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Interview of Jonathan Dorfan by David Zierler on September 2, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Jonathan Dorfan, emeritus director of SLAC, and emeritus president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Graduate University. Dorfan recounts his childhood in South Africa and his experiences with apartheid, and he explains how he developed his early interests in science. He discusses his time at the University of Cape Town and a formative visit he made to SLAC where his older brother was working. Dorfan describes his subsequent studies at UC-Irvine and he explains his interest in pursuing a graduate degree in particle physics and high-energy physics during the excitement surrounding the Standard Model. He discusses his move to SLAC to conduct research with rapid cycling bubble chambers which turned into his thesis. Dorfan describes his postdoctoral research at SLAC with Martin Perl and his involvement with the Mark I and Mark II experiments, and he describes the opportunities leading to his faculty position at SLAC. He discusses the centrality of the B-factory project, and he describes his considerations when he was offered the directorship at Fermilab. Dorfan describes the impact of the rise and fall of the SSC on SLAC, and he explains the leadership positions which at a certain point put him on track to assume the directorship of SLAC. He describes SLAC’s entrée to astrophysics and the strategic partnership it developed with NASA, and he reflects on whether this transition would have been conceivable to Panofsky’s founding vision for the lab. Dorfan describes the changing culture of SLAC and its increasingly bureaucratized nature toward the end of his directorship, his work in support of advancing cancer research at Stanford, and he discusses the circumstances leading to his directorship of the Okinawa Institute. At the end of the interview, Dorfan emphasizes continuity over change as the dominant theme of his career in science with an arc that has increasingly bent toward concerns of broad societal relevance.
OK. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 2nd, 2020. I’m so glad to be here with Dr. Jonathan Dorfan. Jonathan, thank you so much for joining me today.
Welcome, good to see you.
OK, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
So, I’m retired, and my institutional affiliation is that I am emeritus director of SLAC. It was called SLAC when I was director—
—so I keep that. I’m emeritus professor at Stanford of physics, and I’m emeritus president and CEO of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University.
Are you still involved with those pursuits?
I’m involved with both. As an emeritus professor, I can attend faculty meetings at SLAC and Stanford events, which I do sparingly, but I do. I get involved in things when I think I can be of use. At OIST, there is now a US Foundation which I’m an advisor on, and very active in that Foundation. But with respect to the running of the university, not at all on a daily basis.
I get consulted obviously every now and then. I keep in touch with the people that I brought there and the students that are graduating, etc. And we go back for graduation ceremonies, which are annual. There wasn’t one this year for obvious reasons. So, but again, once you pass the reins to someone else, you need to give them the ability to run an institution. So Peter Gruss runs OIST now.
Well, Jonathan, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning to South Africa or even beyond that. I want to ask first about your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
So, my parents were both born in South Africa. They were first-generation children of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, so immigrants that were leaving Lithuania in the 1890s, which if you know that history was very common. A very, very large immigration to South Africa.
You mean, they were part of a wave? They were part of a wave to South Africa from Lithuania?
Yeah. Well, diamonds and gold were discovered in the 1870s or so. The issues for Jews in Lithuania, which had been a good situation for a long time, but the czars had certainly turned up the heat and things were not looking particularly good. So, people started to emigrate, because of that but also because of enlightenment. That generation of my grandparents were somewhat more enlightened, particularly influenced by socialism. And so they started—the young people started—to leave. They came to the US in large numbers, and to South Africa. But whereas the US had large immigrations also from Poland and other parts of Europe, the immigration from Lithuania to South Africa—the so-called Litvaks formed a large, uniform community.
So, all four of my grandparents were from there, although they individually met and married in South Africa. So, my father was the oldest of his family, first-born, grew up on a farm in the northeastern part of South Africa. My mother grew up in Cape Town. Her father ran a hardware store. My parents were married actually in Palestine. So, my father left South Africa in 1936 to go to Palestine. He was interested in a future homeland in the Zionist movement. My mom was being shipped off to Palestine because my grandfather [laugh] was trying to find a husband for her. [laugh] And her sister had gone off to Palestine and found one, so he thought that was a good formula.
My parents met on the boat going over. They were married in Tel Aviv and my brother, who’s also a physicist, was born in Palestine in 1940. And then the war broke out. My father joined the British Army and my mom and my brother, who were neither British citizens nor Palestinians, were repatriated to South Africa. My dad came back from the war, and I was born post-war, so I’m seven years younger than my brother.
Jonathan, I want to go back to your grandparents. It’s a common story that in Europe, the emigrating generation was more Jewishly connected—if not observant, sort of more connected to Jewish observance. And then when you—the family emigrates to new countries, they tend to assimilate or to lessen their observance levels. I wonder if that narrative fits your family’s story at all.
So, you know, my—on both sides of my family—well, let me take my grandfathers. They both came from poor immigrant families. They were observant, you know, religious, steeped in religion, not super Orthodox as relates to the current super Orthodox, but they were observant families, and they grew up in observant communities. My grandmother on my father’s side came from a rather erudite family. They were very well-educated, not poor immigrants—rather the opposite—and had the opportunity of education in Europe outside of Lithuania. So, they were a rather well-educated family—but also religious.
All the families that came to South Africa came with a strong Jewish religious heritage. No, there was not a lot of assimilation in South Africa. No, it was quite different than in many other countries. The community was very tightly linked, and, you know, in my day, intermarriage was frowned upon. Families remained observant, but not as religious as they had been when they arrived. But in my family, when I look at all my uncles, aunts, cousins, the families all kept kosher—except my family. [laugh]
My mom and dad didn’t. But we all belonged to so-called Orthodox temples. They weren’t Orthodox in the way that you think of a very Orthodox community. But we grew up observant.
But this is unique. This is unique in South Africa because in the United States, we have these divisions, you know, Reform and Conservative. And if I understand correctly, in South Africa, even if you or your family is not religious yourselves, you still belong to an Orthodox community?
OK. So that started to change when I was growing up. The first Reformed temples started when I was probably a teenager, and the Reform movement grew somewhat. My wife’s family switched out from being in an Orthodox community into the Reform community, for instance, into a Reform temple. But the majority remained what you—what was called Orthodox, which was sort of “British” Orthodox. Then there is also in South Africa a very strong strain of ultra-Orthodox, super Orthodox families, and that’s grown significantly over the last 20, 30 years. So these are the Lubavitchers, as they’re called, and they represent about 20% of the current community.
When I was growing up, there were 120,000 Jews in South Africa out of a white population of five million. Now it’s about 60,000. So there was a lot of emigration starting in the 1960s. But now about a third of the community is actually extremely Orthodox. The rest are much more socially Jewish, I would say, but they mostly still belong to temples and are generally called Orthodox. So it—the assimilation—I mean, South Africa was an interesting country to have gone to because for a community that had known anti-Semitism around the world, there was a different community to denigrate in South Africa, unfortunately, which was the Black community. So, while the Jewish community generally was on the side of anti-apartheid strongly, there was somebody else to persecute. So the Jews did well—Jewish families did well in South Africa, thrived, and did not experience a great degree of anti-Semitism. […]
But, in general, we didn’t have an appreciable amount of anti-Semitism. And there was this peculiar [laugh] alliance between the Afrikaner, who felt increasingly, you know, alone in the world, spoke a language nobody else spoke, and on a continent where pretty much nobody else had the same demographics or politics, and they felt very isolated, and they associated themselves with a sense of Israel and the—you know—their neighbors and the isolation. So it was this really unusual, I would say, alliance between those two communities in South Africa, such that while money was not allowed out of South Africa for instance during the apartheid era, it was allowed that large philanthropic contributions went to Israel. South Africa was/is a very interesting patchwork of politics, so it was an interesting place to grow up and it was a—for us—it was a great opportunity. Education was good, and we were white, so, you know, we enjoyed all the advantages.
And socially, I mean, the way that these constructions work, Jews were considered for all intents and purposes white in South Africa?
Absolutely, yeah. You know, so I went to—I mean, the school system was very British, so I went to a public school, which was much like any British public school. Generally, Jewish kids were a few percent of the class. Out of 120 in my school year maybe there were 10 or so Jewish children. But then, starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Jewish day schools started to operate. And, by the time I left school, maybe a third of the kids were in Jewish day schools, and today it’s much higher.
But when I was growing up, it was generally that we were in white, Church-of-England schools. There were prayers in the morning, things of that nature. However, the social network was diverse—it was a country where we played a lot of sport, etc. So most of my sport’s colleagues, etc., were Christian—not Afrikaner because I went to a predominantly English-speaking, white school. Neighborhoods, and thereby schools, were in general predominantly either Afrikaans- or English-speaking. So, my schoolmates were mostly non-Jewish. But the social fabric outside of school activities was generally related to the Jewish community.
And, Jonathan, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cape Town, which is an absolutely beautiful city—I think one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Wonderful beaches, wonderful, beautiful greenery, lovely—a lovely part of the country, and also the most liberal part of the country, back then. So, during the apartheid era, Cape Town was always less severe in all aspects of apartheid than, say, Johannesburg because there were less Black Africans in the Southern Cape. There was a community of what were called Coloureds, which you would call Mulattoes in the States—and who were derivative of the white settlers and the indigenous Hottentots.
There was also a Muslim community. They had come in as immigrant workers from the Far East, Indonesia, and East Indians arrived later, some of whom were Muslim. It was an interesting patchwork. The Asians were generally considered non-white. The Coloureds sort of were slotted in between. And then, of course, white was white. So, we were certainly white, absolutely. Then there were—
And in came—
—the Chinese, the Japanese, [laugh] the Japanese were “honorary white”, and the Chinese were non-white. [laugh]
I mean, this was a country of ridiculous—
And, Jonathan, even in its—
[…]and I played table tennis with Chinese [laugh] and Japanese, and you had to deal differently when we went on tour between those two communities.
And even in its lighter version in Cape Town, as opposed to Johannesburg, in what ways growing up would you experience apartheid? How would it be apparent to you on a day-to-day level?
Oh, very much so. So, in the white areas every institution, school, university, were entirely white. The Blacks—the non-Europeans, as they were called—were not allowed within the white areas, unless they were in service. So, we always had servants in the house. They lived with us. They could’ve been either African or Coloured.
In our household, they were generally Coloured. They were allowed to live in residence, but they could not own property in the white areas. So they lived, you know, apart in areas outside of the suburbs where the whites lived. They were generally people that were in service, you know, when you went to go fill up your car, it was always a non-white person would come pump your gas for you. Cleaning services, those kinds of things. So, you know, you encountered them, but not in any social activity, not in any educational activity, or at all. It was very odd.
Now, there was a corner store up the road from us run by the Bandecker family. The Bandeckers were Indians. Indian families were different because many came to South Africa well-educated. And they educated their kids well: some of their kids would get sent abroad. And so they sort of lived this odd life until long after the 1948 change. But, eventually, they also became disenfranchised, and had to move out of the area. But we did have Indian families living in the street adjacent to us when I was growing up, and they had this wonderful—the corner store—where we would, you know, get our groceries, and bubblegum, etc. And Mr. Bandecker would always stand at the door, and watch over the store, and then go on Saturday and blow some of his earnings on the races. He loved the horses.
So, it was a very interesting mix of communities, but it was the land of opportunity. So even though we were what you would have called middle-class in the white community—we were not in any way well-to-do—life was good for us as a family. We owned our house, we had good education, etc. We were able to travel. But, by no means was my family well-to-do, and yet life was relatively easy.
Jonathan, when did you start to get interested in science, and understand that you had a special talent for it?
So, my father was the eldest son of an immigrant family. He was an extremely bright man—very, very bright. Grew up on a farm, then went off to boarding school—actually at Marist Brothers, which was a Catholic school—probably from the time he was about 12 or so. Then when he was leaving school—as he tells it, he was a raconteur—and had a penchant for embellishment. But, anyway, the story goes he went to see his dad, and said, “I’d like to go to MIT to study physics,” because he knew that there was a cousin of his, one of the relatives that went from Lithuania to the US, not to South Africa, who had gone to MIT and had been educated there. So, he wanted to do that.
And apparently, according to my father, his dad said, “As the immigrant—eldest immigrant son in the family—you’ll either go become a lawyer or a doctor. Those are your options, and you will certainly stay in South Africa, and support this family.” So he went and became a lawyer, which was a disastrous [laugh] choice for him. Anyway, he evolved in time, he basically trained himself to be a very competent “engineer”.
His mathematic skills were exceptional. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Martin Gardner who used to write for Scientific America; had a column with very challenging math puzzles. And so we would get Scientific America in the family, and it would arrive on Fridays in South Africa. My father would grab it before my brother and I could get to it, solve the puzzles, and then taunt us with [laugh] having to do them. And it was—so, actually, it was my father who created this really fantastic science-learning atmosphere in the house because he was terribly frustrated that he had never had an opportunity to become a scientist. So it was his—and this was really very much his desire to turn his son, and then sons, into physicists.
My brother was all the material my father needed—was extremely bright—and my father “invested” in him. And then, you know, I was the baby. I was much younger, seven years younger, so my “investment” came later. But we just—we did things. We built things. We made things. We designed things. My poor mother, because these “things” happened around the dinner table. And my father had very high standards. Excellence was the only one. But he was a great teacher, and so he would come up either with things for us to do. We had a very nice workshop in the house.
We had—in the garage—we had a lathe, we had wood and metal mills, we had tools, and my dad had this store of electrical and other gadgetry that he kept in boxes, and he would make things. So an example at—I think I was probably about 10. My brother was about 17, 18—he was probably in his first year of university. My dad decided that we should make a machine that played tic-tac-toe, noughts and crosses. And he knew enough to know that in that game—you know—you should never lose.
And he also knew that there was a limited number of strategies, all rotationally related. And so he gave the problem of solving—it’s a Boolean algebra problem—of all the combinations of games, given a particular start, to my brother And then we built a wooden box—everything my dad made was in a wooden box—with switches on the nine squares. And then in those days, we didn’t have transistors, or at least we didn’t have chips. So we had these relays, which we built, and each relay would correspond to a position, and you—and my brother solved the problem of all the interconnects. My job was to do all the soldering. Now, soldering with my dad was a serious business. No cold solder would ever materialize.
But this was the “thing”. So we designed it, but when my dad did a project with us, there would be design drawings, there would be a description, there would be color coded wiring diagrams... I mean, it was very professional. It was a wonderful atmosphere. So, he was teaching us math and physics, and this object was called Baldiac: my father was bald. And everybody in the neighborhood would come and challenge Baldiac. Of course, you couldn’t beat Baldiac, right. So that was one “thing”.
Another story I can tell you about my father—then I’ll stop—to give you the sense of his enterprise. So we had a very good friend, Dr. Lacknerwas her name. She was a hematologist, and she worked on the Barnard, Chris Barnard, team, the heart-transplant surgery research team. And the team did a lot of research on dogs before they did the first operation on Washkansky. And we would always have a barbecue, what we called a braai in South Africa, on Sunday with the family, the Lackners. And one—and Dr. Lackner was always complaining about this thing called a defibrillator. This was this fancy American-made machine that allowed you to take the dog’s heart, you know, attach it on the machine while surgery was happening, and it was always breaking down.
