Black physicists

Interviewed by
David DeVorkin
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This interview was conducted as part of the background research for David DeVorkin's biography of George Carruthers. Gerald Carruthers is the younger brother of George. The interview begins with Carruthers describing his early childhood years and family life, particularly the period when the family lived on a farm in Milford, Ohio. He recalls the many farm chores done by him and his siblings, especially George who was the eldest. Carruthers remembers George building his first telescope on the farm, which accidentally started a small fire. He describes his father’s work as a civil engineer and his grandmother’s work as a teacher, a legacy which he suspects influenced George’s later interest in science education. Carruthers recalls George being extremely focused and dedicated from a young age, and he describes George’s knack for art and drawing. He discusses the family’s move to Chicago after their father died and recalls the racial discrimination they faced in the neighborhood and at school. Carruthers shares memories of George spending time at Adler Planetarium, participating in science fairs, and building rockets in the yard. He recalls his mother’s job at the post office, where George also worked during summers home from college. Carruthers describes his own military service working on missile systems, work which took him to many places including Saudi Arabia, Italy, and Germany. He shares memories of George’s wife, Sandra, as well as George’s humility when it came to his many achievements.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Herman B. White, physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. White recounts his childhood in Tuskegee, Alabama and growing up during segregation. He discusses his early interests in science and his decision to enroll at Earlham College in Indiana as an undergraduate. White then describes his time at Michigan State University as a graduate student, during which he also held a position as a resident research associate at Argonne National Laboratory. Dr. White talks about his transition from nuclear physics to particle physics upon completing his master’s degree at MSU. He discusses the events that led him to accept a position at Fermilab rather than immediately pursue a PhD. White was the first African-American scientist appointed at Fermilab, and he recounts his early years there being mentored by Raymond Stefanski. He then describes his research fellowship at Yale and his non-traditional path to getting a PhD in 1991 from Florida State University. White talks about returning to Fermilab to work on kaon physics, and his eventual involvement in the Tevatron experiment. Toward the end of the interview, White reflects on the changes and trends he has seen in the research being done at Fermilab over the years, as well as his involvement in the National Society of Black Physicists.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Milton Dean Slaughter, Affiliate Professor of Physics at Florida International University. Slaughter recounts his childhood in New Orleans, his involvement in the civil rights movement, and he describes his undergraduate work in physics at Louisiana State University and his graduate work in theoretical physics at the University of New Orleans, where his dissertation focused on electron-laser pulse scattering. Slaughter discusses his long tenure in the department of physics at UNO, and prior to that his research in theoretical physics at Los Alamos. At the end of the interview, he discusses his long-term interest in gravity.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
August 5-7, 10, 11 & 13, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Ronald E. Mickens, Distinguished Fuller E. Callaway Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics, at Clark Atlanta University. Mickens recounts his childhood in segregated Virginia and how his entrepreneurial instincts and exposure to farm life fed into his budding interest in science. He explains the opportunities that led to his undergraduate education at Fisk University, where he majored in physics on the basis of his ability to combine his talents in math and chemistry. Mickens describes his formative summer research at Vanderbilt University on thermodynamics, and he explains the influence that his graduate advisor Wendell Holladay played in his life and his decision to continue at Vanderbilt for his graduate work. He discusses his involvement with the Civil Rights movement during his time in Nashville and how he dealt with the possibility of getting drafted for military service in Vietnam. Mickens describes his postdoctoral research in the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT, and he explains how events that can appear to be supernatural must be explicable within the single physical world. He describes his research at MIT as a time to expand on his thesis work on Regge poles, and he explains how his work with James Young connected him with his research at Los Alamos. Mickens describes his teaching and research record while he was a professor at Fisk, and he discusses his summer research at SLAC and his focus on the Pomeron and elastic scattering. He describes his many research visits to Europe and his work at CERN where he probed the theoretical underpinnings of high energy scattering. Mickens explains his fascination with Newtonian formulation equations and the utility of his visits to the summer Aspen Institute program. He describes some of the frictions he experienced with the administration at Fisk, his work at JILA, and the professional and personal considerations that compelled him to accept a professorship at Clark Atlanta and its transformation from Atlanta University. Mickens conveys the fundamental importance that geometry and numerical modeling has played in his career, and he contextualizes his academic achievements by emphasizing that everyone in his family has achieved a terminal degree. At the end of the interview, Mickens offers a history of the origins of the National Society of Black Physicists, and explains the significance of, and the lessons that should be learned, from Edward Bouchet’s life.