Exxon Corporation

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

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.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Director of The Chatterjee Group - Centers of Research in Education, Science, and Technology, discusses his time working in the United States and India. He discusses his time at Northwestern University as an advisee of John Ketterson and his work with liquid crystals. He also speaks about the interplay between experiment and theory. Bhattacharya details his time as a James Franck Fellow at the University of Chicago and his collaboration with Sid Nagel on the glass transition of glycerol. He speaks about his experience working on charge density waves at Exxon, as well as his discovery of the pseudo-gap phase while there. He discusses working at NEC with vortex phases in type-II superconductors. Bhattacharya reflects on the joy he found teaching physics to undergraduate students. He details his time working at Ashoka University where he was allowed the opportunity to create an undergraduate education framework and build a physics department. Lastly, Bhattacharya discusses the importance of incorporating science into culture.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

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. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Eli Yablonovitch, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley. He talks about the overlap of these fields with applied physics, and he recounts his family’s Jewish heritage in Europe and his origin as a Displaced Person born to refugee parents after World War II. Yablonovitch describes his childhood in Montreal, his early interests in science, and his undergraduate experience at McGill where he first became interested in transistors. He explains his decision to attend Harvard in Applied Physics for graduate school to and the intellectual influence of Mike Tinkham. Yablonovitch discusses his thesis research on semiconductor optics and four-wave mixing, and he describes the opportunities that led to his postdoctoral work at Bell Labs to work on laser-based communications systems. He discusses his return to Harvard as a faculty member and his subsequent solar research work at Exxon. Yablonovitch discusses his formative collaboration with Sajeev John and his move to UCLA, and he explains how the rise of the internet fostered his entrepreneurial instincts. He describes his work to improve cellphone antennae and his decision to transfer to Berkeley and the origins of Alta Devices. Yablonovitch describe his current interests in circuits and chips and he shares his view on China’s work in basic science. At the end of the interview, Yablonovitch reflects on outliving many tech companies, some of the intractable challenges of solar energy, and why Feynman’s lectures remain a guiding light for his own interests.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Paul Chaikin, Silver Professor of Physics at NYU, recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and he describes his early interests in math and science and his education Stuyvesant High School. He discusses his undergraduate education at Caltech, he conveys how special it was to learn from Feynman and Pauling, and he explains the fields that would go on to form his area of specialty, soft matter physics. Chaikin explains his reasoning to pursue a graduate degree with Bob Schrieffer at Penn, where he did his thesis research on the Kondo effect in superconductors. He describes his first postgraduate work at UCLA where he developed an expertise in thermoelectric power, and he describes the intellectual and technological developments that paved the way for the creation of soft matter physics as a distinct field. Chaikin explains what it would take to solve the many-body problem of nonequilibrium phenomena, and he describes the delicate nature of collaborating with biologists while ensuring they don’t overtake the field. He discusses his joint appointment with Penn physics and the research laboratory at Exxon, and he explains his move to Princeton, which was just starting to develop a program in soft matter physics. Chaikin describes the famous experiment that discovered that M&M shapes (ellispoids) provided the most efficient and minimal negative space in packing applications, and he explains his decision to join the faculty at NYU. At the end of the interview, Chaikin reflects on some of the remaining mysteries in the field, and he describes his interest in pursing research on self-assembly among soft condensed matters.  

