President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (U.S.)

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Location
Video conference
Abstract

For information regarding this transcript, please contact [email protected].

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Neal Lane, University Professor Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at Rice University, with an additional affiliation at the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Lane recounts his childhood in Oklahoma and his education at the University of Oklahoma, where Chun Lin became his thesis advisor for his research on the excitation of a sodium atom from its ground state. He discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Queen’s University of Belfast to work with Alex Dalgarno before taking a position at JILA in Boulder. Lane describes his work with Sydney Geltman and the opportunity to take a faculty position at Rice, and he discusses his role as NSF physics division director. He narrates his decision to become chancellor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, before returning to Rice to serve as provost. Lane describes how the Clinton administration invited him to lead the NSF. He explains the importance of direct communication with OMB, his relationship with Al Gore, and the key guidance offered by National Academy reports. Lane describes the LIGO effort from his vantage point at the NSF, and he explains his time as director of OSTP and Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. Lane discusses his work for PCAST and in the creation of the NNSA, and he describes returning to Rice after Gore lost the presidency, where the Baker Institute allowed him an environment to continue working in science and policy. At the end of the interview, Lane emphasizes the power of human connections as the foundation of all good science and policy endeavors.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
July 28, August 18, September 4 & 11, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with William H. Press, Leslie Suringer Professor in Computer Science and Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Press recounts his childhood in Pasadena and the influence of his father Frank Press, who was a prominent geophysicist, Caltech professor, and who would become science advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He describes the impact of Sputnik on his budding interests in science, and he discusses his undergraduate experience at Harvard, where Dan Kleppner, Norman Ramsey, Ed Purcell and Dick McCray were influential in his development, and where he realized he had an aptitude for applying abstract equations to understanding physical reality. Press describes trying his hand with experimentation in Gerald Holton’s high-pressure physics lab, he recounts his involvement in student activism in the late 1960s, and he discusses his involvement in computer hacking in its earliest form. He explains his decision to attend Caltech for graduate school and his interest in studying with Dick Feynman and Kip Thorne. Press describes the opportunity leading to his work at Lawrence Livermore, how he got involved with Thorne’s group of mathematical general relativists, the origins of Thorne’s work on gravitational waves, and his collaborations with Saul Teukolsky and Paul Schechter. He describes the formative influence of Chandrasekhar. Press discusses his first faculty position at Princeton where he joined John Wheeler’s relativity group, and he describes his research interests flowing more toward astrophysics. He explains the opportunities leading to his tenure at Harvard, where he was given separate appointments in physics and astronomy and where he founded theoretical astrophysics within the Center for Astrophysics. Press describes his entrée into science policy work in Washington with the NSF Physics Advisory Committee and then later on the National Academy of Science and the National Research Council, and he explains the origins of his long-term association with the JASON Study Group. He describes his interest in gravitational collapse, Ia supernovae and galaxy formation, and why the study of black holes reinvigorated the field of general relativity. Press describes the singular genius of Freeman Dyson, and he recounts his contributions to nuclear risk reduction in science policy and his service with the Defense Science Board and the Institute for Defense Analyses. He discusses his tenure as chair in Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, his experience with the Numerical Recipes books, and his collaboration with Adam Riess and Robert Kirshner. Press recounts his decision take a position at Los Alamos as Deputy Director to John Browne, he describes his education there in the concept of leadership which he never received in his academic career, and he provides his perspective on the Wen Ho Lee spy case and the existential crisis this caused at the Lab. He describes the Lab’s role in the early days of computational biology and how this field sparked his interest. Press contextualizes this interest within his conscious decision not to stay connected to astrophysics during his time at Los Alamos, and he explains the opportunity leading to him joining UT-Austin where he remains invested in computational biology. He describes his work for the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology during the Obama administration, he describes Obama’s unique interest in science and science policy, and he narrates the difficulties in the transition to the Trump administration. Press reflects on what it means to be a member of the rarified group of scientists who did not win a Nobel Prize but who were advised by and taught scientists who did. At the end of the interview, Press explains that he has always been a dilettante, which has and will continue to inform how he devotes his time to science, service, and policy matter, and he advises young scientists to aspire to mastery in a specific discipline early in their career before branching out to new pursuits.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Peter Lepage, Tisch Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics at Cornell. He recounts his childhood in Montreal and his decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics at McGill. Lepage discusses his Master’s work at Cambridge University and his decision to do his thesis research in particle physics at Stanford. He describes the fundamental advances happening at SLAC during his graduate years and his work on bound states of electrons and muons under the direction of Stanley Brodsky. Lepage discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Cornell and his work in high-precision QED calculations in atoms, and he describes the foundational impact of Ken Wilson’s work on lattice QCD and the intellectual revolution of renormalization. He describes this period as his entrée into QCD research, and he emphasizes the beauty of Ithaca and the supportive culture of the Physics Department as his main reasons to accept a faculty position at Cornell. Lepage explains how and when computers became central to Lattice QCD research and why effective field theory was an area of specialization that was broadly useful in other subfields. He describes the ongoing stubbornness of the Standard Model, and he discusses his tenure as chair of the department, then as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and his work on PCAST in the Obama administration. Lepage explains his longstanding interest in physics pedagogy, and he discusses his current work on the numerical integration program called VEGAS. In the last part of the interview, Lepage emphasizes that the most fundamental advances in physics are in astrophysics and cosmology and that lattice QCD should be “kept alive” because it’s unclear where it is going until physics goes beyond the Standard Model.