University of Cambridge

Interviewed by
David Zierler
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Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Thomas Ramos, a physicist detailed to the Principal Associate Director for Weapons and Complex Integration at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Ramos discusses his current work writing an unclassified history of the weapons program at Livermore and the broad perspective this has given him on the Laboratory from the postwar era to the present. Ramos recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and his military enlistment after high school, which led to a tour in South Korea and then an order from West Point to pursue a master’s degree in nuclear physics. He discusses his graduate work at MIT and his research on bubble chamber experiments at Fermilab and Argonne before being ordered back to West Point to teach nuclear science. Ramos describes the opportunities leading to his appointment at Livermore four years later and his initial work on the X-ray laser program and the origins of the SDI program. He discusses the impact of the end of the Cold War on the Laboratory and the extent to which Reagan’s military spending accelerated the Soviet collapse. Ramos discusses his work at the Pentagon as a legislative affairs officer for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, and he explains Livermore’s increasing involvement in monitoring nuclear proliferation among terrorist groups and rogue states. He describes his transition to counterproliferation as a result of the end of nuclear testing at Livermore and the signification of the creation of the National Ignition Facility. Ramos describes the transition to his current work documenting Livermore’s history, and he reflect broadly at the end of the interview on how Livermore has adapted to evolving security threats over its long history.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Renata Wentzcovitch, professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Wentzcovitch recounts her childhood in Brazil, and she describes how her grandfather sparked her interest in science early on. She describes her education at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Physics where she developed an interest in density functional theory. Wentzcovitch discusses her interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the United States, and her decision to attend UC Berkeley and study under the direction of Marvin Cohen. She describes her thesis research on pseudopotential plane-wave codes and super-hard materials such as boron nitride and diamonds. Wentzcovitch explains the impact of High Tc Superconductivity on both her career and the field generally, and she describes her postdoctoral research with joint appointments at Brookhaven and Stony Brook on evolving electronic wavefunctions via classical dynamics. She discusses her subsequent work with Volker Henie at Cambridge to study silicate perovskite, which in turn led to her first faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota. Wentzcovitch describes the importance of Minnesota’s Supercomputing Institute for her research, and she explains how her research focused more centrally on geophysics and the thermo-elasticity of minerals and their aggregates. She describes the founding of the Virtual Laboratory for Earth and Planetary Materials and explains her decision to join the faculty at Columbia and her involvement with VLab and the study of exchange-correlation functionals to address electronic interactions. At the end of the interview, Wentzcovitch discusses her current work on developing codes for thermodynamic computations and seismic tomography, and she conveys the value of pursuing international collaborations to fit her broad and diverse research agenda.

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 Lu Sham, Distinguished Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of California at San Diego. Sham recounts his childhood in Hong Kong and he describes the legacy of Japanese rule from World War II. He describes his early interests in math and he explains his decision to pursue a higher education in England at Imperial College. Sham discusses his motivation to conduct graduate work at Cambridge University and to study under Nevill Mott on the first principle method calculating the electron contribution to lattice vibration. He describes the help provided by John Ziman to secure his postdoctoral position at UC San Diego to work with Walter Kohn, and he describes the foundational collaboration and research that went into the Kohn-Sham equation and how this work builds on the classic debate between Einstein and Bohr. He describes the opportunities leading to his faculty appointment and eventual tenure on the physics faculty, and he explains the benefits of spending summers doing research at Bell Labs. Sham discusses his contributions to research on semiconductors, quantum computing, and density-functional theory. He describes his more recent interest in optics and the formative work he has done with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers over the years. Sham discusses his administrative service as department chair and Dean of Science. At the end of the interview, Sham asserts that the future of condensed matter physics holds limitless possibilities, and that improvements in semiconductor materials will push quantum information abilities in exciting and unforeseen directions.