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Credit: Santa Fe Institute
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Interview of Geoffrey West by David Zierler on July 17, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Geoffrey West, Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. West provides a brief history of SFI as a collaborative idea between Murray Gell-Mann, Phil Anderson, and David Pines, and he explains the funding sources that launched the Institute. He recounts his childhood in England and his family’s Jewishly-observant household. West describes his switch from math to physics as an undergraduate at Cambridge and his interest in becoming involved in the origins of SLAC at Stanford. He discusses Panofsky and the “Monster Accelerator,” and studying fold factors of the triton and helium-3 nuclei under the direction of Leonard Schiff. West describes his subsequent postdoctoral work at Cornell and the formative influence of Ken Wilson, and his next position at Harvard where he pursued research on the quark proton model into a kind of a covariant framework. West explains his decision to join the faculty back at Stanford, he conveys the excitement at SLAC in deep inelastic research, and he provides a backdrop of the work that would become the “November Revolution” in 1974. He describes the importance of meeting Peter Carruthers and his reasons for transferring to the theory group at Los Alamos. West discusses his moral conflict working at a Lab with such close ties to nuclear weapon research, and he credits the Manhattan Project as the intellectual source for the Lab’s multidisciplinary approach. West discusses how the culture at Los Alamos served as a prototype for SFI, and how at that point he had migrated intellectually from high energy physics to string theory, and how both organizations encouraged the kind of multidisciplinary approach that encouraged his interests in biological populations. He describes his tenure as SFI president and his developing interest in sustainability, he prognosticates on what the SFI education model could contribute to post-pandemic higher education, and he explains how the pandemic has influenced his views on the future of cities. At the end of the interview, West describes his current interest in biological lifespans and he reflects on the extent to which is unorthodox career trajectory could serve as a model for scientists who will increasingly work in realms less bounded by strict departmental divisions.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 17th, 2020. It is my great pleasure to be here with Doctor Geoffrey West. Geoffrey, thank you so much for joining me today.
Very good. It's a pleasure to be here with you, and I'm flattered and honored and very much looking forward to spending a little time with you.
Wonderful. All right, so to start, would you tell me your title and institutional affiliation.
Yes. I'm a Shannan Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
And this is a unique opportunity. Can you give me a little institutional history of the Santa Fe Institute, and what it supports physicists?
Yes, yes. So I'll try to be brief, but it was founded in something like the mid to late-80s, that was its founding period, and so to speak the "founding fathers" was this extraordinary group of scientists. Nobel prize winners. I mean, what I was thinking of the "first tier" of Nobel prize winners. (laughs) But maybe we can talk about that later, what I mean by that. But Murray Gell-Mann, Phil Anderson, David Pines came a little bit later, but pretty much at the beginning. Kenneth Arrow, the great economist. And so on. And some other people near the beginning associated with Los Alamos. Nick Metropolis, for example. And they had become, you know, in a kind of prescient way, some disturbed and concerned about the fact that more and more, everything was sort of narrowing down. The silo-ing effect that we're all very familiar with was becoming more and more dominant. The whole reward system was geared towards getting more and more specialized. You had to sort of have some very specific problem, or very specific detail almost, of some problem that was associated with you, and so on. So in order to get ahead, or to get tenure, to get grants, to get promotion, to get recognition, it was becoming more and more siloed, and they were concerned that some of the big questions and eventually more to some of the big sort of societal, global questions, not just sort of the kind of big questions that physics asked, but just big questions in general, were being swept under the rug and not being dealt with. And they felt there needed to be a place, one place on the academic landscape that transcended the various boundaries, both within disciplines, and maybe more importantly, across disciplines, that were, you know, the economists would be talking to the physicists, and the anthropologists, and so on. And generate some traction over dealing with some of these questions. And they... because some of them had been associated with Los Alamos, it was a natural to set it up in Santa Fe.
It's an attractive place, they were able to get funding at the beginning, some modest funding. And so on. And I think the big surprise was that I think they were concerned that they would sort of be seen-- And in fact, I hate to admit this, I saw them that way. As sort of a bunch of old farts, wanting to find a nice retirement place, you know. What I thought of then as "old age." Which of course now seems ridiculous, because they were probably 55 to 60 years old. (both laugh) So I'm embarrassed to say it. But I was somewhat-- even I knew several of them, I was quite sarcastic, and it's embarrassing. But they were surprised that so many people came out of the woodworks. Very, you know, just many regular people. Very many distinguished people came out and said, "My God, I've been waiting for something like this for years. You, I felt so constrained in my department, and so on."
I mean, Murray Gell-Mann is a very good example. As is Fred Anderson. And they were, you know, riding the waves. Murray was, of course, even by the 80s, was still considered sort of the man to turn to in terms of the long-term, big picture future of high energy physics. Fundamental physics. And he felt he was unappreciated because he had a passion for understanding, of course, being Murray, everything, but in particular languages, of course, was one of his great passions. For good or bad. And he felt that, you know, and I certainly heard it myself in the hallways, that you know, that he was turning into an old man, he wasn't really serious any longer. And he felt quite the contrary, was deadly serious. Not only about physics, but about this and so on.
And so I think that was true of many of these people. Both senior people such as themselves, but many younger people. And that formed the nexus for what became the Santa Fe Institute, and to cut a very long story short, the thing, I think what evolved really was the recognition that there was this whole area of science, that is now science, that was being completely neglected, which comes under the rubric of complex systems, or perhaps more generally, complex adaptive systems. And I think it's very relevant, especially in this conversation, that adaptation and evolution are not part of-- well, certainly not then, part of physics. You know, and in fact, the sort of the messy world out there, global phenomena and the future of the planet, or you know, the nature of economics, the nature of the evolutionary process. Big questions in biology. Why physicists, and I was certainly one of them, were sort of thought of as, "Yes, that's sort of like engineering. You know, I mean..." It was very much that truly reductionistic philosophical attitude, that we sort of took for granted in a sort of unthinking way that, you know, you've really got to know the fundamental laws first, down to the minutest details. Therefore, we've got to know string theory in order to understand what's going on in the world. everything builds up. You can sort of build everything up in larger scale levels.
And so with solid state physics, as it was then called, condensed matter physics, even statistical physics, was sort of thought of as already encroaching onto engineering from the high energy physics point of view. Which is just kind of ludicrous. And I think that, ironically, that still exists. I have to admit, when I got back to physics departments and meet with my physics colleagues, I'm amazed how that still encroaches, but and not the recognition that at each level-- what you still should call fundamental laws. They may be emergent from underlying phenomena, and it is the job of physics. But this the important thing, even if it wasn't stated explicitly, and that's where answering your question why a physicist... Physics is really the subject that addresses questions at any scale. And at every scale that have a kind of universality, a generality, and can be put into a mathematical principle framework, and computable. And therefore, predictable. And you can compare it with data. Now, if you-- ironically, just a tangential remark, if you include my last remark, compared and confronted with data, we of course have to take string theory out of the-- (both laugh) it's not part of physics. Just to get a dig at my old colleagues.
Right, that's a... But I think the important point was that it was recogni-- first of all, physicists were interested in founding a place, obviously with Phil Anderson and Murray Gell-Mann. In particular, and David Pines. But I think more importantly was recognition that physics would play an important role, because it is the quantitative science based on mathematizing underlying principles, and of course there's, from my viewpoint, anyway, how far can you take that?
Where are the boundaries to how far we can take this extraordinary paradigm that we've developed within physics. You know, where does that end? Or how does it get adapted into adaptive phenomena, you know? Can you incorporate it. So that's sort of my slightly long-winded answer to why the nature of the Institute-- I mean, it's evolved tremendously since then. But that was sort of its fundamental origins.
From the outside looking in, just to comment, it's almost unfathomable to think of people like Murray Gell-Mann and Phil Anderson being, feeling like they were under-appreciated or hemmed in by their departments. So that's just a remarkable idea for the historical record.
No, I think it is amazing. It is, actually. And you know, I mean so much so that Murray left Caltech.
I mean, he... I think, and in fact I know. I mean I knew Murray for a long time. And I used to take it with a grain of salt before Santa Fe Institute, when he would in his Murray-like way complain about, you know, the constraints and the feeling of not being sort of open-ended in his intellectual thinking with his colleagues. And I used to just think that was just some weird characteristic of Murray. You know, who likes to do things like that. But in fact, it was the reality for him, and he put money where his mouth is, so to speak. And that was extraordinary.
So to exemplify the point about the value of being at an institute where you are untethered from the restraints of traditional academic programs, you know many theoretical physicists would think of themselves as being multidisciplinary if they involved themselves with experimentalists, right? And so I wonder if you could push that forward and give a good example to illustrate the point in the way that you feel like your own work in physics has been enhanced by having close access in academic collaboration with a broader range of scholars who are associated with the Santa Fe Institute.
Yeah so yes, that's a very good question. And it is a very interesting question. It's one I ponder. You know, doing high energy physics, and coming from that, which is an extraordinary field. I mean, I'm still, I have enormous respect for what's being done, what has been done. I feel very honored that I was able to play just a tiny part, and be part of the community for a very long period. And thoroughly enjoyed it, both in terms of my colleagues and intellectually. But, one of the other characteristics that I think that really was part of the high energy physics community, is part of the high energy physics community, first of all, it attracts extraordinarily smart people, and usually smart people have broad interests. And so there was this image that, you know, working on the most fundamental problems meant that we were attuned, we could do it, we were the basis for everything. That goes back to what I said earlier. And so there was this, that already creates an interesting culture, which of course culminates in calling something a theory of everything. You know, ludicrously, by the way. But anyway, I mean (laughs) it's an extraordinary image. It's just a stupid name, given the meaning of those words.
But one of the things I enjoyed about physics was, in terms of the first part of your question, is that the tradition I came from was one of having the powerful techniques of theoretical physics at your fingertips. Of course, most highly embodied in quantum field theory. And at the same time being in sort of either direct or indirect, implicit or explicit, conversation with experimentalists who are so to speak getting their hands dirty in extraordinarily sophisticated experiments. You know, of engineering marvels like the LHC or CERN before that, and so on. And I never thought of that as interdisciplinary and so forth. It's…people started to use that a little bit, and I want to compare and contrast-- oh, the other thing was, I'm sorry, yes, I want to go on with that. Is that the thing that developed in high energy physics which was fantastic in a way, along these lines, was the convergence between condensed matter physics, phase transitions, statistical physics, and high energy physics, through the renormalization group and so on. Where you still can see two fields overlapping, sort of coming together for a while and extremely fruitfully. Ken Wilson sort of embodying the... with his fantastic work. So there was that, and then there was the other connection, which persists more so today, and that is the connection of course to astrophysics and cosmology, but which has also been extraordinarily fruitful. And those are considered, I suppose, both interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary. Now, that is to be contrasted with kind of cross-disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity associated with the Santa Fe Institute. Because from a Santa Fe Institute viewpoint, sort of another 30,000 feet higher, maybe, that's all sort of in, almost within one field, or one of those things.
You know, that's all physics as far as that's concerned. The cross-disciplinarity in the Santa Fe Institute is in fact, from the its very beginnings, when there was an extraordinary collaboration between economists and physicists. And Phil Anderson was at the center of that. And just a tangential remark, I think that was one of the great stimuli for good or bad that led to the flood of physicists going to Wall Street, which still continues. Trying to use techniques developed in physics specifically to make a fortune on the stock market, and then you did. But so the first major program at the Santa Fe Institute was the economics program. And by the way, there's a wonderful article if you're not familiar with it, in Science on that. About that first major meeting. And it talks in wonder of how extraordinary it is that a physicist and an economist should ever talk to one another. And this happened. And how did it happen? Was it just a bunch of bullshit, or was there some-- No, you should read the article, it's very interesting actually.
Yeah, it's reflective, this is clearly the author or somebody who's coming from an academic perspective where, you know, never the twain shall meet.
Exactly, exactly. This is like verboten. You know, you wouldn't ever consider such a thing. So that was the first, but since then, and since its beginning, that happened in the late 80s. There have been many such collaborations, and my own was totally serendipitous and accidental. I was working with biologists and ecologists on understanding these extraordinary scaling laws that are manifested in biology. Which maybe we can talk about later. But there was a case where, you know, I had just for my own interests as part of it being a rebound from the disappointment of the SSC not being funded. And reacting to all the negativity about physics that persisted in the 90s. Sort of the, not just anti-physics, but sort of anti-intellectual almost. And some of it coming from physicists, by the way. Including Phil Anderson. Maybe I shouldn't say that. (laughs) But anyway, but... And I think the... So that was one, that was an extraordinary experience for me, because I had just worked on it as a hobby, on these problems, and I was brought together with some extraordinarily good biologist, named James Brown, who had been thinking about such things, and Jim and his then-student, Brian Enquist, who's become a very well-known biologist himself now, were, to put it kindly, mathematically challenged. As I would sarcastically say from my training in high energy physics, they were good at addition and subtraction, but multiplication, yes, long division, not so sure about. (laughs) So that was sort of the-- (both laugh) So this was quite a challenge, and it required enormous patience on both sides. And at the same time, enormous passion for understanding and coming together. And you know, there was an amazing collaboration, and coming raw from high energy physics where we sort of had this high-and-mighty attitude, and ask stupid questions about simple concepts in biology, because they didn't know them. It was fantastic, actually. And likewise, they were so…so what I had to do as part of that was of course boiled down... You know, complicated equations. I mean solving not trivial questions. I mean any decent mathematical physicist could solve the problems, but for a biologist who really was struggling with simple calculus. Boiled down to something that they could truly understand, how those results came about, what were the essential features, and making a calculation and put it into simple terms, almost algebraic terms. Sort of like the classic physics for poets class. It was a huge challenge but was enormously insightful for me. And of course I learned just an enormous amount of biology.
I had just moved to the University of New Mexico, because they also offered a job to his wife, and so we were able to meet once a week. We met every Friday for several hours, and it was fantastic. And it was also frustrating. I would often come home after five hours talking with them, and I'd walk home and I'd say to my wife, "I can't go on with this. I mean this is-- (laughs) these people don't understand anything!" That kind of thing, you know. But I was wrong. (laughs) So it requires a great deal-- it's a very, very different mode, and it's because when you do high energy physics, almost all my collaborations are with people smarter than me, and doing all kinds of interesting things on the board, so on. You know, it's completely-- the other huge difference was, in high energy physics you pretty much always knew what the problem was to be solved. We all knew the problems to be solved. In biology, a hard part was, what is the problem to be solved? What is it that we should actually be trying to understand here? And I had several occasions when we would spend months in retrospect trying to figure out what the bloody problem should be that we should be trying to understand. Because there are so many degrees of freedom, and so many variables, so many things going on. But once you've figured out what the problem was to be solved, I'd sit down, I'd put it into a mathematical framework, and in fact one of my most popular papers, I think I did everything in less than 24 hours. You know, I calculated everything. But it took three months to write down the first equation. And so, it's completely different than in thinking and in the level of technical prowess is much, much lower, of course, and that's fine. But the challenge conceptually is equally and in some ways, more hard than in high energy physics. Amazingly. And I began to appreciate that.
And what were the startup funds that got this started?
