This wide-ranging interview explores the career of Jim Decker, most of which has been at the U.S. Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies. Decker first worked in the fusion energy program, and from 1985 to 2007 he was Principal Deputy Director of the DOE Office of Energy Research, which was renamed the Office of Science in 1998. The position was the highest-level career position within the office. The interview covers the evolving fortunes of fusion research in the U.S., including expanding support in the 1970s, U.S. participation in the international ITER project, and deep funding cuts in the 1990s. The leadership of Al Trivelpiece at the office, the development of DOE’s high-performance computing efforts, and the management of the Superconducting Super Collider project are discussed in some detail. Other subjects include the origins of DOE’s support for the Human Genome Project, the development of DOE’s procedures for oversight of major projects, recent trends toward funding “centers” and special initiatives, the evolving status of the Office of Science within DOE, and Decker’s experiences with Congress and successive presidential administrations.
Interview with Steven Chu, former United States Secretary of Energy and current Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology in the Medical School at Stanford University. Chu begins by taking us through his changing research interests across his time at Berkeley, Bell Labs and Stanford, and then recounts the beginnings of his interest in climate change in the early 2000s. He talks about his work advising companies who are working on climate change solutions such as carbon capture, and he gives an overview of the research and action being taken around renewable energy sources. Chu then goes back in time and recounts the story of his family, starting with his grandfather in China who emphasized education for all his children. Growing up in Nassau County, Chu describes feeling like a “disappointment” in his family because he didn’t go to an Ivy League school and instead completed his undergraduate studies in math and physics at the University of Rochester. Chu discusses his decision to attend Berkeley for grad school and meeting his advisor Eugene Commins, who was working on weak interactions. Then Chu recounts his transition to Bell Labs and describes the laser work going on there at the time, as well as his burgeoning interest in beta decay experiments. He talks about his research surrounding laser cooling and explains his decision to move to Stanford after Bell. Chu remembers his experience winning the Nobel Prize and accepting the position as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Chu ends the interview with stories from his time as Secretary of Energy under the Obama administration, such as his experiences with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, setting up the DOE Loan Program Office, and his international work on climate change.
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Interview with Peter W. Shor, Morss Professor of Applied Math at MIT. Shor recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and then Washington, DC, and he describes his discovery early in childhood that he had a special aptitude in math. He describes his undergraduate experience at Caltech, where he pursued an interest in combinatronics, and he explains his decision to attend MIT for graduate school, where he studied under Tom Leighton. Shor discusses his graduate work at Bell Labs and he explains how applied math research was relevant to Bell's business model. He describes his thesis research which used math to design good algorithms for computer problem solving, and he discusses his postdoctoral research at the Mathematical Science Research Institute at Berkeley where he focused on computational geometry problems. Shor explains his decision to return to Bell Labs and his focus on optical fibers, and he explains Google's influence in achieving breakthroughs in theoretical computer science. He describes the origins of Shor's Algorithm and Charles Bennett's involvement in this development. Shor explains when true quantum computing became theoretically feasible, and the various budgetary, theoretical, and political challenges that stand between the current state of play and quantum computer realization. He explains his interest in returning to academia at the time Bell Labs was coming apart, and he explains his contributions to advancing quantum information and the utility this has for AdS/CFT research. Shor describes his current interest in black holes and quantum money, and at the end of the interview, he explains why the question of whether NP = P remains fundamental.
Interview with John Spence, Richard Snell Professor of Physics at Arizona State University. Spence discusses his dual role as a Director of Science at NSF and his focus on research at the intersection of biology and physics. He recounts his childhood in Australia and his undergraduate education at Queensland University. Spence describes his graduate research on plasmons at Melbourne and the opportunities that led to his postdoctoral appointment at Oxford, where he worked with Mike Whelan and David Cockayne on quantifying atom arrangements in solids. He describes his decision to join the faculty at Arizona State, and the nascent field of high-resolution electron microscopy, which compelled him to write a book on the topic. Spence discusses his work on the structure of defects in superconductors and his collaborations with Bell Labs, and he explains the significance of the LCLS to his research. He describes the BioXFEL project, his work as part of the broader community of crystallographers, and the intellectual origins of the book "Lightspeed". At the end of the interview, Spence credits Michael Crow for bringing ASU to the forefront of so much innovation in science, and he reflects on how physics has never failed to surprise him.
Interview with Cherry Murray, Professor of Physics and Deputy Director of Research at Biosphere 2 at the University of Arizona. She describes some of the logistical challenges in managing Biosphere 2 during the pandemic, and she considers how current political and environmental crises perhaps make the research at Biosphere 2 all the more urgently needed. Murray reflects on how her work at the DOE has been an asset for Biosphere 2 and she recounts her early childhood, first in Japan and then Pakistan during her father’s postings for the Foreign Service. She describes her high school education in Virginia and then South Korea and the opportunities that led to her undergraduate admission at MIT, where she became close with Millie Dresselhaus. Murray explains her decision to remain at MIT for graduate work to conduct research in surface physics under the direction of Tom Greytak. She discusses her subsequent work at Bell Labs on negative positron work functions and where she rose to become Vice President, and she provides context for some of the exciting developments in superconductivity. Murray explains the circumstances and impact of the breakup of Bell Labs, and she reflects on her contributions on surface enhanced Raman scattering during her tenure. She discusses her work with Ernest Moniz, the circumstances of her being named Deputy Director for Science and Technology at Livermore Lab, she describes her tenure at Harvard and the development of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and her experiences as Commissioner of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. At the end of the interview, Murray discusses the development of Biosphere 2, some of its early stumbles, and the vast research value it promises for the long term.
