Astrophysics

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
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 Peter L. Bender, Senior Research Associate at the University of Colorado and the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) in Boulder. Bender recounts his childhood in New Jersey, he describes his undergraduate focus in math and physics at Rutgers, and he explains his decision to pursue a graduate degree in physics at Princeton to work with Bob Dicke. He discusses his dissertation research on optical pumping of sodium vapor, which was suggested by Dicke as a means of doing precision measurements of atoms. Bender discusses his postdoctoral research at the National Bureau of Standards, where he focused on magnetic fields and he narrates the administrative and national security decisions leading to the creation of JILA in Boulder, where the laboratory would be less vulnerable to nuclear attack. He describes his work on laser distance measurements to the moon and his collaborations with NASA, and he discusses his long-term advisory work for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council. Bender describes the origins of the NASA Astrotech 21 Program and the LISA proposal, he explains his more recent interests in massive black holes, geophysics and earth science, and he explains some of the challenges associated with putting optical clocks in space. At the end of the interview, Bender reflects on the central role of lasers in his research, and he explains the intellectual overlap of his work in astrophysics and earth physics, which literally binds research that is based both in this world and beyond it.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Roald Sagdeev, professor of physics emeritus at the University of Maryland. He recounts his family’s ethnic Tatar heritage, his childhood in Kazan, and his family’s experience during World War II. Sagdeev describes his physics education at Moscow State University, and how he felt regarding the larger issues of physics and Soviet national security – especially during his time in Sarov, which was the equivalent of Los Alamos National Lab for nuclear weapons research. He discusses his work on radiation transport in stellar atmospheres, his subsequent research at the Kurchatov Institute, and his graduate research in controlled nucleosynthesis under the direction of Lev Landau. Sagdeev describes this time as the origins of his expertise in plasma physics and he explains the work he was doing at a classified site in Siberia. He explains how major Cold War events including the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear diplomacy affected his career and his moral satisfaction in not contributing to weapons science. Sagdeev discusses his work at the Institute of Physics of High Temperatures, and his developing interests in astrophysics, and he explains his subsequent tenure at the Space Research Institute of the Academy of Sciences, and why the American moon landing demonstrated that Russia had ceded its dominance in the Space Race. He explains why manned space missions were always more politicized than unmanned missions and describes the political value of the Soviet-US Soyuz-Apollo test project as an opportunity for “hand shaking in space.” Sagdeev discusses his experiences advising Gorbachev on disarmament negotiations, and he shares his perspective on SDI and why it was actually the Pershing missile system that contributed more to the Soviet collapse than U.S. defense spending under Reagan. He describes witnessing the end of the Cold War as watching a movie in slow motion, and he explains how he met Susan Eisenhower and the circumstances leading to his move to the United States, where he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and served as an adviser to NASA. Sagdeev explains his current interests in intergalactic shock waves and he shares his ideas on the newly formed U.S. Space Force and the weaponizing of space. At the end of the interview, Sagdeev shares that if he could start his career all over again, he would focus on neuroscience.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Kenneth Lande, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania. Lande recounts his early childhood in Austria and his family’s escape to New York City from the Nazis has a young boy. Lande describes his interest in science, which he developed during his time at Brooklyn Tech, which he pursued as an undergraduate at Columbia. He describes working on bubble chambers under the direction of Leon Lederman at Nevis Lab in Westchester, and why he gave no consideration to graduate schools other than Columbia. Lande discusses his research at Brookhaven and he describes the major projects of the early 1950s including the Cosmotron and Lederman’s cloud chamber. He describes his thesis research on K mesons and explains that he accepted a job offer at the University of Pennsylvania before he defended his dissertation. Lande describes Penn’s and Princeton’s joint effort to become competitive in accelerator physics, and he explains his growing involvement in neutrino physics and work at Los Alamos in the 1960s. He explains the need to work underground when studying neutrino events caused by cosmic rays, and he describes his involvement with the Homestake mine collaboration. Lande describes his research involving gallium at the Baksan Observatory in the Soviet Union, the importance of the Kamiokande experiment, and he provides a history of neutrino physics that connects Darwin to Hans Bethe. He compares his research at Brookhaven, Fermilab, and Los Alamos, and he explains why he discourages undergraduates from memorizing anything as a way to encourage critical thinking. At the end of the interview Lande reflects on how collaborations have grown enormously over the course of his career, and looking ahead, he sees his contributions to neutrino research as prelude to something much bigger and fundamental for future discovery.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
video conference
Abstract

Interview with Brian Schmidt, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor and President of the Australian National University. Schmidt surveys the Covid crisis from his perspective at ANU, and he describes his current interests in cosmology. He recounts his childhood in Montana and Alaska in support of his father’s career in fisheries biology, and he describes his undergraduate education as a dual major in physics and astronomy at the University of Arizona. Schmidt describes the opportunities that led to his graduate work at Harvard, where he worked under the direction of Bob Kirshner and where he met and developed a formative relationship with Adam Riess on supernovae research. He explains his decision to remain at Harvard for his postdoctoral research and he narrates the origins of the High-Z collaboration and its interactions with Saul Perlmutter’s team at Berkeley. Schmidt describes his postdoctoral appointment at ANU as leader of High-Z, and he describes how the collaboration discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe and the process of communicating its findings. He describes the “buzz” leading to the Nobel Prize and his subsequent focus on the SkyMapper project. Schmidt discusses his responsibilities as Vice Chancellor which overlap strongly with Australian national policy, and he describes how he sees the reality of climate change in his 21 years of grape growing. At the end of the interview, Schmidt reflects on how the High-Z discovery has changed astronomy broadly, and he conveys a sense of wonder at the accidental nature by which the team arrived at its discovery.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