 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Philip Pincus is a Distinguished Professor of Materials, Physics, and Biomolecular Science at UC Santa Barbara. In this interview, he explains the origin of his nickname “Fyl,” he recounts his childhood in San Francisco, as well as his decision to study physics at Berkeley and his mentorship by Charlie Kittel. Pincus describes his thesis research on temperature dependence of anisotropy energy, and nuclear spin relaxation in magnetic materials. He describes his postdoctoral work at Saclay and his faculty appointment at UCLA, and he describes working with de Gennes and Alan Heeger. Pincus describes his contributions to dirty type II superconductors and the excitement surrounding early research on liquid crystals. He explains his decision to join the research lab at Exxon Mobil and he describes the basic science research culture there and his increasing focus on soft matter physics, which he continued to pursue at UC Santa Barbara in the Chemical Engineering Department. Pincus discusses his current interests in water and cohesive energy, and at the end of the interview, he reflects on the growth of soft matter physics out of his original interest in solid state physics, and he explains why condensed matter theorists might have something to offer dark matter research.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This is an interview with David Weitz, professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard. Weitz recounts his childhood in Ottowa, his decision to pursue an undergraduate education in Waterloo, and a formative summer experience at the Weizmann Institute which convinced him to become a scientist. He describes his graduate work at Harvard, where he worked in Mike Tinkham’s group and where he developed his thesis research on the Josephson effect. He discusses his postgraduate work at the laboratory at Exxon where he developed research on de Gennes soft matter physics. Weitz explains his decision to join the faculty at Penn at a time when the basic science culture at Exxon was coming to a close, and Harvard’s successful effort to recruit him shortly thereafter. He discusses his work as director of the Harvard Materials Research, Science and Engineering Center, how he became interested in biophysics and biomedical engineering and how he pursued entrepreneurial and culinary interests from a soft matter perspective. At the end of the interview, Weitz describes his current motivations in using soft matter physics to advance human health and improve fracking as a key part of the American energy system.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview Harry Deckman, recently retired as Senior Scientific Advisor at ExxonMobil Corporate Strategic Research, explains the many research and consulting facets of this work, and the collaborations he has participated in over his career which has tracked with technical and geopolitical developments. Deckman emphasizes ExxonMobil’s commitment to research in non-petroleum energy sources in parallel with finding new oil and gas reserves. He discusses: his childhood outside of Cleveland; early interests in science and the excellent public school offerings he received; undergraduate education at Case Western where he focused on solid state physics; his decision to go to Iowa State for his PhD, where Constantine Stassis supervised his thesis research on magnetic neutron scattering; his initial appointment in Exxon’s Corporate Research Lab to work on laser fusion, the impetus of this research in light of the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the many experiments and collaborations in the Lab that mixed basic and applied science, including the demonstration that laser plasma could be a source for X-ray lithography; the rise of soft matter physics as a discrete subfield, and the impact of the information revolution in the 1980s on his research agenda and his focused interest in absorbed molecules and studying isotherms and transport; his work with novel reactors and coupled waves in geoscience, and why his work in carbon dioxide separations marked a major turning point in his career both as a fascinating area of research and because of the imperative at Exxon to address carbon emissions; his work on hydrocarbons and their value as an affordable energy source; his interests, in retirement, to continue searching for solutions for greenhouse gas mitigation strategies.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Remote Interview
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews David J. Pine, Silver Professor, professor of physics, and Chair of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Pine explains the background of NYU’s takeover of Brooklyn Poly and where these changes fit within the overall expansion of soft matter physics in the U.S. He recounts his childhood as the son of a pastor and moving many times as his father preached for different congregations. He discusses his interests and talents in the sciences during high school, and he explains his decision to attend Wheaton College. Pine describes how he developed his interest in physics in college and he describes his research at Argonne. He discusses his decision to go to Cornell for his graduate work, where he studied under Bob Cotts and did research on hydrogen diffusion in metals. Pine recounts his postdoctoral research at Pitt, where he worked with Walter Goldberg on spinodal decomposition, and he describes his first faculty position at Haverford, where he built a lab from scratch focusing on the diffusive dynamics of shear fluids. He explains his decision to accept a position with Exxon Labs, which he describes as an excellent place for basic science, and he describes the factors leading to his appointment on the chemical engineering faculty at UCSB, where he focused his research on polymer solutions and colloidal suspension. Pine describes some of the exciting advances in physics that were happening at the Kavli Institute. He describes his collaborations with Paul Chaikin and the prospect of joining the faculty at NYU, where he has continued his research. At the end of the interview, Pine reflects on how he has tried to maximize the benefits of working at the nexus of several disciplines, and he explains why entropy has been a concept of central importance to all of his research.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Nadya Mason, Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mason recounts her family background and her childhood growing up in New York City, then Washington DC, and then Houston. She discusses her dedication to gymnastics between ages 8-16 and her rise to national stature in that field. Mason describes her developing interests in math and science, including a formative internships at Rice University and the Exxon Production Research Center where she discovered her love for lab work. She describes her undergraduate experience at Harvard, the supportive mentor she found in Howard Georgi, and her work in the condensed matter physics lab at Bell Labs where she developed her interest in liquid crystals. Mason explains her focus on condensed matter physics for graduate school, and she describes her graduate work at Stanford, where her initial intent was to work with Doug Osheroff before she became interested in working with Aharon Kapitulnik on superconductivity. She explains some of the main questions that drove her dissertation research, including the behaviors that are possible in a low-dimensional superconductor. Mason discusses her postdoctoral work back at Harvard where she pursued research on carbon nanotubes quantum dots. She describes her decision to join the faculty at Illinois and what it was like to set up a major lab and the strong support she enjoyed from the university. Mason describes her research agenda over the course of her career, she discusses her current interests in mesoscopic low dimensional materials with correlated materials, and she describes the opportunities and challenges teaching at a large public university. She shares her thoughts on where physics can go as a community to enhance diversity and inclusivity in the field, and she emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility as a means to achieve those goals. At the end of the interview, Mason describes some of the exciting avenues of research in the future, including work on combining topological and magnetic materials, and she considers the importance of machine learning for the future of condensed matter physics.