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Q&A with Nobel Laureate Burton Richter

July 19, 2012 - 5:00pm

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President Barack Obama greets 2010 Fermi Award recipients Dr. Burton Richter, right, and his wife Laurose in the Oval Office, May 7, 2012. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

President Barack Obama greets 2010 Fermi Award recipients Dr. Burton Richter, right, and his wife Laurose in the Oval Office, May 7, 2012. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Burton Richter recently received the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for his work in particle physics. In 1976, he received a Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a new type of subatomic particle. He went on to serve as the director of SLAC National Lab from 1984 until 1999.

Question: How did you get started in science -- was there any particular person or any memorable moment that led you into your career?

Burton Richter: It was a combination of things that got me started. One that sticks in my mind was a visit to the Haydn Planetarium in New York when I was about 10 years old. The most memorable views were of our Milky Way galaxy. During World War II, I lived in Long Island, New York, where the city was blacked out. I could see the stars in a way that no city kid can today. I framed a kid’s question early -- how does the universe work. That eventually got me to physics and within physics to elementary particle physics. 

Q: In your undergraduate career who were those that inspired you to become a scientist?

BR: My inspiration was more from science fiction than from scientists. I didn’t know any scientists, and during WWII reporting on science was blocked to keep information away from the enemy. 

As an undergraduate student at MIT, I worked in Francis Bitter’s Magnet Laboratory on optical pumping. But later, as a grad student, I felt this wasn’t for me. I turned to my undergraduate nuclear physics professor David Frisch for advice. He provided more than advice, setting up a three-month visit at the Brookhaven National Lab where I tried my wings in particle physics.

Also influential was Lou Osborne with whom I did my thesis. I learned a lot about experiment, electronics, and accelerators with him. He also strongly encouraged me to keep my dual interests in theory and experiment. The accelerator part was unusual in that the graduate students maintained the MIT synchrotron. I was responsible for the magnet system, while others had the controls, accelerating system and main power system. 

Q: When you started graduate school why did you decide to become an experimenter rather than a theorist?

BR: When I started grad school, I was not certain if I wanted to be a theorist or an experimenter. Francis Friedman was the MIT theorist with whom I tried my wings as a theorist. While I did my practice problems with little difficulty, the experience helped me decide the plumbing of experiment was more interesting than the plumbing of theory. 

When I left MIT for Stanford with my new PhD, I had a plan for an experiment and already had checked the theory to see how far I could go with it. I was also something of an electronics expert, and knew more about accelerators than most.

At Stanford my most important mentor was W.K.H. Panofsky, or Pief as everyone called him. I can simply say he taught me how to be a lab director.

I also have to thank DuPont and the National Science Foundation whose fellowships that supported me throughout graduate school and allowed me to jump between subfields of physics with ease.

Q: Did you have any failures, or at least unsuccessful experiments along the way? What did you do -- what kept you moving?

BR: My first failure taught me a lesson that I have never forgotten. When I was a post-doc, an important issue was the rare decay of the pi meson into an electron and a neutrino. The particle was expected to be at about one part in 10,000, but an experiment had been done at the University of Chicago cyclotron that said it was less than one part in a million. 

Another post-doc, Hobey Destaebler, and I devised an experiment that, though not highly precise, was sensitive to a rate of a part in 100 million. We started taking data and working on reducing background. We worked on background reduction for weeks, and one day we heard that we had been scooped by an experiment at CERN, which showed that the Chicago result was wrong and the correct result was in agreement with theory. I walked over to the electronics and flipped the switch from delayed coincidence (background) to prompt (signal) and there it was, far larger than the initial background. We never published a paper because our systematic error was larger than the statistical error of the CERN result. 

The lesson -- look for the signal first; you never know what is really there.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is hoping to follow your footsteps, to become a successful scientist?

BR: Know enough to understand what is important in your field. Understand the state of theory and what the main issues are. If you do not you are nothing but a technician for the theorists. You need drive, leadership ability, a certain degree of self-confidence.  

Q: You’ve dedicated your life to benefiting humankind through energy science and technology. What is your proudest accomplishment?

BR: Besides being married for more than 50 years, raising good kids, and having two young granddaughters who are turning into interesting personalities, I go back to the answer to question 1. I don’t understand yet how the universe works, but I contributed a lot to understanding it better today that when I started in science.

Q: Enrico Fermi’s achievements opened new scientific and technological realms. Can we still do this today?

BR: We do it all the time. Technology enables science and science enables technology. That back and forth has revolutionized our views of all areas of science and given us technological tools that were conceivable 50 years ago only in the science fiction I liked to read as a kid.

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