Harvard University

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with James David Litster, Professor Emeritus at MIT. Litster recounts his childhood in Toronto, then Edmonton and back to Toronto for high school. He explains the importance of Sputnik both on his interests and for the support of science generally, and he describes his undergraduate education in engineering physics at McMaster University. Litster describes his graduate work at MIT, where he focused on experimental solid-state physics working under the direction of George Benedek. He explains his contributions to phase transition research, and he explains the opportunities leading to his postdoctoral research and faculty appointment at MIT. Litster describes his entrée into the world of liquid crystals and Landau theory working with de Gennes in Paris. He explains the origins of the joint MIT-Harvard Health Science and Technology program and he describes some of his scientific and administrative achievements at Vice President for Research at MIT and as a member of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Safeguards Committee. At the end of the interview, Litster reflects on some of the major advances that have been achieved in condensed matter physics over the course of his career, and how much more interdisciplinary science generally has become.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard. Galison describes his numerous and overlapping appointments across Harvard, which allow him to teach in both Physics and History of Science, as well as the Philosophy and Art, Film, and Visual Studies Departments. He recounts his upbringing in Manhattan and a formative year he spent in Paris doing plasma physics before enrolling at Harvard as an undergraduate. Galison talks about the impact of the course Math 55 and why early on he knew he wanted to pursue a course of study that combined science with the arts, which ultimately coalesced into a course of study on history of science with a focus on physics. He describes the intellectual influence of Clifford Geertz and his anti-Vietnam war activism at Harvard, and he conveys the excitement surrounding fundamental discoveries in particle physics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Galison discusses his postgraduate year at Cambridge where he worked on the philosophy of relativistic quantum mechanics, and he explains his decision to return to Harvard for his thesis work. He discusses his entrance into the Harvard Society of Fellows with the support of Steve Weinberg and Ed Purcell, and he explains how his interests in the unified field theories of Weinberg-Salam-Glashow informed his dissertation work in physics and history of science. Galison traces the origins of his interest in the duality of Big Science and Small Science and the considerations he faced in choosing between physics and history of science for his postdoctoral work. He explains his decision to focus on the latter at Stanford where he joined what would come to be known as the “Stanford School” and how these collaborations informed his book How Experiments End. Galison describes his interest in experimentation as labor history and he discusses his connection to the physics department and to SLAC during his time at Stanford. He discusses the philosophical connotations around the idea that the concept of a multiverse is not science because it is not testable, and he mounts a defense of the future utility of string theory by drawing a distinction between what it demonstrates now against what it will demonstrate with further advance. Galison discusses his contributions to the Black Hole Initiative and the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, and he surveys the current advances made possible by AI and machine learning. He traces his interest in using film as a medium for scholarly research for its ability to convey a “density” in human interaction that is not achievable in print, and he explains why the notion of government secrecy bridges his interest in physics and social systems. Galison reflects on his own decisions as a graduate student and the lessons he has tried to pass on to his students. At the end of the interview, Galison surveys his current interests, and connects his scholarship as an avenue to understanding the contemporary pandemic, the related challenge of the disconnect of scientific expertise and public policy, and why ultimately science will offer a path out of the crisis.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Thomas Appelquist, Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics at Yale University. Appelquist recounts his upbringing in rural Iowa and then Indiana, where he attended Catholic high school. He describes his undergraduate experience at Illinois Benedictine College and explains his attraction to attend a small school for college. Appelquist discusses his decision to attend Cornell for his PhD, and recalls that, relative to others in his cohort who went to larger schools, he had the most catching up to do in quantum mechanics. He explains the development of his thesis topic under the direction of Don Yennie, which focused on aspects of renormalization theory using the Feynman parametric approach. Appelquist contextualizes some of the broader questions in quantum field theory and quantum electrodynamics at this time, and he describes the opportunities that led him to SLAC for his postdoctoral research. He describes his interests there as focused on theories of the weak interactions, and he describes his initial faculty appointment at Harvard where he joined the particle theory group led by Shelly Glashow and Sidney Coleman. Appelquist discusses his close collaboration with Helen Quinn on how to renormalize Yang-Mills theories, and he explains his decision to take a tenured position at Yale in consideration of the culture at Harvard, where the prospects of tenure were minimal. He describes the revolutionary discoveries of asymptotic freedom, QCD, and the “November Revolution” at SLAC and Brookhaven at the time. Appelquist describes his research and administrative activities to advance the particle theory group at Yale, and his overall efforts to improve the department as chair and in particular building up the condensed matter theory group. He discusses his tenure as Dean of the Graduate School and his long-term involvement with the Aspen Center. At the end of the interview, Appelquist describes his current interests in lattice gauge theory and explains why he expects that physics will see double beta decay in the next generation of experiments.