Carver Mead

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Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 29, July 5, July 19, July 26, August 2, August 9, August 16, 2020
Video conference
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Disclaimer text

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Carver Mead by David Zierler on June 29, July 5, July 19, July 26, August 2, August 9, August 16, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

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


Series of seven interview sessions with Carver Mead, Gordon and Betty Moore Professor Emeritus at Caltech. Mead recounts his childhood in California, and he describes the impact of watching his father’s career in the electric power industry. He credits his schoolteachers for encouraging his early interests in math and science, and he explains why attending Caltech as an undergraduate was an easy choice for him because he felt immediately welcomed during his first visit. He describes what it was like to learn quantum mechanics from Linus Pauling, and he explains that his decision to major in electrical engineering stemmed from the fact that applied physics was shunned in the physics department because Murray Gell-Mann referred to it as “squalid state physics.” Mead describes his decision to stay at Caltech for graduate school, and he explains how he became interested in semiconductors and transistors and what would become the origins of “device physics” and how his dissertation research contributed to these developments. He describes his developing understanding that the future of electronics would be in low power, high-performance devices and why he would be best positioned to foster this future as a faculty member at Caltech. Mead describes his collaborations and interest in industry labs including IBM, RCA, and Bell, and he describes his initial and then longtime work with Gordon Moore. He discusses the value of RF transmitters in 1960s-era communications technology and the prospects of satellite telecommunications at the dawn of the space age. Mead describes the origins of VSLI technology, word processors, and microcomputers, and he describes his collaboration with Lynn Conway and the process that went into the classic textbook they coauthored. He describes his research using the human mind as a source of inspiration to push electronics and microprocessors to the next level, and he explains the value of bouncing ideas off of Feynman over lunch. Mead describes the singular potential of his student and collaborator Misha Mahowald, and the value of his work with Arnold Beckman. He discusses the several companies that were spun out of his research in electronics and biophysics, and he describes his work on cameras with Michihiro Yamaki and the learning curve associated with research culture in Japan. Mead offers his perspective on the need to update the debates between Einstein and Bohr in the wake of recent developments in physics, and he explains the intellectual origins of his text Collective Electrodynamics. He explains why scientific debates can take on philosophical or even religious dynamics, and he discusses the origins of G4V and how to think of gravitational attraction as an analogy to electromagnetic interaction. Relatedly, Mead describes his work with Kip Thorne and his involvement with the LIGO endeavor, and he explains why the line between science and engineering is fuzzier than is commonly understood. He explains the significance of the Shapiro Delay, he surmises that the mystery of Dark Energy is sourced in the fact that physics is approaching the problem in the wrong way, and he explains why physics has become hamstrung in its pursuit of mathematizing physical reality ahead of experimental guidance. Mead explains that his views are rooted in his ability to think in pictures, as opposed to abstract symbols, and that the field needs to be more welcoming and inclusive to those who may see math as a barrier to working in physics at a high level. At the end of the interview, Mead describes his interest in current challenges with electric grid infrastructure, he explains why he has championed the work of women in science throughout his career, and he strikes an optimistic note that science always has and will continue, to provide solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.


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