Oh. Yes, so that's an amusing story because I was working on this as I said in reaction to the demise of the SSC. And part of it was, the reaction was, prior to the demise, especially at Los Alamos, we kept hearing that famous remark. You know, "physics is the science of the 19th and 20th centuries. Biology's going to be the science of the 21st century." And the corollary-- that was sometimes written, by the way, but the corollary that was never written, but I had certainly heard said both at Los Alamos and at the DOE in Washington was, "Well, you know, there's not much point to going on. You know, we know all the physics we need to know," kind of idea. You know, "Why do we need to know any more?" And I reacted as most physicists did, very strongly to that. And I knew no biology, frankly, really, but my reaction was that if biology were real science, instead of all this narrative horseshit and so on, then it would really have been mathematized, you'd be able to calculate things, be able to predict things, and the thing that I focused, I started to think about that, I focused on. Got me into all of this, was something I'd always been interested in, actually. And that's the problem with aging. I'd always been interested in some morbid way in death, and why people die, and why people age. And here I was in my 50s, and it was obvious I was beginning to age, and I come from a family of very short-lived males. All my male relatives died young. My father died 60, 61, his father at 54, all of his brothers, my father's brothers, died in their early 60s, some in their 50s, so you know, I just…ironically, my mother's brothers too. So I just assumed I'd be gone and here I was well into my 50s. So it also became a personal issue as to why it was that we are here, why... What's happening?
And when it came, it sort of coalesced with this reaction to the SSC and my sort of silly tirades about biology by saying, "You know, Jesus Christ, if biology were a real science, people would understand that. You would understand aging, and we'd understand-- there must be some simple calculation that says, if you're a human being, if you're a mammal of this size, then your lifespan is predictably of the order 100 years. It's not 10 years and it's not a million years. Why is it 100 years? So in fact, I spent a huge amount of time looking at the literature. And remember, in those days, we didn't have google. So I had to go to the library, the Los Alamos library, they had a very good library on some of this stuff. I went down to the university, spent hours in the stacks looking at all kinds of things. And to my amazement, I discovered that this was hardly a f-- there was a field, there is of course a field, but it was a backwater, and the other thing I discovered was that my case was, in high school I guess, and they had these big, fat biology books. You know, these that tell you everything about biology. So eventually I thought, why not look in those? And I looked up aging and death. You know, in 1500 pages, covering reproduction, evolution, physiology... but the second most important thing in every organism's life, namely its death, is not even mentioned.
And I thought, gee wiz, that is a weird science. You know, I mean we know more about death in physics because we know things change and part of us dies, so to speak, I mean... They transform as we do. And I thought that is really terr-- so that only enhanced my sort of indignation. So in those dark days following the collapse of the SSC, I sat down and I thought, fuck it-- excuse me. I'm going to see if I can do a back of the envelop calculation and figure out what it's 100 years. And concomitantly, why is it that mice die so young? You know, why, we're the same stuff-- and there's all this stuff about genes, we all have the same genes. So how come their genes determine the-- you know, what is it that's going on? And that got me into the biology, and I worked on that. Now I'm going to answer your question. Because this is leading up to the question. The support. Because so I did develop a theory, and the theory was based on the obvious thing that a physicist would think of.
And by the way, it's a physics question to ask not just why, but why 100 years? I found no-- this is even more extraordinary. Nowhere in all of the literature on gerontology did I see anyone asking what determines 100 years? What determines the actual scale of life? So I developed the idea that, look, it's obvious. If you're aging and dying, you have to understand what's keeping you alive in the first place, and then figure out what's gone wrong. I mean, so (laughs) that's the sort of conceptual framework. So I had to study metabolism, because that's what keeps you alive, and then I had to determine what the hell goes wrong, and it sort of became pretty obvious what goes wrong is that to metabolize, you need to have networks that supply energy and resources, and those pathways, that transport, produces entropy, and the entropy produces wear and tear, and then eventually we don't repair fast enough, so somehow, putting all that together-- so that's what I started to do. And in that moment I met Jim Brown and then his student Brian Enquist, and we did this work on the scaling laws about metabolism. So metabolism now. We published a paper in Science and it got a lot of publicity and I did it all, embarrassingly, on money from high energy physics. So I didn't say-- Now, in the paper, I purposefully said, "Supported GBW, Supported by the DOE." And I purposely left out the contract number, which I'm supposed to put of course, you know, so they can check on things. And sure enough, that week after the paper came out, and as I say, got a lot of publicity feedback very quickly, I got a call from the DOE and the DOE Biology. And they asked me who, you know, they'd seen this paper and they saw it was supported by the DOE, and they were concerned. And I started to sort of get quite concerned myself, that I was violating the sort of the spirit of congress and using the money inappropriately. And I hemmed and hawed for a quite some time. (laughs) Sort of hemmed and hawed my way out of it. And then the person on the other line said, "Oh, I get it. You are concerned that we're concerned about this. No, quite the contrary. It's exactly the opposite." And he said, "Actually, the Secretary of Energy saw this paper and was very excited, and we were all very excited. And he said, 'Who in the DOE supported this, because they should be congratulated.'" I mean, so (laughs), so I said, "Well, high energy physics." And indeed, to cut a long story short, I got several emails two or three days later from my program managers and the head of DOE high energy physics saying, "This is fantastic. We love this. We're so glad you did this, because it shows that high energy physics can have practical connections." (both laugh)
So it all turned out extremely well. And by the way, another just curious thing about this. Who was the biology program manager that called me originally, was Dan Drell, son of Sid Drell. (laughs)
Just amazing, what happened to be a program manager. So it was, anyway. So it was a very amusing story. But anyway, they, eventually I got serious support from the NSF.
And is there an endowment that Santa Fe operates on currently?
Well, we have a very small endowment. The Santa Fe Institute when it was set up, was... set up, you know, the whole structure was completely different. When it eventually settled down, it would have a small resident faculty, but it would primarily have a distributed external faculty, and to some extent, be a visiting institution. Santa Fe being the hub. And that's pretty much what it is, but... And the resident faculty being sort of the core, but everybody, you know, the external faculty having sort of equal rights and so on. But so that was an interesting model, but the other part of the model is there would be no tenure. And associated with that, you had a very powerful board of trustees, and these people felt that they were fed up giving money to institutions and goes into the endowment, into some form of an endowment anyway, and only sort of 5% is ever used to do anything serious. So they decided that the money they would give should be immediately used. We don't need an endowment. And had this cavalier, cowboy attitude, "Look, if you ever need money, we'll find it. Don't worry." Meanwhile, of course, we apply for grants and so on. So when I became president of the Santa Fe Institute, and I joined the institute and I became president of it, which was a whole 'nother story, but one of the first things I said to the board, I was actually interim. I said, "This is nuts." I said, "You know, it's great at the moment that you say you will come up with money, but there's going to be a time when that ain't going to be true." I mean --
Like a pandemic.
Exactly. Or in 2008. This was in 2003-4, when I came on board, and I said, "Look, I don't know, I'm not a businessman, I don't know. But I can't imagine running a business this way, and I'm just amazed that you guys think that this is okay." So I tried to convince them, and they sort of half-heartedly went along and we did try to raise an endowment, but it got wiped out in 2008. It wasn't very big anyway. We have since tried to raise a serious endowment. Nevertheless, it is still true that most of our donors like to give money that they like to see being used. It seems to have attracted people like that rather than the traditional, you know, multi-billionaire who gives to the Harvard Medical School because his mother has Alzheimer's and he doesn't mind giving, you know, $500 million because somehow it's going to solve Alzheimer's. And so on. We don't have that. It's usually to give to -- Now, I have been supported twice now. The first part personally by someone who just liked my work, and actually, heard me give a public lecture and came up and, "I think this is great. I would like to support perhaps three or four years, actually. It was a lot of money. More recently, one did something similar.
So there are such people, but it's a lousy way, frankly. It's a great way for the individual. I mean it was great for me because I did not have to deal with the bureaucracy, let's put it that way, of the federal agents, for example. Or even foundations. I've been supported by several foundations as well as the NSF. The DOE. But it's lovely to run an institute, frankly. And we do need to build up a bit. We've been building up an endowment. And it would make a huge difference to the Institute actually to have that kind of freedom. But it survives sort of... I don't know the numbers now because I'm not in the driver's seat, but it has about 13-14%, probably 14% are federal grants. Primarily NSF. 40% are private donors, and maybe 15-20% are companies and so forth. There's a business-- one of the great things about the Santa Fe Institute, by the way, is that in addition to its academic network that one would draw, you would be familiar with, it has a kind of business network of many companies that like to be associated with the institute and they pay, I don't know, $40 or 50 thousand a year to be part of it, so that helps as well. But we do many things with them. We put on symposium workshops, they come visit, and so on. We've got studios for them, and it's been quite... It's interesting to be exposed to that world and a different way of thinking, and challenged in a different way that one is within academia. And very healthy, I think, by the way. And by the way, it is not, this is an important point, it is not, we're never in the role of consultants. That is, you know, we don't solve their problems, but it's sort of a developing frameworks, or conceptual ideas. Exposing people to new ideas is maybe the best way of thinking of it.
Well, Geoffrey, now let's take it back to the beginning. Let's go back all the way to the U.K. Let's start first with--
Let's start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about where your parents are from.
Oh my goodness me. Yes, so my parents both were born Londoners. Well, it's not quite true. My mother, amazingly, was born in Warsaw. Well actually it's not clear where she was born, no one really knows, but she was brought to England as a, you know, six-month old baby. She came from a Jewish family, and I think my grandfather was escaping pogroms at the time. And that was right before the First World War. My father was born in London, and is a Cockney, he was born within the sound of [inaudible], as they say, and was very much a Londoner with a London sense of humor, and so then... He was an interesting man. Anyway, but my mother, they were both not well-educated, in a certain sense. My mother left school at 13, but she was extremely talented as a dress designer and dress maker. And spent her life doing that. I mean, she was quite extraordinary. But she could barely read or write. She could, and by the way, only one of my grandparents could read or write. So I come from a fairly modest background. My father went, got scholarships, and went to a very good school and did extremely well, but he was the eldest son of seven siblings, and he... With seven siblings. And unfortunately, in 1929 in the crash, he had to leave school and earn his own way.
And he was of English lineage, your father?
Yeah. Yes, yes. Although also Jewish, but long-term. Very much long, and way back into the 19th century.
So "West" was surely an Anglicized name at some point?
Yes, it's an Anglicized version. So my father was, despite the name, was very Jewish. I mean, in the sense that he was quite Orthodox in keeping to the rules and regulations. And I was brought up pretty much that way. I don't do it now, but despite that, I have a great affinity for it, and I have a great emotional attachment, despite not being a believer in the usual sense.
Geoffrey, when did you go off the derech (path of religious observance), if I may ask?
Oh, when? Well, that's a hard question to answer. You know, there's a piece of me that never went off. Which is sort of interesting. You know, I mean, it's come back, interestingly, and I know it's sort of predictable in a way. It's come back with my wife going through the surgery on the one hand, and the pandemic going on, and the question of life and death. As I say, I've always been interested in death. Anyway, and so I have a kind of Spinoza view of the universe, you know, so if a God, whatever that means, is the universe -- so that's why I love physics. Physics is a manifestation of that. I mean, I'm not a believer and I don't participate, but there's a piece of me that for want of a good word, I would call "spiritual." And one of my struggles throughout life has been the underlying, an underlying struggle, even if it's not explicit, has been reconciling that with the deep rationality of physics and the fact that I'm a passionate humanist.
So... And I love, by the way, I love doing science. And I love doing high energy physics, the fundamental laws, and I particularly love doing the biology. Because it was somehow combining all of that. But it was nothing-- one of my most spiritual experiences in my life was when I eventually understood mathematically, physically, the principles, the underlying structure of plants and trees and forests. And was-- I noticed, and I'm going to say something terribly immodest, I was first person to realize that when you walk through a forest it looks like just a bunch of arbitrary trees and plants and different sizes, different species. There is extraordinary regularity and structure there. Unbelievable regularity and structure. And to do that is just an amazing experience. So I consider that kind of a religious experience, but it comes from the science. But I'm not a religious person, so it's--
Well, Geoffrey, now that I know that we have a shared cultural milieu, I can share with you that when you went to the library to look for why 100, you simply could have gone to the Torah to see that God mandated that Moshe (Moses) would be 120, and that would be the outer limit of human lifespan. So you had a very simple answer for you.
I'm familiar, I'm familiar, yes. There's also something in I think... I think the Hausa tribe in Nigeria has a similar story, like Moses' one, with the 120-- My England friends have told me. And of course, there's the three score and ten, which is not the answer, but is of course--
Now, when you were growing up, it's you know, in the American perspective, there's many divisions here. There's reform, there's conservative, and there's Orthodox.
And I understand in the U.K., it's more like whether or not you are shomer Shabbat, you go to an Orthodox shul because that's what there is.
Was that your experience?
Yes, pretty much so. I mean I was on the American spectrum. I grew up somewhere between conservative and Orthodox. Somewhere in there.
Yes, I was, you know, I did all the usual things. I have an uncle, I had an uncle. He just died, just over 100, who was a great chasid, for example, in London. (laughs) So we have a piece of the family, I think my grandfather was a famous rabbi. My great-grandfather. So anyway. So I still feel that connection. I don't feel, I don't reject it, but I don't embrace it either. But it's left a residue, obviously.
It also seems like you have an appetite for metaphysical concepts, to some degree, as well.
Yes I do, yeah very much so. And interestingly enough, I think I was frustrated that there wasn't en-- I know this sounds weird. There wasn't enough metaphysics in high energy physics at times for my liking. Even though, you know, it's so funny, because I'm totally schizophrenic on this, because when I get too much of it, I start shouting bullshit. And so I have to say, I'm not consistent, and that reflects my own ambiguity of this division. So but my parents, my father was very religious, and that's a very, like, you know, very much was. My mother was less so, ironically. But I grew up in that culture home and being... High holidays, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah were major. Also Pesach. We separated the dishes. I mean, we did that anyway when we had milk and meat, were separated and so on and so on. And I don't know when-- I think coming to America certainly was the major breaking point, because I've often pondered what would have happened had I stayed in England. Close to my family. I would have definitely felt the pressure and I am prone to feeling guilty about such things, so--
What about, Geoffrey, what about the reverse pressure? The pressure of being atheistic as a physicist?
Well, to be honest. I didn't feel, no, I didn't feel any of my colleagues made me, you know... Because I never propounded. As I say, by the time I started really thinking seriously about such things again, I'd already stopped being practicing religion and had recognized that I just felt religion more and more, I could see the superficiality of organized religion, starting to... You know, and the hypocrisy of so much of it. And that's nothing to do with Judaism, but all religions, is--
Let's just get right to the heart of it. Do you believe that physics has a credible explanation for how the universe could have created itself?
