Quantum theory

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Gerard 't Hooft, University Professor of Physics (Emeritus) at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. 't Hooft considers the possibility that the g-2 muon anomaly experiment at Fermilab is suggestive of new physics, and he reflects broadly on the current shortcomings in our understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity. 't Hooft recounts his childhood in postwar Holland and the influence of his great uncle, the Nobel Prize winner Frits Zernike and his uncle, the theoretical physicist Nico van Kampen. He describes his undergraduate education at Utrecht University where he got to know Martinus Veltman, with whom he would pursue a graduate degree and ultimately share the Nobel Prize. 't Hooft explains the origins of what would become the Standard Model and the significance of Yang-Mills fields and Ken Wilson’s theory of renormalization. He describes Veltman’s pioneering use of computers to calculate algebraic manipulations and why questions of scaling were able to be raised for the first time. 't Hooft discusses his postdoctoral appointment at CERN, his ideas about grouping Feynman diagrams together, and how he became involved in quantum gravity research and Bose condensation. He explains the value in studying instantons for broader questions in QCD, the significance of Hawking’s work on the black hole information paradox, the holographic principle, and why he has diverged with string theorists. 't Hooft describes being present at the start of supersymmetry, and the growing “buzz” that culminated in winning the Nobel Prize. He describes his overall interest in the past twenty years in thinking more deeply about quantum mechanics and he places the foundational disagreement between Einstein and Bohr in historical context. At the end of the interview, 't Hooft surveys the limitations that prevent us from understanding how to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity and why this will require an understanding of how to relate the set of all integer numbers to phenomena of the universe.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Albert Schwarz, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Emeritus at UC Davis. Schwarz discusses his current interests in pursuing a geometric approach to quantum theory, and he recounts his family origins in Russia and Eastern Europe and their travails under Stalin’s oppression. He describes his early interests in math and his education at the Ivanovo Pedagogical Institute under the guidance of Professor Efremovich, who guided him in the new field of geometric group theory. Schwarz discusses his graduate research at Moscow University, where he focused on the homology of the space of closed curves and on the topology of the space of Fredholm maps during his postgraduate work. He explains the impact of Polyakov’s and t’Hooft’s work on magnetic monopoles and gauge fields in the 1970s, and he describes his contributions to instanton research. Schwarz recounts his earliest exposure to string theory and his subsequent work on supergravity, and he explains the opportunities and considerations that allowed him to emigrate to the United States. He discusses his initial contacts with Ed Witten and his appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study and his job offer at Davis. Schwarz explains his interest in Batalin-Vilkovisky formalism and his appreciation of the value in relating non-commutative geometry to string theory and M-theory. He describes why a geometric approach to quantum theory de-emphasizes the differences between classical and quantum mechanics. At the end of the interview, Schwarz reflects on some of the life lessons he learned from the difficulties of his youth, how his background gives him a uniquely Russian approach to math and physics, and he explains a duality in string theory where it does not currently explain reality but that ultimately, the “right” physics will arise from it.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Subir Sachdev, Herchel Smith Professor of Physics at Harvard University. Sachdev surveys his current research projects which includes a focus on Planckian metals and the Sachdev-Ye-Kitaev model, and he describes the interplay between theory and experiment on the topics he is following most closely. He describes the major advances in spin liquids research, and he recounts his childhood and Jesuit education in Bangalore. Sachdev discusses his undergraduate education at the Indian Institute of Technology and he explains the circumstances that led to his family’s emigration to the United States and his transfer to MIT where Dan Kleppner was a formative influence. He explains his decision to move to Harvard for graduate school, where David Nelson supervised his thesis research related to Nelson’s interests in developing the theory of the structure of metallic glasses. Sachdev describes his postdoctoral work on quantum spins and antiferromagnets at Bell Labs, and research advice he received from Bert Halperin. He explains his decision to join the faculty at Yale, he describes his key collaborations with Nick Read on quantum antiferromagnets and he narrates his increasing interest in cuprates. Sachdev discusses his decision to write Quantum Phase Transitions and he describes the origins of the SYK model and its relevance for black hole research. He discusses his involvement in string theory and his longstanding interests in Bose-Einstein condensation. Sachdev narrates his decision to transfer to Harvard and he describes his work in quantum chaos. He describes his professorship at the Tata Institute and the meaningfulness of being able to travel to and maintain contacts in India. At the end of the interview, Sachdev explains open issues in the theory of pseudo-gap in the high-temperature superconductors, how the SYK model may contribute to the development of a theory of quantum gravity, and he provides a long-range view of developments in the field of strange metals.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