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Mark Trodden, Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Professor of Physics, and Co-Director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. Trodden describes the overlap between astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, and he recounts his working-class upbringing in England. He discusses his undergraduate education at Cambridge, where he focused on mathematics, and he explains his decision to switch to physics for graduate school at Brown, where he worked under the direction of Robert Brandenberger. Trodden describes the impact of the COBE program during this time, and he discusses his work on the microphysics of cosmic strings and topological defects and their effect on baryon asymmetry. He explains his decision to return to Cambridge for his postdoctoral research with Anne Davis and his subsequent postdoctoral appointment at MIT to work with Alan Guth. Trodden discusses his next postdoctoral position at Case Western, which he describes as a tremendously productive period, and he discusses the opportunities that led to his first faculty position at Syracuse. He notes the excellent graduate students he worked with at Syracuse, and he explains what is known and not known with regard to the discovery of the accelerating universe. Trodden describes why the theory of cosmic inflation remains outside the bounds of experimental verification, and he explains the decisions that led to his decision to join the faculty at Penn and his subsequent appointment as chair of the department. He discusses the work that Penn Physics, and STEM in general, needs to do to make diversity and inclusivity more of a top-line agenda, and he describes much of the exciting work his current and former graduate students are involved in. At the end of the interview, Trodden looks to the future and offers ideas on how physicists may ultimately come to understand dark energy and dark matter.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Peter Lepage, Tisch Family Distinguished University Professor of Physics at Cornell. He recounts his childhood in Montreal and his decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics at McGill. Lepage discusses his Master’s work at Cambridge University and his decision to do his thesis research in particle physics at Stanford. He describes the fundamental advances happening at SLAC during his graduate years and his work on bound states of electrons and muons under the direction of Stanley Brodsky. Lepage discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Cornell and his work in high-precision QED calculations in atoms, and he describes the foundational impact of Ken Wilson’s work on lattice QCD and the intellectual revolution of renormalization. He describes this period as his entrée into QCD research, and he emphasizes the beauty of Ithaca and the supportive culture of the Physics Department as his main reasons to accept a faculty position at Cornell. Lepage explains how and when computers became central to Lattice QCD research and why effective field theory was an area of specialization that was broadly useful in other subfields. He describes the ongoing stubbornness of the Standard Model, and he discusses his tenure as chair of the department, then as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and his work on PCAST in the Obama administration. Lepage explains his longstanding interest in physics pedagogy, and he discusses his current work on the numerical integration program called VEGAS. In the last part of the interview, Lepage emphasizes that the most fundamental advances in physics are in astrophysics and cosmology and that lattice QCD should be “kept alive” because it’s unclear where it is going until physics goes beyond the Standard Model.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Robert H. Brandenberger, Canada Research Chair and professor of physics at McGill University. Brandenberger recounts his childhood in Switzerland as the son of organic chemists, and he describes his undergraduate education at the ETH Zurich in physics. He discusses his graduate research at Harvard to work under the direction of Arthur Jaffe, and he describes his first exposure to cosmic inflation. Brandenberger describes his postdoctoral appointment at the ITP in Santa Barbara where he worked with Neil Turok and Andreas Albrecht, and his subsequent postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. He explains his initial ideas on cosmic strings as an alternative to inflation and his encounters with Cumrun Vafa and Slava Mukhanov. Brandenberger describes the origins of string gas cosmology, its implications for a multiverse and how it was received among string theorists. He discusses his faculty appointment at Brown and he explains his decision to move to McGill where the opportunity to work with graduate students was stronger. Brandenberger surmises what string theory as a testable proposition would look like, and he reflects on some of the obvious philosophical implications of unknowability in the universe. He explains the difference between a toy model and a proper theory, and he conveys optimism that string gas cosmology will advance research on dark energy. At the end of the interview, Brandenberger reflects on the idea that string theory is "smarter than we are."

