University of California, Santa Barbara

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview dates
June 15, July 8, July 29, August 19, September 8, 2020
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with David Gross, Chancellor’s Chair Professor of Physics at University of California in Santa Barbara and a permanent member of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (KITP). Gross begins by describing his childhood in Arlington, Virginia and his family’s later move to Israel. This led to his decision to enroll at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his undergraduate studies in physics and mathematics. Gross recalls his acceptance at Berkeley for his graduate studies, where Geoffrey Chew became his advisor. He explains his early interests in strong interactions, quantum field theory, and S-matrix theory. Gross then describes taking a fellowship at Harvard after completing his PhD, where he recalls his early involvement in string theory. He speaks about his subsequent move to join the faculty at Princeton, as well as his introduction to Frank Wilczek, one of his first graduate students with whom he later shared the Nobel Prize. Gross takes us through the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the development of quantum chromodynamics, and the impact these had on the Standard Model. He discusses his decision to leave Princeton for UCSB, where he focused on growing the KITP and securing funding. Gross describes how his research interests have shifted over the years across topics such as confinement, quantum gravity, and more recently back to string theory. Toward the end of the interview, Gross speaks about his work to develop institutes similar to KITP in other countries, as well as his term as President of the American Physical Society in 2019.

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
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Matthew Fisher, professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. Fisher recounts his early childhood in London as the son of a prominent physicist, and his upbringing in Ithaca where his father was on the physics faculty. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Cornell, where he started in engineering but gravitated toward physics, and he reflects on a conversation with a graduate student, which – more than any influene from his father or his brother, also a prominent physicist – sparked his interest. Fisher describes his initial graduate work at MIT, where he focused on experimental condensed matter research in the lab of Bob Birgeneau, before he transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to re-focus on condensed matter theory, with a special interest in quantum mechanics under the direction of Tony Leggett. He explains the mental health issues he began to suffer from in graduate school, which extended into his postdoctoral, and then full time, work at IBM, until a psychiatrist prescribed him medication that essentially restored him to a state of mental health. Fisher describes the opportunities leading to his faculty appointment at UC Santa Barbara, and he discusses his newfound interests in high temperature superconductors, the fractional quantum Hall effect, and the localization of bosons. He discusses his ongoing interest in quantum mechanics, quantum spin liquids and quantum phase transitions, and he describes his long term collaboration with Charlie Kane. Fisher explains the singular advances Phil Anderson made to the field, and what supercomputing has allowed in the last twenty years that was not possible in the previous twenty years. He connects his mental health challenges with his recent interests in the concept of a quantum mind, or the possibility that the brain operates quantum mechanically. Fisher stresses that the field is nascent and that it is too early to tell if his preliminary ideas will be substantiated, and why a greater understanding of both evolution and the nature of consciousness is crucial to developing of this path of inquiry. He explains the implications of the notion of free will if the brain operates according to quantum processes, and he describes how this research may bear out experimentally. 

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Steven Kivelson, Prabhu Goel Family Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Kivelson recounts his childhood in Los Angeles as the son of academic scientists, and he describes his transition from career ambitions in the law toward physics. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Harvard, and he describes his lack of appreciation of the stature of many of the physics professors, such as his advisor Paul Martin, whom he knew first as a friend of his parents. Kivelson explains his decision to continue at Harvard for his graduate degree, and he discusses how he developed his interest in amorphous semiconductors under the guidance of Dan Gellat. He recounts his postdoctoral work at UC Santa Barbara, where he worked with Bob Schrieffer on the physics of conducting polymers. Kivelson discusses his first faculty position at Stony Brook, and he discusses the excellent group of graduate students he advised during his tenure there. He discusses some of the broader research questions in condensed matter of the time, including the significance of macroscopic quantum tunneling, invented by Tony Leggett. Kivelson explains his reasons for moving to UCLA, and he discusses Ray Orbach’s efforts to make recruitment a priority there. He discusses his long interest in fractionalization with regard to conducting polymers to be generalized to spin liquids, and his move to Stanford, which attracted him in part because of the condensed matter experimental group. At the end of the interview, Kivelson discusses his current research interests in exploring well-controlled solutions of paradigmatic models of strongly correlated electron systems, and he explains why the concept of a grand unified theory of physics is not a scientific but rather a religious proposition.

