to do, and they can respect that.
Melissa, at least in recent years, have you seen the physics department with regard to women and under-represented groups, and specifically with- we're so close still to #ShutDownSTEM, do you see the physics department generally ahead of the curve on these issues or behind the curve in recent years?
Is the curve other physics departments or is the curve society?
Well, both. Sort of setting the tone for other physics departments or in society in general. I'd love to hear your ideas on both.
We have strived over the past twenty-five years to find all the really smart women who are applying to graduate school and accept them and try to encourage them to come to Harvard. In some years we had forty percent women graduate students.
Which is- what is that? Is that an amazing number?
Yeah. That's a pretty high number.
I think twenty to twenty-five percent maybe is more typical. And that's a really interesting idea and a lot of universities don't like us, because the more women we have, the more women want to come here. But that has been a goal. If I went to my colleagues and I said, "What do you think; in 200 years do you think it'll be 50/50 women and men in physics?" And a lot of them would say, "No, I think it's natural for men to like physics more than women," that kind of thing. I'm not saying that everybody has this goal, but I'm saying some subset of us have put a lot of energy into this goal and it's worked tremendously well. I think we're ahead of the curve there. We have now, I think, ten women faculty. Is that right? We've been ahead of the game in hiring women faculty, but we're not ahead of the game in keeping them happy.
I'd say that's something that we're working on, which is making sure everybody feels respected and feels supported and happy or reasonably happy.
So, there are ongoing cultural challenges is what you're saying?
Yes, there are. There are ongoing cultural challenges. And that's so hard because you can always just say, oh, well, it's such a small group of people and they are all a bit weird, it's not about being a woman, it's just all these people are weird (laughter). Which is true, but so are the men.
In our department, we have Howard Georgi, who has been a spectacularly- spectacularly good at being a thesis advisor to women theorists, and then those women theorists going off to do really, really great work. What I wanted to do is study- actually, I wish the AIP would do it, or the APS, which looked at all successful women physicists and then tracked back and see who was in their past. Not just who their advisor was, but who they were around who might've mentored them unofficially. And then, looking at those mentors and trying to clone them, like, looking at what it is about those people who enable women to become great scientists and seeing what it is. I'm not sure what it is. It's not clear.
It's basically the Howard Georgi project for the whole country?
Yeah. But, of course, it's not just Howard Georgi.
Who else is out there?
Well- and the other thing I don't know is whether it's sort of like there's one or two per persons or whether there's clusters and whether there's sort of like super spreaders. I think mentoring is one of the hardest things to do for academics, and to know what works and what doesn't. And nobody teaches you anything about it, even if you go to mentoring workshops.
It's the magic mentoring. I don't think that's the part you can teach, yet.
If we could identify it maybe we could teach it, but I'm not sure- it's the magic.
What's in the secret sauce.
Yeah. What's in the secret sauce, yeah. I want to know what's in the secret sauce 'cause that could make a huge difference.
Well, I just made a note. I'll look into this. This is one of the things that we do.
Yeah. I want to tell you while we're doing this that one of the things I read about Maria Goeppert Mayer, the current love of my life, is an interview she did with Thomas Kuhn, and Thomas Kuhn was doing just what you are right now-
-he was interviewing physicists as a historian. And this was the year before she [Mayer] received the Nobel Prize. And she had been a student at Göttingen- I can never say that right- with all the guys, with all the people who made quantum mechanics, and her math teacher was Emmy Noether. She just knew everyone. And all Thomas Kuhn asked was about famous men she had known. Nothing about her, even though she was about to win the Nobel Prize. I'm just telling you that because it's like you'll never know how this will sound six years from now.
'Cause Thomas Kuhn seemed like a pretty good guy, but obviously he just wanted to know what Max Born was like. I feel like we've kind of switched completely now. Yeah.
All right. Melissa, to round out our interview, I want to ask a few broadly retrospective questions and then sort of a forward-facing question. First, is there anything that you can do or achieve or be recognized that will stop making you feel like an outsider? Like, if you still feel like an outsider today, whatever would it take for you to feel like an insider?
I think some people are just genetically outsiders- I think that's my own problem, my own meshugas. As you point out, I'm obviously not an outsider. I think that's just a state of being. I don't think there's anything that's going to change that. I don't think so. I'm happy. I mean, I'm happy being an outsider. It's fine.