That I think is, yeah, so (laughs), I doubt that. I mean, that may be a truly metaphysical question. You know, in the sense that it might be a tautology. It gets into the, you know, linguistic problems. You know, I mean, because you can always ask, I mean it's like child, you know, what came before? And so forth. So I'm not that-- and that doesn't bother me. I like the idea that physics should keep pushing frontiers. And I think trying to have preconceived notions as to what an ultimate answer would be, I think is counter-productive. But I do like the idea-- that's why I'm extremely supportive of my, what I now consider, my metaphysical friends, or friends and colleagues, who are still banging away at string theory and so on. I think it's fantastic that they go on doing it, but you know, at times I think it's angles on a pinhead. And I might as well be reading Kabbalah. And so-- By the way, just a thought came to me. One of the things I've often pondered is that, you know, during the time I was in high energy physics, it was dominated by very smart, both old and young, Jewish people. Jewish men, mostly. And I've often wondered where the-- it's in, I mean this is metaphorically speaking, it's in the DNA, the search for unity. The fact that Jews consider themselves the people that invited, if you can use it that way, the "one God." There's one God, not multiple Gods. So that, you know, which is totally counter-intuitive. It's much more true to there's lots of Gods, because that's the way the universe appears. They're all fighting eachother and we get in the middle of that. Whereas there's this idea of one God, that everything's unified, is so crucial as a central theme in Judaism, which isn't even carried over into Christianity. You know, it's --
It's violated immediately.
Something that comes out of the blue. You know, Jews stick really stubbornly to the one God, how despite all my Jewish friends being, in many ways, aggressively atheistic, and even aggressive towards their own Jewishness. Negatively. They passionately look for unification. As I do. I mean, in my duology, that's what I do. That's why I love doing the biology, because I see the great unification of all this stuff.
And Geoffrey, with regard to your fascination with death, of course, it is honorable to say the Shema as the last thing that you say, and that is the ultimate expression of God's unity.
Yes, exactly. That's it. So it's sort of interesting. You know, I have pondered that in the past. It may be just a coincidence. But there may be something there.
Did you go to--
They'd kill me, most of my friends, if they heard this really going to back me.
(laughs) Did you go to public school? What was your schooling situation?
Yes, I went to standard public schools. Yeah, you know, we lived in fairly well, it's a bit complicated, but in the end, the school I went to was the equivalent of high school, for the most formative years. It was a school in London, in the East End of London, in a poor area. And in those days, it was called a slum. I mean, you would never use that word these days. In the East End, which used to be, by the way, the old Jewish district. In fact, both my parents originally lived there. We didn't live there when I went there. This wasn’t available at the school, because it was in 1536, and so it had a very long history going back to medieval times, but had sort of fallen on difficult times, and become taken over by the state. And it was also interesting, because it had kids locally who came from very poor working-class families, many of them working in the docklands, but also maybe half of the kids commuted in from the suburbs. So they came from some middle class families. So it was an interesting combination and you know, so one of the things I told people about is that for a good two years, sitting next to me-- and you know, and even the teacher comes to the class, whereas in America, the class goes to the teacher, so to speak. But you know, you have your own classroom and the teacher comes to the class.
So you have your own permanent desk and are in pairs, typically. Or they used to be in pairs, so you'd sit next to the same person for a year, and I had to sit next to this person for two years, and I was up front, right at the front, because I was the nerd. I was the youngest kid in the class, but I was the nerd. And next to me was a young boy named Johnny McVicar, who was up front because he was the class hooligan, so to speak. And Johnny... see, I came from a Jewish background, which there were almost no Jews in that school. He came from Irish immigrants. They were Irish, of which there were lots in that school. And Johnny was extraordinarily smart and became, by age 20, the most wanted criminal in Britain. (both laugh) So that also had an effect on me, by the way. (laughs) And he served a long time in prison, they caught him eventually, and when he got his degree while he was in jail, in prison, and he got his degree in criminology. And when he got out, he was hired by the Observer, London newspaper, which is a high-quality newspaper, associated now with the Guardian. And became the criminology correspondent. And for many years. And they made a film of him with Roger Daltrey of The Who playing Johnny McVicar. So that's part of my heritage too, by the way. So I grew up also with criminals, because Johnny would tell me lots about his criminal activity, which I listened to, and I was horrified-- And I think he just enjoyed telling me because I was so intimidated.
Was your high school education strong in math and science?
Well, I did have an extremely good mathematics teacher. And a very good physics teacher, who were just very, very good, I think. I mean they probably, people like that probably do not teach such high schools now. They were both extremely good. I didn't quite realize it at the time, but they played important roles. But so that was, you know-- I had a talent for mathematics more than I did for physics. Physics I had a much harder time with. You know, I could work out the problems, but I wasn't this-- I struggled conceptually at times in high school. But mathematics came very easily to me. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it very much, and when I was about 11 or 12 I was learning trigonometry, I think it was a homework problem was given, and the homework problem was fantastic. It was to work out the following: if you're standing on a cliff above the ocean, how far away is the horizon? And you know, it's a simple trigonometry thing. And when I read that, when I read the problem, I thought, "How in the hell are you supposed to figure that out?" You know, that's... And of course I did, and I did it, and I got the answer and I was shocked. It was a revelation, it was surreal to me. Here was a formula- and it really, I think, somehow stayed with me all the way through me life, that problem, in its spirit. Because that formula said something about the external world that was true, and that could be put in universal terms. That it was, it didn't matter what cliff you stood on, and in some ways, I even recognized it didn't matter planet you were on. It was this formula that told you the answer. And that was quite different. This was maybe, asked my question before, my moving away from religion, this was quite different from the explanations that I was being told in Hebrew class, either about, you know, the world around me. So that was extraordinary.
Not only that... So it had a universality. It was mathematizable. It gave the right answer, apparently, and it was also relevant for me, because where we lived then was on the south coast at the beginning of where the White Cliffs begin? The White Cliffs, so I would often go up on the White Cliffs and look out at the sea ships coming over the horizon. So I had relevance. And finally, which I think must have stuck subconsciously in my brain, is that it also showed the idea of approximation because you could get the exact formula, but part of the formula didn't matter because the height of the cliff was so tiny compared to the radius of the Earth. And even though I didn't see that, any of these things, explicitly, they somehow worked continuously in brain. So all of those things actually set a kind of template for the way I like to do physics and to do science, actually. So it's kind of amazing, and that was enhanced by these teachers later in high school, who were extremely good at providing examples and explanations.
When you were thinking about college, were you thinking specifically about physics as a career?
Not as a car-- well, no, not as a career. I applied to do mathematics, actually. Because I didn't think I could do physics, and I also had an interest in an area that was, you know, considered nowadays as a deprived area. And I just didn't think I could compete. I didn't think I-- I thought I'd probably pay for tuition to university, but I-- And I was accepted, and I took off a year, but I went into mathematics. And I started out in mathematics, actually. And I turned off in mathematics, because I realized again sort of semi-consciously that I was good at solving problems, and I didn't care about epsilons and deltas and upside-down As, and all the rest of that stuff. That just seemed to me, you know, okay, great. That's puzzle solving in a different way. I want to do this, and even though that might be the language of you know, the universe, so to speak. And so I switched to physics. But I did it with trepidation and I struggled, I would say.
At what point did physics, as an undergraduate, did you get your sea legs?
I didn't get it, really, as an undergraduate, to tell you the truth, and no it's sort of weird, I did not get them. I never felt truly comfortable with-- I loved the idea of physics and what it was doing, and I liked doing it, but I never felt I could really do it. And so when I graduated, (laughs) I decided, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and after some thought, I thought it would be a great idea to go to California. Because as an undergrad, at Cambridge, were like people from Mars. I mean, I'm talking about 1959, 1960. There were these people that, you know, they were loose and overt and talked frankly, and they didn't talk... That was very guarded and so on. And very British. Not that, I mean, I like that, but it was so different. And I had begun to appreciate jazz. And I thought, oh, maybe I could go to San Francisco, or at least go to California, and be exposed to so-called West Coast Jazz at the time, which I liked. And I thought, I'm obviously not going to make it as a physicist, that's clear. And but maybe (laughs) maybe I can become a great writer. (laughs) And write a novel. So I didn't really have money, but I applied to graduate schools in California and Stanford offered me the most money. So I went and I didn't have any money, and I borrowed money for the boat, the ship, from a man who you probably don't know, I mean he's dead now. A man named Gene Gavin. Who was a very famous, what was then called a numerical analyst, and became chair of the department of math and whose algorithms are the reason Google, that made the algorithms so Gene must have died a very wealthy man, because they gave him so much stock. But Gene was a very different and he paid my way... He didn't pay my, I paid him back, but he loaned me the money. So I came with the intent of coming for one year. To Stanford. And I didn't tell them, of course, that. So I came--
In the physics department. You came to do --
In the physics department, yes, in the physics department. And the physics department was a good department. You know, it was going through, it was just the beginnings of SLAC. SLAC was... And in fact, when I got there it was called Project M. Monster.
The Monster Accelerator. Panofsky was there, and it was disappointing. He left the department to try to get SLAC going. Sid Drell had gone to CERN for the year. So it was depleted. Schiff was there, Leonard Schiff, who became my advisor. There were very few other theorists. It was very strong in experimental. But I didn't really care, to tell you the truth. Yes, Hofstadter was there, of course. I didn't really care because I thought, I'm only here for a year. And what the hell, I'm not telling them. But at Christmas, around the holidays, right at the break, we were given the departmental exam. Called the Comprehensive Exam. And this exam is, it lasts from I think eight in the morning until sic in the evening, and they give you the exam and you take it back on an honor code, and there's ten questions. Ten problems. And you know, all my fellow students from Harvard and MIT, Princeton, were all studying like crazy. I didn't. I sort of thought, look, it doesn't matter. So I barely studied, unlike my exams with Cambridge, which I didn't do so well in, but I studied hard. Here I hardly studied, and I took the exam, and I came top. (laughs) So Christ Almighty. You know? Maybe I'm being stupid. Maybe I could be-- maybe I should go on a little bit. Maybe I could be a physicist. Because I enjoy it, I like it. And that changed me. I must admit. And the other thing that changed me was the other students were fantastic. They were just great as people, and wonderful discussions, and many of those discussions were metaphysical, philosophical. Mostly. A lot about life, but the philosophy of science you know. The philosophy of physics, what are we doing, what are we trying to accomplish? How does it relate to the-- All these kinds of things. And I thought this is fantastic. So I thought, I've got to go on in physics, because this is, what a life this will be? And it turned out, that's not the way universities are. Turns out when you get into a physics department, that's considered, you know, sophomoric. Not even graduate students. But they were great, and that inspired me to be honest. And I stayed on. I wrote a mundane thesis.
Who was your advisor?
Because I would like to work with Sid Drell, or Bjorken, but they were both away.
And when Sid came back, I was his TA. But then he moved to SLAC, and then the department, who were very threatened by SLAC, made a ruling basically that only two people a year could work for people at SLAC, and there were already three people working at SLAC. So that prohibited me. And even though I liked Leonard, I... and he was a terrific physicist, I must say. I ended up working with him. And by the way, he was... I should have said, in my undergraduate life at Cambridge, I was very fortunate my first year to be, even though I was in mathematics, to be tutored by Nevill Mott. You know, the condensed matter leader, who was a fantastic physicist, and the Cambridge tutorial system, is you work with them, you know, on problems and so on. And Mott and then Schiff and then later when I was at MIT briefly, with Weisskopf, all said the same thing to me. They had this-- they said, "I'm training you so you can work on anything. That's what a physicist should be able to do." You know, okay, you can solve these problems and that problems, and you're interested in high energy physics, but you should be able to work on anything because it's a way of thinking and of organizing a problem. And understanding it.
Well, I can see that. It's a very easy-- We can fast-forward to the Santa Fe Institute quite easily now.
Exactly. So that's what's extraordinary, is that what was amazing was that it turned out that wasn't true. I mean, in my career, you know, as a high-- I loved doing it, but it turns out that wasn't the way it was. By then, that old image, sort of 19th century, early 20th century image was dead. I was sort of the last (laughs) to hear that. And everybody was started more and more on narrowing down, as I was of course. And then suddenly along came the San-- You know, this serendipitous, me moving into this biology and the Santa Fe Institute. And there was this place that was doing what I was, assumed I would be doing as an academic. Incredible, I just feel blessed and just incredibly fortunate.
What was your thesis? Undistinguished as it may have been, I'd still like to know.
Oh, my thesis was two parts. One was on the three-body problem, that was quite rampant then, and it was on what were called the fold factors of the triton and helium-3 nuclei. Working out the relativistic effects, because people had looked at them just as free non-relativistic nucleons. And I started looking at what happens if you start making it relativistic and so on. And it was sort of interesting and it had some minor consequences. But it had two parts. The other part I got interested in was the mathematics of, you know, there's a whole-- there's the canonical scattering formalism. Which actually breaks down if you have a long-range force. One of, you know, coulomb force. And the way people generically deal with it is you just put a cutoff in. Which of course, as theorist would keep telling me, that's what the real world is. There is a cutoff in, you know, in systems. And I'd say, yeah, but you ought to be able to understand it without a cutoff. You know, they should be self-consistent. Why isn't it self-consistent? So I worked that out. (laughs) How to work out scattering theory of a coulomb range and so on and so forth. Which actually had some other consequences later. And people actually used it. But mostly it was in some backwa-- I mean, relatively speaking, in a small field, and not-- They were technically challenging, but intellectually, not really-- I did not feel exciting. In retrospect, anyway.
What were your objectives and hopes after you defended?
After you defended the dissertation?
Oh, oh, well, I got a job at Cornell. Because they were also, you know, Stanford and Cornell were the two big centers of electron scattering. Cornell had a cyclotron. Stanford, of course, had the linear machines, and they had just built SLAC. Just building SLAC when I left. And-- it was just finishing, that's right. And so I got hired at Cornell and I worked under [??], who was a wonderful physicist. A very modest, completely different than the usual version of high energy physicist, who is arrogant and aggressive. He was very reserved and very-- oh, like Schiff. Very reserved and modest, and I liked him tremendously. But I really enjoyed Cornell. I mean, well, I had no idea what Ithaca was. You know, I was one of these people that, when we, myself and my wife in our little old Studebaker, drove in, we drove right through without realizing we'd been in it. Literally. And that was a bit of a rude awakening. But we did enjoy Cornell, and they had a terrific physics department. Much underrated. And I really enjoyed it.
And I worked with Don on related, those kinds of related problems with electron scattering. But I started working on what was then very current algebras, that Murray Gell-Mann had sort of proposed. And that got me into the mainstream. But also what was extraordinary in that year, those two years, was that Ken Wilson was there. And when I went to Cornell, Leonard Schiff said to me, oh, one, he said that, "You should go to Cornell. You should go. And you should go," he said, "not only is it a very good department. Hans Bethe and all these other... But you should really go because there's someone there that you've never heard of." He said, "You know, you've heard Steven Weinberg and Shelly Glashow, these young guys something through. Said they're very good, but they're very flashy and so on. None of them compare to this person, Ken Wilson, whom you've never heard of. Who is deep, deep, he said, deep. So when I met Ken, I thought, "Leonard, you are so out of it. Ken Wilson is..." I said, Ken, I mean, seemed like a big schlump. He didn't seem to, you know. But, here's what happened. In my second year, I started off with Stanley Brown, whom I wrote many papers, several papers, with on current algebra. Stanley became the editor of Phys Rev Letters later. But Ken would walk into our office every day about 11 o'clock and talk to us about our work. And talk to us about his work. And the biggest mistake I ever made in my whole career was not really listening to Ken. Well, first of all, he was impossible to understand mostly. But I just didn't pay attention to what-- when he was talking about, you know, anomalous dimensions and renormalization and rescaling and all this stuff, I didn't know what he was talking about. He would-- So in fact, we got in, we sent to him, and you can obviously understand, we said, "Ken, give us a seminar." He gave a seminar in the department which was totally opaque and so on. So it was sort of weird. But talking to him about our own work was fantastic. He was fantastic.