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 John Martinis, professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara. Martinis gave the interview from Australia, where he was consulting for Silicon Computing following his affiliation with Google’s efforts to build a quantum computer. He surveys the current state of play toward that goal, and explains what applications quantum computing can serve, and how the field is clarifying the technological requirements to achieve a quantum computer. Martinis recounts his childhood in Los Angeles, his early interests in computers, and his undergraduate experience at Berkeley where he gravitated toward experimental physics. He describes his interactions with John Clarke and his motivations to stay at Berkeley for graduate school, where he focused on SQUIDS and was captivated by Tony Leggett’s ideas on quantum tunneling. Martinis explains his interest in working with Michel Devoret at Saclay for his postdoctoral research, where there was much excitement over high Tc and YBCO materials. He describes his subsequent work at NIST and his decision to join the faculty at Santa Barbara around the time he became focused on quantum computing. Martinis narrates the technological challenges of building qubits and error correction, and he explains how he got involved with Google and joined his style with its research culture. He describes his role as chief scientist in the collaboration and why his vision and Google’s diverged. Martinis addresses the issue of “hype” in quantum computing. At the end of the interview, Martinis emphasizes the centrality of systems engineering to his research agenda, and he explains why quantum supremacy will demonstrate the need for quantum computing and the limitations of classical computing.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Interview with Lee Smolin, Founding and Senior Faculty Member at the Perimeter Institute with faculty appointments at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. Smolin narrates the origins of the Perimeter Institute and he describes his unorthodox views on what exactly cosmology is. He describes loop quantum gravity and the notion of a “theory of everything” and why he has much love for string theory despite perceptions of the opposite. Smolin explains the utility and trappings of the Standard Model and he searches for deeper meaning in the origins and societal impact of the pandemic. He recounts his childhood in Cincinnati and his early appreciation for physics and the circumstances that led to his undergraduate education at Hampshire. Smolin explains his attraction in working with Sidney Coleman at Harvard, and why he saw a grand plan in his desire to learn quantum field theory. He describes meeting Abhay Ashtekar and his postdoctoral work at UC Santa Barbara and then at the Institute for Advanced Study. Smolin describes his formative relationship with Chandrasekhar at Chicago, his first faculty appointment at Yale, and his tenure at Syracuse where he found a strong group in relativity and quantum gravity. He explains his reasons for transferring to Penn State and his involvement in loop quantum gravity achieving a mature state amid a rapidly expanding “relativity community” throughout academic physics. He describes his time at Imperial College, where he developed a quantum gravity center with Chris Isham and he historicizes the technical developments that connected his theoretical work with observation. Smolin describes his book "The Life of the Cosmos" and his foray into thinking about biology and why he identifies as a self-conscious Leibnizian who tries to connect cosmology with the concept of a god and the centrality of astrobiology to these issues. At the end of the interview, Smolin explains why he continually returns to quantum gravity, and he conveys his interest in keeping philosophy at the forefront of his research agenda.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
David Zierler
Abstract

In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Raymond Sawyer, professor of physics emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Sawyer recounts his childhood growing up in many towns in the Midwest as a function of his father’s frequent job transfers. He discusses his undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, where he developed his interest in physics, and he explains the atmosphere of wide career opportunity in the age of Sputnik. Sawyer describes his graduate research at Harvard, where he worked in Norman Ramsey’s molecular beam lab.  He explains how Julian Schwinger came to be his advisor and he describes his dissertation study on symmetries and the weak interactions of elementary particles. Sawyer discusses his postdoctoral research at CERN where he joined the theory group and where he studied the decay of a charged pion. He describes his second postdoctoral appointment at the University of Wisconsin and his work in quantum field theory at the Institute for Advanced Study which he did at the invitation of Robert Oppenheimer.  Sawyer explains the series of events leading to his decision to join the faculty at UC Santa Barbara, and he discusses his role in the formation of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. He explains his invention of charged pion condensation and he describes his work in university administration. At the end of the interview, Sawyer reflects on his contributions throughout his career, and he explains how he has kept active in the field during retirement.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Video conference
Abstract

Philip Pincus is a Distinguished Professor of Materials, Physics, and Biomolecular Science at UC Santa Barbara. In this interview, he explains the origin of his nickname “Fyl,” he recounts his childhood in San Francisco, as well as his decision to study physics at Berkeley and his mentorship by Charlie Kittel. Pincus describes his thesis research on temperature dependence of anisotropy energy, and nuclear spin relaxation in magnetic materials. He describes his postdoctoral work at Saclay and his faculty appointment at UCLA, and he describes working with de Gennes and Alan Heeger. Pincus describes his contributions to dirty type II superconductors and the excitement surrounding early research on liquid crystals. He explains his decision to join the research lab at Exxon Mobil and he describes the basic science research culture there and his increasing focus on soft matter physics, which he continued to pursue at UC Santa Barbara in the Chemical Engineering Department. Pincus discusses his current interests in water and cohesive energy, and at the end of the interview, he reflects on the growth of soft matter physics out of his original interest in solid state physics, and he explains why condensed matter theorists might have something to offer dark matter research.

Interviewed by
David Zierler
Interview date
Location
Remote Interview
Abstract

This is an interview with Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, Engineering and Applied Sciences Emeritus at Harvard. He recounts his childhood in India and he explains the origins of his nickname “Venky” by which everyone knows him, and he explains his transition from a career primarily rooted in lab work to his more current interests in science and national public policy. He describes the imperial British influence that pervaded his upbringing, and he discusses his education at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. He explains the opportunities that lead to his graduate work at Cornell to study solid state physics with a focus on defects in crystals under the direction of Robert Pohl. Narayanamurti describes his brief return to India before he was recruited to work at Bell Labs where he ultimately rose to serve as Director of Solid-state Electronics and as head of the Semiconductor Electronics Research Department. He contextualizes his decision to join the faculty at UC Santa Barbara after working at Sandia National Lab against the backdrop of the impending breakup of Bell. He discusses his work at Dean building up the computer science, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering programs before he decided to come to Harvard where he was the founding Dean of the Engineering and Applied Sciences. He explains his interest in joining the Kennedy School as he became more interested in public policy. At the end of the interview, Narayanamurti conveys optimism that higher education in the United States will be equipped to study and offer key solutions to some of the key scientific and technological challenges of the future.