So my dad said, “Well, let me come in and look.” So he went in, had a look at this machine, came home one day on Friday, went to the garage, into his stash of goodies, and, by Sunday night, there was a wooden box with two leads. He took it off to the dog lab, and said, “Why don’t you try this?” The rest of the dog operations, if my memory serves me correctly, were done with that defibrillator, OK? […] So, these were the kind of endeavors my dad got up to. So, you know, I mean, always we were building stuff.
I got interested in photography. I built my own darkroom, built my own enlarger. That was optics. My dad gave me a book on optics, and said, “Go and learn about optics, and then let’s design an enlarger.” So, it was my father that cultivated this interest in science and math.
So when I was in high school, I was fortunate to go to a school which had a program—there were only two in the whole country—which had so-called pure math and pure physics and pure chemistry. So, we did essentially first-year university mathematics, physics, and chemistry as school-leaving matriculation subjects, and that was very exciting. And my father built much of the equipment for the high-school physics lab—
—etc. [laugh] Right. So, I had that benefit. And when I left—and then University of Cape Town had very good math and applied math departments. Physics was OK, but it wasn’t very modern, rather more classical in content. My brother had done his degree, a bachelor’s degree, at the University of Cape Town, then did what was called an honours year. It was the British system. You did a fourth year that sort of brought you up to the tripos level in England, or the American level in the US. And he’d then gotten a scholarship to go to the US to Columbia University. That was the heyday of Columbia physics. Leon Lederman was my brother’s thesis advisor. Mel Schwartz was there, and he brought my brother to Stanford as a postdoc. So, this was a wonderful time to be at Columbia.
Jonathan, I wonder if you were paying attention to this, if your brother would send back stories of all the incredible things he was learning at Columbia?
Actually, to be honest with you, high school for me was about playing sport. And, yes, I enjoyed mathematics and physics, but I was not a particularly inspired student, and I played a lot of sport. I was in the rugby, chess and tennis teams. I was South African junior table tennis champion. So I was into sport, and my dad and mom cultivated that. Yeah, I did well in a few subjects, but I was very unmotivated [laugh] as a student in high school. And, yeah, I knew what my brother was off doing, but he was this demigod sort of, you know, he was off doing these things.
When I got to university, I got more serious about study, so, and then I did take my studies seriously. I’d spent nine months in the army, which was required in South Africa, which sort of cost me another year, if you will. So, coming out of that, I was pretty motivated to get on with study. And by then, my father had decided, well, maybe we can have two physicists in the family. So, he started to invest more in me, too—which means push me to be a little bit more studious, I guess. [laugh]
And so then when my—when I was in my second year—it was the second year? Yes, in the second year—no, at the end of my first year—it’s a three-year undergraduate degree—my brother sent me a ticket to come and visit him in Palo Alto. He was working at SLAC, and was transferring into UC Santa Cruz where he was becoming a professor. And he brought me out because he wanted me to see the great US research endeavor.
And, Jonathan, was your sense, I mean, even from high school, that the United States was the place to go if you wanted to pursue research at that level? Was this not something that could be done in South Africa?
I get—yeah, I didn’t really answer your question very helpfully. We were acutely aware of the great American institutions. We understood—excuse me— what it meant that my brother was at Columbia. We knew about all the research opportunities, etc., and what was available in the US. We also knew what wasn’t available in South Africa.
Now, South Africa was a source of a remarkable number of international academics, if you look, you know, for Nobel Prizes, etc., Sydney Brenner, Aaron Klug, recently Michael Levitt here at Stanford, who grew up in Pretoria. I mean, so the—and they’re—they were actually all in the Jewish community. [laugh] And so this was, you know, something that was revered in the community enormously. Most of the outstanding students went to Britain in those days for post graduate study.
My brother, David, was one of the first students as part of a wave that went rather to the US, because the US was at that time, you know, creating a strong brain drain. And they cottoned onto South Africa, and they created this scholarship for one science student a year. And David was one of the first ones to get that, all expenses paid for his whole graduate career. And so, but up until then, you know, if it hadn’t been that, David would’ve gone to either Oxford or Cambridge.
But then things switched, and started—more students started to go to the US. So, yes, I was well aware. And then David brought me out at the end of my first year. I actually started doing electrical engineering. I didn’t start as physics. I think that was probably [laugh] a conscious or a subconscious way of staying out of my brother’s, you know, path as a protection. But after the end of first year, realizing electrical engineering was the last thing I was going to be any good at [laugh]--
--or interested in, I switched to physics, math, and applied math. And then eventually realized that in fact that the trail that my brother had created was a remarkable help to my career in the end. It opened lots of doors for me. And so, when I visited here at the end of first year, I was smitten. I was—you know—I had been to SLAC. I’d met people like Mel (Schwartz) and this kind of thing.
So I was smitten, and I went back, and I was going to now make sure I could get into a US university. Then my brother said to me, “Forget doing an honours year, you know. You’re fine. Just come with your three-year degree. You’ll be fine. You’ll find your math and your applied math skills will be ahead of your US colleagues by a considerable amount, but your physics will be, you know, less than perfect, but you’ll be fine.” And that’s what I did. I didn’t do the honours year.
What does that say, Jonathan, about the South African system that you’d be ahead in some areas and behind in others?
It said that the University of Cape Town had an exceptional program in math and applied math. When I came here, I went to UC Irvine. That’s also an interesting story about how I got there. So I went to UC Irvine and started out --ewe ended in December in South Africa because that was when the—so I came a quarter late. And so, I went to my first classes which were second quarter electromagnetism, mathematical physics and quantum mechanics.
And after a few lectures and talking to—and the questions I asked the lecturers in electrodynamics and in mathematical physics said, “Listen, I don’t think you need to do these courses. You’re obviously [laugh], you know, ahead of us in those.” I struggled with quantum mechanics because I hadn’t had any modern physics. But I passed out of anything that was heavily math-based. Statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics, I had to, you know, really apply myself.
But the others, I was ahead. And UC Irvine was not Stanford [laugh] or UC Berkeley, but they were the same level courses. It wouldn’t have been any different there. Always when—then when I—you know—I found that I was always—my math skills had been significantly more advanced than the US kids.
So, Jonathan, let’s talk about why UC Irvine. How did that come about?
So, when my brother suggested that I skip out and not do an honours degree, he said, “You know, why don’t you come to UC Santa Cruz? It’s a new school, it’s an interesting university, and so apply.” So I applied, and I got accepted. And my future wife, Renée, and I had been going out for a while at that time.
We decided we would marry in December, and we would come to the US to go to UC Santa Cruz. And then I got a phone call from my brother to say, “Here’s the good news, and here’s the bad news. The bad news is you’ve been disinvited as a graduate student at Irvine because”—now, this is the US, right, in 1970—
Wait, at Irvine or at Santa Cruz?
At Irvine—no at Santa Cruz. “You’re dis…because of a nepotism clause at UC. You cannot have two brothers in the same department (at Santa Cruz).”
Which was the United States of America, right. [laugh]
“So, but, the good news is that the dean got on the phone, and talked to his friend”—the dean at UC Irvine who was actually Reines. I don’t know if you remember Reines who won the Nobel Prize for neutrino—“and they’ve arranged that you could—you’re accepted at UC Irvine. So you’re going to UC Irvine.” That was the story.
So I got to UC Irvine. I actually applied from there to Stanford and to Berkeley, thinking I would switch out at the end of my 1st year. Stanford, I didn’t get into. Berkeley, I did, but I didn’t change. I stayed at UCI, and was fortunate to be able to come to SLAC to do my PhD research. So, I spent most of my graduate career actually at SLAC.
Why, if given the opportunity to study at Berkeley, did you not take it?
I’d already finished my first year. I’d gotten my courses under me. I thought I had a good thesis experiment opportunity, which actually didn’t turn out to be the one I did. And I just did—didn’t think I wanted to—I don’t know. Let me say this. I don’t think I remember exactly why. But--
Inertia is probably part of it. You were there.
I think it was probably that, but, and maybe just young foolishness. I don’t know. But--
Now, Jonathan, when you got—by the time you got to graduate school, did you know that you wanted to pursue high-energy physics, particle physics, or that came later on?
Yes, I’d “grown up” by then and decided just because my brother was in the field didn’t mean I couldn’t also go into it.
So, yes, I knew when I came to the US, I wanted to actually do particle physics. So, yeah, I had grown up a bit, and—
And what year did you get to the United States?
19…the last—the 30th of December, 1969.
1969, OK. And, of course, this is an extraordinarily exciting time in particle physics and high-energy physics.
Yeah, and the political situation
[laugh] Right, that as well.
You know, there was the—there were many things going on in the US an interesting introduction for us. There was the Tate-LaBianca murders. We had never grown up with television in South Africa, and suddenly we had this box with these horrendous images. There were the hearings with Nixon, which, you know, introduced us to this American system of checks and balances, and their wonderful plusses, which wouldn’t happen today, unfortunately. It was a lot less bipartisan then.
And, yes, it was a wonderful time in physics, in particle physics, because it was a time that the Standard Model was beginning to emerge as a construct. But it needed an awful lot of experimental validation and verification. So it was a great time, and I was just, I have to say, extremely fortunate in this set of events that put me in line to be able to enjoy that as best I did.
Now, you said you spent a lot of your time in graduate school at SLAC.
Yeah. So, I finished my—you know—my coursework, which was—the US system basically you do coursework the first two years. I was associated with a group at Irvine, and they were going to do an experiment at Los Alamos. And so I got involved in developing hardware for that. And then that experiment was actually not accepted.
And so, Professor Paul Condon came to me and observed that my experiment with these other two professors was not going forward. And he asked me to consider joining him in an experiment at SLAC. And I had worked two summers at SLAC before, and of course I knew SLAC. And he invited me to go to SLAC with him on the upcoming Tuesday to talk about whether we could join the University of Colorado and people at SLAC on a SLAC-based experiment. I went to see these other two professors, and they said that was fine, and they understood because their experiment had not been approved.
So, off we went on Tuesday up to SLAC. And the spokesman of that experiment was a fellow named David Hitlin, who worked in the group at SLAC that my brother was in, which was Group G, Mel Schwartz’s group. And David had been an undergraduate at—and a graduate student at—Columbia, so he knew my brother very well. But, anyway, it was this immediate sort of, you know, open door. And we talked it out, and they welcomed UCI on the experiment, and there was a thesis for me. So I went back down to Irvine on Tuesday night, and said to Renée, “We’re going to move to Palo Alto.” We had spent two summers up here, so we knew we much preferred Northern California to Southern California. And so that was Tuesday night.
On Thursday morning, we had our U-Haul hooked behind our car, we had gotten rid of our lease on our apartment, and we left for Palo Alto. Renée’s father was actually visiting at the time, and we said, “Here you are. Get on a plane, and you’re going to spend the rest of your visit in Palo Alto,” and he shipped up to here. And that was it. We were very excited and motivated to move. So that was in my third year, ’72. And we lived up here. We—you know—we built parts of the experiment, ran the experiment, and in ’76 I got my degree. I went back down to Irvine, defended my thesis, and--
And, Jonathan, on that point, was your committee at Irvine, or was your committee at SLAC?
The committee was at Irvine. It was a UC thesis. And so while I lived at SLAC all that time doing the experiment—that was allowed—I had to go down and, you know, I had a thesis committee like anyone else. There were three professors from UC Irvine. And I defended my thesis, came back, and two days later our first daughter was born.
I was very lucky to win that race because—
—if the race had run the other way, it would’ve been—
Absolutely, absolutely. [laugh]
—a very different story. And then two weeks later, I started a job at SLAC.
Your experiment at SLAC, this fed into your dissertation?
Yes, that was my dissertation.
That was my dissertation. And what were some of the principal research questions in the experiment?
[laugh] It was an experiment which I would characterize as being technically very interesting, and pushed boundaries, etc., and scientifically was not a leading experiment. It was, however—it was interesting in that it—I don’t know if you remember what a bubble chamber was.
Of course, sure.
You may be a bit young to remember bubble chambers. But bubble chambers were instruments that snapped pictures at a constant rate of interactions of proton beams or whatever on a hydrogen or deuterium target. The idea of my thesis experiment was to explore the use of what’s called a rapid cycling bubble chamber, which operated at 60 hertz, not at a few hertz, along with a spectrometer behind this bubble chamber to choose whether the events were of interest, and only fired the lights when they were of interest.
So, we were supposed to reduce the total number of photo-- pictures we took, and have a very high yield of the events that were of interest. And I was interested in a beam of KL mesons impinging on the hydrogen in the bubble chamber, and producing KS mesons. The KS decays to two pions so you had two particles coming out of the bubble chamber, and those we could detect in a spectrometer. We could calculate the invariant mass quickly; if it came to a KS invariant mass, we fired the lights.
So that was the idea of this experiment, which was a—you know—was an interesting way to push the technology forward. We did that. I didn’t actually do the KS final state, I did the K* which is a higher-mass resonance of the K meson. And, OK, my data —it was a theory that we were testing, agreed with—excuse me—with the theory.
It was mildly interesting as a physics result, but a fantastic training as an experimentalist because we basically were a small group, 10 of us, three graduate students, and we basically did everything ourselves. And I also was able to—again, with my strong interest in math—I was able to use—bring into the field some analysis techniques that hadn’t been used before. And when I joined Martin Perl as a postdoc, which was the Mark I experiment, I was able to bring those ideas immediately to the Mark I, particularly to the discovery analysis that Gerson Goldhaber made of the D meson.
If you look at that paper, you’ll see that the discovery figure is plotted two ways: one way was the conventional way, and then the other way was what I suggested which gives a better way to handle the signal-to-noise, and to calculate the number of events, etc. That methodology came out of my thesis. And so, one of the things that I did was actually use my mathematics quite a lot to invent—not invent; that’s a bit strong of a word—but to introduce new analysis techniques into high-energy physics, which was a lot of fun. So—
Now, Jonathan, was this an unusual arrangement at Irvine that you essentially did all of your research at SLAC or, you know, anywhere besides Irvine, or was this commonly done at Irvine?
No, this is the way high-energy physics operates and did operate—is that basically the “action” was where the accelerators were. And so, the students and the postdocs would spend a large amount of time, sometimes exclusively, at the accelerators. And so—and, you know, the faculty would travel and come, maybe for a week a month or something to be there. But the young people would live at the accelerators in general, and that’s still true now.
I mean, the people who work on—at CERN, the Stanford people or the whatever people, the students and the postdocs live in Geneva, or on the French side if they prefer France. And that’s always been the mode for high-energy physics. Some departments required that the students only have a limited away stay. Maybe once they have their data, they need to come back.
But, in general, that’s the way high-energy physics operated. So the young people lived at the accelerators because we had to run the experiment, you know. Running an experiment’s a 24-hour, nine months a year operation, and you’re on shift a lot. Particularly on an experiment like mine where there were 10 of us, we were essentially on shift all the time, you know, so…
Jonathan, I wonder in those early years what kind of contact you would’ve had with leaders like Pief Panofsky and Burt Richter?
So, when I was a graduate student, certainly not. I did—as a graduate student, I had a lot of contact with the research director (Joe Ballam) at SLAC, but that was because this rapid cycling bubble chamber had come out of his physics group at SLAC, and so he had a personal interest in it. And it broke down a lot, and I had to spend a lot of time with Joe Ballam, telling him, “Look [laugh], I need you to give us some more time on this thing. I need my thesis.” And, so, but that was generally—you know—that was only because of the relationship to the bubble chamber.