And I just feel, I'm embarrassed and it shows my limitations that I wasn't able to recognize that here was a major turning point in our understanding of quantum field theory. And in all its manifestations, that Ken had really unearthed. And eventually articulated. And so that was a real mistake on my part. But I stayed friends with him for several years. And we did this extraordinary work. But it was a great time at Cornell, I must say. It was an extremely-- It was not only an outstanding department, but it was an extremely friendly and supportive department. And it had no characters, again, for good or bad, like Gell-Man or Feynman, in that image, or even people like Goldberger and Treiman at Princeton who would, you know, always look at Weinberg, who I hate to say were often looking to sort of put you down, if you're, you know, I mean, you felt that you were intimidated in their presence. No one at Cornell felt, made you feel that way. And it was the only department I knew of-- and throughout my career, actually, I would say that was truly like that. I found it extraordinary. And it probably still is. And Bethe, I think, deserves enormous credit for that.
He set the tone.
I think he set the tone for sure, for sure. And he was an amazing man.
How many years were you at Cornell?
Oh, just two years as a postdoc.
Then I went to Harvard. I did this weird joint position between Harvard and MIT that was neither fish nor fowl. Again, associated with the accelerator there. And that proved to be difficult.
And this was another postdoc, or this was a faculty position?
Well, it wasn't called a postdoc. It wasn't called a postdoc. It had some fancy title. And it was supposed to be an equivalent to some junior faculty position. But effectively, I was a postdoc, frankly. I mean I felt I was treated that way and I didn't have a real... And I just felt, I didn't feel at home. And Harvard was very weird at that time. I mean, Julian Schwinger, whom I admired tremendously, was not warm and cuddly. You know, he's a very removed person. Brilliant but removed. And Shelly Glashow was always putting me down, I felt. Even though I became very good friends with him. (laughs) And Sidney, Sidney Coleman, of course, because if dared make a mistake-- So, I just don't work well in those circumstances. And then I had these extraordinary colleagues, young people. I mean truly extraordinary. Kirk Howard at Princeton, David Gross, Nobel prize of course, that's in atomic freedom. Who else? Roman Jackiw. And someone you may not had, Giulio Preparalto who's Italian, who was very well known at the time, and became a total maverick. Total, he went sort of loony in a way. But the others were so high-powered, you know, I felt like a complete idiot most of the time, and some of them who shall remain nameless, did not hesitate to make me feel that way. (laughs) So I had-- So it was a bit hard for me psychologically. I would go down, I spent time at MIT and Vicky Weisskopf was very supportive. I got to know Steven Weinberg, even though he was difficult, he was very supportive. Because he liked my work that I had done in current algebras. And--
And Geoffrey, what was your research while you were in Cambridge? What were you working on?
Oh, again, continuation of this current algebra work, and into-- but by then, it had switched because the SLAC results had come out on deep inelastic. And what turned out to be the discovery of quarks. But the parton model. And I wrote, fortunately, I managed to write a Phys Rev Letter on putting the quark parton model into a kind of covariant framework. And that kept me at the forefront. And so I was working on elaborations of that, and all the things to do with, you know, what do those experiments mean? And what does the fact that we've seen this interesting scaling of the deep inelastic scattering off of the protons, does that mean we discovered quarks and so on. So that was very exciting. And--
Geoffrey, who were some of your key collaborators during this time?
Well the first one was Stanley Brown. And then after that-- and I also had at that time, I did some bread and butter work with a man named Fritz Barons who became a big mainstay at CERN on doing some, they had been some calculations that were wrong, where people didn't believe on some of the background effects of experiments at CERN and we did the correct calculation. And we showed why you could make... It was sort of interesting, actually, mathematically, why the sensitivity of the results to some tiny error, it was almost like a chaotic phenomenon in the calculation. So I worked with him. And then in the quark parton stuff, I mostly worked on my own. I mean, those are the days still when the majority, well, probably the majority of papers-- certainly equal numbers-- were single-author papers. You know, which is unusual these days. But then I would say probably the majority of papers were single-authored. But so I did much of that on-- but I was always talking-- you know, it's great, I was talking to a lot of people and it was a very good atmosphere. I just didn't flourish. I don't flourish well in a highly competitive situation. I don't think as fast as others and I feel all my psychology of coming from a poor background and being Jewish-- and by the way, being Jewish, I didn't talk about this, when I was both in high school and in undergraduate, I certainly suffered from anti-Semitism. I mean, explicit. I mean stuff that today you wouldn't even believe, but--
Right, and in England, it's--
You know, I mean those were the times.
In England, the anti-Semitism can be quite casual, also.
Yes, exactly, and that's what I meant. It was the casual kind of anti-Semitism. I mean, I won't mention names, but I had a collaboration, a little bit after this period, with someone who became very well-known, actually, who was English and very liberal. Very left-wing, in fact. Extremely left-wing. And when he talked to me, he would talk in a English-Jewish accent. You know, and not realizing what he was doing. You know, as if he would talk to an African-American with a sort of what you'd consider a Black accent. You know, I mean, it was just, even then, I would just cringe. And I could not say to him that, please don't do that. But this was all part, you know, it was what the times were. And so I think psychologically, I often had trouble if I were in a highly-competitive situation. Mostly from Jews, by the way. (laughs) Aggressive, you know, the canonical, I can be anti-Semitic here, the canonical aggressive Jews. You know?
(laughs) And I would just sort of fold sometimes. I'd think, "Oh, God." But they were great, it was no, that was a very productive time, and the quality of people was extraordinary. At Harvard and MIT, and then go back and forth.
What was your next move after Cambridge?
Well, the next move was that they got me back to Stanford. As, you know, a young faculty member. And--
Who was instrumental for that, Geoffrey? Who really brought you back?
I think Leonard Schiff, my old advisor, but mostly Polenchka, I don't know that name, Polenchka. The leading nuclear physicist. And they brought me back, I think the experimentalists liked me, and so I came back and joined the theory group, which was pretty thin in those days. And we had the senior people in the field, I was in the department, weren't really doing much in high energy physics. The young people were very good. I had Bill Bardeen, who went on to Fermilab, of course. And Roberto Peccei, who ended up at UCLA eventually. He just died, sadly. And so they were terrific. But, of course, I would spend much of my time at SLAC. And it was just hopping at the time. It was terrific.
So what year would this have been, when you got to SLAC?
Okay. So SLAC is operational and this is as exciting as it gets?
Oh it's going gangbusters. The deep inelastic changed everything, because earlier the field... I loved quantum field theory, but the people were dissing it. You know, it was out. In the late 60s. And in fact, amazingly, Sid Drell I remember teaching a course on his book. And he went out of his way to say that the theory is the Feynman graph. So it's nothing to do with, you know, forget about quantum fields. It's the Feynman, the graphs are the theory. And I thought, "God, if the graphs are the theory, do I really want to do this? This is very unsatisfactory." And I at the time was not happy. So it was great when those experiments showed that there were fundamental constituents, and that you could go back. You didn't have to, you know, S-matrix theory was beginning to boil profusely. Which is lovely in its own way, by the way, conceptually. Everything is made of everything else. That's a wonderful idea. And it's true, of course, but I still liked the idea that there's something fundamental and unifying. And the experiments were showing that. And so the place was really hopping, and it was great.
And Sid Drell, his greatest contribution, in my opinion, was that he created a group of people that were into all this and were very close to the experiments as they were being done there, but also had the theoretical knowledge to really exploit that, the data. And he I think in retrospect got people to sort of produce beyond themselves. You know, to over-perform. Many of those people, I shall not name names, perform much better than they had any right to. (laughs) But they did terrific-- It was terrific, the work coming out of SLAC, and that’s the reason I say that, in contrast to Harvard and MIT, who had, I think, if you took them one on one and compared them to people at SLAC, were better. Yeah, I mean, whatever that means. They seemed smarter, deeper, but they didn't do-- They underperformed. Now, I say that. On the other hand, Jesus Christ, Steve Weinberg then produced a lecture a week in the middle of all that, so, you know... But that was the feeling. The feeling was that this was the place where the action was. Great things were happening. We were going to get to, at last, we were going to crack the strong interaction.
And that was very exciting.
So Geoffrey, I want to ask in two ways. What was it, with regard to your research, that was most interesting in terms of what was going on at SLAC? And because of your interests, how did you, what was your niche? What did you see as the best way that you could contribute to all of these exciting developments that were happening at the time?
Well, I think I enjoyed, and I had very close relations with the experimentalists. And I would talk to them a great deal. Particularly Dick Taylor, who was one of the leaders of the deep inelastic. But I knew them all. I mean, Friedman and Kendall I knew well and so forth. Of course, they were at MIT, so they were only intimately around. But so I spent time with the experimentalists. And especially, you know, when we came on with the collider. Burt Richter. So I got, I spent time with those. I, you know, I think they liked to talk to me. I certainly liked talking to them. Whether it was helpful, I don't know.
I mean, one of the things I learned was, and I'd learned that early on, was that it's amazing how little of the physics formalism the experimentalists know and understood. Well, they know it because they know the name, the words, but they understand and so forth is rare that they can do any of the calculation. So this got me into the mode of having to explain in simplest terms-- not the way I was doing with the biologists, but you know, but in simple terms, what some of the theoretical ideas were about first of all, you know, quark model itself, the idea of gluons, and then the idea of QCD. The implications for experiments. What jets might be. The idea they might be remnants of gluon production. And so on. You know, could we look for glue balls as the real signature of QCD, the one thing that would really seal QCD. Well, we didn't need it in the end, but that would have been fantastic. So there are all these kinds of-- So I played more a role, surprisingly, in a way, as I look back on, of interacting a lot. I mean, I talked hugely to the theorists, of course, but also with the experimentalists. So my work was phenomenological. It was very much in the spirit of what Bjorken, the way Bjorken was doing science. And many others at that time. I think we were trying to do good phenomenology. There's bad phenomenology, and it's very hard keep the right side of not just doing curve fitting or, you know, and so on. But really having a model, a toy model, that has the essential features of the problem to understand some of the results that were coming out of SLAC, particularly in that time. So that's what I was doing, and at the same time, really, and I regret this in a way. I didn't turn enough attention to the formal development of QCD. And I feel, you know, and I really feel that was a mistake in judgment on my part. I was well-positioned to do-- as many people were, Jesus Christ-- the calculations of asymptotic freedom. You know, I had done some of those earlier calculations. I refereed the early papers that formed the template for doing the calculation of the... that Gross, Wilczek, and Politzer did.
So were you--
So it was crazy, like others, didn't do them.
Were you in touch with people like Politzer and Gross during that time? Were you aware of what they were working on?
No. I was not aware that they were-- I heard that, you know, I can't remember. I probably was. I probably heard a thing, because I would interact with David every once in a while, David Gross, every once in a while. And would always tell me what I was doing was a waste of time, of course And so I probably was vaguely aware, but it was a very uncertain time, that we weren't... I think there was a great concern that we wouldn't have the theory that had a minus sign. (laughs) In the beta function. That it would... And I do, I kick myself, for not sitting down-- it's, you know, whether I would have got it right or not, who the hell knows? But I was certainly one among many, my God, that should and could have done it. And it speaks very highly of... I think actually, the person, by the way, that I think-- yes, now I'm just, the person that really pushed this and deserves enormous credit is Sidney Coleman. I think, he certainly initiated David Politzer's calculation, and I believe he initiated the Gross-Wilczek calculation too.
In what way?
Well, that he told them, that's the thing you should do. (laughs)
I'm not saying, no it's not that, other people too, and David is smart enough to have done it, but I think he is the kind of initiator. That was the word on the street, always.
So to speak. That Sydney was pushing for this. You know, you asked me the question how-- it wasn't David, it was Sydney, and that was the word on the street, that Sydney was saying someone, you know, someone should do it. And I remember thinking, "What doesn't he do it?" He's the guy that knows how to do all these things… got David to do it.
The politics can get extraordinarily sensitive when it comes down to who is actually recognized for the Nobel prize.
Yes, absolutely. And I, well, I mean I heard many stories. Many claimed to be first-hand stories, post all that, from people that were there. And people I trust, by the way, but who in the hell knows? I mean, it's...
Did you ever have--
This is not --
Did you ever have the opportunity to work with Panofsky?
No, because he was the director and very removed and was not involved in the physics. He didn't come... You know, even during those parton days, called parton days, at SLAC, Feynman would come up from Caltech every few months and spend a day, and we'd all sit around in the theory conference room, and they were fantastically good times. And it was great, but many other people would join in. You know, the experimentalists would come, and so on. But I don't remember ever Pief turning up for one of those. So he remained surprisingly removed.
Less so for Burt Richter, though, right?
Yes, Burt came to some of those. Less so for Burt, yes, less so for Burt. But Burt was really a machine then, was my image of him, and I knew the people I knew very well in that time were Roy and Marty Breidenbach, who discovered the (laughs) psi, but did not get the recognition for it. So this is another-- I mean, the politics around all of this is, I don't even like to think about.
Yeah. How much earlier before the November Revolution did you know that the revolution was coming? How long was that process?
Oh, it was very short. I just heard, I don't remember the timeframe, but it seemed fairly short to me. But I did hear both about Sam Ting's experiment and of, I think I might have heard almost immediately about the psi. You know, I'm afraid my memory isn't good enough to do time separation and timescales. But I, my--
It was fast, it went fast?
It was extremely fast, and I remember hearing-- I didn't hear it from Roy or Marty. I don't remember, someone called me-- I just remember coming to the office and someone in the hallways saying, "Jesus Christ, did you hear this? That they've seen this huge spike, narrow spike, up at SLAC." And I said, "What the hell's all that about?" And then that was it. And it was like the day before, you know, the night before, even. I mean that was my image, anyway, that's my memory. Which may be hazy. And then all hell broke loose.
How long were you at SLAC?
Well, I was at Stanford for four years. What happened was, in the summer already, or somewhere in '73, I think, I was at Aspen, and I met Peter Carruthers. Now, Peter Carruthers I had met of course at Cornell, though I didn't know him well, really. I knew him and he was a fascinating character.
Was he still at Cornell when you met him at Aspen?
No, so when I met him, he was contemplating moving from Cornell to Los Alamos. He'd been asked to form a new, to take over the theory, theoretical division and he said one condition would be that he forms a serious high energy theory group. I mean, they had some high energy theory there. Of course, they had LAMPF, you know, that medium energy facility, and in fact, John Browne, who recommended me to you of course, was associated somewhat with that. But he would go, and he said, "You know, I'd really love you to come, if I go. Because we're going to do all kinds of weird and wild things." And Pief was, you most certainly never met him. He was sort of like, what is it, Superman, and who was Superman in real life?
