California Institute of Technology

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Robert Schoelkopf, Sterling Professor of Applied Physics and Physics at Yale, and director of the Yale Quantum Institute. Schoelkopf describes the origins of the Quantum Institute and the longer history of quantum research at Yale, and he recounts his childhood in Manhattan and then in Chappaqua as the son of art dealers. He describes his early interests in science and tinkering, and his undergraduate education at Princeton where he worked with Steve Boughn and Jeff Kuhn in the gravity group. Schoelkopf discusses his job at the Goddard Space Flight Center before beginning graduate work at Caltech. He describes his research under the direction of Tom Phillips in detector development for astrophysical applications and Josephson junctions, and he explains his ambition to focus on developing devices. Schoelkopf discusses his postdoctoral research at Yale to work with Dan Prober on mesascopic physics, and he explains his involvement in microwave research for quantum information and his explorations into the limits of electrometry. He discusses the opportunities that led to his faculty appointment at Yale, his involvement in building qubits and what this would portend for the future of quantum information. Schoelkopf describes the formative influence of Michel Devoret and Steve Girvin and he explains how these collaborations contributed to upending some aspects of theoretical quantum information. He describes how qubit research has matured over the past twenty years and how this research has contributed to industry and commercial ventures, but why he remains focused on basic science within a university setting. At the end of the interview, Schoelkopf predicts some of the practical contributions that true quantum computing can offer society and why he is excited about the next generation of quantum information scientists.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Surjeet Rajendran, Associate Professor of Physics at Johns Hopkins University. He provides an overview of his current research activities with David Kaplan in black hole physics, new short distance forces, and modifications of quantum mechanics, and he shares his reaction on the recent g-2 muon anomaly at Fermilab. Rajendran explains why he identifies as a “speculator” in physics, he recounts his childhood in Chennai, India, and he discusses his grandparents’ communist activism, his Jesuit schooling, and how science offered a refuge for rebellion from these influences. He explains his decision to transfer from the Indian Institute of Technology to Caltech as an undergraduate, where he worked with Alan Weinstein on LIGO. Rajendran discusses his graduate research at Stanford, where KIPAC had just started, and where Savas Dimopoulos supervised his work on PPN parameters and solving the seismic noise problem on atom interferometers for LIGO. He describes his postdoctoral work, first at MIT and then at Johns Hopkins, when he began to collaborate with Kaplan on axion detection and the electroweak hierarchy problem. Rajendran explains the rise and fall of the BICEP project, and his Simons Foundation supported work on CASPEr. He discusses his interest in bouncing cosmology and firewalls in general relativity, and he conveys optimism that LIGO will advance our understanding of black hole information. At the end of the interview, Rajendran reviews his current interests in the Mössbauer effect, and explains how nice it was to win the New Horizons in Physics prize, and he prognosticates on how the interplay between observational and theoretical cosmology will continue to evolve and perhaps resolve fundamental and outstanding questions in the field.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, Michael Turner discusses his life and career. topics include: Kavli Foundation; Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics; Fred Kavli; Aspen Center for Physics; Rand Corporation; California Institute of Technology (Caltech); Robbie Vogt; Ed Stone; Barry Barish; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; B.J. Bjorken; University of Chicago; Dave Schramm; Kip Thorne; Fermi Institute / University of Chicago Institute for Nuclear Studies; Bob Wagoner; University of California, Santa Barbara; Larry Smarr; Dan Goldin; quarks-to-cosmos study; National Science Foundation; Rita Colwell; Advanced LIGO; Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA); IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory; Department of Energy; Argonne National Laboratory; Paul Steinhardt.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

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.