United States. Department of Energy

Interviewed by
Michael Riordan
Interview dates
March 22, 1997 & March 31, 1998
Location
University of Texas at Austin
Abstract

This pair of interviews was conducted as part of the research for the book Tunnel Visions, a history of the Superconducting Super Collider. The first interview begins by examining Schwitters’s perspective as leader of the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) while the initial design phases of the SSC project were unfolding, including his preparation of briefing materials on the project and service on its Board of Overseers. Schwitters also discusses early SSC cost estimates, his service on the National Academies site-evaluation committee, and his selection as director of the SSC Laboratory. He addresses the disappointment of some that Maury Tigner was not chosen, negotiations for Tigner to be deputy director or project manager, and Tigner’s departure from the project. Schwitters reflects on considerations in the development of the management & operations contract proposal, personnel-recruiting difficulties, and the tension between industrial and scientific styles of project management, including Tom Bush’s management of the SSC magnet program. The first interview concludes with a detailed account of difficulties in working with the Department of Energy, and particularly Office of Energy Research Director Robert Hunter, in assembling the lab’s senior management in early 1989.

The second interview begins with Schwitters recalling the selection of Texas as the SSC site, the disappointment of some that Fermilab was not chosen, and his own willingness to relocate to any of the final candidate sites. Schwitters also discusses the recruitment of Helen Edwards to lead the SSC accelerator program and Tigner’s preferred choices for various key roles at the lab. Schwitters reflects on difficulties surrounding magnet development, Bush’s poor relationship with Edwards, and his own desire to avoid design risk and a protracted accelerator commissioning. He discusses in detail the decision to redesign the magnets with a wider aperture, including his conviction on the basis of simulations that it was necessary, and the factors driving the growth of cost estimates around the redesign. Schwitters also addresses considerations involving proposals to descope the SSC to reduce costs, difficulties in assembling a strong management team, and the shortcomings of Sverdrup as a construction subcontractor. He also reflects on his relationship with the Department of Energy, Energy Secretary Watkins’s reaction to cost increases, and Ed Siskin’s performance as DOE’s project manager. Near the conclusion of the second interview, Schwitters reflects on his goal of creating a new scientific community around the laboratory.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

Interview with Stephen Williams, formerly Assistant Research Director of SLAC. Williams describes his connections with SLAC since his retirement in 2011, and he recounts his childhood in Michigan and his early fascination with electronics. He explains his reasons for attending the University of Michigan, where he majored in physics and where he determined he would go to UC Berkeley for graduate school to work with Victor Perez-Mendez on magneto-strictive readouts for wire spark chambers. Williams discusses his postdoctoral work at SLAC working with David Leith, and his subsequent research on head coils and software in nuclear medicine at UCSF. He describes the research mission of Group B at SLAC and the Cherenkov technique, and the opportunities that led him his management position as director of engineering and as an engineering manager for Diasonics. Williams describes the change in leadership from Burt Richter to Jonathan Dorfan, and the circumstances of becoming as Acting Research Director. He discusses the safety protocols that needed to be improved in consultation with the DOE, and at the end of the interview, Williams reflects on the ways SLAC has stayed true to Panofsky’s original vision.

Interviewed by
Michael Riordan
Interview date
Location
Seattle, Washington
Abstract

This interview is part of a series conducted during research for the book Tunnel Visions, a history of the Superconducting Super Collider project. It primarily addresses Princeton University physicist William Happer’s time as the Director of the Office of Energy Research at the Department of Energy, a position he held from May 1991 to May 1993. This period covers the ramp up of construction on the project and the growth of congressional opposition to it, as well as the transition from the administration of President George H. W. Bush to that of President Bill Clinton. Happer addresses his own support for the project, other scientific efforts competing for priority, the political dynamics he perceived surrounding the SSC, and his views of the management structure for the SSC that DOE implemented prior to his arrival. He observes that the management and fate of the SSC were not especially unusual in the context of other expensive DOE projects and discusses at length the failure to secure international support for the SSC, particularly the difficulty in making the project a top-priority issue in diplomacy with Japan. Happer also offers his perception of the Clinton administration’s lukewarm support for the project, the possibility it could have been politically saved, and the dangers it would have faced if it continued beyond 1993. He also reflects on whether large-scale projects such as the SSC are urgent to pursue, defends Roy Schwitters’s performance as SSC Laboratory Director, and shares his views of the ferocity of the SSC’s main opponents in Congress and of the role of Congress’s General Accounting Office in building the case against it.

