Inflationary universe

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

In this interview, Robert P. Kirshner, Clowes Research Professor of Science at Harvard University, discusses his interests in supernovae and work as Chief Program Officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He reflects upon the shifting terminology pertaining to astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology. He discusses his experience as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Kirshner details his experience at Caltech as a graduate student and his time studying supernovae under Bev Oke. He discusses his post-doc position at Kitt Peak National Observatory and the competition they had with Palomar. Kirshner speaks about his experience working with undergraduate students at the University of Michigan and eventually becoming the chair and observatory director. He details his role as head of Optical Infrared at the Harvard Smithsonian Center. Lastly, Kirshner discusses his Nobel Prize winning discovery of using observations of distant supernovae to discover the accelerating universe.

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 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 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

Interview with Andrei Linde, Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics at Stanford. This discussion continues from the interview with Linde conducted by Alan Lightman in October 1987. He provides a detailed history on his improvement of Alan Guth’s work on inflation, which Linde dubbed “new inflation” and subsequently “chaotic inflation.” Linde describes the impact of Perestroika on Soviet scientists, and the pressures he felt in preparing for a series of talks in Italy, which contributed to his development of “eternal inflation.” He discusses his formative early communication with American physicists including Lenny Susskind and Norman Coleman, he describes his two-year visit at CERN as the Cold War was winding down, and he explains his decision to accept a faculty appointment at Stanford. Linde describes the alternating feelings of hope and despair in the 1980s regarding the possibility that inflation could be observationally verified. He explains the intellectual origins of self-generating fractals that sprout other inflationary universes and the value of compactification theory, and he explains the cultural relevance of his Russian heritage which compels him to value theoretical notions and not treat them in a throwaway manner that capitalism can encourage. Linde explains how and why multiverses can be testable and he reflects on the obvious philosophical or even spiritual implications of this proposition. He discusses the impact of the discovery of the accelerating universe and dark energy and how WMAP strained the theoretical viability of inflation. Linde explains why many string theorists have moved into investigating theories of quantum information, and at the end of the interview, he reflects on the value of competing theories to inflation and why, ultimately, he wants to see a major convergence of theories so that the origins of the universe are well understood. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
February 26 and March 12, 2021
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with John Preskill, Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, and Director of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech. Preskill describes the origins of IQIM as a research pivot from the initial excitement in the 1970s to move beyond Standard Model physics and to understand the origin of electroweak symmetry breaking. He emphasizes the importance of Shor’s algorithm and the significance of bringing Alexei Kitaev into the project. Preskill discusses the support he secured from the NSF and DARPA, and he recounts his childhood in Chicago and his captivation with the Space Race. He describes his undergraduate experience at Princeton and his relationship with Arthur Wightman and John Wheeler. Preskill explains his decision to pursue his thesis research at Harvard with the intention of working with Sidney Coleman, and he explains the circumstances that led to Steve Weinberg becoming his advisor. He discusses the earliest days of particle theorists applying their research to cosmological inquiry, his collaboration with Michael Peskin, and his interest in the connection of topology with particle physics. Preskill describes his research on magnetic monopoles, and the relevance of condensed matter theory for his interests. He explains the opportunities that led to his appointment to the Harvard Society of Fellows and his eventual faculty appointment at Harvard, his thesis work on technicolor, and the excitement surrounding inflation in the early 1980s. Preskill discusses the opportunities that led to his tenure at Caltech and why he started to think seriously about quantum information and questions relating to thermodynamic costs to computing. He explains the meaning of black hole information, the ideas at the foundation of Quantum Supremacy, and he narrates the famous story of the Thorne, Hawking, and Preskill bets. Preskill describes the advances in quantum research which compelled him to add “matter” to the original IQI project which was originally a purely theoretical endeavor. He discusses the fact that end uses for true quantum computing remain open questions, and he surveys IQIM’s developments over the past decade and the strategic partnerships he has pursued across academia, industry, and at the National Labs. Preskill surveys the potential value of quantum computing to help solve major cosmological mysteries, and why his recent students are captivated by machine learning. At the end of the interview, Preskill reflects on his intersecting interests and conveys optimism for future progress in understanding quantum gravity from laboratory experiments using quantum simulators and quantum gravity.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Henry Tye, professor emeritus of physics at Cornell, and subsequently professor emeritus of physics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), and currently, Researcher at the Jockey Club Institute for Advanced Study at HKUST. Tye provides a brief history of HKUST, and he offers his views on China’s long-term goals in high energy physics. He recounts his childhood in Hong Kong where his family fled from mainland China during the Communist revolution, and he explains the opportunities that led to his undergraduate admission to Caltech. Tye describes how discussions of the Vietnam War permeated his college experience, and he describes the influence of Gerry Neugebauer on his interest in physics but that cosmology was far from his considerations at that point. He discusses his decision to study at MIT, where Francis Low became his advisor, and how he worked closely with Gabriele Veneziano on the relationship between the Thirring model and bosonic string theory. Tye explains the excitement surrounding the “November Revolution” which was unfolding just as he arrived at the SLAC Theory Group in 1974. He describes the origins of his interests in cosmology, and the source of his collaboration with Alan Guth during his postdoctoral work at Cornell, where he pursued matter-antimatter asymmetry. Tye explains how this collaboration ultimately created the field of inflation and why this addresses fundamental cosmological problems associated with flatness and the horizon. He explains how and why the original theory of inflation was revised by Andrei Linde and Paul Steinhardt, among others, and why he developed a subsequent interest in cosmic superstrings and branes which he recognized would give a perfect model for inflation. Tye describes why he is optimistic that technological advances will make cosmic superstrings a testable proposition, and that collaborations including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and LIGO/Virgo are positive steps in that direction. He bemoans the dearth of string theorists focused on phenomenological work and why he thinks string theory will solve the quantum gravity problem. Tye describes his decision to join the Cornell faculty, why his notions of a “string landscape” suggest philosophical implications, why the cosmic landscape is central for understanding the wavefunction of the universe, and why both the universe and all multiverses can begin from truly nothing. At the end of the interview, Tye discusses his recent interests on the cosmological constant problem, the KLT relation, and the observations and experiments that are most likely to push cosmology into new and exciting areas of discovery. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Joshua Frieman, head of the Particle Physics Division at Fermilab, and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. He recounts his childhood in Princeton as the son of a physicist and his decision to attend Stanford as an undergraduate, where his interests in cosmology developed. Frieman explains that his options for graduate research in cosmology were narrow and his reasons for going to the University of Washington to work with Jim Bardeen before moving to Chicago to be Michael Turner’s first graduate student. He discusses his interest in approaching cosmology from the perspective of particle theory and his thesis focus on curved space time within a cosmological context. Frieman describes his postdoctoral work at SLAC and his first position at Fermilab in the theory group that Dave Schramm had started. He discusses his work on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and then the Dark Energy Survey. Frieman explains what might be needed to understand dark energy, he describes his appointment at Chicago, and he explains the origins of the Magellan Telescopes project. He discusses the value of the Aspen summer sessions and his involvement with P5, and explains the value of the 2010 Decadal Survey. At the end of the interview, Frieman surveys the current slate of project at Fermilab and emphasizes the value of incorporating cosmological perspectives to high-energy and particle physics. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Robert H. Brandenberger, Canada Research Chair and professor of physics at McGill University. Brandenberger recounts his childhood in Switzerland as the son of organic chemists, and he describes his undergraduate education at the ETH Zurich in physics. He discusses his graduate research at Harvard to work under the direction of Arthur Jaffe, and he describes his first exposure to cosmic inflation. Brandenberger describes his postdoctoral appointment at the ITP in Santa Barbara where he worked with Neil Turok and Andreas Albrecht, and his subsequent postdoctoral work with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge. He explains his initial ideas on cosmic strings as an alternative to inflation and his encounters with Cumrun Vafa and Slava Mukhanov. Brandenberger describes the origins of string gas cosmology, its implications for a multiverse and how it was received among string theorists. He discusses his faculty appointment at Brown and he explains his decision to move to McGill where the opportunity to work with graduate students was stronger. Brandenberger surmises what string theory as a testable proposition would look like, and he reflects on some of the obvious philosophical implications of unknowability in the universe. He explains the difference between a toy model and a proper theory, and he conveys optimism that string gas cosmology will advance research on dark energy. At the end of the interview, Brandenberger reflects on the idea that string theory is "smarter than we are."