When I became a postdoc, I worked for Martin Perl, and that was a very close relationship. Martin was a very engaged mentor with his postdocs. And then after two years, I joined Burt’s group. I was half-time in Burt’s group, and half-time in Martin’s group. And, again, Burt had asked me because of my—the work I’d done in the first years, two years in Mark I/II, to join him and do something for him. So, I was sort of fortunate in always being very close to these guys, and they were both wonderful mentors to me—quite different people but very important mentors.
And then also at that time—so there was the Mark I collaboration, which was SLAC-LBL—Martin Perl-Burt Richter groups at SLAC, and the Gerson Goldhaber-George Trilling group at Berkeley. And then it became Mark II, and the same groups. So, I also had the great good fortune to have worked with Gerson and with George. George Trilling, who just died recently, was a remarkable mentor to young people too.
So I had the good fortune to, you know, have been mentored by really very, very giving and forgiving people. And the thing about Burt and Martin at SLAC was that they gave opportunity to people when they were very young, as long as they decided you could handle it, they gave you a bit of rope. If you didn’t hang yourself, you got a little bit more rope. And I was fortunate to be given a succession of responsibilities that were very helpful for me when I was really very young.
Now, Jonathan, at what point did you secure full-time employment? Did you have a conversation with somebody, and they said, “Defend and come back, and we have a job for you”?
[laugh] Oh, dear. [laugh] So, you know, academia is a competitive business, as you know. It’s also somewhat of a whimsical business. It’s not always, related entirely to the person and performance. But, you know, you could compete, and sometimes lose for the wrong reasons, or win for the wrong reason.
But, so, when I was—started as a postdoc, that’s normally a three-year appointment, which it was for me at SLAC with Martin. And then after two years, Burt had decided that—so there was this detector called Mark II. Do you know about Mark I?
OK. So, Mark I was this experiment at SLAC at the SPEAR Storage Ring, which was Burt Richter, Martin Perl, and the Goldhaber-Trilling group. That experiment discovered the charm quark, which won a Nobel Prize for Burton, who built SPEAR, the accelerator too. It also won a Nobel Prize for Martin Perl, who discovered the tau lepton. OK. So it was a—a string of other discoveries.
It was the richest experiment certainly in particle physics in the history of particle physics, and it came at a time when you needed clarity about how many fundamental particles there were. So, the charm quark was the fourth quark, which meant that there were two families of quarks: the lowest lying quarks are what builds protons and neutrons; then charm and strange, which are not contained in any stable matter. But then when the tau lepton came along, that was—there was the electron; its heavier brother, the muon; and then the tau. So there were three generations. Eventually the top and the bottom quark filled in the third generation of quarks.
So there are three generations of quarks, and three generations of leptons, a symmetry which is very important in nature. So, but that story was evolving, and this Mark I experiment was central to filling the second generation and then heralding the third generation. So it was absolutely crucial to the Standard Model building. Mark I detector was followed by its improved brother, which was called the Mark II, which then ran at the SPEAR Storage Ring. But then the SPEAR Storage Ring ran out of “oomph”. If you wanted to discover more particles, you needed to go to higher energy.
So SLAC built a follow-up accelerator called PEP, and that needed a detector. So we built a detector (the MarkII), we ran it at SPEAR, and then it had to move to a different interaction region at a different place at SLAC. And Burt asked me to be in charge of moving that detector. So, after two years, I became a staff member at SLAC—what was called a continuing staff member, so it wasn’t a permanent position.
But, and, the research director who was the fellow I referred to before, Joe Ballam, when I went to him and said I wanted to accept this job from Burt, he discouraged me from talking the position, advocating that I should rather be thinking about an academic career, and thinking about an assistant professorship, but not to take a staff position so early. And I disrespectfully—I respectfully disagreed with him [laugh], which took about three meetings—
—before he relented. He sent me off to Pief to have Pief have a go at discouraging me. Anyway, I did the “stupid thing”—I took the [laugh] staff position.
Jonathan, an obvious question though—an obvious question is, what else might’ve been available to you if not this?
I would’ve seen out my third year of a postdoc. I would’ve gone off to CERN or somewhere else to—you know, the normal progression was not to stay at one institution. I violated a fair number of these standard progressions, OK. But really because I was fortunate to be on—you know—on many good wickets. So I would normally have finished a postdoc, hopefully successfully, and then have gone on and hopefully gotten a second postdoc or an assistant professorship, which was typical. Usually two postdocs in particle physics before you got an assistant professorship.
So, I didn’t do that. I short-circuited that, and became a staff member at SLAC, which would’ve taken me out of the academic line. But, with this progression, four years out of graduate school, I was now the spokesperson of this Mark II experiment, which was a leading SLAC experiment. And so I wasn’t a faculty member, I was a staff member, but I was leading this experiment.
And now I started to get offers from a good number of places—serious ones were Cornell, MIT, and then Caltech who offered me faculty positions. And I decided that I didn’t want to be in this mode of traveling from a distant institution to SLAC, where I clearly was going to do all my physics. So I doggedly turned down those places, and waited, hoping that I would get switched onto the SLAC faculty, which actually happened. So, when Caltech offered me this professorship, I got changed from what was called a continuing staff position to a permanent staff position, which meant I had a permanent job, and then—
This was the equivalent of tenure, essentially?
It was equivalent of tenure, but staff tenure. And then in ‘84—so this was 1981 when I didn’t go to Caltech. I was in a funk after I said no to Caltech, by the way, just [laugh] because I really thought “how did I do this?” But [laugh] anyway, I did.
In ‘84, I got—there was a search for a faculty position at SLAC, and I ended up getting chosen for that. So then I was back on—I was on the academic track, but I had come sort of through the back door: I never was an assistant professor. So that was—my permanence was that I took the staff position, permanent staff, but then the tenured faculty position came in ’84.
And, Jonathan, where was this in the—just to zoom out for a little bit. The tensions between the SLAC faculty and the physics faculty, where—in terms of your narrative in 1984, what was the state of play at that time?
The state of play at that time was that sufficient of the characters or some fraction of the characters that represented that pitched battle had passed on. Pief was certainly still around, very strongly. He was still the director at SLAC. But some of the campus faculty had moved on, had died in fact, or were retired. And the era when I started, actually my generation pushed for a closer relationship between the physics faculty—physics department—and SLAC. So SLAC was a department of the university. We were appointed faculty through the normal Stanford process. It was no different. However, the department was SLAC, and you did not have teaching duties in that department. [laugh] You were not required to teach. You could oversee students. The students were not admitted through SLAC.
The students came in through the physics department. But faculty at SLAC could be their faculty advisors, but with a co-advisor from campus. At about the time I joined—I can’t remember exactly when it was—but at roughly that time, we got the university to agree that the SLAC faculty could in fact be direct supervisors. They didn’t need a co-supervisor. And my generation pushed for introducing a certain faction of required teaching from the SLAC faculty. It was done in proportion to the total number of SLAC faculty. We were about 30 professors. And I think it was that we needed to have an equivalent of 10 teaching faculty averaged over the year. I can’t remember the details, but something like that.
And I remember that early on in the ‘80s, just after I got on the faculty, I was on a committee—a curriculum committee—that revamped the curriculum for graduate physics. Myself and Michael Peskin were on that. And we actually had a significant say in what the particle physics curriculum would be in this changing era. And then, you know, we taught. And so things eased up starting around then. Then when I became director, I had an understanding—well, my desire was to bring SLAC closer to the university, even closer, and have more alliances. And I had this idea of institutes, that was SLAC-based institutes but institutes of the university. And the first one that I came up with was what became the Kavli Institute.
And, in doing so, I was able with physics and applied physics, because we did it as three departments, to convince the president of the university to give us nine billets for this institute, nine new faculty positions, which were going to be joint appointments between SLAC and campus. And so I pushed for joint appointments between the two faculties, and I think today there is something like 10 joint appointments or maybe more in the physics faculty, and there are a considerable number also in the synchrotron light faculty. There are two faculties at SLAC. There’s photon science and there’s particle physics/particle-astro. So, I increased that overlap between the departments by having the two departments working together to make joint appointments.
So things eased—started to ease up roughly at the time I joined the faculty. Burt actually led I think it was a bi-monthly, or something, meeting between the physics department at SLAC and applied physics. So there was, you know, considerably more cohesion. And by then, most of the old battles had disappeared—not entirely. They were still there to keep us a little bit refreshed. [laugh] But I think from my generation on, things got a lot easier.
Jonathan, not to jump too quickly to your tenure as director, I want to ask sort of at what point during your time at SLAC did you feel like you were on a track toward leadership? What might’ve been that job where you realized you’re getting more responsibility, and this might ultimately lead to, you know, running the entire operation?
So I’ll be honest with you, because it’s true, I never had the sense that my career was evolving towards where I was going to become the director, nor was it some goal of mine. In fact, in general, I think my career was mostly peripatetic. I was not a careful, linear planner. I just went after the things I wanted to do, and I was fortunate that I, at a young age, got leadership opportunities. And so I was always in a leadership position. And, eventually, what could they do with me? They had to promote me to become director. So, but, I didn’t have that in my sense of where I was going. I—so, as I said, when I was just four years into my postdoc—four years out of graduate school, I was then the spokesman of the a leading experimental at the lab. So that was young to be in a leadership position.
That experiment, the Mark II, went on to a major rebuild to go to the SLAC Linear Collider, which was the collider that worked at the Z0. And I was the spokesman—spokesman with George Trilling and Gary Feldman—of that upgrade, and then of that experiment. That experiment ended in ‘89 because we—there was a stronger detector that was brought on called SLD. And in ’89, I find myself looking for a new opportunity. George Trilling wanted me to join the SDC experiment, which was the experiment at the large—at SSC. It had looked like a big experiment, and I wasn’t as interested as he had hoped I would be.
George was a very good and close colleague of mine. But I became interested in this issue, which is called charge-parity violation, CP violation. And there was already a discussion about doing such an experiment at SLAC. Interesting enough, David Hitlin, who was my de facto thesis advisor and with whom I worked on Mark II, was actually leading that effort. And so we came back together again, and I became the person at SLAC—David was at Caltech—the person at SLAC who put together the effort to build the B-factory. I was the head of the accelerator project, and helped build the detector. So I always, you know, evolved from one leadership position to another.
When I became—when the B-factory became the central future of SLAC in the early ‘90s, when we became a project—a federal project—I was made an associate director of the laboratory in charge of the whole B-factory effort. So now I’d gone from group leader to head of the experiment, etc., to now being an associate director, which was the next level of leadership. Burt was the director. And we finished building the B Factory in ‘99, and then Burt stepped down. But I had been offered the directorship of Fermilab.
So Fermilab—John Peoples was stepping down as Fermilab director, and there was a process—actually, George Trilling was the chair of that search committee. And I had become the person who was chosen, so I was offered the job at Fermilab and University of Chicago to take over Fermilab leadership. I’d already had that offer in hand when Burt stepped down at SLAC, and Stanford needed to find a director to replace him. So they had a process rather quickly to find a new director, and they offered me that job. So, I had a choice between the two. It was surprising to people that I didn’t take Fermilab, which was the big high-energy physics lab.
But I—you know—I loved Stanford University, and I really loved the embedment of the lab in the university, so I took the SLAC job. But, you know, until Burt stepped down, I actually hadn’t thought that this was what was going to happen to me. I really hadn’t considered it. So, I mean, that’s the—I think—the honest story. [laugh]
Yeah. Jonathan, I want to go back to the origins of the B-factory. Can you talk a little bit about—you know—because it had—these decisions were of, you know, existential value to SLAC overall. Can you talk a little bit about some of those considerations about what opportunities might have been missed or have passed over that allowed for this idea that B-factory would be the future for SLAC?
OK. So this was of course actually very contentious, and it was not, for instance—So, Burt was the director of SLAC. Obviously, Burt had been a mentor of mine and a supporter of mine. And Burt wanted—Burt had come up with this thing called the SLAC Linear Collider, which was the first linear collider. So, let’s talk quickly about electron acceleration.
So, SPEAR, PEP, LEP at CERN were what are called colliding beam facilities. That is, you have an electron beam going in one direction in a ring, and a positron beam in the other direction. They’re both contained in the same vacuum chamber. They have opposite electric sign charge, so they can be contained in the same magnetic lattice but going in opposite directions. And then at, you know, some points around those rings, you bring the beams into collision, and that’s where you put the detectors. And that’s the predominant way particle physics was done, proton-proton anti-proton) and electron-positrons colliders.
Now, when an electron goes around in a circle, it’s generally a rather unhappy particle because it’s having to turn this corner all the time. And it exhibits its unhappiness by giving off photons, by trying to lower its energy by radiating photons, OK. And so, in order to maintain the energy of the electrons as they go around in a circle, you have to have large microwave generators that keep restoring the lost energy per turn, so that the electrons and the positrons maintain their energy. That’s expensive, and the cost goes like the square of the energy. So, if you double the machine energy, you need four times as much power to restore this energy. So it’s an inefficient process. And the machines like LEP, which were up at 100 GeV collision energy, were getting to the point where—of diminishing returns. The cost of running them was getting to be prohibitive.
So, however, if an electron’s going in a straight line, it doesn’t have this problem of turning the corner. It’s like you in your car, right. When you go round the corner, you skid. Your tires get hot, and you lose rubber. But if you go straight, unless you turn the brakes on, you don’t have that problem. The same is true with an electron. If it’s going in a straight line, it’s accelerating in a straight line, it doesn’t have this problem of energy loss. So the idea was let’s take two linear accelerators and collide them head on, OK, rather than two beams in a circle. And that is called a linear collider, and Burt came up with this brilliant idea—a brilliant man—of making a cheap approximation to that at SLAC. And that idea was to accelerate both electrons and positrons in the SLAC linac.
And so, we brought the electrons down the linac, and the positrons down the same linac, and we built a set of arcs—like a tennis racket. And the electrons went one way, the positrons went the other way, and they collided. So it was a poor-man’s linear collider—you know, a linear collider with one linear accelerator, not two. And this was to prove this principle that you could collide beams in a linear collider. In a storage ring, you can put a lot of charge in those bunches, and you could collide them at, you know, millions of times a second. So to develop a decent event rate, you rely on the fact that you can collide millions of times a second.
With two linacs, you can really only collide hundreds of times a second. So your potential event rate goes down by, you know, roughly three orders of magnitude. To recover that, the idea was you had to make an extremely small beam so that the overlap between the two beams would be much more “intense”, and therefore you’d have—regain that loss of collision rate by having higher density beams collide. OK. That was a huge struggle but, in fact, at the SLC it was finally made to work. One micron beam on one micron beam colliding—if you think about that, that’s quite something to get these two ”needles” colliding in a controllable way.
But that was the challenge, and the SLC was a struggle, but it was eventually made to work. And so we proved the concept of a linear collider. It was still a long way from what was needed in order to have a competitive luminosity at higher energies, say, at a TeV—energies comparable to the SSC And so Burt was on a tear to go to the next step (what is now called the ILC). You couldn’t do that at SLAC because we didn’t have the space for two long accelerators—linear accelerators—but the idea was, you know, we would do it somewhere in the world.
