University of Chicago

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
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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

Interview with Robert M. Wald, Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, where he also has appointments with the Kadanoff Center and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Wald recounts his childhood in New York, he describes the tragedy of losing his parents in an airplane crash when he very young, and he explains the ongoing legacy of his father Abraham Wald who was a prominent professor of statistics at Columbia. He describes his high school education at Stuyvesant and his decision to pursue a physics degree at Columbia, where he became close with Alan Sachs, who supervised him at Nevis Laboratory. Wald explains his decision to focus on general relativity for graduate school and his interest in working with John Wheeler at Princeton. He describes the excitement surrounding recent advances in approaching astrophysics through relativity, the significance of the discovery of pulsars and the field of black hole uniqueness, and he discusses his postdoctoral research with Charles Misner at the University of Maryland. Wald describes the impact of Saul Teukolsky’s discovery of a variable Weyl tensor component that satisfied a decoupled equation, and he explains the circumstances leading to his faculty position at Chicago, where he was motivated to work with Bob Geroch. He reflects on the experience writing Space, Time, and Gravity, the advances in black hole collapse research, and he explains why he felt the field needed another textbook which motivated him to write General Relativity. Wald discusses his work on the Hawking Effect and his long-term interest in quantum field theory, and he explains the influence of Chandrasekhar on his research. He describes his contributions to the LIGO collaboration, and he explains what is significant about the Event Horizon Telescope’s ability to capture an image of a black hole. Wald explains the state of gravitational radiation research and the accelerating universe, he prognosticates on what advances might allow for a unification of gravity and the Standard Model, and he explains why dark energy is apparently a cosmological constant. At the end of the interview, Wald discusses his recent work on the gravitational memory effect and, looking to the future, he explains his interest to continue working to understand the S-matrix in quantum electrodynamics.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Marcelle Soares-Santos, assistant professor of physics at the University of Michigan. Soares-Santos recounts her childhood in Brazil, her early interests in science, and her graduate work in physics at the University of São Paulo. She describes her graduate visit to Fermilab to study galaxy clusters as a way to map the history of the expanding universe, which formed the basis of her thesis research. Soares-Santos discusses her return to Fermilab as a postdoctoral researcher, where she joined the Dark Energy Survey, and she explains how DES is getting us closer to understanding what dark energy is. She describes Fermilab’s broad-scale transition into astrophysics, and she explains the opportunities that led to her faculty appointment first at Brandeis before moving to Michigan. Soares-Santos discusses her current work in gravitational waves, and she prognosticates on what the discovery of dark energy (or energies) will look like. She shares her perspective on recent efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity in STEM. At the end of the interview, Soares-Santos explains why observation is leading theory in the current work of astrophysics and cosmology and why she is optimistic for fundamental advances in the field.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
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Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Joshua Frieman, head of the Particle Physics Division at Fermilab, and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. He recounts his childhood in Princeton as the son of a physicist and his decision to attend Stanford as an undergraduate, where his interests in cosmology developed. Frieman explains that his options for graduate research in cosmology were narrow and his reasons for going to the University of Washington to work with Jim Bardeen before moving to Chicago to be Michael Turner’s first graduate student. He discusses his interest in approaching cosmology from the perspective of particle theory and his thesis focus on curved space time within a cosmological context. Frieman describes his postdoctoral work at SLAC and his first position at Fermilab in the theory group that Dave Schramm had started. He discusses his work on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and then the Dark Energy Survey. Frieman explains what might be needed to understand dark energy, he describes his appointment at Chicago, and he explains the origins of the Magellan Telescopes project. He discusses the value of the Aspen summer sessions and his involvement with P5, and explains the value of the 2010 Decadal Survey. At the end of the interview, Frieman surveys the current slate of project at Fermilab and emphasizes the value of incorporating cosmological perspectives to high-energy and particle physics. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
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Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Charles Kane, Christopher H. Browne distinguished professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania. Kane surveys the interplay of theory and experiment in condensed matter over the course of his career, and he recounts his childhood in Iowa City, where his father was a professor of civil engineering. He discusses his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, and the formative influence of Tom Rosenbaum on his interest in theory. Kane describes his graduate research at MIT under the direction of Patrick Lee to focus on mesoscopic physics, and he conveys the excitement surrounding High Tc. He discusses his postdoctoral work at IBM to focus on free-floating theory and he explains the exciting prospect of joining Penn which had a strong condensed matter group. Kane describes Steve Girvin’s role in introducing him to the quantum Hall effect and his key collaboration with Matthew Fischer on calculating electrical conduction when a one-dimensional conductor has a weak link in it. He discusses his subsequent interest in carbon nanotubes and graphene and his realization that graphene should have an energy gap. Kane describes the feeling in winning both the Dirac and Buckley prizes and he discusses advances in the phenomenology of topological insulators. He explains the controversy surrounding Majorana modes and he discusses the recognition by the Breakthrough Prize for his work in topology and symmetry. At the end of the interview, Kane reflects on the growth of his department at Penn and he explains why improved applications of quantum mechanics and improved understanding of quantum mechanics must progress in tandem.