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Warren W. Buck, Chancellor Emeritus, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Washington at Bothell, and Adjunct Professor of Physics and Special Advisor to the President for Equity in the 21st Century at William and Mary. Buck recounts his upbringing in segregated Washington DC, his early interests in science, and the opportunities that led to his admission to Lincoln University for his undergraduate degree before transferring to Morgan State. He discusses the racial strife and the civil rights movements of the late 1960s, his interest in physics as an undergraduate, and his decision to pursue a graduate degree at William and Mary. He explains his decision to leave after getting a master’s degree to teach at Bowie State and to be more involved in Black student organizing, and he describes his thesis research on deuteron theory under the direction of Franz Gross. Buck describes sailing in the Bahamas after graduate school and his appointments at Stony Brook and Los Alamos, and he explains his interests in nucleon-nucleon interactions. He describes a formative research year in Paris and his subsequent faculty position at Hampton University, his collaboration with Jefferson Lab, and his work introducing theoretical mesonic form factors. Buck discusses meeting Lillian McDermott and his recruitment to help build a new UW satellite campus at Bothell as chancellor. He surveys his accomplishments in that role and explains his decision to retire, and at the end of the interview, Buck discusses his interest in Buddhism and how Buddhist philosophy can be understood in the context of nuclear theory.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
July 30 and August 3, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Sylvester James Gates, Jr., Ford Foundation Professor of Physics and Director of the Theoretical Physics Center at Brown University. Gates discusses his preparations to lead the APS and the value of his service for PCAST for this new role. Gates recounts his family heritage and he discusses his father’s military service and the death of his mother. He explains how his family navigated racist challenges during his upbringing in El Paso and then in Orlando and how he navigated his own intellectual abilities in school. Gates explains his interest in physics in high school and the opportunities that led to his admission at MIT for his undergraduate work. He recounts the many mentors who made a positive impression on him and he explains his realization that his specialty would be at the boundary between math and physics. Gates describes his earliest interactions with string theory and he explains his decision to remain at MIT for his graduate work to work with Jim Young on supersymmetry. He paints a broader picture of supergravity research at this time and the rising importance of computers for this work. Gates describes his postdoctoral research at Harvard as a Junior Fellow, where he worked closely with Warren Siegel, and he describes his decision to join the faculty at MIT after a subsequent postdoctoral position at Caltech. He addresses Shelly Glashow’s criticism of string theory, and he explains his decision to leave MIT for a faculty position at the University of Maryland. Gates reflects on his teaching and mentoring career at Maryland, he describes his time at Howard University, and he discusses the broader issue of diversity in physics and AIP’s TEAM-UP Report. He describes his more recent interests in graph theory and the broader effort to unify gravity with the other forces. Gates reflects on how he became an advisor to President Obama for PCAST and how he worked with John Holdren to translate reports into policy changes. He explains his decision to go emeritus at Maryland and to take a new position at Brown, and why joining the Watson Institute was an attractive part of the offer. Gates reflects on assuming leadership at APS during the twin crises of Covid and racial strife, he surveys the state of string theory and high energy physics, and he explains why supersymmetry might offer a path to understanding dark matter. At the end of the interview, Jim conveys his hope that his work in math will yield deep insights into nature, and he considers the possibility of pursuing an autobiographical project.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Philip Phillips, Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Phillips recounts his early childhood in Tobago and the circumstances of his family’s move to Washington State. He conveys his bemusement at having no degree in physics, as his graduate work at the University of Washington was in chemistry, where he completed a PhD on fluorescence lifetimes in single molecules under the direction of Ernest Davidson, and where David Boulware provided the intellectual entrée to physics. Phillips explains the opportunities that allowed him to pursue postdoctoral work at Berkeley and learning RG from Orlando Alvarez. He describes his first faculty position in the chemistry department at MIT, some of the research challenges given that his primary interests were in physics, and his feeling that MIT was at the time not a very inclusive atmosphere. Phillips discusses his work on the random dimer model and the happenstance opportunity that led to his faculty appointment at Illinois. He explains getting involved with the National Society of Black Physicists and his efforts to make the department more diverse. Phillips describes the research that was recognized by the Edward Bouchet award and why Tony Leggett is among the few physicists who truly understands Mottness. He discusses advances in strongly coupled electron systems and he explains why he dislikes the term condensed matter and prefers solid-state. Phillips reflects on STEM’s response to the racial strife over the past year, and he discusses his current interests in pseudogaps. At the end of the interview, Phillips conveys his dream to solve the Hubbard model and to make advances in high-Tc research.