In this interview, Andreas Albrecht, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Quantum Mathematics and Physics (QMAP) at the University of California, Davis, discusses his life and career. Albrecht describes the growth of the department since his arrival, his affiliation with QMAP, and the broader effort to integrate more mathematicians into the field of cosmology. He recounts his childhood in Ithaca as the son of two PhD scientists and family sabbatical visits to Santa Cruz and to the Soviet Union. Albrecht describes his budding interests in physics in high school, his undergraduate experience at Cornell and his early exposure to the ideas of Robert Dicke and Alan Guth. He discusses his graduate work at Penn and the circumstances that led him to become Paul Steinhardt’s mentee in cosmology. Albrecht conveys all of the excitement surrounding inflationary cosmology in the early-mid 1980s and the opportunity that led to his postdoctoral appointment with Steve Weinberg’s group at the University of Texas where he became interested in cosmic strings. He describes his subsequent postdoctoral appointment at Los Alamos where he worked with Wojciech Zurek and where his carpools with Geoffrey West proved to be a formative intellectual experience. Albrecht explains his decision to accept a staff position at Fermilab and the contemporary advances in cosmic strings scaling and why primordial nucleosynthesis was uniquely data-oriented relative to other fields in cosmology. He describes his subsequent faculty position at Imperial College in London and he emphasizes the productive and tight-knit cosmology community across the UK. Albrecht conveys the importance of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) experiments and how his ideas of equilibrium cosmology had changed over time and where the term “Boltzman Brains” originated. He describes how UC Davis was rapidly growing and how the opportunity to build a cosmology group was appealing to him. Albrecht explains the origins of his “arrow of time” concept and why this resonates with the broader public’s interests in the universe. He conveys the existential difficulty, and possible impossibility, of developing a credible theory of the beginning of the universe. Albrecht reflects on the spiritual dimensions of cosmological unknowability and the significance of the anthropic principle, and he discusses his efforts as department chair to enhance diversity in the field. At the end of the interview, Albrecht discusses his current work on decoherence and einselection, and he explains why avoiding prejudices in one’s scientific sensibilities is both singularly difficult and key to unlocking future discovery.
n this interview, Stephon Alexander discusses current research into quantum gravity and possible extensions to string theory; work to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity; research into the connection between music and cognitive science; experience as a jazz musician; intersections of philosophy and physics; experience as president of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP); challenges and stigmas associated with being a Black academic; growing up in both rural Trinidad and the Bronx; undergraduate experience at Haverford; graduate work at Brown; guidance from Robert Brandenberger into the field of quantum gravity, applying particle physics to astrophysics and cosmology; thesis research on solitons and topological defects and its role in string cosmology and theory; decision to take postdoc at Imperial College London focusing on M-theory and integrating string theory with cosmic inflation; influence of Alan Guth; work on D-brane driven inflation; experience in the underground London music scene; decision to go to SLAC in Stanford and work under Michael Peskin; loop quantum gravity; time as faculty at Penn State; the role and responsibility of the Black academic; recruitment by Brown University; intellectual influence of David Finkelstein; the process of becoming president of NSBP. Toward the end of the interview, Alexander reflects on his books, The Jazz of Physics and Fear of a Black Universe; being an outsider in the field of physics; and revisits his current work on quantum gravity. He emphasizes the importance of in-person collaboration and improvisation.
Interview with Gabriela Gonzalez, Louisiana State University Boyd Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Gonzalez explains how the pandemic has slowed down data analysis for LIGO, and she recounts her childhood in Cordoba, Argentina. She describes her early interests in science and her physics education as an undergraduate in Cordoba. Gonzalez explains the circumstances that led to her graduate studies at Syracuse University where she studied relativity under the direction of Peter Saulson, and where she first became involved with LIGO. She discusses her postdoctoral appointment at MIT to work in Rai Weiss’s group, and she explains LIGO’s dual goals of detecting gravitational waves and building precision instruments toward that end. Gonzalez explains her decision to join the faculty at Penn State and she describes the site selection that led to the detection facility in Livingston, Louisiana. She describes the necessary redundancy of the LIGO detectors at Livingston and Hanford, Washington, and the importance of “locking” the mirrors on the detectors. Gonzalez describes the overall scene at LIGO in the months up to the detection and the theoretical guidance that improved the likelihood of success. She describes the intensive communication and data analysis to confirm the detection prior to the announcement, and she explains how she felt honored as part of the overall Nobel Prize award and subsequent celebration. Gonzalez describes LIGO’s work in the current post-detection period, and her own focus on diagnostics of the data, and she explains why this work, and the constant concern in missing something important, can be stressful. At the end of the interview, Gonzalez surveys what mysteries LIGO can, and cannot, solve, and she conveys optimism for LIGO’s long-term prospects to continue to push fundamental discovery.
