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
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.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Elliott Bloom, Professor Emeritus of Particle Physics and Astrophysics at SLAC, recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, and he describes his early interests in physics. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Pomona College where he became interested in particle physics and cyclotrons. Bloom describes his graduate work at Caltech, where he worked under the direction of R.L. Walker and did his thesis experiment on studying gamma ray production of charged pions from hydrogen or deuterium. He discusses his postdoctoral research at SLAC to work with Richard Taylor, who was building spectrometers in End Station A at the end of the linear electron accelerator. Bloom discusses his early interests in online computing and he describes the origins of the Parton model and his collaboration with Joe Ballam on BC-42. He explains his original involvement with axion research and the significance of the DORIS-II storage ring at DESY. Bloom discusses his subsequent work at the SLAC B-factory on PEP-II, he describes his interests in the COBE satellite, and he explains SLAC's entrée into astrophysics. He discusses the collaborative effort with NASA on the GLAST experiment and his focus with DOE support to understand dark matter. At the end of the interview, Bloom reflects on his career trajectory as part of a larger narrative of particle physicists who became engaged in astrophysics later in their careers, and why it is important for physicists to remain open to new avenues of inquiry.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Jonathan Dorfan, emeritus director of SLAC, and emeritus president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Graduate University. Dorfan recounts his childhood in South Africa and his experiences with apartheid, and he explains how he developed his early interests in science. He discusses his time at the University of Cape Town and a formative visit he made to SLAC where his older brother was working. Dorfan describes his subsequent studies at UC-Irvine and he explains his interest in pursuing a graduate degree in particle physics and high-energy physics during the excitement surrounding the Standard Model. He discusses his move to SLAC to conduct research with rapid cycling bubble chambers which turned into his thesis. Dorfan describes his postdoctoral research at SLAC with Martin Perl and his involvement with the Mark I and Mark II experiments, and he describes the opportunities leading to his faculty position at SLAC. He discusses the centrality of the B-factory project, and he describes his considerations when he was offered the directorship at Fermilab. Dorfan describes the impact of the rise and fall of the SSC on SLAC, and he explains the leadership positions which at a certain point put him on track to assume the directorship of SLAC. He describes SLAC’s entrée to astrophysics and the strategic partnership it developed with NASA, and he reflects on whether this transition would have been conceivable to Panofsky’s founding vision for the lab. Dorfan describes the changing culture of SLAC and its increasingly bureaucratized nature toward the end of his directorship, his work in support of advancing cancer research at Stanford, and he discusses the circumstances leading to his directorship of the Okinawa Institute. At the end of the interview, Dorfan emphasizes continuity over change as the dominant theme of his career in science with an arc that has increasingly bent toward concerns of broad societal relevance.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 7, 14, 21 & 28, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus of physics at MIT. Weiss recounts his family history in pre-war Europe and the circumstances of his parents' marriage. He describes his childhood in New York City, and he explains his interests in experimenting and tinkering from an early age. Weiss explains the circumstances leading to his undergraduate study at MIT and his original plan to study electrical engineering before focusing on physics. He recounts his long and deep relationship with Jerrold Zacharias, who singularly championed Weiss's interests over the years. He discusses his graduate work on the hyperfine structure of hydrogen fluoride. Weiss describes his formative work with Bob Dicke at Princeton, and he explains how technological advances was beginning to offer new advances in general relativity. He explains how Dicke's influence served as an intellectual underpinning for the creation and success of LIGO. Weiss emphasizes the importance of Richard Isaacson as one of the founding heroes of LIGO, and he describes the fundamental importance of joining his research institutionally with Caltech. He describes his early research with John Mather, and the numerous administrative challenges in working with the NSF throughout the LIGO endeavor. Weiss describes the geographical decisions that went into building LIGO, the various episodes when LIGO's ongoing viability was in doubt, and how both Barry Barish and Kip Thorne contributed to ensuring its success. At the end of the interview, Weiss describes some of the sensitivities regarding who has been recognized in LIGO and who has not, in light of all the attention conferred by the Nobel prize, and he reflects on how LIGO will continue to push discoveries forward on the nature and origins of the universe.

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 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 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 Feryal Ozel, professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Arizona. Ozel recounts her childhood and family background in Istanbul and how her interest in science was fostered both at home and at the all-girls international school she attended through 12th grade. She describes the opportunities that led to her enrollment at Columbia University for her undergraduate education, where she majored in physics and applied math and where Jacob Shaham influenced her interest in neutron stars. She describes a formative summer internship at CERN where she worked on supersymmetric decays of the Higgs boson, and a postgraduate year at the Niels Bohr Institute, before she began her graduate work at Harvard. Ozel discusses her thesis research on magnetars under the direction of Ramesh Narayan and she describes her postdoctoral position at the Institute for Advanced Study as a Hubble fellow. She describes the academic and family considerations that made Arizona an attractive option and she explains the mechanics behind funding from NASA and the NSF. Ozel describes her favorite physics classes to teach, how she sees her role as a mentor to women students and students of under-represented groups, and she surveys recent developments in neutron star astrophysics and the interaction of gas and black holes. She discusses her contributions to the Event Horizon collaboration, and she relates her ideas on the significance of seeing a photograph of a black hole without needing observational evidence to know that black holes exist. Ozel describes her motivations in serving in scientific advisory roles and the importance of science communication and how advances in computational power have revolutionized astrophysics. At the end of the interview, Ozel discusses the outstanding question mark about making gravity compatible with how we understand the subatomic world and how this serves as a starting point for future research oriented toward fundamental discovery, and why she is particularly interested in continuing to work on black hole imaging.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Saul Teukolsky, Hans A. Bethe Professor of Physics and Astrophysics at Cornell and Robinson Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Caltech. Teukolsky recounts his childhood born in a Jewish family in South Africa, and he explains the tensions between his parents’ politics, who were accepting of apartheid, and his own views which rejected this as a national injustice. He describes his undergraduate education at the University of Witwatersrand and the impact of the Feynman Lectures on his intellectual development. Teukolsky explains his interest in pursuing general relativity for graduate school, and he discusses the circumstances leading to his enrollment at Caltech, where he studied Newman-Penrose equations and perturbations of the Kerr metric under the direction of Kip Thorne. He discusses his year-long postdoctoral research position at Caltech and his subsequent decision to join the faculty at Cornell, where he developed the gravitational theory program. Teukolsky explains the significance of the Hulse-Taylor discovery at Arecibo on general relativity, and he describes the early impact of computers on advancing GR research and specifically on numerical relativity which he worked on with Bill Press. He discusses the rise of computational astrophysics, and he surveys his interests in pedagogical issues in physics and his early involvement in LIGO and the LISA collaboration. At the end of the interview, Teukolsky explains how he has tried to communicate astrophysical concepts to broad audiences, and he expresses optimism that massive advances in computational abilities will continue to drive forward fundamental advances in the field.