University of Oxford

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with John Spence, Richard Snell Professor of Physics at Arizona State University. Spence discusses his dual role as a Director of Science at NSF and his focus on research at the intersection of biology and physics. He recounts his childhood in Australia and his undergraduate education at Queensland University. Spence describes his graduate research on plasmons at Melbourne and the opportunities that led to his postdoctoral appointment at Oxford, where he worked with Mike Whelan and David Cockayne on quantifying atom arrangements in solids. He describes his decision to join the faculty at Arizona State, and the nascent field of high-resolution electron microscopy, which compelled him to write a book on the topic. Spence discusses his work on the structure of defects in superconductors and his collaborations with Bell Labs, and he explains the significance of the LCLS to his research. He describes the BioXFEL project, his work as part of the broader community of crystallographers, and the intellectual origins of the book "Lightspeed". At the end of the interview, Spence credits Michael Crow for bringing ASU to the forefront of so much innovation in science, and he reflects on how physics has never failed to surprise him.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, Jo Dunkley, professor of physics and astrophysical sciences at Princeton, discusses her life and career. Dunkley describes the nature of this dual appointment and she recounts her childhood in London and her all-girls school education. She describes her undergraduate experience at Cambridge and the formative influence of Malcolm Longair’s class on relativity. Dunkley explains that pursuing a graduate degree in physics was not a foregone conclusion, and that she initially considered a career in international development. She discusses her motivation to study under the direction Pedro Ferreira at Oxford to work on the cosmic microwave background experiments. Dunkley conveys the immediate importance of Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) on her thesis research and the opportunities that led to her postdoctoral work at Princeton to work with David Spergel and Lyman Page on WMAP. She explains her decision to return to the Oxford faculty to continue working with Ferreira and the origins of her involvement in the Atacama Cosmology Telescope project and subsequently the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST, now the Vera C. Rubin Observatory) endeavor and her work on it with Ian Shipsey. Dunkley discusses the challenges in maintaining a work-life balance during maternity leaves at Oxford and then at Princeton, after she joined the faculty in 2016. She describes the many exciting projects her graduate students are working on and she explains her current interests in understanding the Hubble constant. At the end of the interview, Dunkley surveys the major unanswered questions in contemporary cosmology, the viability of discovering the mass of neutrinos, and what the interplay between theory and experimentation might hold for the future.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Steven Block, W. Ascherman Professor of Sciences, Stanford University. Block describes his German-Jewish heritage on his mother’s side, and his father’s Eastern European Jewish heritage. He describes growing up the son of a physicist and the importance of skiing and music in his family and spending his early childhood in Italy while his father was a visiting scholar. Block describes the rest of his childhood in North Carolina, and then Illinois, where his father worked for Duke and Northwestern, respectively. He explains his unique interests in Chinese and oceanography and why this led him to the University of Washington in Seattle, and he describes his subsequent pursuit of physics and ultimately biophysics at Oxford University. Block discusses the formative relationship he built with Max Delbruck at Cold Spring Harbor Labs where he worked on phycomyces, and he explains his decision to go to Caltech for graduate school to work with Howard Berg. He describes his postgraduate interests in sensory transduction in e. coli as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, and he provides a history on the discovery of kinesin and why this was key for his research. Block explains his decision to join the Rowland Institute and he discusses its unique history and the freedom it allowed its researchers, and he describes the opportunity that allowed him to secure tenure at Princeton. He describes some of the difficulties in convincing his colleagues to consider biophysics as “real” physics and the considerations that led to him joining the faculty at Stanford. Block describes the difficulties he has experienced when his laboratory site was displaced, and how, in dark way, he was prepared for the pandemic lockdown before most of his colleagues. At the end of the interview, Block reflects on his contributions, he explains the central importance of statistical mechanics to biophysics, he explains how he has tried to emulate his mentors in the care and interest he has shown his own students, and he prognosticates on the future of single molecule biophysics.