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Malcolm Roy Beasley, Sidney and Theodore Rosenberg Professor of Applied Physics, Emeritus, at Stanford. Beasley recounts his passion for basketball in high school and the opportunities that led to his undergraduate study at Cornell, where he describes his focus on engineering physics as just the right blend of fundamental and applied research. He describes his relationship with Watt Webb, who would become his graduate advisor, and the origins of BCS theory. Beasley discusses his work taking magnetization measurements on type-II superconductors and his thesis research on flux creep and resistance. He discusses his postdoctoral appointment working with Mike Tinkham at Harvard and the developments leading to reduced dimensional superconductivity. Beasley explains the technological implications in the fluctuations of the order parameter, and he describes the speed with which Harvard made him a faculty offer. He discusses the circumstances that led to him joining the faculty at Stanford, his immediate connection with Ted Geballe, and his work on A15 superconductors. Beasley explains the significance of the 1976 Applied Superconductivity Conference and the important work in the field coming out of the Soviet Union at the time. He conveys the excitement regarding amorphous silicon and how the KT transition in superconductors became feasible. Beasley describes his interest in thermal fluctuation limits and coupled oscillators, and he describes Aharon Kapitulnik’s arrival at Stanford and the origins of the “KGB” group. He describes the group’s work on alloyed-based model systems and his idea to study high-resistance SNS Josephson junctions. Beasley explains “Pasteur’s quadrant” and why the KGB group was so well-attuned to dealing with it, and he discusses the impact of computational theory on the field and specifically that of Josephson junctions on digital electronics. He surmises what quantum superconductivity might look like, and he describes his work as dean and as founding director of GLAM, and some of the inherent challenges in the “trifurcation” at Stanford between the Departments of Physics and Applied Physics and SLAC. Beasley discusses his leadership at APS and the issue of corporate reform, and he explains his role in the Schön commission and what it taught him about scientific integrity. At the end of the interview, Beasley reflects on some of the “forgotten heroes” in the long history of superconductivity, he attempts to articulate his love for physics, and he explains why the achievements of the KGB group represent more than the sum of its parts.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 15, July 8, July 29, August 19, September 8, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with David Gross, Chancellor’s Chair Professor of Physics at University of California in Santa Barbara and a permanent member of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (KITP). Gross begins by describing his childhood in Arlington, Virginia and his family’s later move to Israel. This led to his decision to enroll at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his undergraduate studies in physics and mathematics. Gross recalls his acceptance at Berkeley for his graduate studies, where Geoffrey Chew became his advisor. He explains his early interests in strong interactions, quantum field theory, and S-matrix theory. Gross then describes taking a fellowship at Harvard after completing his PhD, where he recalls his early involvement in string theory. He speaks about his subsequent move to join the faculty at Princeton, as well as his introduction to Frank Wilczek, one of his first graduate students with whom he later shared the Nobel Prize. Gross takes us through the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, and the impact these had on the Standard Model. He discusses his decision to leave Princeton for UCSB, where he focused on growing the KITP and securing funding. Gross describes how his research interests have shifted over the years across topics such as confinement, quantum gravity, and more recently back to string theory. Toward the end of the interview, Gross speaks about his work to develop institutes similar to KITP in other countries, as well as his term as President of the American Physical Society in 2019.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, Saul Perlmutter, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley and Staff Scientist and senior faculty member at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, discusses his life and career. Perlmutter shares that his research has not been slowed down by the pandemic by happy coincidence that he is currently focused on remote data analysis, and he recounts his childhood in Philadelphia where he was educated in Quaker schools. He discusses his early fascination with quantum mechanics and his decision to go to Harvard for his undergraduate education, where he cemented his interests in experimental physics. Perlmutter explains his decision to go to Berkeley for graduate school, where he worked in Buford Price’s group before Richard Muller became his graduate advisor. He discusses his early awareness of the cosmic microwave background and how he became involved with robotic searches for supernovae. Perlmutter describes the importance of NASA’s BITNET program as a way to connect observatory data worldwide to the computer systems at Berkeley, and he explains the intellectual and observational connections between the inflation, expansion, and acceleration of the universe. He discusses his postdoctoral research at Berkeley, and the circumstances leading to him becoming leader of the supernova group and how the DOE became more involved in astrophysics funding. Perlmutter explains the group’s focus on deceleration and he conveys the difficulties in scheduling telescope time to demonstrate spectroscopy proof of type Ia supernovae. He describes the origins of the SNAP satellite project, some of the early theoretical discussions on the nature of dark energy, and when, finally, his group secured long-term support from the Lab. Perlmutter narrates his first interactions with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess and he describes the batch technique that could predict the discovery of supernovae, which vastly improved the efficiency of scheduling time on large telescopes. He explains the role of dark matter in speeding up the universe’s expansion, and he narrates the celebration with his team when he won the Nobel Prize and how he has chosen the use the political platform that comes with this recognition. Perlmutter discusses his interest in studying climate change, and at the end of the interview, he conveys his excitement about future observational discovery in astrophysics and cosmology.

