Douglas D. Osheroff


Interview, June 2004

Interview with Professor Douglas Osheroff by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 54th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2004.

Professor Osheroff talks about his wild childhood and performing experiments at home, how he always wanted to be an explorer (4:15), the Nobel Prize and what it has meant to him (7:47), his time at Bell Labs (9:22), teaching (11:34), his work as a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (13:25), and his thoughts about space flights (19:43).

Interview transcript

I just would like to start off the interview for the official website. Welcome Professor Osheroff to this interview. And really start off with asking you something about your childhood. It seems like you really liked experimenting at the time. There are some amazing stories that we have been able to read about. Can you tell us some?

Douglas Osheroff: It’s absolutely true that I led a wild childhood. I guess it started at age six when I tore the locomotive for this electric set I’d just gotten for Christmas apart to get the electric motor out. I think my parents didn’t scold me. I think my father was quite fascinated with my fascination. As time went on … He was a physician in town, and his patients would obviously give him things to give to me. I was one of five children. I don’t know if they all got quite that much attention, but some of things, like a box of parts from the telephone company and a box of magnets and stuff like this, and I just found all of this stuff so fascinating.

There was once an explosion and you came running up with cuts in your face?

Douglas Osheroff: This was, I can’t remember who told me, you could buy calcium carbide at a hardware store. The idea was to put it in moles’ runways. It generates acetylene gas when the calcium carbide gets in contact with water, and that would drive out the moles. But you could take a soda pop bottle, fill it mostly full of water, drop in one of these grains of calcium carbide, and then jam the rubber stopper with a glass tube that was pulled to a fine point so there was just a very small orifice. You had to wait until all the oxygen was out of the bottle, and then you would light this and you can see an intense white flame. This is essentially a miner’s lamp. It was fun. But it would go for, I don’t know, a minute or something or less and then you’d have to open it up and put another one in. I thought I would make one differently that would run for hours. I took a 500-millilitre beaker and filled it full of calcium carbide. I had a long burette, so it would drip water into this thing, and then there was a delivery tube. I didn’t think about the fact that there was such a much larger volume in this thing. I waited what seemed like an appropriate period of time and then I lit this. I got a blue flame rather than this brilliant white flame. I instinctively knew enough to move my head like this. This thing blew up. I went like this and it blew up. I had glass in the side of my face, which would have gone in my eye if I hadn’t been luckier. My mother was up fixing dinner and she hears this explosion downstairs and she comes to the top of the stairs – I was in the basement. I’m coming up the stairs cupping my hands to keep the blood from dripping on the carpet. I was so famous for practical jokes that she of course couldn’t trust anything I did, so she says, “If you’re kidding I’ll kill you!” I was old enough to drive and I drove myself down to my father’s office and he sewed up the largest of the cuts. This had happened so many times before.

But they went with it? They were okay? They really encouraged you though?

Douglas Osheroff: Yes. After that I stopped playing with calcium carbide. There was an unwritten agreement between us: if I did something really stupid I would simply stop doing that. I was usually quite happy because there were so many things and there wasn’t enough time anyway.

You were very young when this amazing discovery was made early in your twenties. Were you aware of what you were on to, together with Professor Lee and Professor Richardson, or was it sheer hard work and you knew there was something, but did you know exactly what you were coming up?

Douglas Osheroff: Let me go back a little bit if I can. When I was a kid, again there five of us, and we would go for walks along long deserted logging roads that wound their way into the Hemlock Forest that surrounded Aberdeen. We would imagine that we were pioneers, explorers, that we were the first humans that had ever been on the roads. A contradiction in terms I suppose, but I’ve always wanted to be an explorer, and when I went to Cornell, Bob Richardson gave a talk on a new refrigeration technology that gave the promise of allowing man to look at nature in a new and different realm. I wanted to be one of the people. That was when I decided I would go into low temperature physics. I went in with the idea that there would be some excitement associated with it and everything. But my fifth year of graduate study, the experiment I was doing was based on some very, what appeared to be very, exciting work by one of our competitors. When I went into first reproduce that, then go beyond it, we found that that work was all wrong and that the actual effect was easily calculated. I kept looking for small deviations from the existing theory. What I like to say is if I continued on that experiment I probably would be a taxi cab driver of New York City or something like that.