Interview with Lee Smolin, Founding and Senior Faculty Member at the Perimeter Institute with faculty appointments at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. Smolin narrates the origins of the Perimeter Institute and he describes his unorthodox views on what exactly cosmology is. He describes loop quantum gravity and the notion of a “theory of everything” and why he has much love for string theory despite perceptions of the opposite. Smolin explains the utility and trappings of the Standard Model and he searches for deeper meaning in the origins and societal impact of the pandemic. He recounts his childhood in Cincinnati and his early appreciation for physics and the circumstances that led to his undergraduate education at Hampshire. Smolin explains his attraction in working with Sidney Coleman at Harvard, and why he saw a grand plan in his desire to learn quantum field theory. He describes meeting Abhay Ashtekar and his postdoctoral work at UC Santa Barbara and then at the Institute for Advanced Study. Smolin describes his formative relationship with Chandrasekhar at Chicago, his first faculty appointment at Yale, and his tenure at Syracuse where he found a strong group in relativity and quantum gravity. He explains his reasons for transferring to Penn State and his involvement in loop quantum gravity achieving a mature state amid a rapidly expanding “relativity community” throughout academic physics. He describes his time at Imperial College, where he developed a quantum gravity center with Chris Isham and he historicizes the technical developments that connected his theoretical work with observation. Smolin describes his book "The Life of the Cosmos" and his foray into thinking about biology and why he identifies as a self-conscious Leibnizian who tries to connect cosmology with the concept of a god and the centrality of astrobiology to these issues. At the end of the interview, Smolin explains why he continually returns to quantum gravity, and he conveys his interest in keeping philosophy at the forefront of his research agenda.
This is an interview with Martha Krebs, former director of the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation for Penn State in Philadelphia and advisor to the Defense Science Study Group at the Institute for Defense Analysis. She recounts her childhood in postwar Japan and then central Pennsylvania, and she describes her interest in science and the formative influence of Sputnik on her ambitions during her time in a Catholic high school. Krebs explains her decision to attend Catholic University where she knew she wanted to pursue a degree in physics from the beginning. She discusses the importance of securing a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship and the family considerations that influenced her decision to stay at Catholic for graduate school, where she studied under Tomoyasu Tanaka, who was working on hydrogen bonds in ferroelectrics. Krebs describes the opportunities leading to her first postgraduate job in the Science Policy Research Division of the Congressional Research Service which led to her work on the Energy Subcommittee of the Science and Technology Committee, and she provides context on the major issues relating to federal energy policy in the mid-1970s and the rebalancing of power between the White House and Congress in the post-Watergate era. She narrates the origins of the Department of Energy during the Carter administration and she describes the circumstances that led to her tenure as staff director of the Energy Subcommittee which was becoming increasingly important to national developments in renewable and efficient energy sources. Krebs describes the major partisan and industry dynamics that shaped her work on the committee, particularly with the ascendancy of the conservative movement in the 1980s. She explains her decision to move to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which was looking to reinvent itself beyond high-energy physics with new projects in relativistic heavy ion collider projects. She describes the central influence of the Cooperative Research and Development Agreements in the relationship between the Lab and the DOE, and she describes the events leading to her work as director of the Office of Science in the DOE for the Clinton administration. Krebs discusses the collapse of the SSC project at the beginning of her tenure and her contributions to the Office of Energy Research and the applied R & D programs and how she understood the relationship between DOE and OMB on science policy generally during the Clinton years. She describes the state of high energy physics during this time and the DOE’s involvement in nanotechnology research, her decision to join the California NanoSystems Institute, and then her decision to become director of energy efficiency at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. At the end of the interview, Krebs reflects on her career and offers insight into how U.S. national policy can be best directed toward further gains in energy efficiency into the future.
