An Interview with Douglas D. Osheroff

Haegwan Kim

In this interview I want to talk about success from various angles with you. Of course main focus on the interview is your thought upon success. So, at first can I ask how did you achieve your success?


Douglas Osheroff

It really came very quickly when I was a graduate student. I did a piece of research which ended up leading to a discovery. Then I went to the AT and T Bell laboratories, and I would say that it was probably at Bell laboratories that I probably did my best work.


HK

Can I ask the reason why you could do the best work in there?


DO

Well first of all I am, I think, a very good experimental physicist. And I think in the case of experimental science, frequently what you need to do is have a very keen sense of what it is that you are studying. And when you see something that doesn’t fit the model, frequently that means that you are discovering something that wasn’t expected. And I think that I can do that very well as an individual. It is more difficult to train graduate students to do that.


HK

What was the most important thing to do successful research? The environment condition which enables you to do loads of experiments?


DO

Yes, I think that is correct. Bell laboratories were a remarkable place. Unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore. There was no question in my mind that the most fertile environment that I’ve ever been in.


HK

As one of the most successful researchers in the world, what do you think is the most important thing?


DO

Oh, education. I…boy…given the fact that the most important piece of work that I did was as a graduate student, I don’t know how much education is really necessary. I think that…first of all; let me tell you a little bit about myself. First of all, why did I go into low temperature physics? The answer to that is that when I went to Cornell, there were new refrigeration technologies that were being developed, that gave the promise of allowing one to look at nature in a new and different realm. And that was really why I was attracted to low temperature physics. Because I felt that almost unquestionably, something would be seen that wasn’t expected.


HK

Then what are you going to do from now?


DO

Well I will tell you, I am going to retire soon. I have no graduate students left right now, and I simply didn’t want to hire anymore because it is…you hire a graduate student nowadays, in experimental science, you are making a six year commitment. And so in six years I will be 72 years old. I’m not interested in continuing doing research, particularly with all of the other things that I end up doing because of the Nobel Prize.


HK

Can I ask your definition of success?


DO

Well I don’t know, I think everyone has a slightly different definition of success.


HK

What is your definition of success?


DO

I think success is at some level, in terms of physics I think making discoveries and furthering man’s understanding. I think that is what defines success and science.


HK

Then to be successful, what kind of things you will engage in?


DO

This is very interesting, because in fact recently I have come to a conclusion. Given the fact that I am essentially 65 years old now, the question is should I go back into the laboratory? I would basically be going back into the laboratory and doing experiments myself, probably not with graduate students. And then I ask the question, to do that in low temperature physics means that you have to be in the laboratory, or at least close to the laboratory, all of the time. You have to feed the dilution refrigerator, keep putting liquid helium, liquid nitrogen in the cryostat. It is really a full time job. Which means that I couldn’t go traveling, giving talks, trying to excite young people to the possibilities in the career of science and stuff.

Then I ask the question, what is more important? For me to publish two or three more research papers or to go around stimulating young people about how exciting careers in science could be. And I think I have concluded that the latter is probably more important. Not necessarily to me, but I think to society.


HK

What is the most important thing for your life?


DO

I think one wants to feel that one’s life has been of value. You have contributed to society. And I think those are the things. If I am sitting on my deathbed, god forbid but we all die at some point, and I think that and I ask my question, has my life been a valuable one? And I think the definition that I always come up with is have I done something that would make mankind…that has improved society or whatever. Have I done something that makes a difference in a positive manner for mankind? I don’t think of success as being wealthy or anything like that. Success is having done things that are important.


HK

Does that mean money doesn’t deal with any success in your life?


DO

I generally don’t…of course one needs some money, but I don’t equate money with success. And it isn’t like having a lot of money is going to make one more successful necessarily. At least not for me.


HK

You said that helping others and making a difference in a positive way in our society is quite important in being successful for you. That sounds to me the kind of altruism. And that doesn’t make your benefit directly. Why you can feel that helping others is directly linked to your success?


DO

Well I have always felt that way. I think that I probably felt that way when I was in high school. That in fact one wants to do things which are important or valuable to society. And I would guess that probably my parents instilled those kinds of ethics in me when I was young. I have to say that once you get the Nobel Prize, people quite naturally think that you have been very successful. It is sort of remarkable. Once you get the Nobel Prize, I think you don’t have to worry very much about whether you are perceived as being successful by other people. And so I don’t worry about that so much.


HK

Can I ask the difference between before you got the Nobel Prize and after you got the Nobel Prize. Is there any change of intelligence, or is it just a matter of prize?


DO

Well let me say first of all that people started telling me in around 1976 or something, that was just four years after the discovery that I made that they had nominated me for that prize. You are not supposed to do this, this is against the rules. If you nominate someone, that is a private matter and you surely shouldn’t tell the person that you nominated. But people would do that anyway. And so I started thinking about what it would mean to have a Nobel Prize. And the first thing that came to mind was, in fact, that a Nobel Prize would be extremely distracting to me in terms of my research.