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Phillip James Edwin Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Emeritus, at Princeton University. Peebles describes his enjoyment in pursuing the issues in cosmology that are most interesting to him in retirement and he explains his appreciation for the importance of taking a sociological perspective to science. He describes his first exposure to cosmology as a field to specialize in during graduate school and he surveys some of the experiments and observational advances that have propelled theoretical cosmology. Peebles recounts his childhood in Manitoba, and he discusses his undergraduate education at the University of Manitoba. He describes arriving at Princeton in 1958 and how he became a student of Bob Dicke's. Peebles discusses his thesis research on the possibility that the fine-structure constant might be evolving. He describes staying at (and never leaving) Princeton for his postdoctoral work, and some of the exciting promises of infrared astronomy and radio astronomy. Peebles conveys the simple process of joining the faculty, and he describes the developments leading to the prediction of the cosmic microwave background. He discusses the trend of particle theorists pursuing questions in cosmology, and he reflects on the impact of the Vietnam era on Princeton. Peebles conveys the significance of the introduction of cold dark matter and his perspective on the inflationary theory of the universe. He explains why LambdaCDM has become standard in the field and why COBE was so important. Peebles surveys the many observational projects that are currently being planned, and he reflects on the "buzz" that he felt in advance of winning the Nobel Prize. He describes how his life has been affected by this honor, and he reflects on how the Department of Physics has changed over the course of his long career. At the end of the interview, Peebles emphasizes his interest in remaining close both to theory and experimentation, and he shares his sense of curiosity at what clues might be found from the epoch of light element production in the very early universe.