Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Michal Lipson, Eugene Professor in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Columbia University. She recounts her childhood as the daughter of a prominent physicist whose work took the family to Israel and then in Brazil, where she spent her formative years in São Paulo. Lipson explains her decision to pursue a degree in physics at Technion in Israel, where she remained to complete her graduate studies in semiconductor physics under the direction of Elisha Cohen. She describes her postdoctoral research at MIT in material science with Lionel Kimerling, and she explains the opportunities that led to her first faculty position at Cornell. Lipson describes her dual interest in pursuing basic science research and industry-relevant work. She discusses her work in photonics which led to her MacArthur fellowship and the significance of her study of slot waveguides and optical amplification in silicon. Lipson describes her subsequent work in nonlinear photonics and high-power lasers, and she explains the opportunity leading to her current position at Columbia, where she has focused on two-dimensional materials. At the end of the interview, Lipson emphasizes the fundamental importance of oscillators that have always informed her research.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Interview dates
September 9, September 25, October 9, October 19, November 3, November 9, November 23, November 30, December 7, and December 14, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Ernest Moniz, Emeritus Professor and Special Adviser to the President of MIT, discusses his time as U.S. Secretary of Energy under Barack Obama. Moniz discusses his time as an undergraduate at Boston College working under Joe Chen and their efforts building a resonant cavity. He speaks about his experience as a graduate student at Stanford University working Dirk Walecka on the study of theoretical condensed matter physics and how it led to his eventual publishing of a paper about using a modified fermi gas to understand deep inelastic scattering. Moniz describes his time working in Washington with the Office of Science and Technology Policy and how the OSTP became marginalized under the George W. Bush and Trump Administrations. He discusses the Wen Ho Lee scandal and subsequent development of the National Nuclear Security Administration and how it has evolved throughout the years. Moniz talks about his partnership with John Deutch at MIT on a policy-oriented study of the future of nuclear power which eventually became known as the series, The Future of... He details his time working in the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology during the Obama Administration and his eventual role as the Secretary of Energy. Moniz Discusses the development of the Iran Nuclear Deal and the cooperation of the countries involved, as well as how the U. S’s relationship with Iran has changed over the years. He reflects on how the Trump Administration undid several Obama era initiatives pertaining to energy and climate and the lasting impacts of those actions. He also discusses becoming an advisor to Saudi Arabia and the planned mega-city of the Tabuk region. Lastly, Moniz reflects upon the challenges the Biden Administration may face moving towards a more decarbonized energy future.

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

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Peter Fritschel, Senior Research Scientist in the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics at MIT. Fritshel explains the historical connections between Kavli, Caltech, MIT, and the overall LIGO collaboration. He recounts his childhood in South Dakota, then New York City, and then back to South Dakota in support of his father’s academic career. Fritschel discusses his undergraduate education at Swarthmore, where he pursued degrees in physics and engineering, and he discusses his post-college work at Raytheon on CO2 lasers in its research division. He describes the events leading to his admission to MIT for graduate school where he joined Rai Weiss’s research lab, and he explains the progress that the lab had made on interferometers at that point in the mid-1980s. Fritschel explains the utility of his background in lasers for Weiss’s lab, and the significance of Caltech’s involvement in the LIGO project. He discusses the relationship between his thesis research on making an interferometer with a power recycling configuration in two arms, and LIGO. Fritschel describes his intent to leave MIT after he defended, and he considered opportunities more broadly in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, which led to his work in Orsay, France, with Alain Brillet and Adelberto Giazotto, the founders of the Virgo collaboration. He explains his decision to return to MIT, and how his work in France was useful for his return to LIGO. He explains how LIGO had advanced during his absence, he discusses his contributions to improving the sensitivity of the gravitational interferometers, and he describes how LIGO had made consistent progress over many years and not “all at once” with the detection of gravitational waves in 2015. Fritschel explains that the Nobel Prize given to LIGO’s principal scientists recognized the collaboration both as a theoretical and an experimental endeavor, and he describes the overall positive impact that this recognition had on the collaboration as it continues to push discovery in gravitational wave research and the advances in both physics and engineering that are required for LIGO to realize its future goals. At the end of the interview, Fritschel conveys the centrality of LIGO’s study of black holes and neutron stars in order to harness the collaboration’s ability to garner new insights on the early Universe.