HK

Why is that?


DO

Because…to give you just one metric, before I got the Nobel Prize I think I air traveled 30,000 miles a year. After the Nobel Prize I traveled 130 to 150,000 miles a year. It has gone up by almost a factor of five. So I go to a lot of countries all over the world giving talks. It is hard for me to tell whether these talks are of value. But people keep inviting me so I assume that must be the case. A joke I have is now I understand why so few people win two Nobel Prizes, because after the first Nobel Prize, they are so busy doing other things that they don’t get into their laboratory.


HK

I think there are so many intelligent people who don’t have Nobel Prize. Is getting the Nobel Prize a matter of luck, what is the most…?


DO

First of all let me say that making discoveries is luck. Now it is luck but it is luck that you can influence the probability of making a discovery. I for instance went into low temperature because I felt that it was likely that there would be something that we would see that wasn’t expected. And almost by definition, discoveries are things that are not expected. So I think, in fact I give a talk called, ‘How advances in science are made.’ Actually, there is a…that talk grew out of a talk that I had given for the American Association of Physics Teachers. They gave me an award and I had to give this talk. After giving this talk they said, “When will you have your manuscript ready?” And I said “Wait a minute, you didn’t tell me I had to write this up.” But I think it was an interesting enough idea that I would do so. I think that article, which is in the American Journal of Physics, is called something like, ‘The nature of discovery in physics’ (This is the article).


HK

Don’t you think of yourself as a genius of having exceptional talent?


DO

I don’t think of myself as being a genius. I’m not sure what a genius is, but I can tell you that I know many people that I consider more intelligent and more learned that I am that probably will never win Nobel Prizes.


HK

As you said, because the discovery itself is luck?


DO

I would say that there is certainly an element of luck in every discovery. But I also think, and you get it from the article, the American Journal of Physics article, that one can do things that will increase the chances of making a discovery. I think that I get that. I think that I went into low temperature physics because I felt that it was an area that was right for a discovery, and I kept my eyes open.


HK

Can I ask about that part a bit more deeply? Why did you feel it necessary to find a new discovery in that area? Deciding the direction of your study is I guess one of the most important things for a researcher. Why did you choose that specific area?


DO

Well I chose low temperature physics, first of all, actually when I was an under-graduate I was working in infra-red astrophysics. Eventually I realized that astrophysicists don’t do experiments. You cannot change the temperature of a star and see what happens. So I wanted to do…I think it was when I was a junior in high school, my high school chemistry teacher described research. And the way he described research is the way that I still think about research today. This was, I think, his name was William Hawk and he had been a graduate student in chemistry at Stanford, was married with children and ran out of money. So he became a high school chemistry teacher. I think this was a terrible thing for him, because it really kept him from doing what I think he would have loved to do with his life, which is essentially what I have done with my life.

But in fact he shared this with his students in high school, and I was one of the beneficiaries of that. So I changed, even after applying for graduate study, I decided that I didn’t want to go in astrophysics, I really wanted to do something where I could do experiments. And I knew that in condensed matter physics, experiments tend to be done in a rather small timescale, maybe three to six months. Whereas in other areas, you can spend your lifetime and only do one experiment.


HK

That is really interesting. Can I ask your opinion about what is the most important to be good researcher?


DO

Well first I would say that for any human endeavour, you need to be a very good manager of your own personal resources. What is it that I do very well that I do better than most people? You use these things. I know that I was always very good…I started tearing things apart when I was six years old; to figure out how things work and when I was in high school I built a 100,000 volt x-ray machine. That is not a lot, it doesn’t mean much. Because basically I took a lot of…I went up to medical supply houses and told them I wanted to build an x-ray machine, could they give me some parts? I was very good with my hands, and so going into experimental science felt quite natural to me. And it was something I enjoyed doing as well.

When I became a graduate student there were two new technologies which were what really attracted me to low temperature physics. One was the development of the helium 3, helium 4 dilutionary refrigerator. I think I built most of a helium 3, helium 4 dilutionary refrigerator my first year of graduate study. That summer, I think it wasn’t until the next fall that it actually worked. And then the other technology was Pomeranchuk cooling. Adiabatic solidification of helium 3 under pressure. And this as a cooling technique, had been suggested by Isaac Pomeranchuk back in 1950.

Everyone thought that it wouldn’t work, so no one tried it. Eventually one of Peter Kapitza students in Moscow tried it, and he was able to cool from 100 mil a degrees down to 20 mil a degrees. That wasn’t very cold, but David Lee, my thesis advisor, really felt that this was the technology that was going to allow us to study nuclear spin ordering and solid helium 3. And so he hired Bob Richardson and then eventually he took me on as a graduate student to do this. And of course, before I did any learning anything about solid helium 3, in fact we discovered super fluid helium 3.