Interview with Toichiro Kinoshita, a Japanese-born physicist who is best known for pioneering the value of muon g-2, the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon. Kinoshita describes his education—Daiichi High School, Tokyo University—how he avoided military service during World War II, and meeting and marrying his wife, Masako Matsuoka. He describes his introduction to quantum electrodynamics and renormalization through papers by Dyson and Feynman. His early research also involved work on the C-meson theory developed by Sakata. After the war, Kinoshita came to the United States to the Institute for Advanced Study, then as a postdoc at Columbia in 1954. In 1955 Kinoshita moved to Cornell. He became particularly interested in making calculations to test the theory of quantum electrodynamics. He describes his introduction to computers at Princeton, using von Neumann’s computer. The interview covers how he became interested in calculating g-2 at CERN in 1966, and his subsequent efforts, the first being the sixth order calculation, where the light-by-light diagram enters for the first time. He describes his efforts doing the eighth order calculation, and his collaboration with Makiko Nio, as well as his calculations of the tenth order. Physicists whom he describes more than briefly include Kodaira, Tomonaga, Nambu, and Nio. Near the end, Kinoshita describes the importance of g-2 experiments, and his recent work.
Interview with Lu Sham, Distinguished Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of California at San Diego. Sham recounts his childhood in Hong Kong and he describes the legacy of Japanese rule from World War II. He describes his early interests in math and he explains his decision to pursue a higher education in England at Imperial College. Sham discusses his motivation to conduct graduate work at Cambridge University and to study under Nevill Mott on the first principle method calculating the electron contribution to lattice vibration. He describes the help provided by John Ziman to secure his postdoctoral position at UC San Diego to work with Walter Kohn, and he describes the foundational collaboration and research that went into the Kohn-Sham equation and how this work builds on the classic debate between Einstein and Bohr. He describes the opportunities leading to his faculty appointment and eventual tenure on the physics faculty, and he explains the benefits of spending summers doing research at Bell Labs. Sham discusses his contributions to research on semiconductors, quantum computing, and density-functional theory. He describes his more recent interest in optics and the formative work he has done with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers over the years. Sham discusses his administrative service as department chair and Dean of Science. At the end of the interview, Sham asserts that the future of condensed matter physics holds limitless possibilities, and that improvements in semiconductor materials will push quantum information abilities in exciting and unforeseen directions.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Sean L. Jones, Assistant Director for the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Jones recounts his father’s scientific career at IBM and his own childhood in South Carolina, and the opportunities he had to pursue his interests in math and science. He discusses his undergraduate work in ceramic engineering at Clemson and the opportunities for him to become a McKnight Fellow at the University of Florida for graduate school, where he worked on increasing the luminescence of thin film phosphorous. He describes his postgraduate work at Bell Labs and how the internet bubble affected him at the turn of the century. Jones discusses his subsequent work as a professor of optical engineering at Norfolk State University and the enjoyment he derived in teaching at an HBCU. He explains why meeting Bruce Kramer at NSF was so formative and why he chose to join NSF as a program director after working at Applied Plasmonics. Jones describes the flatness of the NSF’s organizational structure and how the Obama administration’s commitment to science and technology research resonated for his program. He discusses his work at the OSTP in the Executive Branch and his tenure as Executive Secretary of the National Science Board. Jones discusses his increasing responsibilities at NSF and the overall improvement of the budgetary environment since he started. He talks about the current opportunities to expand diversity in STEM and his current work in managing research support as costs continually rise. At the end of the interview, Jones explains why the appetite for taking risk must be central to the future of good scientific policy at the national level.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Robert Cava, Russell Wellman Moore Professor of Chemistry at Princeton. He describes his dual appointment in the Princeton Materials Institute and he reflects on the distinctions between being a solid state and not a condensed matter chemist. Cava recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and the opportunities that led to his undergraduate admission to MIT. He discusses his studies in materials science, and his decision to stay on for a PhD to study crystallography and the properties of sulfide materials under the direction of Bernie Wuensch. Cava describes some of the advances in ceramics that was important to him, and he discusses his work on sodium electrolytes at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. He explains his decision to join the Sold State Chemistry Research Department Bell Labs, and he describes some of the exciting developments in ceramic superconductors and why superconductivity is a window onto the complexity of solids. Cava discusses the significance of the YCBO collaboration, he describes the impact of the breakup of Bell Labs and his subsequent decision to transfer to Princeton. He explains some of the cultural shifts that allowed Princeton to become more involved in applied science, and he discusses what he learned about academic politics during his time as chair of the Department of Chemistry. Cava discusses his career-long search for new compounds and studying transition metal oxides, and he describes the many advances in thermoelectronics. At the end of the interview, Cava reflects on his scientific contributions, and he emphasizes the value in science of being a good listener.