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Michael Kosterlitz, Harrison E. Farnsworth Professor of Physics at Brown University. He recounts his family background in Germany and his upbringing in Aberdeen, Scotland, and he explains that opportunities that led to his undergraduate admission at Cambridge University where he developed his life-long passion for rock climbing. He describes his early interest in high-energy physics and his decision to pursue a graduate degree at Oxford where he worked on the Veneziano and dual resonance models under the direction of John Taylor. Kosterlitz discusses his postdoctoral work first in Torino and then at Birmingham where he met David Thouless and where he developed his initial interest in condensed matter and his subsequent expertise in phase transitions and superfluidity. He explains the revolutionary advances of Ken Wilson’s renormalization group and his decision to go Cornell where he enjoyed a foundational collaboration with David Nelson and Michael Fisher on crossover problems in critical phenomena. Kosterlitz discusses his decision to join the faculty at Brown, and he provides an overview in the advances in superfluidity in the 1970s and 1980s. He discusses the research that was eventually recognized by the Nobel prize committee and the experiments that bore out the theoretical predictions which were an essential prerequisite to the award. Kosterlitz describes the many benefits conferred as a result of winning the Nobel, and he provides perspective on how he has coped with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis over the years. At the end of the interview, Kosterlitz explains his reluctance to prognosticate on future trends in the field because his experiences have proved to him that one can never know such things and that research breakthroughs are often unforeseen.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Joseph Silk, Homewood Research Professor of Physics at Johns Hopkins, Researcher Emeritus at the Institute of Astrophysics in Paris, and Senior Fellow at the Beecroft Institute for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics. Silk recounts his childhood in London as the child of working-class parents, and he describes his early interests in math and his acceptance to Cambridge. He discusses the influence of the fluid dynamicist George Batchelor and the gravitational theorist Denis Sciama, and his decision to pursue graduate work at Manchester before enrolling at Harvard for his PhD research under the direction of David Layzer. Silk describes the revolutionary discovery of the cosmic microwave background and some of the observational advances that were driving the young field of cosmology and galaxy formation. He discusses his postdoctoral appointment with Fred Hoyle back at Cambridge and his next research position working with Lyman Spitzer at Princeton, and with Jerry Ostriker on black holes and pulsars. Silk describes the circumstances leading to his first faculty appointment at Berkeley and the excitement surrounding the high red shift universe, the birth of X-ray astronomy, and he describes Berkeley Laboratory’s gradual emphasis on astrophysics over his 30-year career at UC Berkeley. He discusses his long-term research endeavor to verify the prediction of the Big Bang theory and the incredible results of the COBE project. Silk describes his budding interests in particle astrophysics, which he considers a discipline distinct from astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics, and which grew from cosmic inflation. He describes the import and future prospects of supersymmetry, how his namesake contribution “Silk damping” came about, and he conveys his excitement about moon-based telescopes. Silk draws a distinction between understanding the very beginning of the universe (t = 0) and the tiniest fraction of time after that (t = epsilon) and why an understanding quantum gravity will be necessary to make advances in this field. He discusses the current controversy around the Hubble constant, he describes his decision to transfer from Berkeley to Oxford and how this led to his current slate of affiliations, including his appointment at Johns Hopkins. At the end of the interview, Silk discusses his current interests in the moon telescope project and what the legal ramifications of a permanent moon presence might look like and why, in his popular talks, he finds it important to project a sense of awe about the universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Ian Hinchliffe, Senior Staff Emeritus at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Hinchliffe surveys the current state of play with the ATLAS collaboration. He recounts his childhood in northern England, and his interests and abilities in science that facilitated his admission to Oxford. Hinchliffe explains his decision to remain at Oxford for graduate school to work under the direction of Llewellyn Smith on deep inelastic scattering and he discusses his postdoctoral appointment at Berkeley Lab. He discusses his work in the theory group led by Geoff Chew and he explains the significance of QCD to reconcile calculations with experiments. Hinchliffe describes the opportunities that allowed him to stay at Berkeley Lab and the key developments of neutrino scattering. He discusses his involvement in supercollider physics and planning for the SSC and his tenure as leader of the theory group. Hinchliffe explains how Berkeley got involved in the ATLAS collaboration at CERN and George Trilling’s leadership of this effort, and he explains how CMS is both competitor and partner in the search for the Higgs and beyond. He conveys his feelings when the Higgs was discovered and how ATLAS has contributed to astrophysical research. At the end of the interview, Hinchliffe prognosticates on the future of CERN, and why he remains optimistic that the Higgs factory will push forward foundational discovery.