HK

I am really impressed with what you have done and at the same time your colleagues as well. You might get many helps from them. What do you think of how to collaborate with other researchers?


DO

Yes I have to say, most of the collaborations I have done…well first, I like to collaborate with theorists. Because they have skills that I don’t have, I’m not very good at theory. But sometimes, for instance when I was at Bell laboratories, David Thallis, ad made some predictions about what became localisation of conduction electrons and metals. So Gerry Dolan, who is dead now actually, he and I together did this. He used lithography to make fine wires, very thin, I think they were about 300 aestroms thick. We felt we were testing this idea of David Thallis’s, but in fact what we actually discovered was weak localisation. What I always say is that collaboration is extremely valuable, particularly collaborating with people whose skills set compliments your own.


HK

That’s really interesting. Because one of many things I learned through the project is to do what you can do, and other parts you cannot do should be shared with others. I thought that is really similar to the world of research as well. Do you think there is a border in the world of academia, or in the world of research skills?


DO

Well I think basic science is very international. I mean I have friends, some of them I have collaborated with in countries all over the world. Japan, Russia, France, you name it. So I think for basic science I think it is really very international. If you are doing applied research, then I think you can…there it is a matter of new technologies and value. And I think that’s…usually there is more money. Applied research I think tends to cost more. So I think then it tends to be the product of a laboratory or something. But still, frequently these things are…the developments. If you look at the people that win Nobel Prizes, certainly the last, most recent Nobel Prize for physics was for applied work. I think that if you are in an industrial research laboratory, probably depending upon what you are doing, you are somewhat restricted.

Certainly in Bell laboratories, I think there was a general feeling that you don’t want to publish until you have patented things. So Bell labs had an enormous patent portfolio. Not many of those patents were very useful, but in fact they were a way of AT and T controlling the intellectual property that it developed in a laboratory.


HK

Is there any kind of globalization in the world of research? For example, submitting papers in English.


DO

Well it has to happen at some level I think. Nowadays of course, the publication is electronically published now, and it is results get out much faster. I don’t know what happens if you are doing applied work, because again, if you are an added research laboratory that is supporting the research, certainly the corporation that supports that research laboratory does have control over what you are doing. What’s true is there’s, I think, less research going on. When I was in high school, there was RCA labs, general electric laboratory, IBM laboratory, Dell laboratories. There were all of these phenomenal research laboratories. And now most of the research laboratories, if they exist at all, are very applied.


HK

Does the development of information technology is affecting on researches in a good way or a bad way?


DO

I think information technology really…not the science of information technology, but rather the product. Information can go around the world at the speed of light. So I think there is a lot of stuff that…you can have conversations electronically with other countries very quickly. I think this certainly has to speed up the rate at which science gets done. It used to be that you could either write letters to people, or you could meet them at conferences. And so the timescale for having a conversation is relatively long. And now you can do this electronically, and you can have several iterations. Because a conversation is not just that you state your position and the other person states theirs. You basically iterate until you have a better understanding of something. And now, in fact, you can do that in an afternoon, or in a day, whereas before it might take six months in order to get that done.


HK

Do you think as the development of, as you say, information technology, that there should be many effects on our society? Not only on our society, but the whole society, research, our daily lives, politics, economics, whatever. Is that our definition of success can be transformed to another way, or as you said, helping others and all those kinds of things. Because we can now share our values, norms, expertise and thoughts on the Internet.


DO

Well I think the information technologies have really allowed ideas and debates to occur between people who are anywhere in the world. I think it will have a profound, and is having a profound effect, not just on research but on almost every aspect of human life and culture. Hopefully we will better understand one another as a result of this rapid communication. And hopefully we will become more tolerant of one another, but I don’t know if that is really going to happen.


HK

Is that because you suspect the development of the human beings, or the tendency of human beings to cooperate or to help others?


DO

Well I mean I don’t know whether understanding one necessarily means that you will cooperate with people. You may understand their positions but in fact not support them.


HK

I am a dreamer, and I think I can…or we can…as I said, share our values and help each other if we don’t have what you have. I was wondering there is huge possibility that the Internet will enable us to do so. Even that is whether in our daily life or the matter of research. Don’t you think that is not going to happen?


DO

Well I think it does happen to some extent. The question is whether all of this very close contact will make us really understand on another or…I don’t know. It is interesting. I was attending an event in Islamabad, Pakistan. I guess it must have been five years ago or something like that. At that time there was a dinner and I ended up at a table that included the granddaughters of my host. These two kids had done email with me. I would typically maybe twice a month or something like that, just short messages, for the last five years. I see Pakistan from their eyes now, and I suppose they see what I see from my eyes. So it is kind of interesting and one can hope I think that electronic communication can lead us to a better appreciation of others and understanding. But cultures are very complicated I think. So you get a clash of cultures, in fact you can get a clash, a cultural clash, that you never really understood. You can discover it…that there is a cultural clash that you never expected.