Clark Kent. He was sort of like Clark Kent. He was this, you saw him with his little glasses and his bald head and he was very academic looking and seemed very meek and mild. And underneath that was a Superman. I mean, in every respect. I mean even, may I say, and I shouldn't-- being almost a sexual predator. I mean, he was every ar-- he's a predator in every-- intellectually, he was. And he was so supportive of people with ideas. He was an extraordinary man. He was a fine violinist. And claimed he was a great poet, but he was terrible. He painted. He did every-- he was one of these. He wanted to see himself as a Renaissance man. And very appealing in that way. And he was a very find physicist. I learned many body theory from his book, actually. Anyway he said, and I though, "Well, gee. I think that's unlikely, but maybe." But he had me come out. He moved into Los Alamos.
And Geoffrey, was this... What would you have been walking away from? Was this a tenured position, or you were still assistant?
No, I was not tenured. And I still had a couple of years to go. And the... But Stanford had had a very bad record of giving tenure.
Very poor record. So I thought about it for a bit, during that year. I thought, "Well, you know..." And he was saying, "You know, we're bringing in all these kinds of people and all this." Anyway, he had me come out to Los Alamos, and I loved the southwest. I liked Santa Fe. I liked the southwest. My biggest problem was, this was a weapons lab. And I had mixed feelings about that, obviously. Well, maybe not so obviously, but I had mixed feelings. And I went out and I met the director and so on, who parenthetically had been a student of Fermi, which was sort of interesting. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fantastic, and I loved the area. And this great opportunity. He said, "Look, you know, I'm just beginning to think about it. I'd like you not just to come, but I'd like to be the head of the group. To run it, you know, to run the whole thing and determine what's going to happen and blah blah." I thought, my God, you know? This opportunity like this won't come again. Even if I stay at Stanford and they give me tenure. I'm going to have to-- Leonard Schiff, and by then Sandy Fetter had become quite senior. Felix Bloch. All these sort of (laughs)--
You know, the young whatever. Here I could sort of do what I sort of want, maybe. And Pete is so open and so adventurous, so completely different in character to Stanford, which is very conservative. He was, you know. So to cut a long story short, after much thinking we decided to go.
Geoffrey, I want to ask about your politics, because of course Los Alamos, the strong association there was, you know, the nuclear weapons program.
Was it important for you to disassociate the work that you would be doing from that program? Or were you not bothered by that?
Yes, no, I was bothered. And my rationale was the following, partly. A) I'm being supported by the DOE anyway. The DOE is supporting my work. It supports most all of the big stuff in high energy physics, it's all supported by the Department of Energy. And that's what's supporting this lab. I mean, it's the same agency, the same budget. Different line item, to be sure. So that was one rationalization. The other was, there seemed to be a serious commitment on the part of Los Alamos to promote basic research. And in fact, at that time, only 50% of the lab was doing defense work. Work associated with nuclear weapons. That time, they were big in many practical-- solar energy was very big at the lab. But they were doing a lot of basic research in more applied areas, but they also had this accelerator, LAMPF, that was built to do basic research. Some in high energy physics, because, and that was the attraction, the idea was to have high intensity, it was a very high-intensity machine, and you could get to very high energies by looking at it with great accuracy. And so I was very drawn to that and decided, yes, you know, I can live with it. And at that time, amazingly, Los Alamos in terms of the part of the lab I was going to be in, was open. You know, you have to drive right up to the building and walk in. You could, anyway. And so I thought, "Look, it ain't so different."
I worked there-- and in fact, my biggest, the one thing I labored over in the end more than anything else was students and teaching. I loved teaching. And in fact, I didn't mention that, that you know, during the periods of not getting more involved with some of the things I felt I should have done, I was also very much drawn to teaching. And some of it came because of my interactions with the experimentalists. I sort of enjoyed taking high, very complicated things and trying to make them simple, exposing their essential features. And I thought, "My God, I'm going to miss that. But maybe I can always go back and teach." And I did, I did go back and teach some. So there was certainly an issue to do with the fact that this institution, which I was coming was primarily viewed as a weapons lab. On the other hand, half of it was non-weapons, and I was an employee of the University of California, and that played a big psychological role. That's who employed me, and I was part of the university. So I had enough rationalizations that I could feel comfortable and okay. And the kinds of people we were able to attract turned out to be fantastic and people with like minds.
I wonder, Geoffrey, if the attraction to Los Alamos in terms of what was being built there was sort of a prototype for the Santa Fe Institute in some degree?
Yes. Yes. Well, ironically, yes. And something I should have said. In '73, you know, the job situation-- and another thing was, by the way, which we haven't talked about. The job situation in that period of the early 70s through to the end of the 70s, there were virtually no jobs. There were virtually no jobs in high energy physics. I mean, they were so few and far between. Many outstanding people either had to leave the field... Many, by the way, went to work for the oil industry at that stage. People who nowadays would go to work for Wall Street, ended up working for the oil industry. Many took long term, sort of lon- term postdoc jobs for sort of a holding pattern. Some, you know, Helen Quinn, for example, who came later, took a position, a non-paying position, hanging around Harvard. It's extraordinary. Anyway, so that also played, obviously, a role. But something very important in this period, in '73, worried about that, and some of us that were interested in sort of bigger questions and bigger issues were talking and decided, wouldn't it be a great idea to have an institute that would deal with multiple questions but from a physics standpoint? With physics institute that would deal with all kinds of interesting issues. And we wrote-- and those people are the three people that got involved, were me, Roberto Peccei, and Marty Einhorn, who's at now UC Santa Barbara, and who came a little bit later, nowhere near as involved, was Michael Chanowitz, at Berkeley. But the three of us wrote a little white paper on this. This vision. And we circulated it to a few people who sort of patted us on the heads, and was like, you know, "Nice idea. Blah blah blah." You know. The one person that responded super enthusiastically was Murray Gell-Mann. Who got back and said, "Fantastic! This is the kind of idea that I'd love to get involved in." And he did something amazing. He put together, I think-- that's right. That was the summer of '73. That was one reason I was in Aspen. He put together a very high-powered meeting at what was then called the Aspen Humanistic Institute, which became The Aspen Institute, as this thing from the Center of Physics. And he put together this extremely high-powered group-- well, the Aspen Humanistic Institute helped him put together, of about 20 leading scholars in the United States. I mean, historians, economists, all kinds of people. Other scientists. And had the three of us come and present. And then to discuss it. And it was a fine meeting. And you know, we enjoyed it, and Murray was a great proponent and a great defender when they attacked us. And in fact, many of them did attack us. And it's a sign of those times that the idea of having this was just as it was when the Santa Fe Institute came on board, was sort of flaky. You know, you're not really serious if you do things like this. And so we were given some encouragement, and we sort of, we didn't know who to turn to.
We tried to raise some money, but you know, we were young, unexperienced, naive, and we had our careers to worry about. So it slowly faded into the woodwork. However, when Boris Kayser was promoting the idea of what became the KITP, the idea of an ITP, he knew of this, and he used our original template a little bit to formulate his idea of an ITP that was much more, and much narrower, than we had in mind. So it might have played some small role, but ironically and amazingly for me personally, it really was the Santa Fe Institute. By the way, Murray said to us, "This is fantastic," he said, "You know I know exactly where you should put it. I've got exactly the right place. What we need to do is we need to raise the money and then get the army to give us the land of the Presidio in San Francisco." (laughs) Which now you might be able to do, actually. But then, it wasn't, but it became, you know... I realized it helped him formulate the ideas for the Santa Fe Institute, which I was, when it was formulated, was quite sarcastic about.
Ironically. So but that... You're exactly right, though, that those ideas and part of the attraction of Los Alamos, and in fact there were several people at that Aspen meeting, who said to me, "You know, you might think of a newer method on Los Alamos situation, if you're serious about this, you might think of going to Los Alamos, because there it will actually be an inter-disciplinary culture. Which it is, it wa-- I mean, and in fact, the Santa Fe Institute today recognizes that in some ways, it's a spin-off from Los Alamos.
So it's sort of interesting, how all these threads sort of come together, and...
Who should get the credit for that? For setting that tone at Los Alamos? For encouraging that kind of a multi-disciplinary approach?
Oh, that definitely goes back to the Manhattan Project. That certainly goes back to the Manhattan Project and all of those extraordinary people that came there.
You know, because it could go the other way. That there could be a culture of stifling secrecy, where no one talks to each other.
True. But they felt, I think, many of them, including the directors, felt very strongly always there should be a large basis of basic research. We should always have a significant presence of basic research because you can't do the sorts of things we have to do without having that foundation. And the original atomic bomb was a phenomenal example of that. And so they took that seriously, and to its credit, the Department of Energy and United States congress, to varying degrees, took that seriously. So there was always a significant presence of basic research at Los Alamos. And the directors, and in particular Harold Agnew, the director when I came on board, felt that very strongly. And actually, he said to me, he said, "I felt that strongly because of my experience here, but to tell you the truth," he said, "it's because I was a student of Enrico Fermi." He said, "That's the one thing I learned from him. I was a terrible student, but that's the one thing he left me with. And so this is what I want. I want to see this flourish." So that was very encouraging.
On a day-to-day, the encouragement to pursue basic science, right? How would that play out at Los Alamos?
Ah. So, it, yes. Well, not as easy as it might sound, of course. Because there was a, I would say, in all the years I was there, it was always a battle and a struggle to get adequate funding for, especially for high energy physics.
Why? Because it was the ugly stepchild kind of thing?
Yeah, a little bit, and like, you know, what has it really got to do with anything?
You know, I mean, okay. It's interesting and so forth. But one of the things that did help, I must say, was two things helped over the years. One is, many of the people in the weapons program, physicists, had been trained in high energy physics. And sort of, so many of them had a deep soft spot. In fact, when I joined the lab, the leader of the weapons development program itself had been a student of Julian Schwinger. I mean, so there were people. So there were some, I think, a few, a very small minority, that went the opposite way. That had been trained in it and then totally rejected it. Sort of like being Jewish and becoming a deep anti-Semite or something. You know, but most of them, I think, remained very engaged and interested and liked the idea, and in addition to that, we had several postdocs that wanted to stay at the lab, liked living in the area, got turn onto applied work, and moved into the weapons program, ultimately, and played major role-- truly major roles. And you know, so in some sense, it was a bit of prostitution, in a way, (laughs) in crass terms. And I think that that was always part of the dialog.
In terms of the role we played. But, you know, to the lab's credit, it maintained it for many, many years, and it's still there. it's not the most vigorous by a long shot as it was, but then high energy physics isn't as vigorous as it was. You know, in the national and international scene. And so that's not so surprising. But I will give credit to the lab. That it did continue. But it was always a struggle. And there are often naysayers. And part of the issue, but the way, is out of the hands of the lab. It's the way the federal government, in particular the department of energy, funds the lab. It's, you know, you would think the natural thing would be a line item or something dedicated to it. But it wasn't and so it's under, I don't know, there's no point going into any details about this, but it's done under a strange formula and then it has to be decided within the lab, and the lab is always looking over its shoulder at Washington. So there's all kinds of other politics that plays into it. But nevertheless, the lab has been extraordinary in supporting basic research of various kinds. And you know, in our group it paid off handsomely, because not just these postdocs, we had the e-print archive came out-- I mean, the archive came out of Los Alamos. Chaos, Mitchell Feigenbaum. A lot of cellular automaton work. I mean, people who were in the group and doing high energy physics. Because of, by osmosis, somehow, the atmosphere of the lab sort of implicitly, if not explicitly, encouraging sort of broader vision of your work, led to all kinds of interesting things that I think had very significant payoff for the lab and for the scientific community. So you know, I think it was a tough time many times, but overall it worked. But by the way, there was the other thing, that there were other tough times to do with, you know, when security got bad. You know, there would be these-- (phone rings) Oh, oops. Nothing. It stopped. There would be these crises at the lab because of some security breach. And that would put great stress on basic research. You know, how they deal with basic research and so forth and so on. So it wasn't plain sailing.
It sounds like bureaucratically and administratively, there were problems, but intellectually, it sounded rather wonderful in terms of what you were able to do with your colleagues.
Yes, no, I would say it was extremely, a very exciting group of people, and I think again, (laughs) I don't think frankly that I appreciated how good it was. To tell you the truth. Really, I don't think, as much as I appreciated my colleagues and they were sort of unique chara-- they were also characters. I don't know if you know Paul Ginsparg? Do you know Ginsparg?
So he did found-- You know the arXiv, XSS?
You know that he founded it.
Oh, I didn't know who the founder was.
Oh, I'm sorry, so he started it, and it used to be for years at Los Alamos. That's the beginning, and it was there. And then he moved to Cornell, and the lab I think rather stupidly decided to give it up and I think Paul would have been fine leaving it in Los Alamos. Moved it to Cornell. Is where it's centered now. But it was started at the lab and flourished at the lab. And was supported and so forth. But Paul is quite a character. I mean, he's sort of infamous in the community as very, he can be quite difficult. But he's extremely funny. And he's, no, he's a great guy, but anyway. So I had a lot of interesting people doing interesting things within the group and around us.
And what was... In terms of how academic a setting it was, were you writing papers? Were you presenting at conferences? Were you working with your academic colleagues? Or was this sort of an island unto itself?
Oh no, no, absolutely. It was, you know, locally, you might as well have been in the university department. You couldn't tell the difference.
It felt like it, it looked like it, you know, we had regular seminars, outside speakers, we had colloquia. There's a physics division at the lab, which has high energy experimentalists. We were heavily involved in the SSC. Building one of the detectors. One of my colleagues at Los Alamos work with Barry Barish, was his sort of secondhand man in the detector. And so on. So-- And moved with him to LIGO, by the way. So we had our fingers in all the usual pies, and ironically and problematically, in some ways, our support from the DOE, we were supported by an external contract outside of the lab, from the DOE high energy physics division. But just like any university, and in fact it was in the university budget, and we had a problem because we were well-funded by the DOE by university standards, but highly under-funded by lab standards. You know, compared to Fermilab or SLAC, we were highly under-funded. (laughs) But compared to a university, which of course gets most of its support from the individuals by the university appointment, we weren't. So it was always a bit of a problem. But we were considered part of the university programs, so when we were reviewed, we were just one of the-- we were part of the university, which was totally anomalous. But that's how we operated and of course, that's why we were able to get outstanding people, and outstanding postdocs, who went on to great jobs at some of the best places. Because it was considered one of the better high energy physics theory groups.
This of course does beg the question, why does the Santa Fe Institute even need to start? Aren't you pretty happy all in all?