April 13, April 15 and April 22, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Pierre Ramond, Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Florida. Ramond recounts childhood in Paris, he describes his family’s experiences during World War II, and he explains that opportunities that led to his education in electrical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He discusses his graduate degree in physics at Syracuse University to focus on general relativity and his first exposure to the earliest iterations of string theory. Ramond describes his work at Fermilab on Veneziano modelling, his postdoctoral research at Yale, and his subsequent work at Los Alamos. He describes Gell-Mann’s interest in grand unified theories and the influence of Ken Wilson. Ramond explains the excitement regarding the muon anomaly experiment at Fermilab, and he narrates his decision to join the faculty at the University of Florida. He explains how the department’s stature has risen over the past forty years, and he reflects on his involvement with the superstring revolution in 1984. Ramond describes the difference between effective and fundamental theories in particle physics and he conveys the productive intellectual ferment at the annual Aspen conferences. He describes his service work on the faculty senate and he describes his leadership position at the APS during the discovery of the Higgs. Ramond explains why he thinks supersymmetry would have been detected at a completed SSC and he reflects on receiving the Dirac medal in 2020. At the end of the interview, he discusses Einstein’s misgivings on quantum mechanics, he imagines how string theory might be testable, and he explains why he remains interested in CP violation.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Stephen Fulling, Professor of Mathematics and of Physics and Astronomy at Texas A&M University. Fulling explains the history of why his primary academic department is math and how the field of general relativity became more directly relevant to observational cosmology in the 1960s and 1970s. He recounts his middle-class upbringing in Indiana and his dual interests in math and physics which he developed during his undergraduate years at Harvard. Fulling discusses his graduate work at Princeton, where Arthur Wightman supervised his research. He explains the contemporary controversy over the Casimir effect and his interest in the Minkowski vacuum, and he discusses his postdoctoral appointment at UW-Milwaukee. Fulling describes his work on Riemannian spacetime and Robertson-Walker spacetime, and he explains the opportunity that led him to the University of London, where black holes was a focus of research. He describes meeting Paul Davies and Chris Isham and how the field started to take black holes seriously as observable entities in the 1980s. Fulling explains his longstanding interest in asymptotic expansion and he surveys more recent advances in the Casimir effect. He reflects on the Unruh effect as it approaches its 50th anniversary, and he addresses the disagreement on whether or not it has been observed and whether the Unruh effect implies Unruh radiation. At the end of the interview, Fulling discusses his current interests in the soft wall problem and acceleration radiation, and he explains his ongoing interest in seeing advances in research on Casimir energy. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
February 18 and April 26, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Nergis Mavalvala, Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor of Physics and Dean of the School of Science at MIT. Mavalvala surveys her administrative focus as Dean in a time of the pandemic, and to foster inter-departmental research. Mavalvala recounts her childhood in Karachi, Pakistan, and her Zoroastrian heritage, and she explains the opportunities that led to her coming to the United States where she pursued her undergraduate education at Wellesley and she developed her skills in experimental physics and in the machine shop. She describes her decision to attend MIT for graduate school, and she narrates meeting Rai Weiss and her involvement in the LIGO project. Mavalvala describes coming to understand her queer identity in graduate school and her understanding of the complex arrangement between Caltech, NSF, MIT and the detector sites in Washington state and Louisiana. She discusses her postdoctoral position with the LIGO group at Caltech and her focus on mirror interferometry and Caltech’s support in securing her green card. She explains her decision to return to MIT to join the faculty and the transition to Advanced LIGO. Mavalvala narrates the excitement and moment of LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves, and she explains what it means to detect them and the broader technical, theoretical and astrophysical significance of this achievement. She describes the careful analysis to confirm that data and the excitement surrounding the announcement, and she discusses the generosity in the way that Kip Thorne, Barry Barish, and Rai Weiss accepted the Nobel Prize. Mavalvala emphasizes all of the applied scientific discovery achieved through the creation of the LIGO instrumentation, and she talks about her work as a professor and mentor to graduate students. She explains her decision in accepting the dean position and how she maintained an active research agenda. At the end of the interview, Mavalvala describes all of the fundamental discovery that can be made as the LIGO collaboration charts its future.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Videoconference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews James (BJ) Bjorken, Professor Emeritus of Particle Physics and Astrophysics at SLAC. Bjorken recounts his childhood in Chicago and he explains how parents’ conservative worldview influenced his decision to attend MIT and not the more liberal and nearby University of Chicago for college. He describes the formative influence of Professor Hans Mueller and the fatherly role that Sid Drell played for him, and he discusses his work on the 300 MeV electron synchrotron lab under the direction of Al Wattenberg and Bernie Feld. Bjorken explains his decision to pursue a graduate degree in physics at Stanford, which he remembers as part of a “western exodus” from Harvard, and he describes the origins of the rift between the physics faculty and the “new guard” who supported and created SLAC under Pief Panofsky’s direction. He explains the intellectual tradition from Vicki Weiskopf to Sid Drell and Burt Richter that informed the development of his dissertation analyzing the properties of scattering amplitudes, and he discusses the faculty’s interest in keeping him at Stanford as a postdoc. He describes his early visits to CERN and to the Soviet Union, and he conveys how impressed he was with the level of physics research in Moscow. Bjorken discusses his early work on creating a robust experimental research agenda at SLAC and he reflects on the significance of the “November Revolution” of 1974 and why quark and gluon confinement was of fundamental importance. He explains his decision to move to Fermilab in 1979 to do neutrino experiments and the E137 axion search project, and he contextualizes the major debates in the 1980s about the future of high energy physics. Bjorken recounts his introduction to the internet over the course of the Minimax project, and he explains the freedom he feels in retirement to conduct research that can be simultaneously ambitious and likely to lead nowhere. He explains his contributions to understanding dark energy and the Kasner metric, and at the end of the interview, Bjorken explains the satisfaction of spending a career that spans from the era before the Standard Model to the present, and how the golden age in physics currently has passed from particle physics to astrophysics and cosmology.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