HK

Is that happened in the world of research?


DO

I would say that, you know, when I collaborate with people doing research, these are usually people who are interested in the same things that I am interested in. Otherwise, these sorts of collaborations never form.


HK

Okay. So it is basically easier to collaborate together…for example the different ethnicity or different race, Asian people, black people, white people.


DO

Yes, I mean, I think in research and science, these things are rather easy. But to give you some idea, right now there is a really interesting social problem in the United States. Arizona has actually passed a law which is really designed to stop people from Mexico from coming across the border, illegally of course, and setting up residence in Arizona. And so I was talking to one of my students, a freshman at Stanford, yesterday. She thinks this is absolutely terrible. This kid is Hispanic, and probably has roots in Mexico, is my guess. But it is interesting, because you see these things happening, and there are very sharp differences of opinion. Again, these sorts of things, I think you get a lot of this from television and stuff. The communications, and the realisations, that there are these very strong cultural differences happen very quickly. But this has nothing to do with science.


HK

Exactly. I think science is the simplest, and purest world. That’s why I think that you guys can collaborate. I wouldn’t say easily, but compared to other parts, for example politics and economics, it is rather easy to collaborate.


DO

Yes, I never understand…I don’t understand economics, and I don’t understand the Nobel Prize of economics. Of course you realise that the economics prize is not a Nobel Prize.


HK

[Laugh]


DO

Well you have to be careful what you say. There are two different kinds of economics prizes. I think some of them border on social issues and cultural issues. That is the impacts of economics. And then some of them are basically very sophisticated mathematical models. The trouble is that economics is basically driven by people, people’s…largely people’s greed and emotions. These are not logical things.


HK

[Laughter]

They will get mad if they hear that. Okay, so you are saying they are not making or creating new things, I mean they don’t create matrix, or they don’t make fundamental things which is what you guys are making.


DO

Well, I just want to say that I think there is no absolute truth in economics because it depends so much on the human psychology.


HK

[Laugh] I wouldn’t go farther, it is really scared conversation. I think that we are going to run out of time, so this is the final question. Can you give me your advice for being successful? Not in terms of being a researcher, but in terms of general life.


DO

Okay. Well I think the most important thing that I can say is that you have to be a good manager of your own personal resources. I think you have to realise, first of all what you are good at and what you are not so good at. And you have to realise what matters to you, what excites you. You are going to be much more productive doing something that excites you, than something that you think may be important to other people, but maybe it doesn’t excite you. I think you have…it is like you are the coach of a football team or something like that. I mean, you look at all of your players and you know that they have certain strengths and certain weaknesses. And then you go into the locker room and you say, “Let’s go out there and beat those guys!” I think to some level, you have to be playing that role for yourself. You have to recognise what your strengths and what your weaknesses are, and what excites you, and what inspires you

I have seen so many students…well this happened to me. When I was in my junior year, I had four problem sets due every week. I hated these problem sets. I spent all of my time doing these problem sets and I was wondering whether I should not go into physics. Then in the middle of the…I guess it was the middle of the winter quarter, I got involved in a research group. So what I was doing actually in the research group, it was not science at all, it was terribly…this was in the 1960’s, so the group was…it was an infra-red star survey. All of the data went on punched paper tape. The trouble was that the machine that did that made mistakes. So I had to look at this tape and look at the parody of each word. And if the parody was wrong, I had to take a little piece of mirror tape and stick it over one of the holes. So that was completely brain dead and you could have said, “I am going to hate this.” But what I did was, I started talking to the graduate students in the post talks on this project about what the technology was, and how they were measuring the spectra of stars, what the whole project was for, and I found that very exciting. The thing that I found most was that I could contribute to this thing very easily and really enjoy being a member of this project. And so it completely changed…it rescued my research career.

I’ve seen this at Stanford. There was a student who was double majoring in physics and English. What a strange double major. She was of Indian descent; her parents had come from India. I guess the summer after her junior year; she worked in a research lab helping a junior faculty member to set up her laboratory. This was the first time this kid had ever done anything with her hands, and she absolutely loved it. So her senior year she still had to take quantum mechanics, three terms of quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and another one more physics class. Her grade point average was basically a b plus going into her senior year. But for all of these classes in her senior year, her grade point average was a, three point nine, so almost a perfect grade point average. It is interesting but if you are enjoying what you are doing, and you are stimulated, you just are so much more successful. And I think that is true for everyone.


Douglas D. Osheroff is Nobel Prize Winner in Physics.

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