But it seems also- I was going to ask, do you feel satisfied that you've put that meshugas- or we should translate to the audience, or neurosis, for the not Yiddish speakers out there, do you feel like you've translated that neurosis to your advantage for the most part? Has it served you well in the science that you've done?
I think I've wasted an enormous amount of time on, instead of thinking- I do have lots of ideas, and instead of just thinking about those - thinking about how hard it is to get things done because I'm not very smart. I'm not telling you I'm not smart, I'm just saying there are lots of things in physics that make life a little easier, like just being able to do calculations really quickly, that's nice. Being able to write down proposals fluidly, things like that. Those are all things that, if you can do them easily, makes life a lot better. And I think I struggle with a lot of those things. So what question am I answering here? I think I spend way too much time with my thinking about what I can't do and less about thinking what I can do.
Relatedly, specifically in terms of being able to do calculations, in what ways have technological advances, particularly the growth in computational power, for example-
-in what ways has technological growth allowed someone like you, who's very aware of your own limitations, to do research nowadays than at the beginning of your career? And in what ways perhaps might those innovations open up the kind of physics you do to other people who might not think that they have the abilities to do it but also could make quite an impactful career?
I think the problem is you can sort of use- you're right, there's been lots of advances. You can use Mathematica or some other program like that to do calculations. You still have to understand them in the end. You still have to go through that thing where you ask, really, that's the answer? Why is that the answer?
There's a kind of back of the envelope calculation speed which I wish was faster. But, yeah, everything's easier to do now that we have computers.
But that's an important point about we can't let computers replace our own understanding of what they tell us.
Yeah. That's the problem. That's the problem. You do the calculation, or you make the plot and then you look at it and ask, and what does that mean, and why is that? So, yeah. What else would I say? I would say that it's really not helpful to stew in your own lack of ability because, for each one of those people who has lack of ability, they have something that they have to offer, to just focus on that. I'm always telling students the only interesting thing about them is what they're interested in. And if they could just follow that, that would be great. But, on the other hand, I end up spending a lot of time not doing that. I think that's what I'm going to do next year, just think about what's interesting to me.
August is a delightfully early time to set a New Year's resolution. That's great (laughter).
(Laughter) Well, yeah. It's a little complicated because there is some sense in which, if the answer was, I'm not interested in this stupid Higgs boson anymore, it would make my life difficult. I just watched this documentary about Claude Shannon, the father of information theory.
I don't know if you've ever seen it, but he's such an amazing guy, who I also fell immediately in love with on image, who just stopped being interested in some things like information theory and just did other things. He was very honest with himself about it. I kind of like that, and I think that there is a kind of- there's a sense now that if you don't keep doing the same science you did before, you're lost. Even in the way we're funded, it's pretty amazing that now there's- so, for instance, in funding for particle physics, it's not just particle physics you're funded for, you're funded for collider physics. Well, then, there's another bin which is dark matter physics, and then there's another bin which is neutrino physics or intensity frontier physics. And then, it turns out that if you're funded in one and you want to change to the other, it's almost impossible now. There is this sense that now there's not this idea that you could just have a different idea. Not only can't you move to another field and keep being funded, but you can't move within your field. And I think that will have interesting sociological effects because people are too scared to give up their funding to try something new, and I think that's really bad. DOE will say that they had to do that because otherwise we wouldn't get as much funding, but I really worry about what that means. So, in a sense, I can't say, even to myself, this is so boring, like Claude Shannon would've said immediately, right? I can't say that because I can't imagine what it's like to not have any graduate students. I'm wondering how honest a conversation we can have with ourselves about what we're actually interested in.
And I worry about that in terms of science. Maybe that was a very long-winded thing to say.
No, no. That's great.
But, at least, now you know that- yeah.
Now, if you must, you can hide behind your field if you have trouble talking about your own contributions, but I want to ask specifically for you and also the field that you represent, what fundamental discoveries have you been involved with and your field has been involved with where things that were poorly understood thirty, forty years ago are now really pretty well understood; we have a good handle on these things? Where has your field made those contributions, and if you're willing, if you'll indulge me, where have you specifically made those contributions over the course of your career?