May 1 and 3, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University.  Susskind recounts his childhood in the Bronx, and describes his good fortune of being the product of public education in New York from elementary school through CCNY for college. He discusses his discovery that he had a talent for physics, and the difficulties he faced convincing his father that that he would pursue this path and not join in the family plumbing business. Susskind explains the formative advice given to him by professor Harold Rothbart, and the influence of Jesse Douglas and Harry Soodak on his intellectual development as a theorist. He recounts his experience in graduate school at Cornell, where he worked under the direction of Hans Bethe calculating the ground state of infinite nuclear matter. He describes his studies under Richard Feynman and how he admired Feynman’s ability to cut through problems.  Susskind discusses his teaching career at the Belfer Graduate School of Science at Yeshiva University, and he provides an intellectual history for the origins of string theory starting with Geoffrey Chew and the S-matrix of hadronic collisions, culminated in the Veneziano amplitude by Gabriele Veneziano, and he describes his contributions from there, for which he is popularly knows as one of the “fathers” of string theory.  He describes joining the faculty at Stanford, he discusses the advances made by Stephen Hawking, and he asserts that our understanding of the origins of the universe remain at the primitive stage. Susskind explains why he is devoted to explaining physics concepts to broad-based audiences, and he explains what he sees as the most critical threats posed by the Trump administration.  In part II, the interview returns to Susskind’s early years, and he recounts his father’s support for civil rights, and how this influenced his own politics in the 1960s. He describes his goals in his debate with Lee Smolin and engages in some of the spiritual and metaphysical implications that can arise from studying the universe.  At the end of the interview, Susskind reviews, over the course of his career, the ways string theory has, and has not, contributed to efforts to unify all theories of physics, and he affirms that he more closely aligns with Einstein’s approach not to tolerate a clash of physics principles, over that of Niels Bohr.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This is an interview with Roger Stuewer, Professor Emeritus, History of Science and Technology, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Stuewer recounts his childhood in rural Wisconsin, and he discusses his undergraduate work in physics education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the formative course in optics taught by Ed Miller. He describes his service in the U.S. Army and his deployment to Germany in the mid-1950s, and the opportunities provided by the GI Bill to further his education. He discusses his brief career teaching high school math and physics before he was offered an instructor job in physics at Heidelberg College. Stuewer describes the circumstances leading to his return to Wisconsin to pursue a graduate degree in the history of science, where he was advised by Erwin Hiebert and where he was deeply influenced by Heinz Barschall. He describes his fascination with Arthur Holly Compton and the Compton Effect which was the subject of his dissertation, and he explains his decision to join the faculty at Minnesota. Stuewer recounts his efforts to build the history of science and technology program there, and the opportunities he was afforded with a joint appointment in the physics department. He describes some of the major methodological and historiographical debates in the field over the course of his career, including competing ideas of whether the history of physics should be pursued at the conceptual level or have as its focus social phenomena. Stuewer discusses the major impact of Thomas Kuhn and he explains his decision to take a faculty position at Boston University before returning to Minnesota for the rest of his career, where he subsequently focused on the history of nuclear physics. He describes his motivations for creating a symposium on this topic, where Han Bethe delivered introductory remarks, and he explains his longstanding interest in John Hasbrouck Van Vleck. Stuewer describes his advisory work for AIP’s history program, and how his work as an editor for the American Journal of Physics provided him a unique vantage point of the field. At the end of the interview, Stuewer reflects on what his scholarship has taught him about how humankind makes sense of the physical world.  

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

This is an interview with Janice Steckel, research scientist at the National Energy Technology Lab and visiting scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. Steckel recounts her childhood in Maryland and what it was like to grow up learning from her father, who was a physicist at the Naval Research Lab and then at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Steckel explains that she was not interested in science growing up, and she describes her major in dance at the University of Maryland and then at Ohio State. Steckel explains her decision to pursue a degree in chemistry in her late 20s and how this developed into her academic specialty in physical chemistry at the University of West Virginia. She discusses her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh to focus on density functional theory with Ken Jordan. Steckel describes her postdoctoral research at the Vienna Ab initio Simulation Package Group, and she explains the opportunities that led to her initial appointment at NETL. She discusses her initial research on mercury and its impact on coal burning for power generation. Steckel explains her transition to the carbon capture group at the Lab and she describes the different options available to capture and sequester carbon emissions. She describes NETL’s role in the larger federal framework for national energy policy, and she shares her views on how carbon-based energy sources will play a role in an increasingly de-carbonized future. At the end of the interview, Steckel explains the value of computational integration to her work and the promise that machine learning offers for the future of energy research.