We would federate internationally and build the first linear collider (ILC). So Burt wanted to jump from the SLC, which just started to work in the end of ‘89, to, you know, the ILC And he—we had a program—the program was actually a collaboration with Japan—to do this, and some reasonable amount of R&D money to do it. Now, the background—I’m sorry, this is a bit of a long story.
But the background was that the SSC was being built. And now I’ll take you to 1991, I think it was, February ‘91. There was a panel led by Michael Witherell. And the Witherell panel was a HEPAP panel, and it was looking at the future of high-energy physics. And SLAC was on a tear to go to a linear collider. I was—I had started in ‘89, and by ‘91 I had led the design for the B-factory with a group—not just me of course.
We had designed the B-factory. We had a very good design for SLAC, and I was trying to push Burt into this. Burt was not interested—not interested at the beginning. He wasn’t—this was not what he thought the future should be. It wasn’t physics he was particularly interested in.
But when in ‘89, when the Mark II stopped running at the SLC, and the SLD came in, I was left with nothing to do. But I had about—I had a substantial budget in my group which had been used to run the Mark II at SLC. Burt did not take that money away from me. He left it for me, and he let me do a design of the B-factory.
Even though—just to interject—even though he didn’t think this was where the future should be headed?
Correct. But he recognized that this was certainly something interesting. We had to build an accelerator that was a hundred times—a thousand times stronger than the Cornell accelerator at that time. So it was a dicey business. But as I always said to him, “You taught me”—
—“to do dicey things.”
“And make the—you know—and you always said if I (Burt) assess that something could work, I needed to trust you. Well, you need to trust me now. It can work.” Anyway—
And so just this begs the question—
This begs the question—
So he was uncertain—
—with Burt, what did he think the future was, if not this?
Oh, absolutely to go to the next linear collider. He wanted to run SLC another 10 years, and then by then be ready to build the world machine (ILC) OK. So, in ‘91, I had—we, the group that I had formed—we had designed a B Factory machine. We had had it reviewed externally, which demonstrated that there was a lot of confidence that we could do this. There was a strong interest by the international community to join this experiment, and the Japanese were also wanting to do it. OK.
So, there we sat with this proposal, and with Burt not wanting to commit to it because he wanted to, you know, bridge the gap with the SLC, and then go to the ILC. And so the Witherell panel came to SLAC. They went to the SSC a few days before they came to SLAC. They would go to all the labs. And at the SSC, they found that there was a problem with the SSC budget, that they were missing about $140 million of money to fully operate the research division at the lab, which was now building the machine, and—items like library services and recruiting experimentalists—there was a shortfall.
That matched the SLAC budget rather perfectly, and so there was a portion of—you can go read this. I’ll send you articles on it. But there was a portion of the Witherell panel that wanted to shut SLAC down, and take that money, and move it to the SSC; a very serious portion of the Witherell panel were attracted to that strategy. This did not include Michael, OK, who was a strong [laugh] participant in the B-factory actually, and a rather close friend of mine. But Michael was not of that persuasion, but he was the chair of the committee, so of course he had to be, you know, impartial—the leader, not necessarily the protagonist.
So immediately after their visit to the SSC, the committee came to SLAC. It came on a Friday. And I said to Burt—because someone told me about this problem that was, you know, brewing for us—and I went to Burt, and I said, “I don’t know if you’re aware, Burt, but there is a movement to close us down, to move the money from SLAC. And if you don’t slot something in ahead of the ILC, which people don’t believe is going to be able to save you now, we are in danger of being shut down.”
And shut down, you mean entirely shut down? That’s like the end of SLAC?
Entirely, they would’ve shut SLAC down, yeah, exactly. As I said, I’ll send you the articles, because this probably sounds a little unbelievable, but it’s not.
It was spoken about in Physics Today (A DOE Panel Thinks the Unthinkable: Budget Squeeze Could Eliminate SLAC. Physics Today, July 1992), so and, of course, I knew the people on the committee. So Friday morning, Burt comes out to make the presentation of the SLAC future program, and it was Thursday afternoon I spoke to him about the fact that we better take seriously that we could be looking at a shutdown. And he comes out and says that the future of SLAC is the B-factory: That SLAC is going to build the B Farctory. That half of the cost would be taken out of SLAC’s hide. SLAC would reduce its financial commitment to the SLC, will run the SLC for another 6 years until the B-factory was ready—and that’s the future.
And he proposed that the community put in the other half of the money, and that this be the future of the electron program at Stanford. So, he did that, and then he became an extremely forceful supporter, and worked his magic in Washington, and we got the money.
What was the committee’s response to his initial proposal?
The Witherell panel proposed that the US do a B-factory at SLAC in what was called the middle budget scenario, which required this extra funding that Burt said needed to be put in. SLAC couldn’t completely provide the money. And that was the Witherell panel’s recommendation.
Now, at SLAC, this however put myself and several of the others at SLAC who were pushing the B-factory in contentiousness with the people who were running the SLC—and particularly Marty Breidenbach, a good friend of mine who was the spokesman of SLD, the experiment that had just displaced us. That was very challenging internally because those, you know—one of the strengths of people in physics is they believe passionately in what they are pursuing. And, that group of people believed in the ILC—mind you, so did I. My argument was we’re not going to be able to bridge the gap. The gap was too long. And we wouldn’t be ready to propose an international machine in time.
We had to have a gap-filler, and that the B-factory was the perfect gap-filler. It’s not that I wasn’t an ILC proponent, because I went on in fact as chair of ICFA to propose the International Linear Collider. This was much later, but I was very supportive of that. But in 1992 I thought that the gap was just too long, and then we were faced with this potential of being shut down. So, that’s the history of how the B-factory came to be. The—so this was 1991.
In 1993, the budget—federal budget—included the money for the SLAC B-factory. After an interesting little back and forth with Cornell, because Cornell also proposed to do it, the HEPAP panel said there should be a B-factory. It said at SLAC, but Cornell contended they could do it as well. And so, there was a shootout between Cornell and SLAC, a full-blown, you know, national committee comparing the possibilities. And it was decided to go with SLAC, even though our proposal was about three times as expensive.
And so, Jonathan, why—in your view—why did SLAC win out?
Because Cornell was a fabulous lab, a very—great people, extremely competent, etc.—but a much smaller enterprise. The B-factory was a project in which we had to do a thousand times better than Cornell was doing at that time at the same energy. And it was considered to be a very, very challenging project.
And the feeling was that the Cornell proposal, as clever as it was, was a proposal of the nature of Fermilab and Cornell’s approach to accelerator implementation, which was to start off ambitiously, and then incrementally fight your way up to the design performance. And the evaluation was that there wasn’t enough infrastructure and heft at Cornell. Their proposal was very cute and very clever, but it was more risky than the SLAC one. And so they went with the conservative SLAC proposal.
Even though SLAC was going to be more expensive?
About three times as expensive, yeah.
How was it more conservative if it’s so much more expensive?
How is it—say that again, David.
How was it more—how was it both more conservative and three times more expensive?
Yeah, well, conservatism costs you money.
OK. Conservatism means you design from the beginning for peak performance. You put in redundancy. You put in a considerable amount of R&D. You—you know—you R&D the hell out of the difficult challenges, and you build in a lot of redundancy. And, you know, they didn’t—and we had the linac.
The linac provided this enormous amount of current that you needed to deal with. They were going to have to fill this ring to very high currents with a much weaker injector, which meant that the potential for problems were greater. So, everything was stretched in their design. And then there was some accelerator physics—not miracles but challenges—that were unproven, whereas our design had more proven technology and proven approach, which meant that—but those cost money, it turns out. OK.
So, they were going to cross the beams at an angle because then it gives you an enhancement in luminosity. However, no one had ever collided crossed beams in electron-positron, and there was uncertainty as to whether you would get the performance. We went with straight-ahead collisions. That’s much more challenging, actually, to get two beams to come into collision head-on. It’s much easier to cross them at an angle, in terms of the hardware, the magnets, etc. So, it was just more expensive.
But also, my approach was very different. My approach was that we were going to build something that likely would perform from day one at this full performance, which was a thousand times more than ever done before, rather than the normal approach which often is to, you know, build, see what your problems are, retrofit, etc. And in fact, within less than a year, we had achieved design performance at the B-factory, a performance achievement that had never been done on a colliding beam facility, let alone one that was to perform at this very, very high luminosity. So, we “threw money” at the problem, and we did R&D on the difficult technical challenges ahead of time, rather than fixing them incrementally, you know, which is not an—it’s not an unsuccessful approach. It’s a slow approach, and it requires that you have a bit of luck.
And, Jonathan, to go back to the competition with Cornell and Stanford, to what extent was it also a competition between DOE and NSF?
Well, NSF was not going to be able to fund it, so DOE would’ve funded Cornell to do it, or us.
So where was NSF in all of this if they didn’t have the funds to be able to go through with it?
NSF were very strongly in favor of seeing their protégé lab become the winner in this. So, but they weren’t going to be able to fund it. It was—in the end, the decision was up to the secretary of energy, and she made the decision to go with SLAC. And, you know, not that that wasn’t contentious. I mean, it was challenged by the president of Cornell, etc.
The decision was challenged because the report between the two was not to say that Cornell would fail. It just said, “Here are the contrasts between the two approaches.” It was not written in a way to say, “You’ll fail with Cornell, whereas you won’t at SLAC.” It was much more a comparison of risk, and a risk assessment. So the decision was “clean”, yep, “clean.” But it was—you know—it was nerve-racking, yeah. [laugh].
And the fact that—
And Burt wanted me to lower the cost of the B-factory by reducing some of the—you know—the padding that I’d—not padding, but some of the conservativeness that I’d put into the design. Burt thought that we should rather be a little bit more risky—put more risk into our proposal to reduce the cost differential. And I wouldn’t do it.
Because I didn’t think it would work. I really believed—so, you know, the SLC had turned on very slowly. I was the spokesman of the experiment we had gotten together—a national collaboration—and we were ready to take the SLC beams, you know, about three years before we finally got some reasonable beam. It was—in the end, we did the physics, etc., but it had been a machine that took an extra two-three years to get to the point where we could actually get physics out of it.
And I looked at that, and just saw scars on me [laugh], and decided if I was going to lead—see, I’m not an accelerator physicist. But I did take on the role of leading the accelerator effort. But as a physicist—
And, Jonathan, clearly you were senior enough at this point that you can have a solid disagreement with Burt Richter and stick to your guns.
Yeah. Look, SLAC was a very interesting laboratory. I mean, if you go back to the beginnings of SLAC, you have, you know, eight—actually they created eight groups. Four of those groups eventually—leaders of those groups—won Nobel Prizes. So these were not a bunch of slouches, OK.
So there you had Dick Taylor. You had Martin Perl. You had Burt Richter. And these guys competed like hell within the lab for resources, for running time, for everything. But notwithstanding that drive, the enormous drive that those people had, and obviously their great success, there was still this sense that it was the SLAC family, and people conspired to help each other nonetheless, even in this intense sense of getting what they wanted.
And that was a tradition that—you know, I was much younger. I was the generation—two generations—later. But that tradition was still there. So when I was pushing the B-factory, it was not popular with many of the faculty, but it didn’t mean that I was run out of town. OK. And I believed in it, and I built up an effort—and, as I said, Burt did not take that money away from me. He just conveniently left it for me so I could put together an engineering effort. And so it wasn’t the physics that kept him up at night, like it was for me, and he was concerned about the performance, but I got his best friends to agree that, yes, this thing could work, that the design was sufficiently well understood that Burt should believe it.
And so, you know, people were not close-minded. They were obstinate, but not close-minded. And that was I think a great part of the success of that laboratory, it’s people—
And to go back—Jonathan—to go back to this idea that, you know, what so remarkably was achieved with B-factory after only a year is your sense because the success of the B-factory was essentially also existentially the success of SLAC, and so that this was an all-hands-on-deck kind of response to this endeavor? I mean, were the stakes that high that B-factory needed to produce these kinds of results in such a short amount of time?
We were in a competition with the Japanese. It was clear to us—those of us who pushed this physics—that this physics was Nobel-quality physics. OK. As soon as we—the Japanese and us—proved that Kobayashi and Maskawa were correct, they got the Nobel Prize, right. If we’d have found them not to be correct, the Nobel committee would’ve had a different challenge. But they had made this remarkable prediction in the ‘70s which was—you know—and we had potentially found a way to put together the experiments to show that they were right. And so that this was, to me, an incredibly challenging and important piece of physics to do.
So if you ask what was my personal drive to make the B-factory a success, it was to do the physics, and do it right. Go back to my dad, you know. You do something, you do it right. I think that was strongly instilled in me. But really the answer is it was driven by physics and the competition, but the competition was driven by physics.
And it was an interesting competition with the Japanese. We competed. We clearly both wanted to be first. OK. That’s just inherent in this kind of stuff. But we helped each other at every step. We served on each other’s advisory committees—we advised each other. We shared, you know, ways to improve the accelerators, etc. It was a remarkably friendly competition. And in the end, we both got the same answer, and, yes, we produced our paper a few weeks before them.
But, you know, it was a matter of accumulating enough luminosity, and their machine came along a little bit more slowly than ours. But actually they had been given more money upfront for the investment, and so eventually they caught us and passed us. So I think the answer to your question is, yes, this was SLAC’s flagship, and it had to be successful for the good of the lab. That said, that wasn’t what I think drove us. What drove us was to get to that physics as fast as we could, and, you know, with the performance we needed to do it right.
And after that year, where was B-factory headed, after that year of demonstrating that this was a viable project?
Where were we?
Where was B-factory headed? What was the physics telling you? What were the new opportunities as a result?
No, well, after a year, look, it took us five years to accumulate the dataset that ends up giving us a measurement with an error which is sufficiently small, a number like 0.7 plus or minus 0.03. But in that—after that first year, both ourselves and the Japanese came to the international conference with the first measurement. The prediction of the theory was that we were looking at a number like 0.7. I think our first number was 0.1 plus or minus 0.4 or something like that.
Zero would’ve meant no CP violation. This would’ve been a remarkable result. And there we were sitting as close to zero as we were to 0.7. But the error was large. But we had demonstrated that the measurements could be done cleanly, and it was clear that all we needed was accumulated luminosity, that the method—the analysis method—was even better than we had predicted.
And, you know, you’re talking about producing—I think we produced 500 million bb pairs, and we ended up using 12,000 of them. We had to dig out 12,000. So to dig out that small number of events in the presence of a very large number meant, you know, you had to have very clean approaches to the analysis. And of course we had simulated the hell out of that. But simulation is one thing, and reality is another.
But it turned out that the simulations were in fact even conservative. We did better than we had expected per produced bb pair. So after a year, we knew that the method was going to work. It was just a matter of now keeping the machine running and getting more statistics. The number was, you know, not a—not yet an interesting number. It was consistent with zero and consistent with 0.7.
And was it at this point, Jonathan—again, to get back to this question, there was no grand plan leading to your directorship of the lab. But I wonder if at this point, you were sort of, you know, reading the tea leaves, and seeing that this is where this was headed?
