University of Texas at Austin

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
January 30, February 6, 13, 20 & 27, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview Dr. Kenneth Watson, Dr. Richard Garwin, Dr. Curtis Callan, and Dr. Roy Schwitters participate in a roundtable discussion on the origins and early history of the JASON scientific advisory group. Watson, an emeritus from University of California San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography, discusses the early efforts of Charles Townes and Marvin Stern in forming JASON. Garwin, IBM Fellow Emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Laboratory of IBM, reflects upon IDA, the management organization that allowed for the formation of the JASON group. Callan, Professor of Physics at Princeton University, discusses the Charney Report and the sponsorship of Ari Patrinos of the Department of Energy, and his relationship with JASON. Schwitters, Regents Professor Emeritus from University of Texas Austin, and Garwin detail JASON’s 1980 report on tunnel detection. The group reflects upon the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and how it added urgency to the creation of JASON. Watson and Garwin discuss the early agenda of JASON and their focus on detection of missile launches, nuclear effects, and Nick Christofilos work with particle beam weapons. They discuss the involvement of JASON in the Vietnam War effort and how some members were targeted by protestors for their involvement. Watson and Schwitters reflect on the presence of Claire Max and the time it took to get more women involved in JASON in face of the traditional “boys club” atmosphere that was present in professional circles at the time. Garwin speaks about the development of the sonic boom report. Callen talks about his study on neutrino detection and the purpose of JASON in a post-Cold War era. He also discusses JASONs work on CHAMMP, Computer Hardware, Advanced Mathematics and Model Physics. The group describes the Human Genome project of the late 1990s. Schwitters and Garwin discuss how JASON can offer independent judgment in ways U.S. Intelligence agencies cannot, such as in 2009 when they were commissioned to study North Korean nuclear capability. Lastly, Watson speaks about how he believes GPS will become an important issue of study for JASON in the future, a point which is furthered by Garwin who also cites cybersecurity in general as a main focal point for JASON moving forward.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
July 28, August 18, September 4 & 11, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with William H. Press, Leslie Suringer Professor in Computer Science and Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Press recounts his childhood in Pasadena and the influence of his father Frank Press, who was a prominent geophysicist, Caltech professor, and who would become science advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He describes the impact of Sputnik on his budding interests in science, and he discusses his undergraduate experience at Harvard, where Dan Kleppner, Norman Ramsey, Ed Purcell and Dick McCray were influential in his development, and where he realized he had an aptitude for applying abstract equations to understanding physical reality. Press describes trying his hand with experimentation in Gerald Holton’s high-pressure physics lab, he recounts his involvement in student activism in the late 1960s, and he discusses his involvement in computer hacking in its earliest form. He explains his decision to attend Caltech for graduate school and his interest in studying with Dick Feynman and Kip Thorne. Press describes the opportunity leading to his work at Lawrence Livermore, how he got involved with Thorne’s group of mathematical general relativists, the origins of Thorne’s work on gravitational waves, and his collaborations with Saul Teukolsky and Paul Schechter. He describes the formative influence of Chandrasekhar. Press discusses his first faculty position at Princeton where he joined John Wheeler’s relativity group, and he describes his research interests flowing more toward astrophysics. He explains the opportunities leading to his tenure at Harvard, where he was given separate appointments in physics and astronomy and where he founded theoretical astrophysics within the Center for Astrophysics. Press describes his entrée into science policy work in Washington with the NSF Physics Advisory Committee and then later on the National Academy of Science and the National Research Council, and he explains the origins of his long-term association with the JASON Study Group. He describes his interest in gravitational collapse, Ia supernovae and galaxy formation, and why the study of black holes reinvigorated the field of general relativity. Press describes the singular genius of Freeman Dyson, and he recounts his contributions to nuclear risk reduction in science policy and his service with the Defense Science Board and the Institute for Defense Analyses. He discusses his tenure as chair in Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, his experience with the Numerical Recipes books, and his collaboration with Adam Riess and Robert Kirshner. Press recounts his decision take a position at Los Alamos as Deputy Director to John Browne, he describes his education there in the concept of leadership which he never received in his academic career, and he provides his perspective on the Wen Ho Lee spy case and the existential crisis this caused at the Lab. He describes the Lab’s role in the early days of computational biology and how this field sparked his interest. Press contextualizes this interest within his conscious decision not to stay connected to astrophysics during his time at Los Alamos, and he explains the opportunity leading to him joining UT-Austin where he remains invested in computational biology. He describes his work for the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology during the Obama administration, he describes Obama’s unique interest in science and science policy, and he narrates the difficulties in the transition to the Trump administration. Press reflects on what it means to be a member of the rarified group of scientists who did not win a Nobel Prize but who were advised by and taught scientists who did. At the end of the interview, Press explains that he has always been a dilettante, which has and will continue to inform how he devotes his time to science, service, and policy matter, and he advises young scientists to aspire to mastery in a specific discipline early in their career before branching out to new pursuits.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Steven Weinberg, Jack S. Josey-Welch Foundation Chair in Science and Regental Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The focus of the interview is on how and when Weinberg became interested in cosmology, and how he defines it as a distinct discipline from astronomy and astrophysics. Weinberg explains that between the intensity of interest in particle physics in the 1950s and the speculative nature of cosmology, he had neither the interest nor the outlet to pursue cosmology in a rigorous way. He discusses some of the theoretical and experimental limitations at the time that kept cosmology in a largely “mystical” realm, and why the discovery of the microwave background by Penzias and Wilson “changed everything.” Weinberg explains what new questions can be considered as a result of evidence for a hot early universe, and he discusses when he first became interested in the formation of galaxies. He describes why the cosmological constant has bothered him for a long time, and he traces this problem back to Einstein and what Weinberg considers Einstein’s incorrect approach to his own theory. Contrasting his own experience as a graduate student, he cites John Preskill as his first student to pursue cosmology, and he explains that while his interests in particle physics and cosmology are generally separate, he always looks for intersecting research opportunities, which is well represented in the relevance of beta decay physics in the first three minutes of the universe. At the end of the interview, Weinberg surveys the value and problems associated with the term “Big Bang,” and he reflects on his career-long effort not to be dogmatic in his views on cosmology.