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

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Stanley Wojcicki, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics at Stanford. Wojcicki recounts his family’s experiences in war-time Poland and his father’s work for the Polish government-in-exile in London. He discusses his family’s postwar escape to Sweden from the Communists before their passage to the United States. Wojcicki discusses his undergraduate experience at Harvard and the opportunities that came available as a result of Sputnik in 1957. He explains his decision to pursue his graduate research at Berkeley under the direction of Art Rosenfeld, and his realization at the time that Berkeley was at the forefront in the revolution of experimental elementary particle physics headed by Luis Alvarez and the bubble chamber technique used by his group. Wojcicki explains how SU(3) transitioned from a mathematical concept to a central component of particle physics, and he describes his postdoctoral work at Berkeley Laboratory and his NSF fellowship at CERN to work on K-meson beam experiments. He discusses his faculty appointment at Stanford and his close collaboration with Mel Schwartz using spark chambers. Wojcicki describes his advisory work for Fermilab and for HEPAP, and the controversy surrounding the ISABELLE project and the initial site and design planning of the SSC. He explains some of the early warning signs of the project’s eventual cancellation, and his work looking at charm particles at Fermilab from produced muons. Wojcicki explains that the endowed chairs named in his honor at Stanford were a retirement gift from his daughter Anne and her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Wojcicki reflects on his long career at Stanford, and he describes how the physics department has changed over the years and how government supported science has evolved. At the end of the interview, Wojcicki contrasts the sense of fundamental discoveries that permeated his early career, and he cites neutrino physics as a potentially promising area of significant discovery into the future.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Charles H. Bennett, IBM Fellow and Research Staff Member at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, IBM Corporation. Bennett recounts his childhood in the Hudson Valley, and he describes his exposure to the earliest versions of computers. He explains that his first interest as an undergraduate at Brandeis was in biochemistry, and how his focus shifted to chemical physics by the time he became a graduate student at Harvard where he studied under David Turnbull. Bennett discusses his postdoctoral research with Aneesur Rahman at Argonne National Laboratory and his growing interest in using computers for data analysis. He describes the opportunity that led to his job offer at IBM and he surveys the field of quantum information in its earliest formation. Bennett discusses his involvement in quantum cryptography and its relation to the uncertainty principle. He explains the origins of quantum teleportation, and he reflects on some of the central mysteries of quantum mechanics. Bennett discusses his work on entanglement distillation, and he describes some of the early naysaying about quantum computation. He surveys his more recent interests in the quantum reverse Shannon theorem and rediscovering rate distortion theory. At the end of the interview, Bennett puts some of the “buzz” regarding quantum computing in historical perspective and he explains his interest in applying mathematical models to understand questions about equilibrium in cosmology.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

Interview with Brian Schmidt, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor and President of the Australian National University. Schmidt surveys the Covid crisis from his perspective at ANU, and he describes his current interests in cosmology. He recounts his childhood in Montana and Alaska in support of his father’s career in fisheries biology, and he describes his undergraduate education as a dual major in physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona. Schmidt describes the opportunities that led to his graduate work at Harvard, where he worked under the direction of Bob Kirshner and where he met and developed a formative relationship with Adam Riess on supernovae research. He explains his decision to remain at Harvard for his postdoctoral research and he narrates the origins of the High-Z collaboration and its interactions with Saul Perlmutter’s team at Berkeley. Schmidt describes his postdoctoral appointment at ANU as leader of High-Z, and he describes how the collaboration discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe and the process of communicating its findings. He describes the “buzz” leading to the Nobel Prize and his subsequent focus on the SkyMapper project. Schmidt discusses his responsibilities as Vice Chancellor which overlap strongly with Australian national policy, and he describes how he sees the reality of climate change in his 21 years of grape growing. At the end of the interview, Schmidt reflects on how the High-Z discovery has changed astronomy broadly, and he conveys a sense of wonder at the accidental nature by which the team arrived at its discovery.