So we’ve gotten a little disjointed. We started building the B-factory in ‘94: we were in the ‘94 budget, the Clinton budget, and we finished in ‘98. I took over the lab in ‘99. So, actually, from the time we started to seriously take data, I was then director. So, the directorship came up in ‘98. Burt stepped down in ‘98 and—
But you were associate director from ‘94.
I was associate director at that time, yes, yeah. So, but you asked about this relationship. It wasn’t that I became director—director after the success of the B-factory. I became director just at the time the B-factory began running. So 2000, when we had the first results, the ones I spoke about that weren’t very accurate, I had already been director for about a year.
Yeah. I want to go back to this second-generation response where you saw opportunity to better integrate the physics department with the SLAC faculty, right? In what ways—
I think people saw that I was part of that.
Right, you were part of that generation. So it seems to me an obvious question, you know, the benefits of pursuing that. But I wonder if you could speak directly to what your motivations were as part of that generation who sought to, you know, move on, repair this relation, establish new relationships with the department.
So, at that time, so the mid-80s, I think—I think. These are things I would check if you want to really know. But I think a third of the PhD students coming through physics were getting their degrees at SLAC. So, in other words, a lot, right, I mean, one-third of the graduate students were getting their PhD supervised by SLAC faculty. And so, that was a very substantial educational contribution to the university.
So, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that SLAC could have a closer relationship to the department (Physics) that was doing the teaching and, in the end, providing the degrees. But also at the time, certainly for myself and others, we felt that the graduate students that we were supervising were not getting as good a grounding in particle physics as we wanted. And so when Dirk Walecka, who was at that time a professor at Stanford in the physics department (he subsequently went to Newport News when the accelerator was built there), was put in charge of a committee to revamp the curriculum for graduate education for physics, I was put on that committee, and Michael Peskin (also SLAC). And one of the things we wanted to do was to say we thought that particularly the particle physics education could be improved so that we had better preparation of our graduate students. I remember that clearly. And so, of course, the whole notion of having a committee to revamp your curriculum is to improve all of the areas, but we particularly were interested in particle physics.
And so that was possibly one of the motivations for closer cooperation, that we were feeling that our students could be better prepared when they came to us after, you know, two years of coursework to sign up for PhD supervision. And, then the feeling I believe was, well, then we better be prepared to put something into those two years, which is to help teach. And so I taught—not for very long—but I taught.
We decided —as part of the revamping of the curriculum, in the third—so Stanford works on quarters—in the third quarter, to have a set of menu courses: one in particle physics, one in nuclear physics, one in low-temperature. So graduate students that thought they wanted to know which direction they could go in, they could get a basic course in those areas to see if that was what they wanted to do. And so, we invented these—not invented—we introduced these menu courses, and one was the Standard Model of particle physics, and I taught that course for a couple of years.
So it took students that were interested in particle physics, and it brought them up to essentially where they understood what the Standard Model was, and particularly the experimental basis behind it. So, I think the motivation was, as I said, wanting to have our supervision of these students recognized as primary rather than secondary, namely there was no co-supervisor. So that was changed: SLAC faculty no longer needed a co-supervisor. And then wanting to see a better preparation of the students for particle physics, and thereby saying, “OK, well, then we better teach.”
We also wanted to introduce accelerator physics into the curriculum. Very few departments around the country teach, or taught, accelerator physics. Cornell was one of them. And we wanted to strengthen that, so that was another contribution. And those were the things as I remember them, and I don’t have a very keen memory. But that’s what—
Do you remember—maybe you have a keen memory on this. What was the moment or the day like when you were asked to accept the directorship of SLAC?
Let’s see. So, SLAC had an oversight entity called the Scientific Policy Committee. The Scientific Policy Committee (SPC) was the president of Stanford’s watchdog committee. They watched over SLAC. It was a very high-level committee. They came about twice a year. And they reported to the president as to how SLAC was being operated, advised on the programming, etc., etc., not detailed program, but a decision like whether to build the B-factory, absolutely, they had to endorse a decision like that.
The individual experiments that would run, say, in the End Station beamlines, there was an advisory committee, a program advisory committee for that. But the SPC was a high-level committee of heavy hitters from around the world. So there was an SPC meeting in the Fall of ‘98. I went to the meeting, and at some point we were excused, and the committee was—and I saw President Gerhard Casper arrive, which is quite unusual for him to come to actually meet in person with the committee. Usually the provost met with SPC, and the report always went to both the president and the provost.
But he arrived, as I was leaving. And when I got home, my wife, Renée said, “You need to listen to the message on the answering machine.” So I listened to it, and it was Gerhard Casper, who was a wonderful man. He was German-born, had this beautiful, anglicized accent. Have you ever met him?
No, just absolutely, you know, a wonderful man. Spoke a beautiful English but with this German lilt, etc. And there was this message that said something along the lines of “Hello, Jonathan, I’ve just come from the SPC meeting, and it seems you and I should chat.”
“Would you come for breakfast tomorrow morning…” OK. So I realized it had something to do with the fact that (I thought) Burt had told them he was stepping down. I didn’t know that for certain, but I thought that was what had happened. OK. So I’m leaving to go to this breakfast, and Renée says to me, “You do realize you’re going for an interview, don’t you?”
And I absolutely had to say, “Well, I didn’t actually think of it that way.” So, she was way ahead of me on this one. So that was—but at that point, I was already, I think, chosen as the Fermilab director. I think I had an offer. If not, it was coming: it was clear.
And so I went and met with Casper, and, indeed, he indicated that he knew that I had, or was going to receive, an offer from Fermilab. And so we had this discussion, and he was interviewing me of course. And at the end he explained that he couldn’t just make an appointment. There had to be a proper process put in place to makes the selection. […]
And then Stanford formed a committee, and the committee interviewed me and several other people. It was a proper process, but it was done expeditiously. And [laugh] then I—it’s Friday afternoon, and Renée and I are going off to Fermilab for that final visit where Renée’s coming with me, and they’re going to take us to the opera, and they’re going to, you know, show us all sorts of possibilities, and talk to Renée about possible opportunities for her, etc. And so this is the ultimate, you know, visit for us to make a decision.
And it was a Friday afternoon, and we’re about to leave, and the phone goes, and it’s Gerhard. And Gerhard indicated to me that he was aware that we were off to Chicago for the weekend and that I should anticipate an envelope on my chair on Monday morning. And, as I remember it, he wished us a wonderful time in Chicago.
[laugh] OK, and if you want an exciting moment, I guess, it was to come back on Monday to open the envelope. And there it was, the SLAC offer.
You did go to Chicago? You did play out that process?
We did go to Chicago. It was a serious decision for me. I mean, it wasn’t straightforward at all because Fermilab was a lab in—you know—betwixt and between. SSC was turning on. What was the future of that lab going to be? I had initially—when the job came up, it was advertised, which is, you know, a year or so before the SLAC job was spoken about, I did not apply. I was asked to apply, but I did not apply.
And then halfway through the process, George Trilling, who was the chair of the Fermilab search committee, came to me and indicated that the community very much wanted me to apply, and that the community would understand if, should I be the person chosen, decided not to take the job. But they wanted to, at least, have a run at me. And George offered that in his mind I owed it to the community to apply.
And so I went and talked to Burt, and I said, “Burt, what should I do, given this situation?” And Burt said that, in his opinion, I needed to make myself available because I couldn’t know ahead of an offer how I would feel. That even though I was wedded to Stanford, I should go ahead and apply. So I did make myself available, and went through the process, and was ultimately selected.
Michael Witherell was also in that race. There were three of us in the final “run-off”. And when I turned it down, Michael Witherell was offered the job, and he took it. But there was a real need to position Fermilab successfully for its future, and this was an important choice for the particle physics community of the US. So, it was a very serious thing for me not to take that job. If I hadn’t had the SLAC job, I certainly would’ve taken it. But I could argue with myself that SLAC was equally important to the future of science, and to the US, that I could legitimately not take the Fermilab job without guilt.
So, this was a true binary decision for you?
It was a true binary decision, absolutely. We were serious about the fact that we might move to Chicago, and we talked to our kids about it, so…
And so if the prospects for doing the most important science were essentially equal at both places, what won out for you in the end? Why come back to SLAC?
OK. So my argument to the committee at Fermilab on what I would do was that I would take Fermilab in the direction of the International Linear Collider. Now, Fermilab is a proton accelerator, not an electron accelerator. But CERN had certainly shown that it could switch between protons and electrons and be successful. So my argument was, if I came there, I would take that lab, which had not really been—it had been on the periphery of the whole International Linear Collider effort—would take Fermilab and make it central to the ILC effort, along with SLAC, as the US participants.
That was my formula for the future of Fermilab. It was not that I hadn’t given it a lot of thought or that I didn’t have a game plan. I certainly did. But I could do that from SLAC also. OK. I knew the B-factory would run for a time, and that the International Linear Collider was certainly the next project, in my view, for the US. It hasn’t happened that way, but I was certainly pushing for that.
So, from that point of view, I felt I could do it from SLAC or from Fermilab. Fermilab, certainly the laboratory would’ve needed to be dragged to the ILC. You know, they would’ve needed to be convinced as a lab to do that because their traditions were in protons. So it was an easier job, if you will, at SLAC.
But, in the end, the thing that made the difference for me was I really enjoyed being a part of a university. And while the University of Chicago was party to the offer, it wasn’t the same. Fermilab later became intricate—integral to the University of Chicago—but, at that time, it wasn’t. And so it was still—
But even physically, SLAC is, you know, within the Stanford community.
Yeah, I mean, I was a professor at Stanford University, right, and I was integrally part of the university, serving on committees, etc., and then having graduate students. So, I made the choice because I wanted to stay within the close university community. And certainly, from the perspective of the science, Stanford-SLAC was a great platform. So, it wasn’t a secondary science decision. But I think in the absence of having that directorship, I would’ve felt compelled to go to Fermilab out of the need of the community, and my belonging to that community.
Jonathan, so when you decided to take this position, what did you feel was your mandate? What were you there that you felt that you needed to accomplish?
Well, certainly, two things. We needed to make the B-factory the success that it needed to be. Remember, we had just turned on, so there needed to be enormous support of that effort and provide everything we needed to make that successful. But, you know, that was a community of 600 physicists from around the world, 10 countries, that were working at the B-factory.
The synchrotron light program had 2,000 users from around the world and was a world-leading program. And there was an opportunity to upgrade the SPEAR light source to a better facility. And I saw that as important to keep SLAC competitive in photon science. But there was also the development of the LCLS, the Linac Coherent Light Source, that fascinated me because it was such an interesting prospect, and I felt that that’s something that I wanted to take very seriously. And I did, and I got it funded.
But then I also had had this idea, during the period of waiting to become director, of an institute of particle astrophysics. And SLAC was already involved in something called GLAST, which later became the Fermi Space Telescope And that was a really—that was a negotiation. And Burt was trying to get NASA and DOE together with Stanford and SLAC to build GLAST.
And before Burt stepped down as director, and before his term ended, I’d been chosen, and I was waiting—I said to Burt that I had a slightly different approach to how SLAC and Stanford would work with NASA to achieve GLAST. And I wanted him to let me take over the reins because I thought that was an approach the university preferred. And so he did that. He stepped aside regarding GLAST, and I took over pushing for getting GLAST built as a NASA-DOE project, which was the first time NASA and DOE had done anything together.
And, boy, working with NASA is quite something. OK. So, if you’re going to put something up in space, you have to do things even differently than when you’re going to bury something in the middle of an accelerator. So, those were things that I had in mind for getting GLAST to work, to actually get that collaboration done and get it funded, get the DOE to put in funds, which I managed to do once I was director.
There was my idea for a Particle Astrophysics Institute, but it was also a sense that I had in discussing it with Casper that I wanted to take better advantage between SLAC and the rest of the university even more broadly. And so I had an idea of more than just that institute, that it was institutes, and the B-factory, but also the ILC. You know, I wanted to keep the ILC R&D going as best we could. But money was very tight at that time.
So, and then what eventually happened regarding the LCLS? Ray Orbach, who was running the DOE Office of Science, created a very complex set of—they were really competitions—for the next facility in each of the labs. And, essentially, each lab was going to have an opportunity of, at most, one major new facility. The B physics community was pushing for SLAC to build something called SuperB, which was to go yet another factor of 100 more in luminosity, and do it on the basis of the SLAC B-factory. And that was one possibility. The other possibility was LCLS, and, essentially, I needed to pick between the two. The one was of my community; the other one was not my physics community.
I decided that—I mean, I—we—it was in the end my decision—to choose the LCLS because I thought it had a bigger potential game-change for science than the SuperB factory. And I made that decision, which of course was not popular with my immediate community. The Japanese have gone on to take their B-factory and build the SuperB, which they are busy now trying to get to work. But basically, we cut off the US evolution for that, and chose LCLS, and then I got LCLS funded.
So there was plenty of opportunity to do things, and those were, I think, pretty much my motivations. I can dig out for you my—first, the speech I made, which [laugh] I probably should go and look at, when I took over SLAC, and you can see what I said. I’ll send it to you, and you do a truth and validation—
—process of what I just said.
Jonathan, maybe it’s an obvious question, but can you explain in a little more detail why you were convinced that a place like SLAC could make significant contributions in astrophysics? I mean, to what extent was that a—you know—a leap in scientific logic?
So this was not my leap, right. The leap was GLAST, and GLAST was essentially putting an X-ray telescope into space—not land-based—using the technology of high-energy physics detectors, namely silicon vertexing and calorimetry; so a completely different package than had ever been flown in space. It was essentially the B Factory detector, Babar, in space. It uses similar technologies.
This was the brainchild of Peter Michelson, Elliott Bloom and Bill Atwood—Elliott and Bill being from SLAC; Peter being from the campus. And I had nothing to do with that, OK. And, as I said, when I was chosen to be the next director, I started thinking about it. And Burt was having some difficulty getting the GLAST group to form a reasonable approach to how the campus was going to operate versus SLAC.
Now why SLAC? Well, the thing is, if you’re going to build a telescope of that size and that nature, the lab had the infrastructure that the university campus did not. So it was natural to involve SLAC because of the technical expertise, the engineering capability, and the infrastructure to build something of that complexity. So that was why SLAC and Stanford campus was a natural marriage.
And, of course, you needed a launch capability for this “thing”, which was where NASA came in. So NASA and DOE had to agree to collaborate. And then we needed a model regarding the sharing at Stanford. As I think we’ve talked about a little bit, there’s always competition for who’s [laugh] in charge of things. What’s going to be based at SLAC and what’s going to be based on campus? And all of those “political” elements enter. And Burt was down a path that wasn’t succeeding that well between campus and ourselves. And I had a different approach, and Burt thought it was a good approach. So he encouraged me to take charge and move the process ahead.
So why SLAC in astrophysics? Well, it was because of the GLAST proposal. But it was more than that. It was that non-accelerator-based facilities were beginning to make major, major discoveries in the area that is traditionally covered by particle physics. So you know about the accelerating universe?
OK, so this came out of Berkeley. Saul Perlmutter and the Nobel Prize. This was—showed that the universe was not only expanding, but the expansion was accelerating. Gerson Goldhaber, who I mentioned before, who had been a collaborator of mine, was a major contributor to the analysis on that experiment. So, there were already people that had moved over from high-energy physics into particle astrophysics. Not the easiest two communities to meld. One was basically astronomers, the other particle physicists. But these things can be made to work.