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
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with interviews Michael Oppenheimer, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and the High Meadows Environmental Institute at Princeton University. Oppenheimer describes the three-way nature of his work at Princeton, between the School of Public and International Affairs and the Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program. He describes the possibilities for climate change policy in the transition from Presidents Trump to Biden, and he discusses the moral dimension to climate change diplomacy and what the “Global North” owes the “Global South.” Oppenheimer recounts his childhood in Queens, the opportunities that allowed him to enroll at MIT at age 16, and his decision to focus on chemistry and to become involved in political activity in the 1960s. He explains his decision to go to the University of Chicago for graduate school, where he studied under the direction of Steve Berry on low-temperature spectroscopy of alkali halides. Oppenheimer describes his postdoctoral research at what would soon become the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard to work on astrophysics from an atomic and molecular perspective and on the chemistry of comets. He explains how the acidification issue in the Adirondack Lakes serves as an entrée to his interests in environmental policy and how this led to his work for the Environmental Defense Fund. Oppenheimer describes his work on the linearity question and why it is relevant for understanding carbon emissions and his advocacy work on the Clean Air Act. He explains the early science that concluded that even a few degrees of warming would be globally catastrophic, and the early signs that the Republican party would serve generally to block legislation to mitigate climate change. Oppenheimer discusses his involvement with international climate negotiations and policy with the IPCC and the issue of contrarianism in global warming debates. He contrasts the simplicity of the greenhouse effect with the complexity of understanding climate change, and he explains his decision to move to Princeton within the context of what he thought the Kyoto Protocol had achieved. Oppenheimer reflects on how climate change has increased in the public consciousness, and at the end of the interview, he considers early missed opportunities for more change in climate policy, and where he sees reason for both optimism and pessimism as the world faces future threats relating to climate change.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Gordon Kane, Victor Weisskopf Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Michigan. He explains why came to hold a chair in Weisskopf’s honor and he describes his affiliation with the Leinweber Center for Theoretical Physics. Kane recounts his childhood in Minnesota and the opportunities that led to his enrollment in physics at MIT and his graduate work at Illinois to work with J.D. Jackson. He explains that the major topic in particle theory during his graduate work was understanding nucleon scattering and the significance of Geoff Chew’s bootstrap mechanism. Kane talks about his contribution to the discovery of the omega minus at Brookhaven and his research at the Rutherford Lab. He explains his decision to join the faculty at Michigan and his interest in group theory because of the advances made by Murray Gell-Mann. Kane describes the early work in the search for physics beyond the Standard Model, and he explains the value of string theory at the Planck scale. He discusses the possible new physics that would have been discovered at the SSC and why compactified M theory offers a plausible path to moving beyond the Standard Model. Kane explains why string theory is testable and why string theory predicts axions, he offers some possible candidates for dark matter and what compactified M theory offers cosmic inflation. At the end of the interview, Kane discusses his current interests in quark masses and charge leptons, he explains some of the advantages inherent in teaching at a large public university, and he describes why communicating science to popular audiences has always been important to him.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 7, 14, 21 & 28, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus of physics at MIT. Weiss recounts his family history in pre-war Europe and the circumstances of his parents' marriage. He describes his childhood in New York City, and he explains his interests in experimenting and tinkering from an early age. Weiss explains the circumstances leading to his undergraduate study at MIT and his original plan to study electrical engineering before focusing on physics. He recounts his long and deep relationship with Jerrold Zacharias, who singularly championed Weiss's interests over the years. He discusses his graduate work on the hyperfine structure of hydrogen fluoride. Weiss describes his formative work with Bob Dicke at Princeton, and he explains how technological advances was beginning to offer new advances in general relativity. He explains how Dicke's influence served as an intellectual underpinning for the creation and success of LIGO. Weiss emphasizes the importance of Richard Isaacson as one of the founding heroes of LIGO, and he describes the fundamental importance of joining his research institutionally with Caltech. He describes his early research with John Mather, and the numerous administrative challenges in working with the NSF throughout the LIGO endeavor. Weiss describes the geographical decisions that went into building LIGO, the various episodes when LIGO's ongoing viability was in doubt, and how both Barry Barish and Kip Thorne contributed to ensuring its success. At the end of the interview, Weiss describes some of the sensitivities regarding who has been recognized in LIGO and who has not, in light of all the attention conferred by the Nobel prize, and he reflects on how LIGO will continue to push discoveries forward on the nature and origins of the universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Mansour Shayegan, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton. Shayegan recounts his family roots in Isfahan, and the political and social dynamics of growing up in Iran. He explains his decision to pursue an undergraduate education in the United States and the opportunities leading to his enrollment at MIT as an undergraduate. He describes his decision to stay at MIT for graduate school and his experiences in the electrical engineering program, where he worked with his advisor Millie Dresselhaus, during the Iranian Revolution. Shayegan describes Dresselhaus’s reputation as the “Queen of Graphite” and he describes the impact of her research on his dissertation on graphite intercalation. He discusses some of the commercial potential of his graduate research and emphasizes his primary interest in basic research and describes his postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland. He explains the origins of his interest in semiconductor physics in collaboration with Bob Park and Dennis Drew, and he describes the events leading to his faculty appointment at Princeton. Shayegan describes the work involved getting his lab and the MBE system set up, and he discusses the excellent culture of collaboration in both the physics and EE programs at Princeton. He explains recent advances in superconductivity research, and he reflects on the success he has enjoyed as a mentor to graduate students over the years. Shayegan expresses his pleasure in teaching quantum mechanics to undergraduates, and he explains his long-term interest in research on gallium arsenide. At the end of the interview, Shayegan reflects on his contributions to the field, its intellectual origins in the prediction of Bloch ferromagnetism, and the importance of securing the ongoing support from the National Science Foundation.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Phiala Shanahan, assistant professor of physics in the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT. Shanahan explains the administrative relationship between the department and the Center, and she recounts her childhood in Adelaide, Australia, her experiences at an all-girls school and the benefits this conferred in nurturing her interest in science. She discusses her concentration in computational physics and the mass of the H-dibaryon at the University of Adelaide and her decision to stay on with her undergraduate advisors, Anthony Thomas and Ross Young, for graduate school. Shanahan describes her interest in the proton radius puzzle as a research entry point for her thesis work and why she was interested in how particle physics can be connected more rigorously to quarks, gluons, and ultimately chemistry. She describes the opportunities leading to her postdoctoral research at MIT and some of the cultural adjustments she had to make coming from Australia. Shanahan discusses her collaboration with Will Detmold and she describes her contributions to the NPL-QCD research project and she discusses her first faculty appointment at William & Mary before returning to MIT where she remains in her current appointment and where she is pursuing work on proton structures and in creating ever-faster algorithms. She describes the potential benefits that would be conferred with the availability of true quantum computing for her field, and she describes some of the difficulties she has faced as a woman in getting recognized for her accomplishments in her field of research. At the end of the interview, she emphasizes why her long-term goal is to bridge nuclear physics and chemistry, and why she wants to keep an open mind about pursuing other areas that are both interesting and offer the opportunity to push forward discovery in foundational ways.