Interview with Thomas Witten, Homer J. Livingston Professor, Emeritus, in the Department of Physics, James Franck Institute. Witten recounts his childhood in Maryland, Utah, and then Colorado, as his father, a medical doctor moved jobs, and he describes his undergraduate experience at Reed College and where majored in physics and where he benefited from excellent attention from the professors. He discusses his graduate work at UC San Diego, where he was advised by Shang Ma working on two-dimensional charged Bose gas research, and he describes his postdoctoral research at Princeton to work with John Hopfield. Witten conveys the exotic nature of Ken Wilson’s ideas on renormalization during that time, and he explains the origins of soft matter physics as a distinct field and his work at Saclay before joining the faculty at the University of Michigan. He describes his subsequent research on pushing concepts of renormalization into polymers and related work on the Kondo effect. Witten explains his decision to join the research lab at Exxon, and he conveys Exxon’s emulation of Bell Labs as a place where he could pursue basic science within an industrial research lab, and where he could continue his work on polymers. He describes the downsizing of the lab and his decision to join the faculty at the University of Chicago, and his discusses his developing interests in buckyballs and capillary flow. Witten describes his affiliation with the James Franck Institute and its rich history, and he explains his current interests in granular materials, thin sheets, and colloidal rotation. At the end of the interview, Witten emphasizes the technological impact of fast video on soft matter physics and his interest in the physics of crumpling objects.
Interview with David Griffiths, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Reed College. Griffiths discusses his current projects on Sidney Coleman’s lecture series and a completing a fifth edition of his textbook on electrodynamics. He surveys the current interplay between experiment in theory in today’s world of particle physics, and he reflects on his career rooted in small teaching colleges, as opposed to pursuing an alternate path at large research universities. Griffiths recounts his childhood in Berkeley and then in Madison in support of his father’s academic career, and he describes finishing out high school in Vermont before attending Harvard. He laments the poor physics education Harvard offered when he was an undergraduate, and he explains his decision to remain at Harvard for graduate school, where Sidney Coleman and Carl Bender advised his thesis work on massless field theory. Griffiths discusses his postdoctoral appoints at the University of Utah and then the University of Massachusetts, and he explains how the November revolution at SLAC resonated with him. After brief teaching appointments at Mount Holyoke and Trinity Colleges, Griffiths explains his decision to join the faculty at Reed and how he learned to strike the right balance between teaching and research. He describes the origins and his motivations in writing textbooks for physics students and how he has integrated pedagogy into his mentorship of students. Griffiths discusses the influence of Kuhn in his more recent survey of physics in the twentieth century, and at the end of the interview, he explains why including students in his own research is both personally and academically meaningful.