So I was seeing, frankly, the challenge of particle physics at SLAC. You know, we had used a low-energy machine to do a very important piece of physics: CP violation. But going to the next frontier of high energies, we just didn’t have the land to host such a facility.
But I also saw a bigger contribution nationally that astrophysics experiments were beginning to make—had come from a situation of lots of opportunity, but poor resolution and not being able to deliver precise measurements, to where they were moving into precision physics. And a great example of that was the discovery of the accelerating universe. I saw that, using the lever arm of the cosmos, which gives you tremendous energy reach, as opposed to the precision of the constituent definition that you get in an accelerator, has interesting advantages. And I saw that the cosmos was beginning to increasingly give us opportunities. So that’s why I thought that we should get involved in astrophysics—particle astrophysics.
Stanford had a tradition of strong astronomy, but not a strong tradition of astrophysics. We didn’t have the leadership that we needed in astrophysics on campus, so I saw that as an opportunity. And what we did was we convinced the university to support this idea with these nine new faculty slots.
But also to create an institute, I got—I raised funds to build an institute building at SLAC, what became known as the Kavli Institute. We needed a director and we needed a deputy director because Stanford did not have the leadership for this. And so we hired Roger Blandford from Caltech, and Steve Kahn from Columbia, as joint appointments between physics and SLAC. And we hired them to lead the institute.
So we took an area of physics at Stanford that was not highly competitive, and, on the basis of the GLAST project, and then with the follow-ons we thought would happen, we pushed ourselves into a prominent leadership position in particle astrophysics. So, the facility at SLAC was key to being able to build the big instruments. Of course, I also wanted to provide intellect, right, with people.
So now, we’re involved with another big telescope—that SLAC has built the world’s largest digital camera for—and that was the follow-on project to GLAST. Steve Kahn leads that international collaboration that also started on my watch. So, you know, we very quickly had a major follow-on from GLAST. It’s been very successful, and that sort of got SLAC to be associated with success in this area. The follow-on project is called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, LSST, which will be able to look very deep into the history of the evolution of the universe, to look at the evolution of things like the acceleration, which has not always necessarily been positive. So that telescope is being built right now. The camera, which is a huge, huge silicon camera built at SLAC, is finished—or, at least, they’re putting it together now. There’s a hiatus of course with COVID. But it’ll see first light in, I think, 2022.
Jonathan, I wonder, just to foreshadow a little bit, if SLAC moving into astrophysics more than anything else ensures its long-term viability?
Well, I think it was part of the plan, right. The other part was to become the world leader in X-ray science, in photon science, by having both SPEAR3 which is a circular machine doing synchrotron radiation at the cutting edge, but then also having the Linac Coherent Light Source, which can do very different things, different time resolution. And those—that two-prong—being what I think is the strongest program in the world.
So it was—you know, I took SLAC from what was primarily a high-energy physics lab with a strong synchrotron radiation program, and made it into a truly interdisciplinary lab. Persis followed that on. And so the lab changed from being, you know, purely high-energy physics to becoming a more integrated, a multipurpose lab.
It really wasn’t a multipurpose lab. We just happened to have good accelerators, and we did some synchrotron radiation. But now its primary programs are in synchrotron radiation, and then the particle astrophysics, and a smaller effort in particle physics. There’s a strong group working at LHC. And then, but still one of the backbones at SLAC, is its expertise in accelerators.
I wonder, you know, given the emphasis now in astrophysics and X-rays and things like this, to what extent is the larger story with where SLAC has been heading that there are certain diminishing returns in the world of high-energy physics? In other words, the SSC never got built. CERN is limited by the energies that it’s operating at. The ILC is still a—you know—a theoretical proposition. To what extent is—has SLAC responded by diversifying in recognition that large-scale high-energy physics projects, you know, like what was going to be completed at SSC, simply might not ever happen?
So, the reality is exactly what you said. If I look at electron laboratories around the world, SLAC, DESY, Cornell, not KEK in Japan, those labs are all primarily synchrotron light labs now. OK. SLAC has the particle astrophysics too. And, of course, there is Fermilab, you know, trying to build the future using neutrinos. The prospects of doing that physics is a long way off—taking a long time to get there, but that’s where they’re going.
But the realities of particle physics in the US is much diminished, where we were formally the leader. And the SSC going down was a major contributor to that. The fact that the ILC was not built, you say, 10 years ago, or not started 10 years ago. If ILC had gone ahead, SLAC would have been a major participant in that, it would’ve certainly had a different balance within the laboratory. But we always knew that that was a crapshoot, I mean, you know, that it was harder and harder to get that kind of money as we went through the early 2000s, mid-2010s. And there’s still a hope that Japan will do the ILC.
But, to some reasonable degree, we were not successful enough at reducing the cost of accelerating electrons to very high energies. We needed to be more successful at bringing those costs down because price has been a significant problem. Twenty billion dollars is a—you know—is 20 times the sort of coin of the realm of projects these days. Maybe it’s 10 times the coin of the realm. But the coin of the realm is more in the billions than in the tens of billions. And so—and things like ITER if you’re familiar with what ITER is—the international—
—you know, has ballooned in price enormously, and is seen as a counterexample by governments of the economy of international collaboration to reduce the cost of building big facilities. So, it’s been harder to make the argument for ILC because of the struggles with ITER. And the SSC left a challenging message in the US.
So, it’s a long answer to your question, but the answer is your perception is correct that—and certainly for us at SLAC, we saw that we could not be the frontier leaders with something on our soil. And that then the challenge was getting harder and harder or slipping away into the future for the big international collaboration for us. And so, yes, we diversified the lab.
Do you think diversification, being able to respond to large structural changes in, you know, the scientific community, was this baked into Panofsky’s original conception of what SLAC was supposed to be, or would he never have been able to envision all of these new pursuits that, you know, really have almost nothing to do with what SLAC was originally supposed to be?
Yeah, to be—you have great questions, David.
So, let me spend a few minutes on Pief, who was a remarkable man in every way, both as a human being and as a scientist, and as a leader, as an advisor to presidents. I mean, you just can go on and on. He was quite an exceptional person, and he certainly was, for me, a standard-bearer.
I mean, he was—I was extremely moved when I was co-winner of the Panofsky prize, both because it honored the physics I had been working on, but to win a prize in his name was particularly gratifying because, you know, he was my example of how you lead a lab, and how you treat people in a lab, and how you govern. And he was alive when I was the director. So he was still at SLAC every day, you know. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t go talk to him, or he couldn’t come and shut my door and say something like, “Jonathan, [laugh] let me give you a little bit of advice.” It was wonderful to have him there.
But what Pief was sort of—many things he was known for, but one of them is this notion that SLAC would rebirth itself every 10 years. OK. And the history of SLAC from the early ‘60s to the end of the B-factory was in fact that. Every roughly 10 years, there was a new direction at SLAC.
First, it was the—you know—the experiments that were aligned directly on the linac, and the quark discovery. Then the storage ring era, which was Burton. Burton brought in the storage ring era. And then there was the—so the first one was SPEAR, and then SPEAR begat PEP, the second one—and then there was the next revolution, which was to build a new collider, SLC. And then it was to take the old PEP ring, and build PEP-II, the B-factory—almost always every 10 years. And it was the—and then the synchrotron programs started to become derivative to those same technologies.
It was always the technical ingenuity of the lab that was the key. Now, sure, SLAC had great physicists, and the physicists pursued great science. But if you look and see what got them there, it was the accelerators and the technical breakthroughs, the technical strength of the lab, and its engineering capabilities, that were really key to realizing those physics objectives.
So, you know, this—when Pief, continued through Burton’s era, and then through my era, that 10-year rejuvenation continued. But Pief also was a very strong proponent of the SSC, and was very involved with the SSC process, etc., etc., the administration, etc. And so, it wasn’t as if Pief didn’t see the fact that the next frontier couldn’t be at SLAC in particle physics. I think he was very pleased that we could in fact use a low-energy facility, which was the B-factory, to get at important physics.
So there’s two frontiers in particle physics: there’s—you know—there’s energy, and then there’s precision. Precision means high luminosity, but doesn’t require going to higher energy. And I think he was very pleased that we were able to do that, and was a great supporter of the B-factory project. He was also a strong supporter of particle astrophysics. He supported that very strongly. He also felt that LCLS was the right thing to do in the lab.
So, I think he certainly saw that the lab had to change, that it was not going to be the frontier—provider of frontier particle physics facilities. He wasn’t dogged about the fact that we had to come up with something if the parameters were not there. So, I think that he was not displeased with the change of emphasis towards a more shared—with photon science—objective and with particle astrophysics.
Jonathan, another thing that I wanted to ask you about was I’ve talked to many people who spent essentially their entire career at SLAC, and they know—they remember vividly, you know, the monster in 1963, and everything getting started. And they retired, you know, one year ago, two years ago, things like that. And a recurring theme in these recollections, and you alluded to it, you know, earlier in our conversation, is that the culture of SLAC obviously changed over the years.
And I’m curious, you know, during your tenure as director if you were conscious of the fact that, in many ways, these structural changes were not for the best, just in terms of the science. In other words, if you go back to the 1960s, there was a freewheeling sort of frontier mentality toward pursuing the science. There weren’t layers and layers of bureaucracy. The DOE was not intimately overly involved at every step of all of the research. Right?
And over the years, SLAC obviously became more rigid. It became more bureaucratic. It became even, to a certain degree, more corporate. So I’m curious if, during your time as director, you were sensitive to some of the ways that, you know, veterans of SLAC had perceived these changes, and not for the better? And I wonder in what ways did you respond to them in the best way that you could?
Just to throw out a simple question, huh?
[laugh] And obviously, of course, you know, the underlying current here is that these are structural changes that are bigger than any one directorship, right? These are things that are decades in the making. But there is this recurring theme.
Yeah. You know, so, I think you’re going to get differing degrees of emphasis in this discussion, depending on who you talk to. So, I think the overlying comment that should be made is the period of my tenure at SLAC as director was the period in which Washington—and it’s not just DOE; you have to put Congress in there too—increasingly applied compliance-related and oversight-related restrictions on the ability for a director to run a lab, or for a lab to run a lab.
One of the things that Pief was—railed against [laugh] at the end -- was the fact that, you know, the GOCO model, which he basically invented, the government-owned/contractor-operated approach, which was to basically give freedom to the labs to administer themselves, and to pursue the science they wanted through a—you know—a major contract with an entity—in this case, Stanford. And Pief felt, as I did, that that was being increasingly encroached on by overly onerous oversight of the laboratories—meaning that the budgets were being controlled at smaller and smaller levels; meaning that security and safety-related oversight were becoming more controlled in response to an individual incident in one lab. That the distinction between a weapon’s lab and a science lab had become more blurred, particularly in the area of security. That it was difficult, for instance, at SLAC to keep the “doors open”, arguing as I did that this was a university campus, and that we were not going to have distinguishing badging approaches for foreigners, etc.
Those kinds of things became more difficult, and some of that was as a result of events. 9/11—you know—9/11 created an issue for foreign students, and for laboratories to keep their programs entirely open to all nationalities, etc. So, some of it was due to the changing world. But there was this creep of—which made it harder.
I think “free energy” at the laboratories became more of a challenge. The thing I told you about, where Burt left that budget with me—that couldn’t have happened in my and the eras that followed because the budgets were being more carefully managed, more—and so I think that that change was particularly challenging for SLAC because SLAC pretty much of all the science labs, most of the science labs, had been one of the freest of administered labs in the complex. The SLAC director was appointed by the university. The university paid the SLAC director’s salary. And there were things at SLAC that were different than at most of the other science labs. Berkeley also, you know—which is operated by UC—was similar to SLAC in its core administrative oversight.
But SLAC was become…was made more uniform in the 2010s—in the 2000 to 2010 era—in terms of oversight, and what Washington expected out of the university in terms of a contractor. And that had significant impacts on the laboratory. It became harder to fund, for instance, a faculty because, increasingly, Department of Energy required that every person have a program element against their salary.
How do you deal with theorists that way? What’s their program? How do you deal with accelerator scientists? What’s their program? Developing new ideas in acceleration is hard to define programmatically. So, you know, but that was a push from Congress to have DOE be more controlling in the way it managed its budget.
And so that change, which really happened—I saw it on my watch. I felt more restricted in the last four years of my directorship than in the first four years, in terms of my ability to initiate, and use my budget freely. And that, of course, forced management-style changes because it meant that we had to administer internally budgets more closely and more narrowly.
And I think that problem got even more challenging—it got more challenging after I stepped down. And part of my frustration and part of the reason for stepping down was that I wouldn’t capitulate to certain things that the Washington bureaucrats thought would be better for the lab, and I thought it was better to get out of the way. So that changed the character.
The lab is led less now by its scientists and by the faculty than it was in the prior years. There is more management by management than there was in the days that I was director, and before. And I think the notion that SLAC ought to be run more as a business, and less as a science enterprise, has changed the character of the laboratory in that I think, frankly, the staff are not as able to move freely between projects as they were.
Even when I was director, I was able to—the LCLS and SPEAR3 are both synchrotron light facilities. They were both born and made real by the high-energy physics accelerator people. You know, they weren’t being paid for by photon science. They were being paid for by the lab budget, and that was all fine. There was nothing wrong with that. It wasn’t—we weren’t transgressing in any way. But the rigidity of the operation of the lab under basic energy science, relative to high-energy physics, has made it more difficult. It’s more compartmentalized, the programs at the lab. And, you know, a little bit of free energy is an enormously powerful thing, and I think that science enterprises can promote revolutionary directions much more readily if they possess some free energy.
It seems like a self-evident—
—after doing my directorship.
It seems like a self-evident question, but I wonder if there are specific examples that come to mind that really illustrate how the science suffered as a result of this transition to treating the lab more as a business, and less as a scientific enterprise?
Do I think that the science has suffered? So, I think that’s a different question than the nature of the lab, and the way it operates, and whether the science has suffered. I think the fact that there is less free energy in the lab, and there’s more constriction, and a narrower definition of budgets, limits the potential for new enterprises to erupt. But I can’t say it’s stopped anything, because you can’t do the evolution the other way.
I think that the nature has been that the lab is administered differently, decisions are made internally differently. The science of LCLS and the science of the astrophysics programs has been great. I can’t say—I can’t point to—and I’m not close enough to it maybe is a fairer way to say it. But I wouldn’t—I can’t say specifically that the science has suffered greatly.
I think that my sense—my sense is that the workforce is—was a happier workforce in my time than it is now. That’s a sense I have. That there was more opportunity for people to enjoy the scientific enterprises and the engineering enterprises than there is now. You know, oversight over construction projects, etc., is strong, and things aren’t always ideal, and don’t always go right. And that puts a lot of tension into the lab.
And so, you know, with the LCLS upgrade, you know, there have been problems with the safe transport to SLAC of RF modules which have been built at other laboratories. But that puts a lot of pressure back on SLAC management. So, I think handling those kinds of things have become more challenging than they used to be.
There was always, of course, great tension associated with a project. But I think it was easier to manage before because I think now the sense of doom is a little bit more—well, is significantly more, prevalent. So, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question at all.