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.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Wendy Freedman, John & Marion Sullivan University Professor and senior member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. She recounts her childhood in Canada, her early interests in science, and her decision to attend the University of Toronto, where she developed an interest in astronomy. She cites the Canada France Hawaii Telescope as the reason she stayed at Toronto for graduate school to work under the direction of Barry Madore. Freedman describes her postdoctoral appointment at Carnegie Observatories to work on the Cepheid distance scale, and she explains her decision to accept a position on the permanent staff at Carnegie. She narrates the origins of the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project, and she explains the resistance among theorists regarding the existence of the Hubble constant. Freedman discusses the importance of CCDs to measure the Hubble constant, and she marvels at Hubble’s long and productive life. She explains the inspiration for starting the Giant Magellan Telescope as an international collaboration, and she explains the opportunities that led to her becoming director of Carnegie. Freedman surveys the cooperative nature between the GMT and LSST projects and she projects optimism that GMT will propel fundamental advances in black hole research and for the search for exoplanets and possible for life beyond earth. She explains her decision to join the faculty at Chicago and she expresses pleasure at being able to work with students as a professor. At the end of the interview, Freedman reflects on the increasing complexity and expense of large-scale astronomy research and why it is important that the astronomy community relates its work and discoveries to the broader public.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Young-Kee Kim, Louis Block Distinguished Professor of Physics, Chair of the Department of Physics, and Senior Advisor to the Provost for Global Scientific Initiatives at the University of Chicago. She explains her advisory role to the Provost and she surveys the many challenges associated with remote work during the pandemic. Kim recounts her childhood in South Korea, her early interests in math, and her plans in college to pursue a career in theoretical physics. She describes the opportunities that allowed her to come to the United States to pursue thesis research at the University of Rochester to work with Steve Olsen on the AMY experiment and to test QCD via properties of quarks and gluons. Kim describes her postdoctoral work at Berkeley Lab on the CDF experiment at Fermilab, and she explains her decision to join the faculty at UC Berkeley as she was becoming more involved in ATLAS at CERN. She describes the shutdown of the Tevatron and her appointment as Deputy Director of Fermilab, and she explains her decision to move to the University of Chicago. Kim describes the broader view she gained of the DOE in her leadership role at Fermilab and she surveys the reverberating discoveries that occurred as a result of finding the Higgs at the LHC. She explains why electromagnetism is her favorite course to teach and she reflects on the physics community’s recent push to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusivity. At the end of the interview, Kim conveys the value of taking a global approach to the biggest questions in science and she explains why she remains focused on the Higgs boson, which she believes could offer a pathway to the discovery of new physics. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

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.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Marc Kastner, Donner Professor of Physics at MIT and senior science advisor to the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Kastner explains the nomenclature transition from solid state to condensed matter physics, and he surveys the interplay between theory and experiment in his field.  He recounts his childhood in Ottawa and the influence of his father, who was an experimental physicist, and he explains the opportunities that led to his admission to the University of Chicago. Kastner explains his decision to remain at Chicago for graduate school to work under the direction of Hellmut Fritzsche on optical properties of semiconductors under pressure. He discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Harvard to work with Bill Paul on amorphous silicon, and his connection to David Adler who facilitated his faculty appointment at MIT. Kastner describes his work on amorphous semiconductors and transient excitation and his collaboration with Bob Birgeneau on high Tc. He discusses Joe Imry’s work on heterostructures and subsequent research on the Kondo effect, and how he came to understand the significance of his discovery of the single-electron transistor. Kastner discusses his tenure as department chair, director of MRSEC, and dean of science, and he explains his decision to retire and to join the Science Philanthropy Alliance. He describes his current work with his former student David Goldhaber-Gordon and his excitement over the current research on twistronics. At the end of the interview, Kastner reflects on the role of luck in his career, the centrality of technological advance in his research and what we can learn about physics more broadly as a result of the single-electron transistor.