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 29, July 5, July 19, July 26, August 2, August 9, August 16, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Series of seven interview sessions with Carver Mead, Gordon and Betty Moore Professor Emeritus at Caltech. Mead recounts his childhood in California, and he describes the impact of watching his father’s career in the electric power industry. He credits his schoolteachers for encouraging his early interests in math and science, and he explains why attending Caltech as an undergraduate was an easy choice for him because he felt immediately welcomed during his first visit. He describes what it was like to learn quantum mechanics from Linus Pauling, and he explains that his decision to major in electrical engineering stemmed from the fact that applied physics was shunned in the physics department because Murray Gell-Mann referred to it as “squalid state physics.” Mead describes his decision to stay at Caltech for graduate school, and he explains how he became interested in semiconductors and transistors and what would become the origins of “device physics” and how his dissertation research contributed to these developments. He describes his developing understanding that the future of electronics would be in low power, high-performance devices and why he would be best positioned to foster this future as a faculty member at Caltech. Mead describes his collaborations and interest in industry labs including IBM, RCA, and Bell, and he describes his initial and then longtime work with Gordon Moore. He discusses the value of RF transmitters in 1960s-era communications technology and the prospects of satellite telecommunications at the dawn of the space age. Mead describes the origins of VSLI technology, word processors, and microcomputers, and he describes his collaboration with Lynn Conway and the process that went into the classic textbook they coauthored. He describes his research using the human mind as a source of inspiration to push electronics and microprocessors to the next level, and he explains the value of bouncing ideas off of Feynman over lunch. Mead describes the singular potential of his student and collaborator Misha Mahowald, and the value of his work with Arnold Beckman. He discusses the several companies that were spun out of his research in electronics and biophysics, and he describes his work on cameras with Michihiro Yamaki and the learning curve associated with research culture in Japan. Mead offers his perspective on the need to update the debates between Einstein and Bohr in the wake of recent developments in physics, and he explains the intellectual origins of his text Collective Electrodynamics. He explains why scientific debates can take on philosophical or even religious dynamics, and he discusses the origins of G4V and how to think of gravitational attraction as an analogy to electromagnetic interaction. Relatedly, Mead describes his work with Kip Thorne and his involvement with the LIGO endeavor, and he explains why the line between science and engineering is fuzzier than is commonly understood. He explains the significance of the Shapiro Delay, he surmises that the mystery of Dark Energy is sourced in the fact that physics is approaching the problem in the wrong way, and he explains why physics has become hamstrung in its pursuit of mathematizing physical reality ahead of experimental guidance. Mead explains that his views are rooted in his ability to think in pictures, as opposed to abstract symbols, and that the field needs to be more welcoming and inclusive to those who may see math as a barrier to working in physics at a high level. At the end of the interview, Mead describes his interest in current challenges with electric grid infrastructure, he explains why he has championed the work of women in science throughout his career, and he strikes an optimistic note that science always has and will continue, to provide solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Paul Schechter, the William A. M. Burden Professor of Astrophysics, Emeritus, at MIT discusses his time as an undergraduate student at Cornell University under the mentorship of Al Silverman and his involvement working on the Cornell synchrotron, as well as Silverman’s influence on his decision to attend Caltech for graduate school. Schechter discusses his collaboration with Bill Press on the issue of dark matter and the eventual creation of their model, the Extended Press-Schechter. He also details how studying the infall of galaxies toward the Virgo Cluster, and the subsequent paper he contributed to on the topic, were the most exciting part of his time working at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Schechter describes his later interests in gravitational lensing and his efforts to create higher quality images for Magellan telescopes. Lastly, he discusses his desire to find the stellar mass fraction in galaxies.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Barry Barish, Linde Professor of Physics Emeritus at Caltech, where he retains a collaboration with LIGO, and Distinguished Professor of Physics at UC Riverside. Barish recounts his childhood in Los Angeles and emphasizes that sports were more important than academics to him growing up. He explains his decision to attend Berkeley as an undergraduate, where his initial major was engineering before he realized that he really loved physics, and where he was advised by Owen Chamberlain. Barish describes the fundamental work being done at the Radiation Lab and how he learned to work the cyclotron. He explains why Fermi became his life-long hero and why he decided to stay at Berkeley for graduate school, even though the school’s general policy required students to pursue their doctoral work elsewhere. Barish describes his graduate research under the direction of Carl Hemholz, and he explains how he developed a relationship with Richard Feynman which led to his postdoc and ultimately, his faculty appointment at Caltech. He discusses how his interest in neutrinos led to his work at Fermilab and why the big question at the time was how to discover the W boson. Barish describes his key interests in magnetic monopoles and neutrino oscillations, and he describes his involvement with the SSC project