Jonathan, when you made the decision to step down, how clearly did you convey or how clearly did you feel it was understood that there was a protest element to this—to your decision? In other words, did you feel satisfied, you know, not that you were convinced that things were going to change overnight as a result of you stepping down, but did you feel that this was an effective decision on political grounds, that minimally you needed to register your feelings about these changes?
Yeah, I wasn’t—I didn’t step down in that sense at all. I never spoke about it in those terms at all. I—when I took the job, I said I would do it for at least eight years. I said eight to 10 to—because I think that for laboratories in this modern era, less than in the days of Pief and Burton, it was a good thing to have turnover at the top. So I had told Gerhard that I would do it for eight to ten years, and I did it for eight years.
I didn’t step down with a negative sense about it. Some people saw it that way. Some people saw that maybe I was pushed out. I wasn’t. It was my decision to step down. I was having some health issues. But, yeah, I—you know—I thought that it had been eight very good years, and I thought I was leaving the lab in—at a good place. So, in March 2008, I announced publicly that I would step down in the Fall of ‘08.
There was a job to do, that Hennessy wanted me to do, which was to be his advisor for a year to look into the contract renewal—the fact that the DOE wanted to open the contract up for bidding, and he wanted someone to look at that. And I did that for him too. So, I felt that that was something that I couldn’t handle while also running the lab. Dealing with this problem of the renewal of the contract, where they wanted to put it out to bid, which had happened at Fermilab. It had happened at all other science labs. And I didn’t see how I was going to be able to handle both those jobs together because I did see increasing, you know, pressure from Washington to conform.
So I said, “All right, I’ll go do that job.” So, but some people did see it negatively. I didn’t—I don’t think anywhere I showed any sense of negativity. I was personally frustrated at things. But, you know, they had to do with security issues and some of the directions that they wanted us to take the operating budget, given that we were moving to—from high-energy physics to basic energy science.
But, you know, I would’ve expected that, you know, a big shift like that was going to engender change. So, but, yeah, I didn’t feel like I was stepping down in a negative atmosphere, although some people did.
Now, when you did, did you—was this the beginning of your time as special assistant to President Hennessey, or that was already in train at that point?
No, when I stepped down, it was to let Persis become acting director while they looked for someone new. I had announced prior to that that I was stepping down. But then the timing became such that I said, “OK, let Persis be acting.” I will—this pressure for the contract renewal was getting, you know, increasing. And I think I suggested—I can’t remember—to Hennessy that I go do that.
And so then I—there was a switch, in September ‘08. Persis became acting director, and I went into being the special advisor to John for a year. So it was a, you know. an immediate switch. But I had announced six months before that happened that I was stepping down. It wasn’t that that was what—the lab knew I was stepping down. It’s just that Stanford—you know—didn’t have a new director in tow yet. So Persis became the chair of the committee that looked for the next director, thinking that she would protect herself from [laugh] becoming director—
—[laugh] I think because, ultimately, she was convinced to do the job.
Now, as special assistant, were you advising specifically in a scientific capacity, or did you have a broader portfolio than that?
No, it was really very specific to SLAC. It was probably a rather glorified title, relative to the job. Most of what I did was to form a couple of subcommittees, or task forces, which were to look at this issue of being competed. What the DOE had decided a few years before—quite a number of years before—was to compete all the laboratories, especially the laboratories whose contractor had been in place since the lab’s inception , -- -- 40 years earlier at SLAC -- and that they were going to compete them.
And, as you know, there were major changes. UC had major oversight changes at Los Alamos and LLNL. And the DOE at that time thought—and now we’re coming back to the previous discussion—that, you know, there was something to be learned from industry about how you operate these kinds of major enterprises. And so, big enterprises joined—for instance, Los Alamos became co-operated between UC and some major industrial complex, the same with Livermore.
And most of those changes did not go very well. In fact, Livermore, as I remember, had to, I think, lay off about 600, 700 people as a—because they hadn’t actually realized the full financial impediment of having additional oversight, etc. And, in general, it was not seen as a very positive change. Argonne had gone through it under the University of Chicago. Fermilab had gone through it, and actually the University of Chicago came in as a strong competitor there.
We didn’t think that there was a need at Stanford for an industrial partner. We thought Stanford had done a good job. And my job was to look and see whether arguments could be made that, going through a competition, was needless or not warranted. And so I formed a few task forces on campus; University administrative people, myself and the person who had been my legal counsel at SLAC, Rachel Claus. And Rachel and I went around […] we went to Chicago. We spent time there. We talked to people at different labs that had been through the process, and we wrote a report. Ultimately, DOE did not compete SLAC. I think, but am not sure, it was the only lab that didn’t go through a competition. I’m not saying it was my work that led to that, but SLAC didn’t get competed.
When you decided to step down, was the Okinawa Institute part of the calculation? Were you aware that this was something in the works for you?
No, absolutely not—not in the least. I had nothing—no knowledge of it until 2010—late 2009 maybe, 2010. No, no one knew about it. It was something that was, you know, in preparation—the Japanese government did not make the decision to establish the university until July 2009. And it was only at that point that they approached people about the possibility of coming as the first president. And so I wasn’t approached until late—probably fall of 2009, you know, amongst other people, and that the process started, and eventually they offered me the job.
So, no, it wasn’t anything in my view. I was—I—my intent was to do the job with Hennessy, and then move into particle astrophysics, which is—required a significant education. And that’s actually not what happened. So when I was talking about getting involved in particle astrophysics at SLAC, what kept happening, every time I looked into something, people wanted me to run it, manage it.
[laugh]. I didn’t—you know, I wanted to just be a working physicist, OK, not a sub-project manager. So that was a bit of a challenge. I had, of course, migrated away from being a day-to-day physicist into being a manager, and probably that was what I was by then.
But, actually, I got very interested in the issue of cancer therapy with heavy ions. And I led a task force for the Dean of the Medical School for Stanford—of accelerator physicists, oncologists, and people from campus, doctors, to design a heavy ion treatment facility at Stanford. And it was a fun time. I enjoyed that a lot. We did design such a facility. We costed it. We had a site for it at Stanford. It was a collaboration—would’ve been a collaboration with LBNL and UC. Although we wanted UCSF to come in, that turned out to be a bit of an up-and-down battle. They were hot again, cold again.
So, but, we did finish that, and at the time that I got—that OIST approached me—we had convinced the university to consider raising $200,000—$200 million, sorry—for this project through major donations. And then I left to go to Okinawa, and that project lapsed, although it’s now being built at Stanford with—but it’s the Veterans Hospital working with Stanford that’s building a heavy ion facility here for treatment of cancer. So I got involved in that for the—that was really what I did between the time of stepping down and taking—and moving to Japan.
What results yielded from this endeavor?
The cancer therapy.
Oh, a two-volume report on what such a facility would mean for Stanford. Stanford was, you know, a leading US developer of linacs, of clinical accelerators, electron accelerators. This is where they were born here at Stanford. And, you know, that endeavor has been, of course, medically very successful, but it was also technologically very successful. And so, this was sort of the next—a next possibility was to go to hadron therapy, which has advantages.
So, you know, you cure cancer, you… Conventional radiation therapy uses electrons and also uses protons. Protons don’t offer more bang for your buck in terms of the killing of the tumors. But it does reduce the amount of burn that goes through your body, because the proton deposits its energy, you know, at a spot whereas the electron loses energy continuously in its traverse to the tumor. So, if you have tumor in your, you know, internal to your body, when you use electron therapies, you are burning the tissue all the way through, whereas with a proton, you don’t. But you don’t get more effective killing of the cancer, protons versus electrons.
However, if you go to heavy ions, you get about three times as much energy lost in a tumor from a heavy ion beam. And for some cancers that are called radiation-resistant, this is very, very helpful. Also, particularly for some pediatric treatments, they’re very helpful because of the memory that the body has for children treated with electrons. So, that was the motivation.
And so there’s—the legacy was that we wrote a two-volume report, a cost estimate design for the facility, etc., and then, as I said, I presented that to President Hennessy with an appeal that he consider this for fundraising. We needed $200 million. We didn’t see that we could get that from Washington, although after I left for Okinawa they tried to get Federal funding, but it didn’t pan out. So that—yeah—the outcome was a report.
Are there any—
Also, we were looking at—we weren’t just looking at it as a treatment facility. We were looking at it—one of the things is that we don’t actually know nearly enough about the radiobiology of a beam interacting with tissue. And so we—there was not only a treatment beamline but there was an R&D beamline that was designed to do radiobiology studies. And a big section of this report, in fact, were possibilities for doing advanced radiobiology experiments, what we could do with different kinds of beams.
What are the prospects for the creation of this facility? Is this essentially shelved indefinitely?
No, no, it’s being built now at Stanford in combination with the Veterans Administration—so there’s a Veterans Hospital here, local to the campus. And so, it’s a Stanford/Veterans Administration project. I’m not sure where it is now, but it was approved about three years ago.
That’s wonderful. That’s great that it became more than just a two-volume report.
And, again, I think our report lapsed for many years, and I don’t know that they’re related. You know, I don’t want to take credit where it’s not deemed.
Jonathan, what was the decision-making for you and for the Okinawa Institute for you to become president? I guess my first question there is, why would this go to an American or a South African American or however [laugh] you have to come to identify yourself?
Yeah, I’m an “African American.”
[laugh] You know, my daughter, when she was applying to college, came to me and said, “Dad, is it legitimate for me to [laugh] apply as an ‘African American’?”
“That’s cute but, no, I don’t think so.” I said. But, yeah, certainly, [laugh], OK, so OIST is a very interesting, un-Japanese-like endeavor, as things go. The Japanese for a long time have wanted to be able to increase the amount of involvement of foreigners in their universities. Japanese universities are extremely siloed. There are very few foreign students. There are very few foreign faculty—1% or 2%. And they have tried various things to bring foreigners to the universities, with very limited success.
And I don’t know if you know a city called Tsukuba. Tsukuba is where KEK, the electron accelerator lab is in Japan, and where there are institutes of science and other universities. Initially, Tsukuba was started back in the ‘70s as an approach to bring international industry and academia to Japan. It was a big endeavor, and, initially, they did bring some industry, major industry there, etc. But, pretty soon, the internationality of that failed. The foreign companies left, and it didn’t work.
One of the key problems in all such endeavors was—an example is the University of Tokyo which tried starting in the physics department, actually, to expand, and hire international faculty, etc.—was the fact that they never committed to English. And the English proficiency in Japan is actually quite low. It’s very difficult to integrate into a Japanese institution unless you speak Japanese. And it’s difficult for a family to integrate into Japanese life in big cities like Tokyo, etc. It’s not easy. And that’s been proven again and again.
So there is a gentleman named Akito Arima, who is a nuclear physicist, a professor. I know him. I’ve known him for many years. He was president of the University of Tokyo where he tried to internationalize the university without success. He was the minister of science and education, and tried again, and didn’t—wasn’t successful.
Along came a gentleman, Koji Omi, who was the minister of Okinawa and Northern Territories. Japan has a minister who looks after Okinawa, and then the big island in the north, Hokkaido. And this minister was very taken with the notion of international education and improving the Japanese international—the Japanese education system, making it more—you know—less siloed, and certainly having a larger international presence.
And so he, when he was minister of Okinawa in the early 2000s, came up with this notion that they should build an English-speaking, internationally-based graduate university in Okinawa. And he got together with Akito Arima, and they came up with this idea, and convinced the prime minister this was an interesting idea.
At the same time, the idea was to help Okinawa, which is the poorest of the prefectures in Japan, and is historically also embattled with the Americans, etc., etc. So, they formed an international committee to propose how to build such a university, how to evolve to such a university, make it successful. And Jerry Friedman was amongst one of the people there from the beginning in 2001. And Arima formed this committee, which was dominated by international academics.
And it’s unusual for Japanese to listen, with high fidelity, to outside advice, but, in this case, they actually did. And they put together this idea of the science and technology university, which would be truly interdisciplinary. It would be interdisciplinary from its inception.
But rather than having to take people from a building on one side of the campus, to another, and try to get them together, the idea was to integrate the sciences from the get-go to avoid the problems of dislocation of people, etc., etc. So, in 2005, the plan was in place, and they proposed to the government that they start off by—with what was called a promotion corporation—start to bring scientists to Okinawa in temporary facilities, and start seeing if you could do research in Okinawa. At the same time, plan out this university. And that started in 2005.
And they hired a president of this promotion corporation, whose name was Sydney Brenner. Now, Sydney Brenner is South African. He passed away last year. Nobel Prize winner. He’s a physicist at heart, but actually he made his name in molecular biology. OK. So, and Sydney became the president of this interim institute-building effort. And because they didn’t have the government’s approval yet to actually run a university—I mean, an educational entity has to have—you know—be accredited, etc., etc. They proposed, in 2009, to the Diet, the Japanese parliament, that this evolution of a—that was happening in Okinawa could—was ready to transform to a university. They had started actually building. I mean, the Japanese can be very aggressive if they want. But they’d already started building this campus without having yet the permission to turn the Institute into an accredited university.
So what went through the Diet was really interesting: a university that would teach in English, and be administered in English on an international calendar, on a calendar that does not start in April. At least half of the faculty and at least half of the students had to be international. That—so everything about this institution, this university, protects its internationality. That it does not report to the Ministry of Education, because then it would have to fall under the standard Japanese, restrictive educational constructs, which would’ve meant a siloed, non-international entity. But it reported into the Cabinet Office, into the Japanese prime minister’s office.
The budget came from there. So, everything that a Japanese university isn’t, and it passed the Diet unanimously. So now they needed to transition from a promotion corporation to a school corporation, get accredited to run a university, hire a president and CEO. And so that’s—but it was clear that the president had to be international, not Japanese—and so that’s then they went out looking for—they hired an international company to seek out candidates. And I guess Jerry Friedman suggested me.
I knew Jerry going back to when MIT tried to hire me in the 1980s. And I became the OIST candidate, and I sat on the offer for about six months, because it meant Renée and I had to move to Japan, and we had just started with grandchildren. And it was an interesting challenge, but we did take it on, and it was a wonderful experience. And so, I hired 42 faculty that I brought to Okinawa during me 6 years as president: I had the benefit of a very healthy budget. The Japanese put a lot of money into OIST: so far, about $1.5 billion has gone into that enterprise.
And so, I was able to hire extremely good people, and we recruited very, very good students. There are no departments in this university. It spans the life and physical sciences, so there are chemists, physicists—a lot of physicists—biologists, environmental scientists, etc. But there are no departments. Everybody’s in a single faculty—under a single provost, so as to not have any kinds of siloing of the disciplines. And then the faculties sit interspersed, you know, a physicist sits next to a biologist sits next to a chemist…
The labs are integrated. And most of the major equipment, of which there was a lot, and of which there was—I mean, it’s all obviously state-of-the-art; it’s just been bought in the last five years—and is almost all centrally operated by professionals. So this gives students and postdocs, etc., access. Frontline apparatus are not, you know, under the lock and key by Professor X who can monopolize it. There are professors that primarily use certain parts of this infrastructure, but it’s all run centrally. So it’s a fantastic institution, and—
Was your mandate—
—so I know about something called Nature.