But luckily one day there were two other students that had patiently been waiting for the only NMR iron core electromagnet in the lab, so high enough homogenating stability to do NMR. Eventually they went to Dave Lee and Bob Richardson and they agreed that I had to relinquish this magnet which I’d been monopolising for three months. It was only after that that I did a curiosity driven experiment, which in fact gave the first evidence that we’d seen a new phase transition. The refrigeration technology was a mixture of liquid and solid helium three, and we didn’t know whether the phase transition, this curve that we saw, was giving evidence of was in the liquid or the solid. The first publications we made we were wrong. I mean all the data was correct, but the interpretation was all wrong. We’d said it was all in the solid, but it wasn’t. This was exactly what I’d felt I’d been born for and I wasn’t going to just stop. I kept trying to come up with better and better ways of probing what was going on inside this mixture at this very, very low temperature where one couldn’t see what was happening.

It took a few years though until you got the prize and you had moved on.

Douglas Osheroff: Only a few years. 24 or something like that, yes.

But you knew you had something amazing there, but did you expect that you would get the prize?

Douglas Osheroff: When we did the work I think that our attitude was that this other person that had done this wrong experiment that got me into the parameter space where we could make the discovery, if he’d made that discovery we felt he would have gotten the Nobel Prize. But we didn’t think that we would, at least that was my personal feeling. I think it was probably 1976 we were awarded the Simon Memorial Prize, which is an international prize, a British prize. I guess it was only shortly after that that people started telling me that they had nominated me for the Nobel Prize. Now of course you’re not supposed to do that, but I think a lot of people do. For years I would hear this and get nervous every October, and how many years can you get nervous every October? I think eventually I made a conscious decision I would simply ignore this whole business of it, it seemed unlikely after 20-some years that it would happen. But having made the discovery, in any event it opened enormous doors for me and I had lots of opportunities. Just going to Bell Laboratories was a fantastic thing for me.

What was so amazing with Bell, just in some brief words, because it seems like a number of laureates have been working at Bell’s and had a good connection to Bell? What was so amazing for you there?

Douglas Osheroff: For one thing you know you were surrounded by so many of the best scientists, for me physicists, in the country, indeed in the world. The reason I left Bell Labs, because I don’t think I ever could have done that on my own, my wife had always thought of me as a frustrated professor waiting to be born. I would go around New Jersey giving demonstration lectures on low temperature physics to high school kids and middle school, even grade school kids.

Did you enjoy that?

Douglas Osheroff: I did enjoy that, but I also felt it was kind of a responsibility. I recognised that I was having a wonderful career in science, and I looked back at those things that had stimulated me to go into science and I needed to repay society for those things. My wife was a biochemist working in the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey. They’re basically all small molecule people, organic chemistry. She wanted to join the new biotechnology sector. She asked if it was okay if she applied to these companies. How could I say no? I mean basically she’d sacrificed some of her career in order for me to have a wonderful career. She applied to five places and almost immediately got a job offer at Amgen, and then at Genentech. Genentech was our hero company. They just were doing the best work, all published, and it was a wonderful place. She went to Genentech and I had to choose between Stanford and Berkeley. A wonderful decision to have to make, but a difficult one. I eventually decided to come to Stanford, and I think I made the right decision. I’ve been very happy there.

The students seem to be very happy as well; you have won an award for excellency in teaching. How did you feel about that?

Douglas Osheroff: It happened fairly early actually. I came to Stanford and there was an intermediate lab sequence for physics majors that had actually been – the structure of this thing was more or less worked out by someone else – but it was all low temperature, all based on physics at low temperatures. I took over this thing. Everyone said they thought I had a really light teaching load, but all of this was an incredible amount of work. I guess I created this course a little bit, tailored it for what I felt I wanted to do. The kids seemed to really enjoy it a lot. They worked awfully hard. I taught that course for ten years. It’s very difficult teaching anything for ten years. You have to really, really love it to do that. At some point I would like to go back and teach that again.

On a daily basis, how do you keep the creativity going? How do you get that energy to encourage the students or is it just environment in itself that creates that?

Douglas Osheroff: No. I have to say that the environment at Stanford is certainly a wonderful environment, but for me, I don’t have theorists who are waiting on. Even if I worked back at Bell Labs right now, the field helium three physics is a mature field and I’m a little bit surprised that I’m still in it I suppose. But I still find it fascinating and I still find it very good training for students.

I would like to ask you, you have told us and I have read that you have been part of the Columbia Accident Investigation Team, the accident that happened year 2003. You had said briefly that it was good for the team, the investigation team, to have a Nobel Laureate on, it’s your speculation. But you came to really have a very, very important role in this investigation. Will you tell us the way you saw your role and what it actually came to be?