through a connection with Maury Tigner at Berkeley, which developed over the course of his collaborations with Sam Ting. He explains that his subsequent work with LIGO never would have happened had the SSC been viable, and he describes his early connection as a young student learning general relativity as a connecting point to LIGO. Barish describes his general awareness of what Rai Weiss had been doing prior to 1994 and he relates the state of affairs of LIGO at that point. He conveys the intensity of his involvement from 1994 to 2005 and he describes the skepticism surrounding the entire endeavor and what success would have looked like without any assurance that the experiment would actually detect gravitational waves. Barish describes the road to detection as one of incremental improvements to the instrumentation achieved over several years, including the fundamental advance of active seismic isolation. He narrates the day of the detection, and he surveys the effect that the Nobel Prize has had on the LIGO collaboration and its future prospects. Barish notes the promise that AI offers for the future of LIGO, and he prognosticates the future viability of the ILC. At the end of the interview Barish explains what LIGO has taught us about the universe, and what questions it will allow us to ask in the future as a result of its success. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Robert P. Kirshner, Clowes Research Professor of Science at Harvard University, discusses his interests in supernovae and work as Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He reflects upon the shifting terminology pertaining to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. He discusses his experience as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Kirshner details his experience at Caltech as a graduate student and his time studying supernovae under Bev Oke. He discusses his post-doc position at Kitt Peak National Observatory and the competition they had with Palomar. Kirshner speaks about his experience working with undergraduate students at the University of Michigan and eventually becoming the chair and observatory director. He details his role as head of Optical Infrared at the Harvard Smithsonian Center. Lastly, Kirshner discusses his Nobel Prize winning discovery of using observations of distant supernovae to discover the accelerating universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Art McDonald discusses: careerlong work around tests of the Standard Model; Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) measurement of neutrino properties that fall outside the original Standard Model; childhood and family history in Canada; master’s work on positron annihilation; time at the Kellogg Laboratory at Caltech with William Fowler; early origins of and motivations behind the SNO project; postdoc at Chalk River Nuclear Laboratory using a particle accelerator to continue experimental work on fundamental symmetries; history of Chalk River; collaborations with George Ewan; collaborations with Hamish Robertson studying the measurement and production of lithium-6; work at Princeton with Will Happer using lasers to polarize nuclei; building a continuous laser beam at Chalk River; work on parity violation in nuclei; work on the Princeton cyclotron; overseeing Kevin Coulter’s thesis project, the first use of laser-induced-spin-polarization of helium; polarized Helium-3’s current uses; technical challenges of building SNO and the transition from construction to operations; SNO and the solar neutrino problem; Herb Chen’s involvement with the design of SNO; SNOLAB; decision take position at Queen’s University; early published findings from SNO; comparison of Super-Kamiokande and SNO experiments; impact of SNO results on the understanding of the Standard Model; winning the Nobel Prize for solving the solar neutrino problem, observing that solar electron neutrinos were oscillating into muon and tau neutrinos; current work with the DarkSide-20k collaboration and how that work led to an open-source ventilator project in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; current SNOLAB DEAP experiment using liquid argon to attempt to detect dark matter particles. Toward the end of the interview, McDonald reflects on interrelatedness across disciplines within physics, and his ongoing curiosity in searches for dark matter and neutrino-less double beta decay. 

Interviewed by
David DeVorkin
Interview dates
September 10 & 15, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Pasachoff discusses his childhood in New York City and his early interests in astronomy, telescopes and math. He recalls participating in a summer math program at Berkeley after his high school graduation, before he enrolled at Harvard as an undergrad. He recounts being invited to partake in observational research at Sacramento Peak Observatory, where he worked with Jacques Beckers and Bob Noyes. Pasachoff then explains his decision to continue at Harvard for his graduate studies, where Bob Noyes became his thesis advisor. He remembers finishing his PhD while also working at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, doing radio astronomy work. Pasachoff discusses the events that led to his postdoc at Caltech, and his subsequent move to Williams College. Throughout the interview, Pasachoff remembers many of the solar eclipses he has observed and his research surrounding them. He also discusses the many textbooks he has written over the years.