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Michael Green, Lucasian Professor Emeritus at Cambridge University and visiting professor at Queen Mary University. He recounts his childhood in London as the child of secular Jewish parents who immigrated to London just before World War II. Green discusses his early interests in physics and the opportunities that led to his enrollment at Cambridge, and he conveys Geoff Chew’s influence with his ideas on S-matrix and bootstrap theory, which informed his thesis research on hadronic interactions. He narrates the founding ideas that led to string theory and how the work on dual models became transformed into string theory. Green describes his postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study and his interactions with Veneziano. He explains his decision to return to Cambridge and the importance of the CERN theory group for his research, and he narrates the origins of his collaborations with John Schwarz. Green connects string theory to the ideas that led to supergravity, and he explains why he does not like the term “revolution” in relation to advances in string theory to explain what was happening between 1981-1984. He explains the meaning of the pronoun “super” in relation to string theory, and he conveys his disappointment that supersymmetry has yet to be observed. Green describes the importance of AdS/CFT and his contributions to the origins of D-branes with Joe Polchinski. He discusses his increasing reliance on computers for understanding aspects of AdS/CFT correspondence. Green reflects on winning the Breakthrough Prize, and the supposed aspirational recognition on working to unify the forces which are not yet unified, and he discusses the generational de-coupling of string theory education from particle physics. He provides sociological perspective in response to the impatience that certain physicists have expressed regarding string theory. At the end of the interview, Green ponders the future relationship between string theory and quantum computing, and he describes the field as an intellectual adventure which makes it difficult to predict the significance of these changes.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with John Ellis, Clerk Maxwell Professor of Theoretical Physics at King’s College London, and Visiting Scientist at CERN. Ellis discusses the g-2 experiment at Fermilab and where he sees current efforts geared toward understanding physics within the Standard Model, and pursuing new physics beyond it. He recounts his childhood in a small town north of London and his innate interest in physics before he understood that it was a proper field of study. Ellis discusses his education at Cambridge and the department’s strength in particle physics, general relativity, and cosmology, and he explains the relevance of the deep inelastic scattering research at SLAC for his thesis on approximate symmetries of hadrons. He describes the intellectual influence of Bruno Zumino and his decision to go to SLAC for his postdoctoral research to work on scale invariance. Ellis discusses his subsequent research at Caltech and he explains why he would have appreciated more the significance of asymptotic freedom had he better understood field theory at that point. He discusses his subsequent position at CERN and is collaboration with Mary Gaillard on semileptonic decays of charm. Ellis narrates the famous “penguin diagram” that he developed with Melissa Franklin and his interest in grand unification and how it differs from the so-called “theory of everything.” He describes the optimism in the 1980s that supersymmetry would be found and its possible utility in the search for dark matter. Ellis discusses his involvement with LEP and axion physics, and he reflects on the spirit of competition and collaboration between ATLAS and CMS in the run up to the Higgs discovery. He explains the new questions that became feasible as a result of the discovery and his interests in both gravitational waves and supernovae. Ellis describes the AION experiment, the important physics research currently in the works in China, and key recent developments in quantum gravity. At the end of the interview, Ellis conveys his belief in the importance of science communication, he minimizes the importance of the h-index as a measure of excellence, and in reflecting on his own career, he cautions against younger physicists becoming overly-specialized. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Hiranya Peiris, Professor of Astrophysics at University College London and Director of the Oscar Klein Centre and Professor of Cosmo-Particle Physics at Stockholm University. Peiris describes her dual affiliation, she discusses diversity in STEM over the past year, and she surveys the current interplay between theory and observation in her field. She recounts her childhood and family heritage in Sri Lanka and the circumstances that led her family to relocate to the United Kingdom. Peiris describes her interests in math and science the opportunities that led to her enrollment at Cambridge as an undergraduate and a formative experience at JPL in California. She explains her decision to pursue a PhD at Princeton, where she worked with David Spergel on WMAP. Peiris discusses her postdoctoral appointment as a Hubble fellow at the University of Chicago to continue to work on WMAP, and her subsequent work as a Halliday fellow at Cambridge. Peiris discusses her work on the Lyman-alpha forest and her faculty appointment at UCL where cosmology was just coming into maturity. She conveys the excitement as WMAP results were becoming available and her contributions to the search for dark matter. Peiris explains why the LSST project is so significant, what it was like to win the Breakthrough Prize, and the gratitude she feels by having eminent physicists as mentors. At the end of the interview, Peiris emphasizes the importance of following inquiry into the most fundamental questions surrounding gravity and space time, and why Stephen Hawking remains an intellectual inspiration to her.