Interviewed by
Steve Weiss
Interview date
Abstract

Interview with Alvin Trivelpiece, American physicist who served as Director of the Office of Energy Research in the United States Department of Energy from 1981-1987. Trivelpiece provides an overview of his graduate studies at Caltech and his background in plasma physics. He discusses in detail his involvement in the beginnings of the SSC (Superconducting Super Collider), including cost estimations, funding requests, site selection, and attempts to secure international collaboration. Trivelpiece shares stories involving many key players who were supporters of the SSC, as well as some who were opposed. He also touches on the creation of other DOE projects such as Fermilab and CEBAF (Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility).

Interviewed by
William Thomas
Interview date
Location
Potomac, Maryland
Abstract

This wide-ranging interview explores the career of Jim Decker, most of which has been at the U.S. Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies. Decker first worked in the fusion energy program, and from 1985 to 2007 he was Principal Deputy Director of the DOE Office of Energy Research, which was renamed the Office of Science in 1998. The position was the highest-level career position within the office. The interview covers the evolving fortunes of fusion research in the U.S., including expanding support in the 1970s, U.S. participation in the international ITER project, and deep funding cuts in the 1990s. The leadership of Al Trivelpiece at the office, the development of DOE’s high-performance computing efforts, and the management of the Superconducting Super Collider project are discussed in some detail. Other subjects include the origins of DOE’s support for the Human Genome Project, the development of DOE’s procedures for oversight of major projects, recent trends toward funding “centers” and special initiatives, the evolving status of the Office of Science within DOE, and Decker’s experiences with Congress and successive presidential administrations.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Berndt Müller, James B. Duke Professor of Physics at Duke University. The interview begins with Müller discussing his current work on quark-gluon plasma physics and the connections between nuclear physics and cosmology. Müller then recounts his family history in Germany during and after WWII, as well as his childhood in West Germany. He recalls his undergraduate studies at Goethe University Frankfurt, where it was the inspiring lectures that catalyzed his enthusiasm for physics. Müller explains the heavy ion research he was involved in at the time, as well as his master’s thesis on the Dirac equation. He recounts his first visit to Berkeley Lab in 1972 and his subsequent acceptance of a postdoc at University of Washington and a fellowship at Yale. Müller then returned to Frankfurt as an associate professor and explains how he got involved in quark-gluon plasma research. Müller talks about the creation of the RHIC and how that led him to pursue his next job in the US, landing at Duke. He discusses his involvement with the Institute of Nuclear Theory at the University of Washington, as well as his work at Brookhaven over the years. Müller recalls the pros and cons of the administrative side of academia, which he experienced as the Chair of the Faculty of Physics and then Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Duke. The interview concludes with Müller’s reflections on winning the Feshbach Prize and his predictions for the future of theoretical nuclear physics.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
May 18 & June 22, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Steven Chu, former United States Secretary of Energy and current Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology in the Medical School at Stanford University. Chu begins by taking us through his changing research interests across his time at Berkeley, Bell Labs and Stanford, and then recounts the beginnings of his interest in climate change in the early 2000s. He talks about his work advising companies who are working on climate change solutions such as carbon capture, and he gives an overview of the research and action being taken around renewable energy sources. Chu then goes back in time and recounts the story of his family, starting with his grandfather in China who emphasized education for all his children. Growing up in Nassau County, Chu describes feeling like a “disappointment” in his family because he didn’t go to an Ivy League school and instead completed his undergraduate studies in math and physics at the University of Rochester. Chu discusses his decision to attend Berkeley for grad school and meeting his advisor Eugene Commins, who was working on weak interactions. Then Chu recounts his transition to Bell Labs and describes the laser work going on there at the time, as well as his burgeoning interest in beta decay experiments. He talks about his research surrounding laser cooling and explains his decision to move to Stanford after Bell. Chu remembers his experience winning the Nobel Prize and accepting the position as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Chu ends the interview with stories from his time as Secretary of Energy under the Obama administration, such as his experiences with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, setting up the DOE Loan Program Office, and his international work on climate change.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with A.J. Stewart Smith, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics, emeritus, at Princeton University, who also served as the university vice president for the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Smith begins the interview with an overview of his affiliations with SNOLAB, CERN, and Italian Nuclear and Particle Physics. He recaps the effects of the pandemic on experimental particle physics. Smith then summarizes his family history and his childhood in Canada, where he became interested in the sciences in high school. Smith recalls his undergraduate studies in physics at University of British Columbia, where he also earned a master’s degree, as well as his decision to pursue a PhD at Princeton. He describes working on the Princeton-Penn Accelerator with his advisor Pierre Piroue, and the subsequent offer of a fellowship at DESY working with Sam Ting on QED. Smith recounts his move back to Princeton to join the faculty, and he describes the “bipartisanship” between experimentalists and theorists at the time. He discusses the origins of the Chicago-Princeton collaboration at Fermilab, his involvement with E-787 experiment at Brookhaven, and his time as technical coordinator and spokesperson for the BaBar experiment. The interview concludes with Smith’s recollections of his time as Princeton’s first dean of research, as well as his reflections on times when theory has led experimentation, and vice versa.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, Michael Turner discusses his life and career. topics include: Kavli Foundation; Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics; Fred Kavli; Aspen Center for Physics; Rand Corporation; California Institute of Technology (Caltech); Robbie Vogt; Ed Stone; Barry Barish; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; B.J. Bjorken; University of Chicago; Dave Schramm; Kip Thorne; Fermi Institute / University of Chicago Institute for Nuclear Studies; Bob Wagoner; University of California, Santa Barbara; Larry Smarr; Dan Goldin; quarks-to-cosmos study; National Science Foundation; Rita Colwell; Advanced LIGO; Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA); IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory; Department of Energy; Argonne National Laboratory; Paul Steinhardt.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Teleconference
Abstract