So, because I work on these big experiments and because they last a long time, you do a lot of different data analyses. So, for instance, in one two-year period you're measuring the mass of the W boson better than it was measured before. That's a contribution, right? It's not a contribution of discovering the W particle but it's a contribution of measuring more precisely. And that more precise measurement will lead you somewhere else, like to know more about the Higgs boson, for instance. So, I think I've done maybe twenty different physics analyses or maybe more on different fundamental parameters of the Standard Model or searches for things that we haven't found, searches for particles that go into the extra dimension, or physics for leptoquarks, which are both lepton and quark particles.
So, all of those are contributions. Every single analysis that we've done is a contribution which now sits in the particle data book and tells you, yeah, there aren't any leptoquarks. There's that, plus there's building major pieces of detectors so building calorimeters and drift chambers and muon detectors that the experiments could not discover the top quark or the Higgs boson without. The Higgs boson and the top quark are the two new particles that I've been involved in, but there's a lot of the- the scaffolding of the Standard Model is made by a series of measurements that I've been involved in more intensely, so I think those are also really important. I've ruled out that things happen; I've measured things better than they were measured before, which gives us a stronger sense of how the pieces fit together; and I've been part of finding two important particles. I have to say that, when we measured the top quark, we not only didn't get a Nobel Prize, but the President didn't even call us. Like, they call the Super Bowl team when they win (laughter). I don't understand. It seems so odd. We spent twenty-five years building an experiment to measure something, you find the top quark finally, nobody-
Did you work with Peter McIntyre at all on this?
Did you work at all with Peter McIntyre on that?
I did work with Peter McIntyre.
I was curious about that, because I know he was involved in that as well.
Do you know him?
Well, yeah. Peter McIntyre has an illustrious story of being- I don't know what the word is- of working with Carlo. When I worked with him, he was building a calorimeter, a very forward calorimeter, when he was at Texas A&M.
He's a guy who has a lot of ideas.
Yes. Yeah. I mean, I didn't get to know him very well. He wasn't around a lot. He's a big idea guy. I'm sort of more like a hanging out in the pit person. Yeah. But I wanted to say something. What was it I wanted to say? Something I've done with my life. Is there something I've done with my life?
The President's call for Super Bowls but not for the top quark (laughter). Well, Melissa, last question: For yourself and for your field, what are you most excited about in the future? What are the things that you want to be involved in where you think that areas of fundamental discovery are within range, are within reach, are things that realistically you or your students or your close associates can really be there for all of that?
I'm very interested in the idea- so let's imagine, and the reason I want this is not because it's America but because I happen to live in America, so that's a different thing. I would really like to build a new accelerator based on really new accelerator technology that doesn't work yet and makes a really small accelerator with really high energy. I think it would be incredibly fun to choose a technology that we think could work and try to build it. And I think a lot of people in the past have done that. And right now, I don't know enough. Certainly, we're not in a position to actually build the future collider out of wakefield acceleration. But I want to be part of that new- I want to be testing the new technology to make it work. I see that as the future rather than being part of designing a detector for the future collider, the one hundred TeV future collider. I just think it's more interesting and probably more fun. Does that make any sense?
It makes perfect sense.
Yeah. In particle physics, jumps in technology have had a huge effect; going to super conducting magnets was enormous. When Carlo Rubbia went to Robert Wilson and said, "Let's make a proton-antiproton collider." And Robert Wilson said, "No. I want to make a superconducting synchrotron." You'd say, oh, that was the wrong answer, because they discovered the W and Z at CERN where Carlo convinced them to build the proton-antiproton collider, but I actually don't think it was the wrong answer, strangely. Because, without him doing that, we could not have pushed superconducting technology forward as fast. We had to do that in a way. So that's where I am. But unfortunately, I am not doing that. I'm not building the new accelerator here in my back yard, but I'd like to.
Melissa, I know it hasn't been so easy for you to do this and I am deeply grateful that you were willing to, that you spent all of this time with me. And we will work together- I put this on record- we will work together to ensure that the final transcript reflects all of the things that you want and none of the things that you don't-
-in light of the fact that, as a matter for the historical record, it's just remarkably important that this is down there and that it is available for researchers and people of so many backgrounds and interests to learn from. So, I'm really deeply grateful that you were able to do this with me.
Okay. David, thank you.