Oh, because it was high energy physics. It was purely high energy-- What I was doing was high energy physics, my support was high energy physics, and even though it's true we had biology within the theoretical division at Los Alamos, and very good ones, the Santa Fe Institute was so much, even more open and free-flowing. You know, I mean for example, I've written-- I've had a postdoc who's anthropologist. Believe it or not, I have a paper that has equations in it, even, in one of the leading anthropology journals. You know, that's fantastic. Well, you couldn't do that in the, well, in the high energy physics group at Los Alamos. So that's fantastic, and I just thoroughly enjoy that. That was sort of my-- You know, it's bizarre, I consider that one of the high points of my career, when we got this paper into this leading anthropology journal. I though, boy, I bet you there aren't too many high energy physicists that have had that experience. Yeah, it's an okay paper. it's not a great paper, probably. It's actually about, by the way. It's about hunter-gatherers. It's about the energy budget, so to speak, of hunter-gatherers. You know, and how they could survive. And it was leading up to something that's still very much a work in progress. Can you use that to motivate from this kind of physics perspective? Why there was a phase transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary behavior? For agriculture. You know, was there a deeper minimum that you could approach? A more optimal situation where you don't move, and you don't hunt and gather? You know, and so that was the idea. And that was this paper that got to that. But it's very physics-y. And I had a very good postdoc, anthropology postdoc, but who was very into that.
Geoffrey, we started our conversation sort of from the present looking backward a little bit about the Santa Fe Institute. I wonder if we can approach it now, you know, in real time, in the narrative, as you're thinking about what your next stage is, after Los Alamos? So can you describe it a little from that perspective?
Well, yes. So I did move. I moved to the institute, and I was promised by the then-president of the Santa Fe Institute, you know, she said, "Look, Geoffrey, come, you can do anything you like." You know, I'd been associated with the Santa Fe Institute just as a visitor, and I wrote that paper while I was at Los Alamos, but it also had a Santa Fe Institute byline, because we all had some-- we met at the Santa Fe Institute, and it had been very successful for that. So and that paper came out in '97. But in 2001 or 2002, Ellen approached me about moving to SFI, with this promise. Said, "Look, you can do anything, don't worry. You won't have to do any bureaucracy or administration. Just do whatever you like." And I said, "Well, that sounds fantastic, but I have this group I'm running." And by then, by the way, I didn't say this, I had been running also the experimental high energy group. I was the liaison with the Department of Energy. So I said, "Look, in principle, I'd love to, it sounds great. And I live in Santa Fe, so the commute would be easier. But I need to extricate myself. I can't just sort of get up and leave." So it took a year or two, and eventually I left. Meanwhile, Ellen stepped down, and a physicist named Bob Eisenstein, who had run physics at NSF, became the president of SFI. And I was extremely pleased, because I knew Bob, and I'd known Bob a number of years, and I consider him a friend. And so I was very pleased, that he spoke my language. Ellen was a biologist. So but, by the time I came on board, it took a year of in-between, going back and forth, a crisis had developed at SFI, and Bob stepped down. And I had just been coming on board, and the Board of Trustees approached me and said, "We'd like you to be interim president." And I said, "You must be kidding." I said, "I've hardly gotten here. I don't really know the place. Secondly, I was promised no administration and bureaucracy. (laughs) That's why I came. And thirdly, you know, being president means you also have to raise money, even though I realize it's interim." So I said, so after a lot of arm-twisting, I did, I agreed to do it for six months. I got them to do that in writing. But also I told them I would not be a lame duck. That I would push them on various things, and I did. And I pushed them very hard on major issues, doesn't matter what they are. But two major issues. And I used my lame-duckness to effect, because I said, "Look, you know, I'm going to insist on doing this and I'm going to do it. Whether you like it or not, because all you can do is fire me from being president, and that's what I want." (both laugh) "Because I don't want to be president."
Geoffrey, were you concerned--
So I got my way. And then they--
I want to know, when you were thinking about leaving Los Alamos, were you concerned in terms of the instrumentation, leaving high energy physics? Did you feel like you were going to have to leave that field behind?
Ah. Yes, so I'm sorry, yes we should have talked about that a little bit. I had migrated by then into string theory. I was still doing probably QCD-things, and I was enamored with something called string field theory. That is, putting string theory into a field theoretic framework.
Did you feel like you were arriving a little late to the party, or this was a new endeavor?
I had started that near the beginning, in fact, actually. I didn't work on string theory when it began, but string field theory came along and I really liked it. And the idea was to make a quantum field theory based on strings from the particles. Which is immensely difficult. It was immensely difficult. But it was, I really enjoyed it, but it was very hard. And we were getting, as usual with string theory, you sort of get nowhere. I mean. (laughs) To be honest. But it was fun, and a couple papers. But I was beginning already to feel that field was becoming moribund. We had no accelerators, for that side of things. The string theory was conceptually beautiful, potentially beautiful. Unifying everything that ran with quantum gravity. Marvelous. But you know, I'm a traditional physicist. I believe in data and the real world. And we have to connect them. And I was getting concerned that it was becoming too metaphysical. Despite my interest in metaphysics. It was just becoming, you know, there weren't any real... What predictions could we conceivably make, kind of thing. Okay, we could predict extra dimensions. That would be phenomenal. Yes, that would be phenomenal. But we want sort of more than that, too. Somehow, I don't know. I wasn't happy. And then friends of mine, I'm talking about Lenny, Lenny Susskind. I'd say, "Look, if they build the LHC and SSC, what do you expect?" He says, "I don't care what to expect. It's irrelevant now. You know, we're way beyond all that." And I thought, my God, what have we come to? You know/ Probably still say-- I mean, no, I'm unfair to him. But you know, so I was coming out easy. Meanwhile, I'd done this work in biology.
That was so exciting and so extraordinary, and explained a deep, unanswered question. The only other work comparable to it, that I had done in physics, was I'd worked with Stewart Robbie, who was at Ohio State now, when I was at Los Alamos, and we had thought we had solved the solar neutrino and dark matter problem with light particles and light Higgs and all kinds of-- We had a whole theory, it was fantastic. And we had predictions. And they weren't borne out. But, we did recognize that if it were right, we'd get the Nobel Prize. Excellent. Because it would solve these two fundamental problems.
Doesn't work. Which is the story of doing high energy physics, of course. So, and this work in biology at the time... I mean I sound immodest saying this, but that's what people say-- is of Nobel Prize-winning quality. Won't get a Nobel prize, but it was for solving a truly fundamental problem in biology. And--
And do you credit, Geoffrey, do you credit your developing interest in biology because you were at a place like Los Alamos? Would this never have happened if you had stayed on and gone for tenure at Stanford?
You know, it is extremely hard to answer that. I suspect-- I just don't know how to answer that, honestly.
Well, let me say it like this. Wouldn't you have felt--
Wouldn't you have felt pressure, had you stayed at Stanford, not to have pursued biological interests?
Well, I think that the reason Los Alamos comes into it is A) just the general culture, of course. But also there was a theoretical biology group. And they were biological physicists. They weren't physical biologists, so to speak, they were from a physicist, and I would talk to them about their problems. In fact, by the, just parenthetically, they played a huge role in all this, in the epidemiology of previous pandemics. I mean SARS and HIV and so on.
Oh, let me say-- Geoffrey, let me say parenthetically that I've interviewed many of the physicists at the NIH. They are front and center of COVID research right now. The first--
Yeah, no, so these Los Alamos people played a big role.
Sorry, go ahead.
No, I just wanted to share, the whole idea that we need to wear a mask because saliva is aerosolized, right?
That's the physicists. The physicists came up with that.
So, no, so I was…And they were just around the hall. You know, at the beginning, we shared a similar hallway. So I would chat to them and go to lunch together, and that was great, you know. And so probably that helped. That helped. And in fact, Byron Goldstein, in that group, introduced me to D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, which if you don't know it, was one of the great scientific books going along with sort of Galileo. It's written over 100 years ago. But it's a great book. And that also-- just even though I just looked at it, and I thought, oh, that's interesting, and so on. I think that helped to generate that reaction of the demise of the SSC, for sure. Which made me react in this way. So it did, but SFI was where, you know, I did the work at Los Alamos, but I was meeting with my biology colleagues at Santa Fe Institute, and it was... In fact, I will say, I mean... Two of the referee reports for that article-- the article, by the way, was an extraordinary article. I think I have eight or nine referee reports. Two of them said this should get a Nobel prize, two of them said this is a bunch of rubbish and should not be published. Probably should even be in any journal. I mean, it was sort of this bimodality, this paper. But I'm very proud of that work. And it was great fun. And it had this universality, and it had all of the Schmeck, may I, of what made me love high energy physics. Bringing things together, really you know, predicting things, and then you look and it's there. I mean, things that you wouldn't even believe. You know, I mean, when I calculated that... Just one thing, just came to me, that the blood pressure-- you know, my aorta is this big. Isn't bigger. A shrew you could hardly see has an aorta, that you could hardly see with the naked eye. Both of them sustain the same blood pressure. I calculated that, and I said, "Shit, the whole theory must be wrong. It's obviously impossible." It's correct! Blood pressure of a shrew is the same as that of a whale. And the theory derives it.
Well, that's, you know, that's wonderful. It feels good. So that's the kind of thing, that kind of feeling and that kind of, going beyond a single problem. And that is all related to everything else. It's not just the blood pressure. Everything about the life history of those organisms. So you know, that work excited me, and that's what I think I felt the SFI could provide more than staying at Los Alamos, because the field I was supposed to be running, I mean the group I was running, things weren't looking very good. So in a way, I suppose I was abandoning ship. But on a personal-- and I thought, mixed into that, I kept doing high energy-- I tried to continue doing high energy physics, and I pretended that I was still doing it for at least two more years. But this other thing that intervened was that after I got to SFI, when they did the search for a permanent president, long term president, they came back to me –
We were getting to the overall question of your development in biological interests and as a motivation to join SFI.
Yes, well it obviously was going on at Los Alamos, but it really took off during when I really joined SFI, sort of partial in 2003, and then properly by 2004, I came fully full time on board. And I became president against my better judgment. No, that was... As I was saying, they did this search. They had some, I thought, very good candidates, but they came to me and they said, "We really having you as interim, but we particularly like the fact that you just kept speaking your mind and pushing back, you know?" (laughs) Telling them that I would resign if they... They said they actually liked that. And so they said, "We want that." So I said no, no way, kind of thing. But they then bribed me with saying, "Look, you don't have to be here all-- you just spend 50% of your time. You can assign everything to everybody else." Of course, I'd never run, I'd always shied away from any high position because of this, and like an idiot, I eventually agreed. And of course, it was impossible. I mean it's more than a full-time job. So I did do it, and they made some other changes, which were very good. But that played into my letting go of high energy physics. Because I simply could not run the institute because there's, you know, there's continual crises. I had never raised money. I mean, other than, you know, if I had got a grant for $100k from the NSF or DOE, I felt like taking a day's vacation. But here I had to raise millions. So that was a new experience. And to spend time doing that. But that was, it turned out to be enjoyable, and also difficult. But of course, I found myself more than full time, having to run the institute and having to change my mode of doing research.
When you stopped being president, did you relish the opportunity to get back to science full time?
Yes, but I think I disappointed myself in not doing more than I have. What happened was the following. First of all, being president of SFI brings you in touch with all kinds of different, a whole different community, you know? Businesspeople and government people, politicians and so on. Raising money and so on. But concomitantly, my work, I wouldn't say expanded, to take all those ideas that I developed in biology, which was based on a lot of it based on understanding networks that support life and understanding the organization and structure of organisms and seeing the extraordinary connectivity and universality among organisms. Taking that to ask about cities and ultimately companies and developing, trying to develop understanding how cities work as a physicist. And first of all, do they scale, like organisms do? Do they scale? And so that work turned out also to be very successful, and I did that while I was president. But with a different group of people, of which one was a physicist, that came out of sort of high energy physics. But we did some terrific work, I think, on that. But that brought, you know, that was much more visible in the public, the city work, because it had huge implications, obviously, for urbanization. And ultimately, the thing I became very passionate about, and that was local sustainability. And the realization that the future of the planet is totally bound up with cities, and if we don't understand cities, we'll never come to terms with the sustainability of the planet. And that's been my evangelical (laughs) position.
And Geoffrey, in terms of you know, the excitement at SFI, in terms of the kinds of different scholars to work on, in what ways have other disciplines really propelled your interests in sustainability?
Oh well, first of all, the city work-- So when I was working on biology, you know, as I said, we hadn't really talked about it, that it was to explain this plethora of scaling laws, and their universality, and it all resided in the physics and mathematics of these networks. And it's very much a physics paradigm that was used to understand them. And it had all kinds of implications for growth, understanding sleep, understanding cancer, and so on. Even evolution itself. So it's a very big picture kind of framework. So I realized that you could take this to other network systems like cities, but I didn't do anything. But then at the Santa Fe Institute, at that time, there were a couple of social scientists. One an economist, a statistician economist, and the other an anthropologist, who had heard me talk about this, and they came to me and said, "Geoffrey, let's get that--" You know, we started talking about the ideas, and they said, "Look, this is ripe for taking your work and applying it to cities, and potentially to companies." And both of them had worked in different ways on cities from an economic viewpoint in one case, one from the development of cities anthropologically. So we wrote a proposal together that was funded. They were both Europeans, by the way, but were part of the Santa Fe Institute, and we had it funded through the European Union in Brussels. And that took, the work took off from there. The work on cities. I had already started working on it, but it was very low-key, but with them pushing, even though I didn't-- I had never published a paper with them, it really took off. And the conversations with them were more crucial. And the conversations with social scientists around the Santa Fe Institute were crucial in terms of understanding the role of cities that, you know, the idea that cities are not the infrastructure-- well, they are infrastructure, of course, they're buildings and roads, but much more so, they're the stage for social interactions.
And so that social networks play a big role. And Santa Fe Institute has been in a prime role of developing the science of networks. And so there were some very good network scientists around. So all of that helped, you know, osmotically. You know, even if they didn't end up being collaborations, most of them didn't, but osmotically, in creating an environment for developing a lot of this work, and that also led to it getting a lot of publicity, because it's to do with cities and urbanization, sustainability, and the work on companies we did had interesting implications. I started getting invited to give lots of high-profile talks. So you know, I gave a Ted Talk. I was asked to form a committee for the World Economic Forum for DAVOS, I spoke at DAVOS. So and then all kinds of other events. And that was a whole new world to me. And exciting, interesting, and also disappointing. I must say. But it's been very interesting. And I-- So, going back to what you asked earlier, I didn't, because of all these other things I was involved in, giving these talks, promoting my own work, our work, but also promoting the institute. I didn't spend as much time as, in retrospect, I feel I should, doing the hard, disciplined work. I mean I did-- I did all the calculations and things, but nothing like I should and could have done. But that's the nature of the beast, in a way.
What opportunities does SFI offer in terms of your work as a mentor? To younger scholars?