Was your mandate—when you were doing this remarkable push to recruit, were you looking to recruit internationally, or was it supposed to be mostly Japanese hires?
No, I said that the faculty had to be no more than 50% Japanese. So when I left, 70% of the faculty were international, and 90% of the students were international. So, no, I had no restrictions, no quotas of any kind, other than we could not, you know, go the other way, have too many Japanese. So it’s a—
And what fields?
Everything is done in English. It’s administered in English. It’s taught in English.
What fields did you emphasize most in terms of your recruiting?
So when I got there, as I said, there had been this—you know—this five-year period over which they had begun to hire people, but not as professors. They were hired as PIs, because there was no university. And so I had to go through those people, and pick the ones that we thought could be tenured, and take them through a rigorous tenure process.
But Sydney Brenner, being a molecular biologist, had hired a lot of people in the life sciences. I came in, there were no physicists there. And so I brought physicists, and then I started to expand, got chemists, mathematicians, and beginning when I left to get some computer scientists.
So it’s a, you know, a lot of the life sciences but particularly neuro. There’s a lot of neuroscientists there. And then things that lend themselves to interdisciplinary research. Certainly, neuroscience is one. You’re not going to solve the brain with just people who are neuroscientists.
And so the students came in. There are now 200 graduate students. They have a five-year PhD program. I mean, the institution is an—has an American-based program, except no departments. So, and the students come in. They do the first year of courses…..
….. the students are admitted: they’ve probably got a bachelor’s of physics or maybe it’s in neuroscience, or chemistry,…. If they come in as physics students, they have to do some biology courses. If they come in with a life science background, they must do some physical science courses, spend some time in labs, so they at least get a feel for what other disciplines are like. And students are—come from 40 different countries, about six continents. They are very good.
They’re excellent. And, you know, Nature has this thing called the Nature Index, which are ratings of universities—research universities. And, of course, the big guys are all rated the highest because they are the largest enterprises—the MITs, the Stanfords, the Oxfords. And they—the way Nature does it, it takes all of an institution’s publications, and they rank them by citation and other metrics. And then give a weighted average of the rankings over the total of the publications, and that’s how they rank the universities. That means a small enterprise has no chance because it has, you know, maybe 200 publications a year, not 2,000. So, they brought into play last year a new index which normalizes to the total number of publications. And little OIST, after four years, was rated number nine in the world—number nine.
Yeah. So, it’s done really well.
It sounds like a really unique place. I mean, off the top of your head, is there any other institute like it anywhere else in the world?
Yeah. So, this idea that you would create an inherently interdisciplinary promoting university—so you don’t hire professors who are “interdisciplinary”. That would be silly. You hire people who are very good in their fields, and you create an atmosphere where interdisciplinary opportunities can grow, OK, by removing all the boundaries that you have in a normal university. So that’s the way it’s done. Interdisciplinarity is not enforced.
You don’t have to be doing interdisciplinary research to be a professor or a student at OIST. Interestingly enough, the students bring professors together across the boundaries quite often. But there—this idea of promoting interdisciplinarity from a new base—there are three such institutes in the world. There’s one in Austria called the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, IST Austria, which is very similar to OIST.
Also—but the other thing I didn’t say was if you want to launch a university to be successful, you have to fund the research. You can’t expect that the faculty, especially if they’re international, are going to come into Japan and successfully compete for, you know, grant-type funding. So OIST had a budget, which funded every one of the professors, and it was up to me to distribute the money, and the faculty that were hired and given five years of budget, renewable, to do their programs. They did go after, you know, additional funds, but it wasn’t required. And that underwriting was put in place by the government for the first 10 years, and they’re going to be reviewing it next year to see whether they want to continue this complete underwriting of the university. The university has gone into getting grant funding, but it’s nowhere near what, you know, is required to be self-sufficient on grants.
So that was a big facilitator for this university. The same was done in Austria. Then there’s the Weizmann Institute, which is not new, but is one of the most interdisciplinary institutions you could come across. It’s a graduate university only. I’ve been involved with them for many, many years, and led their so-called Scientific Academic Advisory Committee for 9 years, and I serve on their International Board. I used them and Stanford quite a lot in terms of fashioning what I wanted to build at OIST.
So Weizmann—I talked about this index, this Nature normalized index. Weizmann was number two in the world. IST Austria was four or five. So these young—although Weizmann is not so young—but this concept is generating extremely good science, extremely good science. You know, well-funded—that’s one of the keys—but excellent talent, and a certain freedom on the campus to be innovative. It really works.
Jonathan, so many of—
You might want to go onto the OIST website and look at the buildings that we were able to build because, you know, an environment can be very inspiring. The buildings are hard to believe. They are just—you really have to go there to appreciate them. They are magnificent, and we had a considerable budget to build them.
So much of the—you know—the large-scale projects there I’m sure are still in development. I wonder what’s most exciting to you personally as you watch the things that are coming to fruition there?
So, one of my—I guess maybe it was a frustration that started at the end of the first decade of the 2000s in the US, was seeing the increasing challenge that young, innovative people were having in getting funds to do science. It was getting harder to fund, you know, high-risk, high-return science. And that the US was becoming more risk-averse and, in fact, tightening the belt. And I was frustrated by that a little bit because it seemed like a trend that wasn’t helping.
What attracted me to OIST was the opportunity to give young people a fantastic opportunity to do science, you know, brilliant, young junior faculty, and students that were really interested in thinking out of the box. And that was the thing that attracted me the most, and that’s the thing that I’m the most pleased about is that, you know, some of those young hotshot faculty that I hired have done some absolutely smashing science that I don’t think they would’ve done at a conventional campus. And some of the students are—you know—have just done wonderful things.
And, you know, one student is already a junior faculty at Harvard, just—and another one of the students is just about to join Stanford as a—you know—in his postdoc, etc., etc. The students are getting very good postdocs and jobs. So, I’m really pleased at how—at the quality of the science, but also of the fact that the model has worked. It has produced interesting new ways of going at problems that I think hopefully the institution will continue to flourish.
What do you see as your chief legacy as president?
I’ve always-- OK, so when I was hired, they—there was nothing there from a university standpoint. There were some buildings that had been started, but enough to accommodate maybe 15 faculty, etc. There was no graduate program.
And there-- What the Japanese government wanted, is they wanted to finish phase one in five years that would have 50 professors operating with labs, and 150 students, and an institution that was, you know, doing excellent science. And so when I left, there were 60 faculty. There were close to 180 students. We were demonstrably doing good science, but I also had managed to get the government to agree to fund the next 50 faculty, and build the next set of buildings.
So, I mean, square footage, I probably increased the amount of square footage at that place by a factor of three or four, but also built housing—international housing. I mean, to bring foreign faculty and their families to Okinawa, one had to lean over backwards to do everything they would be offered at leading worldwide research universities, and then some. The students get, you know, paid like they do in the US, which is not true for graduate students in Japan in general. And then we had to provide international-style staff housing. We had to provide medical support. We had to provide, you know, mental health services, early childhood care, etc., etc.
We had to do all this stuff, and we did do that. We pulled that all together in a few years. So just the fact that I think we went in a short time from, you know, a—not having an institution, to one that was running very well. It was—you know—I had a lot of help, and I had a lot of support. And, you know, there were many ways that we could have tripped up. But thankfully that did not happen. And one thing I lament is I never learned Japanese. [laugh]
There was never time to learn. I just fell out of the class pretty quickly.
But you probably did get to see your grandkids more often when you stepped down.
Oh, yeah, until COVID came along. So I have one—two grandkids live in San Jose, which is, you know, half an hour from here. And we socially-distance visit with them, which is frustrating in reality, but it’s nice at least that we can see them: other are much less fortunate. And the other two are in Vancouver, Canada, and we do a lot of Zoom. And, but, yeah, no, we’re very involved with our grandkids and with our kids.
Jonathan, I’m curious, in recent years, in what ways have you stayed close to physics?
OK. I think I’ve stayed very close to physics, but I think I have increased greatly my appreciation of other areas of science. I mean, when—you know, running SLAC, you do oversee a program, including science in the synchrotron life program, which is biology, it’s material science, it’s many things. And so, as director, I had to front for that kind of science. So I had to, you know, go beyond physics in being the director of SLAC—considerably because, you know, I had to know something about biology and other disciplines of science.
But going to OIST opened up an even larger agenda, and we would have typically five or six, you know, seminars a week. But I still remain keenly interested in physics. You know, I read. I keep up with what’s happening. And I have, I think, an appreciation of the importance of funding other kinds of science now, because high-energy physics takes a lot of money, and there are many other important problems in our world that need funding. So I’d say I’m more open to those possibilities, and the importance of them.
Well, Jonathan, now that we have—we’ve come right up to the present, I think for the last portion of our discussion, I’d like to ask you one broadly retrospective question about your career, and then a forward-facing one. And so, first, do you tend to distinguish in your own mind when you consider your legacy and your contributions those that you made in your capacity as a scientist yourself, and those that you made in your capacity as a leader, an administrator, a president to facilitate others doing scientific advances? Do you tend to think of those as separate realms, or sort of one narrative that has these different components to it?
I think, I think of them as a continuum. Frankly, if I look at my career, and not wanting to be—take myself too seriously—but if I look at that, I see a history of mentorship, and it starts with my dad and my brother too, and then, you know, having the kind of mentors I had at SLAC. What those people did was, you know, create welcome mats but also inspiring opportunities. And I would not have gotten to the places that I got without those people.
I did not invent that path myself, etc. I always loved science, and I loved the opportunities when I saw them, and I pursued them vigorously. But other people opened those up for me. And so, as I transitioned to becoming the director, you know, from doing the science into more of the leadership and then the management, it just seemed to me that it was—you know—it was my obligation to be able to do the same thing for subsequent generations that was so empowering for me.
So it never seemed to me to be anything different than that. I think I’ve always been driven by the science, but also the humanity of an enterprise. I like to believe I cared a lot about the people I worked with and with their lives. But, you know, it was the science, damnit, and so when I was running something, it was never purely as an administrator. It was always in the service of excellence in science.
As I said to you, when I stepped down as director, I thought I’d go back doing to be aka-physicist. I think that was somewhat unrealistic.
I think I had evolved by then to the point where my mind was thinking about how to facilitate science. But it was definitely a transition, and I enjoyed that. And as I sort of said to you, I particularly enjoyed giving young people opportunities in science, as other people had done for me. So that’s—I don’t know if that answers your question.
It does, beautifully so. And finally, Jonathan, you know, looking to the future, because your purview is so remarkably wide, right, you’re now not thinking simply about physics, but about all of the sciences, right, and so I want to ask you of all of the things that you’ve been involved with, and all of your intimate knowledge with cutting-edge research across the sciences, is there anything that stands out in your mind that you are most compelled by, that you find, you know, most inspiring, that you’re most optimistic about, you know, with regard to the baseline agenda of science, either just simply to help us better understand our world or science to actually improve lives? Sometimes those things can be intermixed, and sometimes they might not be. But, you know, of all of those categories, I’m just curious, what sticks out for you in terms of being excited and optimistic about the future, which of course is something that we all dearly need right now?
OK. So if I look at opportunity, then I’m certainly not of the camp that believes that we’ve solved most problems in science. I’m of the camp that we’re just beginning. In other words, there are just enormously enticing, interesting, challenging problems in science—no less than there were in the early 20th century or whatever. OK. And I think that the notion that we’ve, you know, closed off areas is really shortsighted.
And so I can argue in very general terms that support for science is a worthy endeavor for humanity and that, frankly, there isn’t enough support. Then when I look at the other side of that coin, and I say, OK, I’ve always been involved in what I’m going to call basic sciences or curiosity-driven science or—it’s been more my area of research and it was certainly—OIST was the same thing. We were—we certainly came out with many practical things: but the general direction was to do curiosity-driven science. And I still feel that that’s—there’s a lot that needs to be done there.
But I do think there is a more significant obligation than there was 25-50 years ago to worry about the problems of our world. And once you say that, you realize the complexity that that engenders. Imagine that you have a leader who didn’t believe that there was a climate problem—
—climate change problem. Could you imagine such a thing?
I couldn’t possibly. [laugh]
[laugh] So once you say that—and I used to say that to the students at OIST. I used to say to them, “Some of you will become academics, some of you will go into industry, but some of you should go into policy, to go into government, should actually take your knowledge, and work as a scientist in trying to meld discovery innovation to real solutions, because the political boundaries—the boundaries of policy and international agreements, etc., etc.—have become very unforgiving.” So, I really think that promoting opportunity to solve some of the leading questions—and they’re not just questions of climate and energy. They’re questions of food security, water security, […]
The planet is in trouble. And I think that there is an obligation, and I think it’s reasonable for governments to feel that a significant fraction of money that goes into the support of science should be aimed at possible solutions—not that they should go to closeted physics or closeted science, because that kind of approach rarely works. You do need innovative science, but you do need to get a better approach to creating enthusiasm in the academic institutions to applying innovative science to the problems that beset the world, and making it attractive for young people to go into those areas.
See, but I feel that we’ve gone to funding strategies that have become more restrictive and mitigate against the research needed to realize solutions. So, but, it’s very difficult to get to the point where that balance is appropriate. And I worry about the increased trend of governments towards nationally-based programs, because you can’t solve many of these planet-based problems without, you know, international cooperation, understanding, agreements.
You can’t thumb your nose at an accord in Paris, you know. It might not be ideal, but the point is you cannot solve these problems alone. They are global. And I see, you know, more nationalist leadership, which I think mitigates against global governance, which I consider very important to solving these problems. One of the things I like about OIST, is that it’s probably the most international campus in the world. And you see what happens when you bring people together like that.
They might—you might have three students all with undergraduate degrees in physics. One from the Far East, one from the US, and one from Europe—but they’ve been trained differently, and they think differently, and it’s very valuable. So, you know, I worry that we are just going through a period now in which we’re seeing a narrowing of global, collective thinking about these problems. And then there is the reality of the distrust of scientists, which is another worrisome trend that we have to try to reverse. And that’s a complicated question. We’re not innocent in creating that problem—‘we’ being the scientists. We’re not entirely innocent.
So we also misstep, we oversell, or we—you know—we create some of the issues that have led to less trust. I’m not just talking now about the Trump administration. This is a worldwide issue where the notion that science has the answers is less trusted. And if I look at climate, for instance, and I look in the ‘90s, you know, there were some mistakes made by the scientific community in how the problem was portrayed. I mean, I was on the public policy committee of the APS at that time. And, basically, the statement out of APS about climate change in the support of the PPC was changed somewhat because it was felt that it allowed the people on the other side of the issue to take advantage of us being too strident.
So, I think we’re learning, but it takes both sides in order to get this relationship to be better. So I know that is a rather—and I don’t know again if I’ve answered your question. I’ve been all over the map. I think science at the moment presents enormously interesting and exciting problems, and I think so does our world present us with significant problems. And we do have to try to get those two arenas to cohere better, and that’s a political, a policy and a funding challenge.
Well, Jonathan, on that note, I’m—I am amazed by how much ground we covered in this conversation. This has been an absolute delight, spending this time with you. Your comments on all of these issues are going to be a tremendous asset for the historical record. And I want to thank you for so generously spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.
You’re more than welcome, and I hope—how—where do we go from here?