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Edward Witten, Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study. Witten discusses his current interests in quantum information theory in gravity, and he recounts his childhood in Baltimore and the influence of his father Louis Witten, who is a physicist. He describes his undergraduate education at Brandeis, where he majored in history, a brief stint working for the McGovern campaign, and a false start in graduate school to study economics before landing at Princeton to study first applied mathematics and then theoretical particle physics with David Gross. He describes the significance of deep inelastic scattering in the emergence of QCD and his earliest exposure to the ideas that would develop into string theory. Witten describes his postdoctoral appointment at Harvard to work with Steve Weinberg, Sidney Coleman, Shelly Glashow, and Howard Georgi. He discusses t’ Hooft’s success at solving the U(1) problem and his early work in supersymmetry by the time he joined the faculty at Princeton. Witten narrates the string revolution of 1984 and the early optimism that string theory would be able to describe the real world. He describes his involvement in topological quantum field theories and he explains his decision to move to the Institute from Princeton. Witten discusses his work with Nati Seiberg on N=2 super Yang Mills in four dimensions, the origins of M-theory in the 1994 string revolution, and the impact of Juan Maldacena’s work on AdS/CFT. He describes his collaboration with Seiberg on noncommutative geometry, his interest in the Langlands program, and the role of axions in string theory. Witten conveys the sense of optimism when the LHC turned on and the significance of Khovanov homology and Morse theory. He explains the need to revisit perturbative superstring theory and the possibility that the g-2 muon anomaly experiment at Fermilab will lead to new physics. At the end of the interview, Witten reflects on how little has been seen at the LHC after the Higgs discovery, and he expresses hope that string/M-theory and quantum gravity make meaningful contact during his lifetime.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Richard Leapman, Senior Investigator in the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and Scientific Director of the intramural program. Leapman recounts his childhood in England and he describes his early and formative experience playing with an optical microscope. He describes his undergraduate work at Peterhouse College of Cambridge University and the influence of Aaron Klug in his physics education. Leapman explains his decision to remain at Cambridge for his Ph.D., and he describes his work in the Cavendish Laboratory and Klug's suggestion that he focus on inelastic scattering of electrons in electron microscopes to perform elemental microanalysis. He discusses his postdoctoral work at Oxford and the opportunity leading to his research at Cornell in the School of Applied Engineering Physics. Leapman explains his attraction to join the NIH upon learning that he would have access to an electron microscope and could work on electron energy-loss spectroscopy. He describes some of the biological implications of this work, including the ability to look at cells to detect elemental distributions inside subcellular organelles. Leapman discusses his many collaborations across the Institutes at the NIH and the development of NMR spectroscopy, and he describes the partnership between NIH and NIST that ensured his access to cutting-edge technology over the course of his career. He describes various aspects of his research that have direct clinical value to treating a variety of ailments, including asbestos exposure to coronavirus. Leapman describes his work at the chief of electron beam imaging and micro-spectroscopy and the numerous collaborations he has pursued beyond the NIH at both National Labs and university labs. He discusses some recent advances in his field, including new abilities to determine the 3D structure of proteins, and he explains his administrative duties as Scientific Director of the Institute. At the end of the interview, Leapman describes how the study of electrons has connected all of his research, and he discusses some of the challenges and opportunities he has confronted in his career as a physicist operating in a biologically-focused research environment.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Bathesda, Maryland
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interview Ad Bax, section chief in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics, at the NIH. Bax recounts his childhood in the Netherlands growing up on a farm and his undergraduate experience at the University of Delft. He describes his developing interest in nuclear magnetic resonance and the exciting theoretical opportunities that this new field presented. Bax discusses his graduate work with Ray Freeman at Oxford in NMR spectroscopy, and he explains the early role of computers on NMR research. He discusses the circumstances leading to his postdoctoral work at Colorado State University on solution and solid state NMR. Bax explains his initial work at the NIH using NMR to study protein structure. In the last portion of the interview, Bax provides an overview of the clinical and research value of NMR to the overall mission of the NIH, and he describes how the culture of collaboration makes the NIH a unique place to pursue basic research.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Raymond Orbach, professor of physics emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. Orbach recounts his childhood in Los Angeles, his early interests in chemistry, and his undergraduate experience at Caltech. He discusses his graduate work at Berkeley on integral equations and his research at Bell Labs and at Oxford where he worked on resonance relaxation. Orbach explains his research agenda at UCLA, including his work on magnetic resonance and the antiferromagnetic ground state. He discusses his work as chancellor of UC Riverside and his ability to keep up research while working in administration. Orbach recounts the circumstances leading to him becoming director of science at DOE and his “dual-hatted” work as Undersecretary of Science for DOE. He provides an overview of the state of high energy physics in the early 2000s and the long-term affect of the SSC cancellation. In the final part of the interview, Orbach talks about his research on energy issues at superconducting quantum interference devices at UT.