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. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Marc Kamionkowski, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. He discusses his family heritage of Ashkenazi Jews who left Eastern Europe for Argentina, and his father’s medical research which took the family to Cleveland. Kamionkowski recounts his childhood in Shaker Heights, and he describes his undergraduate work at Washington University, where he switched from pre-med to physics to work with Marty Israel and Joe Klarmann. Despite his lack of preparation, Kamionkowski explains his admission to the University of Chicago, and he describes “the bug” that made him focus on physics and drive to succeed in quantum mechanics and understand quantum field theory. He discusses his thesis research under the direction of Michael Turner on energetic neutrinos from WIMP annihilation in the sun. Kamionkowski discusses his post-doctoral research at the Institute for Advanced Study where he was in Frank Wilczek’s particle theory group. He describes his first faculty appointment at Columbia and how experimental advances had opened up opportunities in cosmology. He explains his decision to move to Caltech because of its strength in theoretical astrophysics and where he became director of the Moore Center. Kamionkowski discusses his subsequent move to Johns Hopkins, and he surveys his recent projects on the Hubble Tension and early dark energy. At the end of the interview, Kamionkowski explains why he has always valued research that bridges the divide between theory and experimentation and why he expects this will continue to inform his broad research agenda.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Joel Primack, Distinguished Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Primack discusses what he has been able to do in his free time since his retirement, including writing papers, giving lectures, hosting meetings at UC Santa Cruz, leading international collaborations, and supervising research. He sees the new data coming from the Vera Rubin Observatory and the Gaia Survey as exciting developments in the realm of astrophysics, and he is looking forward to adding to this data when we begin receiving images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Primack discusses his work with various simulations that he has utilized to understand what may be occurring within galaxies, and the growing importance of astrobiology in these simulations. He takes us back into his early years in Montana, where his passion for science began to develop, and how his high school education and internships led him to Princeton University for his undergraduate career. While at Princeton, Primack took classes from John Wheeler, worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab under Bill Pickering, and participated in the Students for a Democratic Society, where his interest in the combination of politics and science began to grow. Primack discusses how important the communication between politicians and scientists is, and he saw this need for improved communication early on. He started the Congressional Science and Technology Fellowship program as a preliminary way to work on the relationship between government and science. He then recounts his experiences at Harvard University and his eventual move to Santa Cruz, where he continued working on dark matter and dark energy, among other things. He remarks on his relationship and work with Nancy Abrams, including the courses they taught and the books they wrote together. He ends the interview talking about his family, his recovery from cancer, and the people he’s looking forward to working with in the future.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Sandra Faber, Professor Emerita in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz and Astronomer Emerita at the University of California Observatories discusses her career and her involvement in various projects. Faber describes the relationship between these appointments, and she describes some of the benefits that remote work has allowed during the Covid-19 pandemic. She describes the DEIMOS spectrograph project as an outgrowth from her interest in galaxy formation and the centrality of steady state theory to this research. Faber discusses the importance of NSF support for her work, and she explains some of the cultural sensitivities in setting up a major telescope project in Hawaii. She explains the difference between ancient and more recent galaxy formation, and she explains how the next generation of spectrographs has surpassed what DEIMOS has been able to achieve. Faber discusses the famous optical flaw that threatened the viability of the Hubble Telescope and how this issue was resolved and the import of the CANDELS project. She explains the value of advanced computing for black hole quenching models, and she discusses her long-term collaboration with Chinese scientists and some of the political and international considerations inherent in these partnerships. Faber describes the origins of the Osterbrock Leadership Program and its value for fostering the careers of the next generation of scientists. At the end of the interview, Faber describes the meaning of “Cosmic Knowledge,” and she explains how this concept of humanity’s greater appreciation of our place in the universe can have ethically positive and long-lasting impacts beyond astronomy.

Interviewed by
Eline V. A. van den Heuvel
Interview date
Interview dates
January 14, February 8, and May 11, 2020
Location
Kensington Park Senior Living, Kensington, Maryland, USA
Abstract

Physics Graduate student Eline V. A. van den Heuvel (University of Amsterdam) interviews Professor Emeritus of Physics and Senior Research Scientist at the University of Maryland Charles W. Misner. After obtaining his BA at the University of Notre Dame in 1952, Prof. Misner continued his education at Princeton University, where he completed his PhD in Physics under supervision of Prof. John. A. Wheeler (1911-2008) in 1957. In the spring semester of 1956, Prof. Wheeler fulfilled the Lorentz professorship at Leiden University, the Netherlands, accompanied by his student Misner. Prof. Misner discusses this trip, focusing on his personal experience and his work on the Already Unified Field. He also discusses Wheeler’s relativity work and possible motivations for Wheeler to go to Leiden. The remainder of the interview deals with the many-worlds interpretation of Dr. Hugh Everett, a friend of Misner and former a PhD student of Wheeler, and Misner expresses his disappointment in how the physics community has treated Everett.