In this interview, Saul Perlmutter, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley and Staff Scientist and senior faculty member at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, discusses his life and career. Perlmutter shares that his research has not been slowed down by the pandemic by happy coincidence that he is currently focused on remote data analysis, and he recounts his childhood in Philadelphia where he was educated in Quaker schools. He discusses his early fascination with quantum mechanics and his decision to go to Harvard for his undergraduate education, where he cemented his interests in experimental physics. Perlmutter explains his decision to go to Berkeley for graduate school, where he worked in Buford Price’s group before Richard Muller became his graduate advisor. He discusses his early awareness of the cosmic microwave background and how he became involved with robotic searches for supernovae. Perlmutter describes the importance of NASA’s BITNET program as a way to connect observatory data worldwide to the computer systems at Berkeley, and he explains the intellectual and observational connections between the inflation, expansion, and acceleration of the universe. He discusses his postdoctoral research at Berkeley, and the circumstances leading to him becoming leader of the supernova group and how the DOE became more involved in astrophysics funding. Perlmutter explains the group’s focus on deceleration and he conveys the difficulties in scheduling telescope time to demonstrate spectroscopy proof of type Ia supernovae. He describes the origins of the SNAP satellite project, some of the early theoretical discussions on the nature of dark energy, and when, finally, his group secured long-term support from the Lab. Perlmutter narrates his first interactions with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess and he describes the batch technique that could predict the discovery of supernovae, which vastly improved the efficiency of scheduling time on large telescopes. He explains the role of dark matter in speeding up the universe’s expansion, and he narrates the celebration with his team when he won the Nobel Prize and how he has chosen the use the political platform that comes with this recognition. Perlmutter discusses his interest in studying climate change, and at the end of the interview, he conveys his excitement about future observational discovery in astrophysics and cosmology.