Interview with Matthew Fisher, professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. Fisher recounts his early childhood in London as the son of a prominent physicist, and his upbringing in Ithaca where his father was on the physics faculty. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Cornell, where he started in engineering but gravitated toward physics, and he reflects on a conversation with a graduate student, which – more than any influene from his father or his brother, also a prominent physicist – sparked his interest. Fisher describes his initial graduate work at MIT, where he focused on experimental condensed matter research in the lab of Bob Birgeneau, before he transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to re-focus on condensed matter theory, with a special interest in quantum mechanics under the direction of Tony Leggett. He explains the mental health issues he began to suffer from in graduate school, which extended into his postdoctoral, and then full time, work at IBM, until a psychiatrist prescribed him medication that essentially restored him to a state of mental health. Fisher describes the opportunities leading to his faculty appointment at UC Santa Barbara, and he discusses his newfound interests in high temperature superconductors, the fractional quantum Hall effect, and the localization of bosons. He discusses his ongoing interest in quantum mechanics, quantum spin liquids and quantum phase transitions, and he describes his long term collaboration with Charlie Kane. Fisher explains the singular advances Phil Anderson made to the field, and what supercomputing has allowed in the last twenty years that was not possible in the previous twenty years. He connects his mental health challenges with his recent interests in the concept of a quantum mind, or the possibility that the brain operates quantum mechanically. Fisher stresses that the field is nascent and that it is too early to tell if his preliminary ideas will be substantiated, and why a greater understanding of both evolution and the nature of consciousness is crucial to developing of this path of inquiry. He explains the implications of the notion of free will if the brain operates according to quantum processes, and he describes how this research may bear out experimentally.
Interview with Steven Kivelson, Prabhu Goel Family Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Kivelson recounts his childhood in Los Angeles as the son of academic scientists, and he describes his transition from career ambitions in the law toward physics. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Harvard, and he describes his lack of appreciation of the stature of many of the physics professors, such as his advisor Paul Martin, whom he knew first as a friend of his parents. Kivelson explains his decision to continue at Harvard for his graduate degree, and he discusses how he developed his interest in amorphous semiconductors under the guidance of Dan Gellat. He recounts his postdoctoral work at UC Santa Barbara, where he worked with Bob Schrieffer on the physics of conducting polymers. Kivelson discusses his first faculty position at Stony Brook, and he discusses the excellent group of graduate students he advised during his tenure there. He discusses some of the broader research questions in condensed matter of the time, including the significance of macroscopic quantum tunneling, invented by Tony Leggett. Kivelson explains his reasons for moving to UCLA, and he discusses Ray Orbach’s efforts to make recruitment a priority there. He discusses his long interest in fractionalization with regard to conducting polymers to be generalized to spin liquids, and his move to Stanford, which attracted him in part because of the condensed matter experimental group. At the end of the interview, Kivelson discusses his current research interests in exploring well-controlled solutions of paradigmatic models of strongly correlated electron systems, and he explains why the concept of a grand unified theory of physics is not a scientific but rather a religious proposition.
Interview with Renata Wentzcovitch, professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Wentzcovitch recounts her childhood in Brazil, and she describes how her grandfather sparked her interest in science early on. She describes her education at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Physics where she developed an interest in density functional theory. Wentzcovitch discusses her interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the United States, and her decision to attend UC Berkeley and study under the direction of Marvin Cohen. She describes her thesis research on pseudopotential plane-wave codes and super-hard materials such as boron nitride and diamonds. Wentzcovitch explains the impact of High Tc Superconductivity on both her career and the field generally, and she describes her postdoctoral research with joint appointments at Brookhaven and Stony Brook on evolving electronic wavefunctions via classical dynamics. She discusses her subsequent work with Volker Henie at Cambridge to study silicate perovskite, which in turn led to her first faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota. Wentzcovitch describes the importance of Minnesota’s Supercomputing Institute for her research, and she explains how her research focused more centrally on geophysics and the thermo-elasticity of minerals and their aggregates. She describes the founding of the Virtual Laboratory for Earth and Planetary Materials and explains her decision to join the faculty at Columbia and her involvement with VLab and the study of exchange-correlation functionals to address electronic interactions. At the end of the interview, Wentzcovitch discusses her current work on developing codes for thermodynamic computations and seismic tomography, and she conveys the value of pursuing international collaborations to fit her broad and diverse research agenda.
Interview with Sunil Sinha, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physics at the University of California, San Diego. Sinha describes how he has been able to keep up his research during the COVID pandemic, and he recounts his childhood in Calcutta where he attended Catholic schools and developed his interests in math and science. He describes his undergraduate education at Cambridge where he became interested is quantum mechanics, and he explains his decision to remain there for graduate work to conduct research on neutron scattering under the direction of Gordon Squires. Sinha explains the centrality of neutron scattering to the development of condensed matter physics, and he describes the opportunities leading to his postdoctoral research at Iowa State. He discusses his work at Ames Lab and Argonne Lab, where he continued to pursue fundamental research on neutron scattering and rare earth materials. Sinha describes his research at Exxon Lab, and the start of the revolution in soft matter physics, and he explains his decision to return to Argonne at the beginning of the Advanced Photon Source project. He discusses his subsequent move to San Diego where he enjoyed a joint appointment with Los Alamos Lab and when he was able to concentrate more fully on teaching after a career spent mostly in laboratory environments. At the end of the interview, Sinha describes his current interest in spin glasses, exchange biases, and jamming theoretical computer simulations, and he explains the reason for the enduring mystery of the mechanism for high-temperature superconductivity.
Interview with Nai Phuan Ong, professor of physics at Princeton University. Ong describes how he has managed to keep his lab running during the coronavirus pandemic thanks to remote data analysis. He recounts his childhood in Malaysia in a family of ethnic Chinese who had businesses in Penang, and he describes his Catholic schooling and how he became interested in science as a young boy. Ong describes the opportunities leading to his undergraduate education at Columbia, where he pursued a degree in physics. He explains his decision to enroll at Berkeley for graduate school, where he studied under the direction of Alan Portis and worked on developing a microwave technique to perform measurements of the Hall effect without making Hall contacts to the sample. Ong recounts his offer from the University of Southern California to join the physics department first as a postdoctoral researcher and then as a member of the faculty. He explains his decision to move to Princeton and describes some of the difficulties given what he saw as a low point for condensed matter physics in the physics department at Princeton at that time. Ong describes the significance of the prediction and discovery of superfluid helium-3, and he discusses how Phil Anderson introduced him to high-Tc superconductivity. He discusses his research on representing the weak field Hall effect in a geometric fashion, he explains why the cuprate Hall effect remains mysterious, and he describes his more recent work on quantum spin liquids and the Nernst effect. Ong describes the excitement surrounding research in novel ground states of Dirac electrons in graphene, and what the achievement of topological quantum computers would mean for his research. At the end of the interview, Ong explains why graduate students are among the rarest and most precious resources in science, and why he hopes to concentrate on the Karplus-Luttinger theory in the future.