Oh. So, of course, postdocs have been the prime thing. And several of my postdocs at SFI. You know, I had lots of postdocs at Los Alamos that went on to outstanding careers, but SFI I've had several that went on-- and that was actually an interesting question. At first, I was actually a little bit reluctant to get a physicist involved because I would say, "Look, the first-- I'm not sure you'll get a job afterwards. I don't know." But the first one I took, Van Savage, did extremely well and he went on to a position at Harvard, and now actually runs a big show at UCLA. And so I've mentored several postdocs. You know, we're very small at SFI. We don't have, you know, there's only overall maybe 15 postdocs overall. And sometimes it's as few as 12, sometimes more then 15. But so I've mentored several that have gone onto very good positions, and outside of, like Van is, he's in the evolutionary biology department at UCLA, even though he was trained as a mathematical physicist. And most of them are like that. And then we have a very good understand graduate program. Extremely good understand graduate program in the summer, and I've mentored several undergraduates who have stayed on with, you know, come back and we've had an ongoing collaboration, and several of those have worked out very well. In fact, one of them, I just learned a few weeks ago, Alex Herman, just got tenure in the psychiatry department at University of Minnesota. (laughs) Came out of physics. But he's done, then went on and got his PhD and MD in neurology. And by the way, he regrets-- By the way, I said to him, I said, "Alex, listen, I know you don't want to do this, because you wanted to go into medicine of some kind." I said, "Get a physics PhD. And do your medicine." And he said no. And now he tells me he actually regrets that he didn't. Because his physics only stretches through undergraduate and into sort of first, second year in graduate student. And he feels he would have done better. But anyway, that's it.
This line about, you know, where some students have achieved professional success coming out of SFI, it compels me to ask, in what ways has the SFI model spurred emulation in higher education generally? Not necessarily with the creation of a similar, you know, out of nothing sort of institute, but perhaps in the way that other higher education institutions have looked at SFI and said, "You know, I think they're really onto something, and we should figure out ways to do this on campus."
Yes, exactly. We get, so to speak, bombarded with that question all the time, both from people like yourself, but also from universities. And when I was president, oh, I would say at least two or three times a year, a university would approach us and they'd come visit. Dean or provost, or even a president would come visit and would bring an entourage and visit. And want to set things up. Now, you know, I came into SFI a little bit cold, and especially as president. And when I was out there promoting SFI, I would say, "I view SFI as an ongoing experiment." Which it is. I think that's in fact still true. And sort of adaptive, evolving system. And more and more universities are getting the buzzwords that SFI sort of promoted. I mean, first of all, complexity. Complex adaptive systems, emergent behavior, multiscale phenomena, blah blah blah, all these words. And the idea of having an institute devoted to complexity science. I mean many... And in particular, most importantly, to do serious, trans-disciplinary research. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, not that the astrophysicist talks to the high energy physicist, but the astrophysicist talks to the anthropologist, kind of question. Both, by the way, that would be a very good one, because they both are dealing with origins questions. Origins of the universe, in fact. This is not so crazy.
So we have, because of those words, have now become part of the currency of academia, people approach us, and many places have tried. Many places come and they look and they say, "Well, we'll try to do it XYZ." And I think none of them have been much of a success. The best, which started very early, was the University of Michigan has been pretty good. But the problem is always the same. That the way they do it is you set up, you know, a floor in the building and you get someone who says they're going to be director. And you give them a little budget, and then you find half a dozen or ten people from other departments who say, "Yeah, I'm happy to be part of this sort of joint appointment. I'll spend half a day a week and I'll come to a seminar." Well, that peters out. It peters out into something perfunctory and a letterhead, basically. And that's been the case in many instances. Some have worked, as I say, like Michigan has worked quite well, because they actually made a dedicated, not just budget, but positions with it with tenure track, and so forth. Northwestern also did something. Ironically in the business school, interestingly. And in fact, yes, my God, there you go. Nothing to do with that institute, funnily enough, but one of my latest postdocs just got the position in the Kellogg business school in Northwestern as a junior faculty. And by the way, her salary is bigger than mine. (laughs) Already.
Now there's a mark of achievement as a mentor.
God, it's unbelievable. Well, let's not go there. But so, and around the world, this has happened in many places. None have become truly major players. What we have-- let me tell you one instance that was tried, that I did personally get involved in, and that is Singapore felt that they should really push this hard. And I did spend time there, and I wasn't willing to run it or set it up, but I was willing to advise. And they did set it up and it's had a few years of success, but again, they weren't willing to do it in making it a truly equal part of the university. You know, you can't do this by just having joint appointments and sort of a repurposing of faculty. It just ain't working. And that was the genius of the founding fathers of SFI. They realized at the beginning, which was kind of extraordinary, actually, that it needs to be self-sustaining, and independent. Maybe that's why they got Nobel prizes, but they were smart enough to realize that. And in fact, there was a possibility at the beginning that they would be part of the University of California. They'd be an independent institute within the University of California. And they eventually, they did think about that seriously, I know, but they rejected that. And they said, "We have to be completely self-sustaining and be our own thing and establish ourselves and our credibility."
And so it's funny you've brought this up now, because what is today? On Tuesday, we had a Zoom meeting, it was going to be in person originally. Georgetown University became super excited about having such an institute, but mostly associated with political science. Ironically. But very much of SFI nature. And they were going to send this whole team out, including the president, that was the board of trustees. Instead we did the Zoom call, and so we had several of us at SFI, and a large brigade from Georgetown. And many of these issues were discussed. And I think the point that is going to be the hardest for them, but this is important, is this idea of making it equal. That is, these appointments are... in other words, they're not joint where you have to also get a tenured appointment within the physics department. Kind of thing. You are of itself, you have the same prestige, hopefully, the same power, the same recognition, and so on, as a department. And I don't know whether they can accomplish that, but-- Oh, there is another place, I'm sorry. Of course. Arizona State. Are you familiar with ASU at all?
And Michael Crow, the crazy Michael Crow?
I talked to Stuart Lindsay at ASU.
Oh yes, Stuart Lindsay, yes. (laughs) Yes, Stuart's a great guy. So Michael Crow has, you know, tried to reorganize ASU. And make it sort of a modern university.
Oh and of course, there's Frank Wilczek has his affiliation with ASU now.
Well, it has some-- yeah, we all have some affiliation. It also has all kinds of problems, by the way, as I'm sure you know. But Michael became a huge admirer of SFI, and asked the question, "How do you do it at the university level?" Not how do you embed it into the university to begin with. How do you do some, what's the analog? And that's drove his thinking about restructuring ASU. As a consequence of that, they are just setting up a version of SFI within what they call the Global Futures School they've set up. But within that, there's going to be, they hope, basically a semi-autonomous complexity institute that will have very close connections also to the Santa Fe Institute. And so that has actually been set up, but its parameters are still being worked out. It's going to be an interesting experiment to see if that works, but it's very hard to do. It's very hard to create what happens at SFI in a larger environment. And we have discussed at SFI, you know, at various times. "Well, should we grow? Should we be twice, three times the size?" And in the end, it always boils down to, you're just going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. You're going to kill it.
Right, right. And of course, the challenge is if a university tries to create an SFI, it misses the point of, SFI self-consciously did not come out of a university.
Yeah, no, no. I had a marvelous conversation one time... Ed Wilson, E.O. Wilson, was visiting, and for a workshop and he stayed a couple of days, and he came up to me at the end and he said, "Boy, this is fantastic. This is marvelous place." He said he looked at me, and he said, "I think Harvard should buy you guys." (laughs) And I said, "What?" I thought he was joking. I said, I laughed, and he said, "I'm serious." He said, "I'm serious, Harvard should buy you. But what we should do, what I mean by that, we should just give you the money to do what you do and we just use you. We just come here--" We do have a lot of Harvard faculty at SFI, actually. "And we should just use you. I'm going to go propose this to--" I think Larry Summers was the president then. I don't think he ever did. But--
And would students graduate with a Harvard degree?
Well, that's what I said. I said, "Look, you know, there are so many issues." And I said, "Just the use of that word, and the use of being part of Harvard, I hate to tell you, probably kills it."
Not to mention, just to do a little Freudian analysis, your negative associations with your time at Harvard. That probably didn't help.
Yeah, right, exactly. I wasn't going to say that. We know the culture. But I did say to him, but I don't think he quite understood what I said. I said, "Look, the culture at Harvard is diametrically opposite to the culture of SFI."
And he says, he looked at me and he says, "Well, yeah. But maybe that's why we do need you here, actually." But I said, "Okay, look." I've certainly never followed up, and I didn't hear anything again. I think it was just a-- But it was interesting. It was just another one of those sort of anecdotal conversations about the nature of the beast and who we are. And how difficult it is to graft it onto something else.
Geoffrey, I'd like to round out our conversation. I want to talk about coronavirus in two ways that I think are highly relevant to your career and your institutional affiliation. While we're on the subject of education, you know, it's not a very controversial statement to say right now that even long after a vaccine, the impact of coronavirus on what higher education means, I think is going to be quite long-lasting in terms of what does it mean to go to university, to get a degree, in many, many ways. In what way might SFI provide a next generation model, post-coronavirus in all of the ways that this is rapidly changing our society? In what ways might SFI provide a next generation model for what it means to educate yourself at the highest levels?
Yeah, that's a really challenging question. And let me just say something before that, that one of the things about an event like this pandemic, which is a discontinuity in a certain sense, is that not only of course does it promote new things, but it accelerates things that were already sort of bubbling up. Like Zoom, Zoom meetings. And the use of the internet. Obviously, people were doing it, we were all doing some version, in some small way, but now it's become a way we've had to adapt to. it's not totally satisfactory by a long shot, but it's clearly here to stay. And certainly, you know, the experiments with MOOCs were very mixed, but clearly, you know, some version of that with some of the things that are being developed and no doubt some of the things our Silicon Valley friends will develop in terms of interfaces and so on, are going to change a lot of the way in which we interact with each other and in which ways we educate young people. So, you know, I think that's very clear. I think it's still way too early to tell exactly what those are, but already, also before this, one of the rumblings that were going on were more generally, you know, what is the future of universities and [inaudible], you know, are they going to remain like this and so forth. And certainly around SFI, only rumblings, although our president, David Krakauer, is someone that's actually tried to give this serious thought, is exactly trying to answer your question. What role can SFI play, what role will it play probably, either as a model, as a prototype, as a way in which Michael Crow used it, as ASU, just as a kind of thought experiment, look, it's working at the level of 50-75 people.
Obviously, we can't do that, but you know, 50,000 people, but what is the analog of that? Of doing something like this? And so it brings up all these issues, and one of the things SFI was extremely successful at doing was not just in breaking down the traditional barriers. That is, recognizing that when we say "physics," even physics, we don't talk to one another, I mean, you say a physics department, well there's half a dozen departments. And frankly, they don't talk to one another. You know, they're basically semi-autonomous. You know, it's crazy. So that's why I react also to the astrophysicists talking to high energy physicists, it's kind of silly. It's not really interdisciplinary. It should have already been. You know, that should be taken for granted kind of thing. So as if I had shown that you could have a community of scholars, distinguished scholars, and that are doing credible and recognized research from multiple fields. And that can work, and also you can do it remotely. That is, we didn't go into this, but I did mention that there was only maybe a dozen resident faculty. But there's 120 external faculty that have appointments at other universities, some who spend just a day at the institute, maybe even an hour, I don't know. And some who spend weeks or months. But all are amazingly passionate about the institute. In fact, several of them connected to the Santa Fe Institute in a way that, the way I connect to it and feel about it is like some people feel about a football team.
You know, you're not actually there, but you care deeply. You're sort of totally bound up with it, and you want to be part of it and you identify with it. You know, maybe for a football team, but here it's part of their career. And many make that central to their intellectual lives, even when they're at Harvard. Which is amazing, actually. So the question is, you know, well that. That kind of fluidity become more the norm rather than this rather small, you know, 120 people, in this instance. We do have about 2000, 3000 visitors a year coming through, so there's lots of other people coming through, but you know, will there be more places like this? That serve this kind of function? Whether they're, you know, they can be much more narrow-minded, actually. Much narrower than SFI. Or they can be much more humanities-oriented. We do have some presence of humanities, but we are science. So you know, we are a proof of principle that it could work. But how you bridge it so the conversation we had before with the development of universities, I don't know. But one thing that I think is crucial, and I've struggled with this a lot, is we need to see more and more the breakdown of the barriers between departments. Not that we should get rid of departments. I'm not, I remain very conservative. I remain, among my colleagues, I remain on the conservative side of, I think departments have been, were a brilliant invention, even though they did form barriers. But in caveat knowledge, we sort of need some of that, we need that as a major part of the intellectual framework and spectrum. But, they need to be so much more fluid. So much more fluid. You know, they need to allow-- First of all, they need to encourage people, if they show interest in other things, to do it rather than treat them as second-class citizens or kick them out. I mean, Murray Gell-Mann left Caltech partially because they thought that he was no longer, in a certain sense, being a serious high energy physicist because he was interested in the origin of human language. I mean, Jesus Christ, that is just-- First of all, it's not being a physicist, right? Secondly, it is just antithetical to what I presume the word university is supposed to mean.
I once presented -- I will tell you a story. And maybe I shouldn't mention the names. But I was one of the last true high energy physics conferences I was at, somewhere in the 2000s, on neutrinos, and a very well-known physicist who had, oh god, I'll give his name away if I tell you, because it's important. Okay.
You could always edit it out of the transcript.
Yeah, well, who had been chair of the Stanford physics department. Was at the time. Said to me, "Geoff, how are you doing?" "How are you doing?" We'd known each other for many years. You know, "How are you doing? So what, Murray's [inaudible], but what does the Santa Fe Institute do, actually?" You know, and I told him, and I said, interdisciplinary, I told him, because it was amazing how little he actually knew. And I said, "Look, let me give you an example. Suppose in your department, there's this young, brilliant theoretical physicist working on string theory. And he's very well known, he's going wonderful work, and at the end of the year, when you sort of talk to the faculty, just reviewing how they've done, and you say, 'What have you done?' and the guy says, 'Well, you know, I'm still working on this, on the M theory, and I've really proven this extraordinary theorem in 11 dimensions, and I've had three Physic Rev Letters, and I've given talks, and this. But actually, the thing I've really been excited about this year is it turns out all those techniques I was developing to prove that theorem, I realized in an accidental conversation with Joe Schmoe in economics, that this could give fantastic insights into how the economy runs, and how we can understand, you know, this, that and the other. And this is what I'm really interested in and what I'm going to be trying to spend time doing in the next year or two.' How would you react?" I said. And he laughed and he said, "You know exactly how I would react." He said, "You know exactly. I'd say to him, 'Great, good for you. Terrible for the physics department.' If he were untenured, I would say to him, 'You're jeopardizing your tenure.' And if he were tenured, I'd say, 'Well, you realize this is going to mean you'll probably be sidelined in the department from now on. You know, I mean, if that's what you do. You'll play very little role in the department.'" And I actually know of a case of someone in that department who had exactly that experience. Not as a young person. So there it is, you know. So I think that needs to change, and it is changing, but it's changing very slowly. Much slower than many of us thought. I did think that by now, we're in 2020, this would have changed dramatically, especially because all of the bullshit that comes out of NSF, even the DOE... I've served on advisory committees, they say, "Interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, we want to break down the barriers." Bullshit. The grants, the proposals, all not only fit of course within disciplines primarily, but they fit in these narrow slots. You know, you listen to the presidents in university, they say, "This is what we're trying to do in university."