In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews the Honorable France Córdova, former Director of the National Science Foundation. Córdova recounts her childhood in Europe and then Southern California. She discusses her experiences in Catholic school and her decision to study at Stanford as an undergraduate, where she did not focus on science. Córdova explains her initial desire to pursue graduate work in anthropology until a series of events led to her employment at Caltech and ultimately, her dissertation work in astrophysics and data analysis. Córdova discusses her work at Los Alamos and her faculty appointment at Penn State. She describes her tenures as Chancellor at University of California Riverside, NASA administrator, and as President of Purdue, and she explains her main goals and accomplishments in each of these positions. In the latter portion of the interview, Córdova describes her work at Director of the NSF and she provides a detailed overview of science policy and funding during her years serving in the Obama administration.
Otto Stuhlman's house, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
This interview was conducted as part of the Archives for the History of Quantum Physics project, which includes tapes and transcripts of oral history interviews conducted with circa 100 atomic and quantum physicists. Subjects discuss their family backgrounds, how they became interested in physics, their educations, people who influenced them, their careers including social influences on the conditions of research, and the state of atomic, nuclear, and quantum physics during the period in which they worked. Discussions of scientific matters relate to work that was done between approximately 1900 and 1930, with an emphasis on the discovery and interpretations of quantum mechanics in the 1920s. Also prominently mentioned are: Edwin Plimpton Adams, Karl Compton, Harris Hancock, James Jeans, Owen Willans Richardson, Dean West; University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton University.
American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland
This interview with Jim Stith was conducted following his retirement as Vice President of the AIP’s Physics Resource Center. It covers his childhood in rural Virginia, and how he became interested in science, attendance at segregated schools, and at Virginia State University, where he received a BS degree in physics 1963 and an MS in physics in 1964. It discusses his work in physics under John Hunter, the third African-American to receive a PhD in the subject. The interview then covers his drafting into the Army during the Vietnam War, and his work in air defense in Korea, as well as his brief and successful career as an associate engineer at RCA under Bob Pontz. His graduate education and obtaining of a D.Ed degree in physics in 1972 at Pennsylvania State University is discussed. The interview then focuses on his lengthy career as an instructor of physics at the United States Military Academy at West Point (1972-1993), his experiences as an African-American physicist, and his work in the field of physics education. The remainder of the interview concentrates on his move to teach and research physics education at The Ohio State University, his involvement with the American Association of Physics Teachers, and his work at AIP.
Abhay Ashtekar, Evan Hugh Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at Penn State, is interviewed by David Zierler. Ashtekar recounts his childhood in the Indian state of Maharashtra, and discusses his early fascination with physics and the universe. He describes his undergraduate interests in general relativity and the opportunities that led to his enrollment at the University of Texas to join the Center for Relativity. Ashtekar discusses the culture shock when he arrived in Austin and Bob Geroch’s mentorship in quantum gravity, and his decision to follow Geroch to Chicago. He describes his interactions with Chandrasekar and his graduate research on quantum field theory in curved space-times and the asymptotic nature of space-time. Ashtekar discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Oxford to work with Roger Penrose, and he explains the moral origins of his commitment to making his field visible and therefore richer in opportunity for junior scholars. He explains his reasons to return to Chicago for a second postdoc, his decision to join the faculty at Syracuse, and a formative visiting appointment he had in Paris. Ashtekar describes the attraction in joining the faculty at Penn State, and his increasing focus on loop quantum gravity and the intellectual origins of the Ashtekar variable. He explains these developments as part of the broader effort to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity and the implications this will have on our understanding of the Standard Model. Ashtekar surveys the field of loop quantum cosmology and its relation to both inflation and string theory, and he conveys the enjoyment he felt with the detection of gravitational waves. At the end of the interview, Ashtekar explains why he does not like the phrase “theory of everything,” he reflects on the lessons he has learned from the luminaries who have mentored him, and he explains why the field still does not fully understand quantum mechanics.
Growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; father’s values in contrast with the values of the Polish/Irish community they lived in; unhealthy home environment; life during the Depression; the American Dream and the American West as a symbol of new horizons; perfectibility of human beings; development of views on socialism, fascism, Nazism, communism; usefulness of public libraries; love of nature in contrast to the chaos of the city; high school geometry and algebra; electrons and the fourth dimension; tornados and vortices; movement and being; light as an entity; Pennsylvania State University (1935-1939); friends and rural environment; ROTC training; chemistry and physics courses; introduction to quantum mechanics.