Douglas Osheroff: Yes. People, as soon as they heard that I had been offered a spot on the board, people immediately said, “Oh you will be the Richard Feynman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.” I quickly said, “I can’t fill those shoes.” But in some sense I suppose I did end up being kind of the Richard Feynman of the thing in that I was the only one that did an experiment, but it was a very different experiment. Feynman basically, some people said he was put up to it, but if he was he was a wonderful showman and I think he made his point extremely well, dumped this rubber O ring in ice water and showed that it became hard. This is nothing that the engineers at Morton Thiokol hadn’t known back, even the morning before the accident.

First let me say I joined late and so most everything was being covered. People were looking at the organisational aspects of the accident. I was a member of a group that was trying to establish with as much certainty as possible the physical origins of the accident. Every time I tried to do something I found that I was infringing on someone else’s turf so to speak and it was a bit complicated.

But you even took and made some experiments at home to prove that what you were suggesting was true?

Douglas Osheroff: Yes. The first thing I did is decide what I should really do is look over people’s shoulder to make sure that what they’re doing is reasonable and complete and all of this stuff. It was a very professional bunch of investigators, most of whom had a lot of expertise in safety investigations or knew NASA like the back of their hand or whatever. They were all people who had much more reason to be there than I did. I did that for a while. Then I said, “Is there something that’s not being covered here?” I realised that no one was worrying about why the foam fell off in the first place, and so I started looking at that and doing a bunch of calculations and stuff like that. It didn’t look like NASA’s model made any sense, just because the heat couldn’t propagate through the foam fast enough to do what it had to do. But then we said, “Well, maybe the heat is being generated internally by vibrations and things.” Then I asked a different question: If in fact you suddenly start building up pressure inside the foam, how does that pressure propagate through to the surface? Does it do that in a manner which is consistent with throwing off foam? I designed a very simple experiment. It cost me about $100. I mean some of the stuff we had lying around, but if you had to buy it all to start with maybe it would have been $300 or something. We did this experiment. We got a very clear answer, which was that the pressure created a plainer fracture which propagated up and intersected a section normal to the surface. All the motion of the foam was normal to the surface and that wouldn’t throw any foam off. We did this experiment under various different conditions over and over again; always got the same result.

What did NASA say to your findings and has it been established, or are you seen as the bad boy, so to speak, of having insisted that this is the problem?

Douglas Osheroff: No, I don’t think I was the bad boy because of that. I was the bad boy because I think Nobel Laureates have a tendency to talk to the press a lot more than for instance Air Force Generals, who are in the business of doing safety investigations. The thing that really got me in trouble was talking to the press. There was one particular interview, which was August 1st, that’s my birthday, and anyone can figure out who it was, but the reporter had asked me a simple question, which was, Did I think that we were writing a good report? because it was supposed to come out in less than a month? I said, Well, it depends. I think the people that wrote the Rogers Commission Report thought they had written a good report. But then over time I think they could see that NASA’s regard for safety had relaxed back to the pre-Challenger accident level. Then surely when this accident occurred they must have concluded that in fact the report had not done what they hoped it would do. I think the only way we can have written a good report is if we get NASA to change their culture in a way that will not relax back. That was the first time that NASA realised, evidently, that that was going to be in our report.


Douglas Osheroff: That’s why I was the bad boy.

Do you approve of men in space so to speak, to send people up in a space shuttle, or do you think it should be done in a different way until all the safety measures have been taken care of?

Douglas Osheroff: I think ‘approve’, I would not use that term. I think that there’s no moral or ethical questions here. I think the astronauts realise the dangers involved. I think that if you look at the survival rate of astronauts it’s probably higher than the survival rate of test pilots, particularly those that are testing military aircraft. It is a risky business. I think for various reasons it is politically not tolerable for astronauts to die in the line of work. That’s a reality and I don’t think that we’re going to change. These are all heroes and how can we stand by and watch heroes die, and particularly stand by and watch heroes die because of a blind spot that NASA had in their management? I think it’s not so bad that there were two accidents, but the fact that both of these accidents could and should have been avoided, I think that is the point that’s been hard for NASA to live with and to understand.

And to admit maybe?

Douglas Osheroff: Yes. I don’t know how they feel about this. Clearly they realise that the foam posed a greater risk than they understood. But this business that the foam can’t do damage, they knew that because STS-112, two flights before Columbia, which was just in October, a piece of bipod foam had fallen off and struck one of the solid rocket boosters and left a good size dent. That’s metal, that’s not graphite. I would hope that the management were smart enough to realise that what they were saying was extremely misleading and almost undoubtedly wrong. But what do you do in a case like that?

Professor, thank you very much for speaking to us today and good luck.

Douglas Osheroff: Thank you.

Thank you. Thank you so much.

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