But it's... And you know, and many of my colleagues, I still amazingly get invited occasionally to give colloquia in physics departments. And they always say to me, "You know, it's great to have you because you can give a really physics talk on something outside of physics. And the dean and the provost are always telling us, 'Can't you hire someone? We need someone that can do biology--' but you know, screw them. We're not going to do that. We don't want, you know." They are flattering to me sometimes, they say, "If we could actually hire someone like you who actually does physics applied to...” These people do too much biology for our liking, or too much, whatever it is, finance." So it still exists, so I do think though this pandemic, this sort of second-order phase transition that's taking place will give the universities a big kick in the butt, because it's aiming at their financial base, partly. It's aiming at what is important. You know, what are the important questions. And how we need to address them. Because the one thing I have learned at the Santa Fe Institute and the one thing that I've learned about my work is that we cannot save this planet if we divvy up the problem into 10 or 50 different pieces, giving up the problem of sustainability. There has to be an integrated framework. And I tried to coin this phrase, that we need to develop a grand unified theory of sustainability.
And everything needs to be in there. And so it's urgent for universities and academia to adapt to it. The other corollary to that grand unified is that we need to develop a serious, quantitative, analytic, computational theory of cities and urbanization, because that's what the planet is. And you know, it's crazy to go on in the way we are without having any deep understanding, and only have qualitative, primarily, I should say, qualitative narrative understanding.
And so that actually was my second question. I want to ask you, what kind of wrench does coronavirus throw into the scientific model of cities that you're working on? Because let's just play this through. Cities now are no longer manufacturing bases of population. Their population center is based on knowledge workers. And what have we demonstrated over these past four or five months? Knowledge workers need not congregate in offices and cities to do their job. And so now, right, what happens in the next pandemic, where people realize cities are just the most awful place to be, and we live in societies that by definition are not equipped to deal with pandemics. So in what ways is the trend toward cities sort of going the other way? And what might that mean for the model that you're developing?
Okay, very good. yes, I thought about this question quite a bit. I have no good answer. But here, first of all, we have to understand what a city is. So first of all, up til now, it's been the greatest invention we've made. There's no greater invention than man has made than the city, because it is the machine, the engine, whose purpose is to facilitate social interaction. And to facilitate social interaction so that we can create ideas, create wealth, innovate, and increase standards of quality of life. And that has been sort of inextricably what's happened for the last almost 10,000 years. But certainly, in the last few thousand, or even more certainly for the last 200. That's what cities are. So cities are this, the bigger the population and the more successful a city is, the more it facilitates social interaction. And that has meant physical interaction. Bringing people in close proximity and one of the big questions is, is it now sort of in our social DNA that we can't do any of this without having some time in physical proximity? I find it impossible. I think it's impossible, but that may be because I'm nearly 80 years old. But we can do everything we've done, just as you say, by doing it by having only social proximity, which we, you and I, now have, without physical proximity. And that's the question. And because physical proximity has the big problem that... that's exactly what that produces ideas, that's the good, but it produces the ugly. It produces crime and, ultimately pandemics. So that's the paradox of the city. And the question is, can we have our cake and eat it too?
Now, when I first did this work, I thought in fact we were going to see a reversal. And we were going to start depopulating cities. Because the one other thing about cities is the positive feedback in social mechanisms, which leads to super-linear growth, also leads to ultimate collapse. I mean, that's the problem with sustainability. It's sort of a very sophisticated Malthusian argument. But anyway. And I see no way around that unless we do some significant changes, and one of the changes could be that we change our way of interacting to this form. This becomes predominant. So that might be a positive outcome of it. That we somehow change the nature of social networks. I did think that might be the case, but you know, if you look at previous examples of accelerators like the telephone and the steam engine, all they did was accelerate. They didn't change the inextricable building up of exponential, super-exponential growth and so forth. And so I'm not sure that will be the case, and I worry about this social DNA image that I mentioned, because think about Silicon Valley. It grew up in suburbia, Mountain View and so on, boring old suburbia. And as a spinoff partially from Stanford, which is a boring old suburban place itself. And so on. But what has been happening in the last few years? All those people in Silicon Valley pull in money, but started doing the opposite, because people used to say to me, "A city will obviously change, because there's no reason to be in your office for many, for the service industries and the IT industries. I can go live on Lake Tahoe or go up in the Adirondacks and do everything from there." My wife had this extraordinary surgery a week ago. It was done robotically. Now they had to cut her open. Tn preparing for it, we talked to this extraordinary surgeon, joking about it, said, "Well, I guess it's true. I could actually sit at home and do this." You know, do this unbelievably intricate surgery, which has been amazing what they've done, actually. Anyway. So that's the kind of image. And so, you know, but. If you look at the actuality, how many CEOs, how many people in the upper echelons, how many actual employees in Silicon Valley live up in the mountains, or in some rural area, or on Lake Tahoe? Almost none, none. Quite the contrary, they're now all moving to San Francisco. They're all moving to the city.
But this is all pre-pandemic, of course.
Yeah, this was pre-pandemic. But I think-- So but what that means is that there is, even if you don't need physical interaction …were kinds of things that people get from living in an urban environment. And so I don't know the answer to your question.
I don't know. I have my own guess. My own intuitive guess is that we will see a small depopulation that will occur mostly from the rich, and much of that will be second homes, or second apartments or whatever, because most people can't afford to move away and get jobs and still have jobs. So we're stuck with the present infrastructure. And one of the unfortunate things that will happen is that people will have a very short-term memory. And they'll be saying, "Oh, it wasn't actually so bad." Or, you know, "Look, San Francisco didn't suffer badly." Or, you know, "Yeah, it was big in LA, but it didn't really affect me at all." And so more and more people will rationalize their way to feeling it's fine to live in the city. That's speculation. I'm not... But having said all that, there will be serious changes. There's no question. But the universities will have to adapt, and cities will adapt because spaces will change. And they may not become precisely permanent, but it will inevitably leave a residue. And one of the interesting examples might be, and we don't know, is flying. I mean that's going to have a huge impact on flying. But if we lived in a sensible world, we would move the seats further apart. But already they're filling up, right? I mean, these bloody airlines are using all this-- you know, they don't give a shit, and people are able to rationalize their way through it. So we're still at a place where we, you know, it's too grainy at the moment.
Penultimate question and then the big final question. What are the aspects of your work in the biological sciences that you've been most committed to intellectually over the course of your career, and what are you most excited about looking ahead to the future in terms of what you hope to contribute?
Well (laughs) I'm most of course, as I said earlier, in terms of the biological work, and the city work, I'm most-- especially the biology, because we developed a sort of complete theory in a way, it is of course, and it's unified, and it connects many things. And it brings to the table the idea, which we didn't discuss, is the idea of core screening. You know, you're not going to be able to calculate something to several decimal places, let alone one. (laughs) But you can get orders of magnitude and maybe much better. And that's what this work shows that you can bring all kinds of things, you know, we want to know. You want to know why is it 100 years for the lifespan of a human being? And only two or three for a mouse, even though we're the same thing, basically? Why is it that you have to sleep eight hours and not 15 or 16 like some animals? Why can't you get away with three like an elephant? You know, you want to know what sets the scale of that number? So it's a way of thinking, so I enjoy that and I feel I've made some small contribution to thinking in that way in that field, and in the city work and in urban theory. Science of cities. What would I like to do in the future? Well, let me tell you about the cities first. I'd like to get a much deeper theory. Much deeper theory for both, but particularly the cities. We still don't really understand the size of the exponents for scaling phenomena. We don't really understand the nature of the networks. It's much harder because you have to integrate social networks with infrastructural networks. And I want to promote that more because people don't... One of the things that disappointing to me, there's huge amount of network theory. I'm very familiar with many of the people that developed it, who are fantastic. They're colleagues. But they focus on the network's divorce from anything else. They don't take into account the fact that, you know, you may be part of a social network, but you have to be someplace.
You know, you have to be in the kitchen, or on a train or in your office. You have to be somewhere and you have to run to the bathroom. You have to have food. You have to take your kids to school. You can't divorce the two, and in fact all our work shows that. All the scaling laws actually show that. So you can't divorce it. So we need a theory that sees how these two are totally-- even though they seem so separate, they're completely integrated. So I want to get-- I'd love to be able to get that straight before I conk out. And for biology, we understand much about those networks, but I'd like to develop-- there's one thing I would like to do, that's very specific. It goes back to this question of the renormalization group. Which my biology colleagues were totally uninterested in. After I did this work. So what I did is, I took an idealized network. A tree, basically a tree. And I showed, I tried to show that the tree would satisfy certain optimization problems, has to be self-similar. Has to be fractal. But it was a tree. It was a branching network. Now, we are approximately that. That's, you know, if you look at our various networks, we approximate that, but of course, there's all kinds of bits and pieces, and all kinds of, obviously, we deviate. What I'd like to show is that there is in the language of renormalization group, Ken Wilson, there is a universality class of networks, of so to speak, asymptotically. Asymptotically meaning for size. Of same scaling exponents. So it doesn't matter what theory you use. It doesn't matter what network you use. You're guaranteed to get these results. Which is the great insight that Wilson had about phase transitions. I would love to be able to do something like that for all these biological networks, to say, "Yes, indeed, it has all these glitches and even has loops in some places, and has this and that. But it doesn't matter, because of its part of a universality group. And in that universality group is this trivial network, which we can calculate everything. And that gives all these exponents, which are correct." I'd love to be able to do that. I've tried working on it and I got-- By the way, when I told my biology colleagues this, they said, "Ah, who cares? You know, that's irrelevant. I mean, you've solved the problem, why should you care about proving its-- you know." I said, "But it isn't solved until you do that, really. For a physicist it's only solved if I can show that I didn't have to choose this network. It was, I did have to choose a universality class, but that's probably for good biological reasons. But once I have those, you're guaranteeing this. And I though, god, if I could do that, that would be great. But I...
Geoffrey, for my last question, I want to state the obvious. Your career and career path have been... obviously highly unorthodox, starting with your decision to come to Stanford, essentially on lark, right? Nowadays, the kind of science that you do and what you represent intellectually, it's really at the vanguard, that a lot of people now, you know, they have physics degrees and they're interested in biology. Or vice versa. Right? And so I want to ask you very broadly, both thinking about your career arc retrospectively and thinking about what you want to do in the future. To what extent are the decisions that you made a cautionary tale, in terms of a playbook to follow or not? And in what ways are those decisions really a vanguard for the future in terms of, we need to break down these barriers, because the most important and pressing problems cannot be contained within the traditional definitions that we've used? So I wonder if you can reflect upon your career as a model for the next generation of scientists?
Oh, that's a great question. It's both, of course. It is a cautionary tale, and I would love to see more people be... You know, I don't consider myself adventurous. That's what's sort of interesting. I feel it just happened. I know that sounds weird. You know, I just followed my nose and it happened and... I think what would have been adventurous, by the way, would have been in the middle of my time at Los Alamos, when I was 40 years old and I had young kids, and I said, "You know, this high energy physics, it's interesting but I think I'm going to do biology now. (laughs) I'm going to try to solve, I'm going to try to figure out why we're only going to live to 100." And I dropped everything in a-- That would have been adventurous. That's the cautionary tale. You don't want to do that. I would not advise anybody to do that. So the other cautionary tale, the other part of it is, I think, and this is slightly peripheral to the question. I still believe, and it goes along with our discussion about the future of universities, that you should get a degree in the discipline. I don't like the idea of... it may work, of having a sort of inter-disciplinary degree. You know, potpourri of all kinds of different bits and pieces. I think working already in a very disciplined way in one area on a problem is an incredible experience. And extremely useful to follow it through to the end. It's not that you can't do that in something, but generally that's the case. And I appreciate that I was able to do that and allowed to do that.
The big problem is, what I said before, is that all these bloody departments are so jealous and arrogant. Not just physics departments, physics ones are particularly arrogant of course. In physics and economics departments are the two most arrogant. But most departments are pretty arrogant, but they lose interest immediately if someone shows something that doesn't conform to the canon. So what I would like is that people feel free to follow the discipline. But then they follow their nose. Or during their time of getting their thesis, they can follow their nose a bit. So yes, but also the other side to that is that I think just dropping everything and starting over again is incredibly risky. And I think much better if you can do it and I feel-- I did it, I don't, you know, just-- I did it only semi-consciously. In fact, almost unconsciously, was gradualism. Was working on the things that was my ostensible job, so to speak, and moving to areas that I found of interest. And you know, I was interested in other problems anyway, feeling around. But one might catch one's interest sufficiently to really take off. And so on. If you're within academia. Or to the other, the side that academia is not for you, and move into a business or industrial setting. To more applied problems, more programmatic work. And that can be extremely rewarding, of course. Or I don't know what your background is. Were you trained as a physicist?
Were you a history --
No, no I'm a historian of physics. I've been trained as a historian.
Yeah, you were trained as a historian, but you know, you can imagine a physicist deciding to become interested in history and becoming a historian of physics, or just a historian in general. I mean, that's a perfectly reasonable trajectory one can imagine. So but it is, you know, definitely a risk, whatever you do, because if it doesn't succeed, you tend to be in the present climate somewhat shunned by your colleagues, because you're no longer really part of the, right where the action is. And one of the great things about the Santa Fe Institute is that we do encourage people to do this, and we're very supportive of them doing it, and the, you know, you need a couple of years. you need two to three years. And we're very supportive in that. And even of the faculty, I would say.
So it's definitely trying to move away from publish or perish. Or in these days, publish or perish, or even more importantly, bring in the money, which has become a much bigger issue, I think. And I think that is, that's... what I fear, by the way, going back to a previous part of the conversation, is that post-pandemic, bringing in the money is going to become even more important. And that will even more outweigh, than it already does, substance. And I really fear for that. That it's going to be going where the money is, whatever it is. And that will end up degrading, I think, much of the research. And by the way, the other thing that has been happening more and more is you have to be solving practical problems. Useful for society. More and more than is happening. And that's a shame. Sort of pushing people into that as they think about the future of their careers, is unfortunate. And the aspect of basic research that has been so attractive to some of us with the... I don't know what, assumption, I guess, that has actually borne itself out over the centuries, that thinking about fundamental issues and big questions leads to raising the human spirit. Not just that. And increasing human knowledge and understanding a man's place in the universe, but actually leads to asking them to talk on this bloody computer over large distances. I mean, it's extraordinary. And you'd think so much of that has happened, that you'd think you'd say, "Just give them the money and let them get on with it!" That's what-- seriously. You know, I mean, it's paying dividends. That is so extraordinary. Once in Los Alamos when we were struggling for funds, and they were moving to this normal, practical situation, and you sort of get rewarded for that, and taxing and of curious weighing related to that, one of my colleagues said, "Yes, you know what we should do? Since it's really part of averaging. We should say every time someone here uses Maxwell's equations, they give us a dollar. That would fund us in perpetuity."
It's sort of amazing, right? I mean, who would believe it? Fiddling around with electricity of magnetism would have been the biggest revolution of all. Electromagnetism. You know, and waves. I mean... Let's face it, the Silicon Valley gurus would all be pumping away as hack computer scientists somewhere. Well no, there wouldn't be computers. There wouldn't be any of it.
There would be nothing. They'd be working in the fields. Like their great-grandparents did. You know, if it weren't for Maxwell….
On that note, I think we can end here.
I'll catch up with you.
Okay. Thank you so much.