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. 

Interviewed by
E. Carr Everbach
Interview date
Location
San Antonio, Texas
Abstract

In this interview Wayne Wright discusses topics such as: Acoustical Society of America (ASA); acoustics; University of Texas at Austin Applied Research Laboratory (ARL); graduate school at Harvard University; advised by Ted Hunt; working at Kalamazoo College; David Blackstock; ultrasonic acoustics; underwater acoustics with Herman Medwin; his family background; Bowdoin College for undergraduate education; Myron Jeppesen; working at Raytheon.

Interviewed by
Kenneth W. Ford
Interview date
Location
University of Texas at Austin
Abstract

Discusses his work at Princeton as a student of John Wheeler in 1961-1965. Interactions with Wheeler at the University of Texas, Austin. Wheeler's role in the department as a teacher. His leadership in departmental affairs as in research. His books on relativity. Comment on Janette Wheeler.

Interviewed by
Kenneth W. Ford
Location
University of Texas at Austin
Abstract

Griffy discusses inviting John Wheeler to join the physics department at the University of Texas, Austin. Wheeler's role there as teacher, researcher, and departmental colleague. Observations on Wheeler's character and personality and his influence on the department and the university.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

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.

 

Interviewed by
Charles Weiner
Interview date
Abstract

Early career through 1939. Midwestern background; education at University of Texas, graduate work at Harvard University in theoretical physics under Edwin C. Kemble and John Van Vleck, 1929-1933; traveling fellowship (chiefly in Germany, 1932); positions at Harvard, University of Wisconsin, Princeton University, and New York University. The nature of theoretical nuclear physics work in the 1930s including nuclear models and Feenberg's work with Eugene P. Wigner on nuclear forces. Also prominently mentioned are: John Bardeen, Niels Henrik David Bohr, C. P. Boner, Gregory Breit, Walter M. Elsasser, Wendell Furry, George Gamow, Julian Knipp, Ettore Majorana, R. L. Moore, Otto Oldenburg, Melba Newell Phillips, Roberts, Simon Share, C. G. Smith, Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld, Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker, (Freiherr von); Institute for Theoretical Physics (Copenhagen), Niels Bohr Institutet, and Raytheon Corporation.

Interviewed by
Charles Weiner
Interview date
Abstract

Early career through 1939. Midwestern background; education at University of Texas, graduate work at Harvard University in theoretical physics under Edwin C. Kemble and John Van Vleck, 1929-1933; traveling fellowship (chiefly in Germany, 1932); positions at Harvard, University of Wisconsin, Princeton University, and New York University. The nature of theoretical nuclear physics work in the 1930s including nuclear models and Feenberg's work with Eugene P. Wigner on nuclear forces. Also prominently mentioned are: John Bardeen, Niels Henrik David Bohr, C. P. Boner, Gregory Breit, Walter M. Elsasser, Wendell Furry, George Gamow, Julian Knipp, Ettore Majorana, R. L. Moore, Otto Oldenburg, Melba Newell Phillips, Roberts, Simon Share, C. G. Smith, Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld, Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker, (Freiherr von); Institute for Theoretical Physics (Copenhagen), Niels Bohr Institutet, and Raytheon Corporation.