Riccardo Giacconi


Interview, June 2008

Interview with the 2002 Nobel Laureate in Physics Riccardo Giacconi, at the 58th Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, 30 June 2008. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.

Riccardo Giacconi talks about why he sees himself as both as an American and as a European, why Rome is his favourite city in the world (2:30), his beginnings in physics (5:43), the provocative nature of his recent book aimed at young people moving into science (14:30), why scientists are like children (19:07), the importance of methodology in scientific research (32:18), the remarkable unexpected discovery of cosmic X-rays (46:47), and how most of the matter in the universe remains to be discovered (55:54).

Interview, December 2002

Interview with the 2002 Nobel Laureates in Physics, Riccardo Giacconi, Masatoshi Koshiba and Raymond Davis Jr., 12 December 2002. Raymond Davis’ son, Andrew M. Davis, is also present, and the interviewer is Joanna Rose, science writer.

The Laureates talk about the Nobel event, difficulties through the years (2:02), the road to the Nobel Prize (9:42), the role of individual creativity in comparison to the work of the group (15:05), and whether scientists can be replaced (20:51).

Interview transcript

Dr Giacconi, Dr Koshiba, Dr Raymond Davis and Andrew Davis, welcome to Stockholm and to this Nobel interview. Yesterday you received the Nobel Prize in Physics for this year 2002. The Nobel Prize gives you fame and it gives you money too. Do you feel happy? Dr Giacconi.

Riccardo Giacconi: All I can tell you is we had a wonderful time yesterday and at 7.30 in the morning I was woken up by the grandchildren before they had breakfast and then after they had breakfast because they were leaving. Having them here was perhaps one of the very happy things I could do for them and made me happy.

The family makes you happy?

Riccardo Giacconi: Very much so.

What do you say Dr Koshiba?

Masatoshi Koshiba: I felt the same. I also bought my granddaughters. They were happy and I was happy too.

And Dr Davis?

Raymond Davis Jr: Same with me. My wife said, Why don’t we take all the children? and that will be the way we’ll spend our money.

The week of your life.

Raymond Davis Jr: And it’s worked out beautifully. They’ve had a great time.

Andrew Davis: We have, as speaking as one of the children, and of course all the grandchildren are here too.

Raymond Davis Jr: You’ll get a lot of this.

I would like to say that the three of you share also another experience, I would say, of many years of work and trying to get and interbreed the signals from space. What you also share is the experience of not getting things right, maybe also the experience of getting accidents. Did you ever think about just quitting the field? Dr Giacconi?

Riccardo Giacconi: Not at all. Can I expand a little on this? I used to be asked to give early morning breakfast talks to the donors and sponsors of the Hopkins University. I used to wake them in the morning asking them the question what does it mean if the Hubble telescope, upon being on the launch pad, blows up? What does it mean? My answer was that the point of it all was not this piece of metal and glass but what we were learning in doing it. Learning about our own field. Learning about being able to work together. At the end of this process, whether it blew up or not – of course much better if it didn’t – but this of course woke them up in the morning, this prospect. But basically we had changed and we had changed in such a way, we learn enormously, and it was easy to be the next one. Progress I think, we tend of overemphasise the stuff which is a result of the hard work, but there is a tremendous amount of learning that goes in doing this and in preparing for this and that will remain no matter what happens. No, I never doubted that I would go on.

Do you mean that you learn even more if things go wrong?

Riccardo Giacconi: Sometimes. It’s not obvious that the lessons are then properly implemented but yes, you do.

Andrew Davis: Sometimes not such a fun way to learn.

Riccardo Giacconi: But it’s good because it’s a reality check. In many activities in human life there is no reality check. One can claim he is the greatest. Here Nature is a kind and abundant mother, but it’s also a hard taskmaster – that is if you don’t do it right, it just won’t happen.

What do you say Dr Koshiba?

Masatoshi Koshiba: It is true that I did have difficulties from time to time in my experiment. I never give up. I think about it over and over again until I find some solution. This is the way I have been doing my work.

Dr Davis, you were working for 30 years trying to measure neutrinos from the sun and never getting it right, I would say. How could you persist?

Raymond Davis Jr: First off, it’s funding in science. You have to get enough money to do it right. I found that not too hard to do because the funding agencies have been very good to the laboratory that I live in and that’s a very important factor.

But you’ve also been heavily criticised, for example as a chemist by your colleagues physicists. How did you communicate?

Raymond Davis Jr: They’re the same. Most of my experiments are really using chemicals and physics and … The other thing, I did a lot of work underground, so I wanted to find someone to dig a hole for me. Quite deep. You go to a mine and talk to the management and they say yes, you can do that.

You went to the gold mine in South Dakota?

Raymond Davis Jr: Yes. In looking for neutrinos the way I did, you really need that. The company has to help and dig a little for us.

Have you ever visited your father in the mine?

Andrew Davis: Yes, I visited many years ago. Before I answer that I thought I would say a little bit more also about the experiment. You were saying do you have difficulty perhaps being wrong. In the end of course it was not wrong. The experiment was right and the solar model was right, it was the neutrinos which in some sense are misbehaving or at least not behaving in the way people had expected them to. In the early days of your experiment and the challenge of physicists and theoreticians to you to say there must be something wrong with this step, that made your experiment better because you did more tests. You never think of giving up at that stage. You continue to believe, know from your own knowledge that it’s correct, and you try to follow up on that and make the experiment better. Do more tests to convince other people that you’re right. That’s how it works. In my case I visited the mine in 1968 when I was 18 years old. The whole family drove across the country and we visited the mine on the way. I’m the oldest of five children. I was the only one over 18 at the time so I was the only one permitted in the mine. My mother was not permitted in the mine because at that time women were not permitted in the mine, it was considered to be unlucky. Of course today there are women miners working, so things have changed.

I would like to continue a little about being a scientist. I would say that this is the thing, that you never quitted in spite of all the difficulties. This leads to the Nobel Prize somehow. Dr Giacconi, you mentioned before that one of your favourite lectures is the story of the white whale of Moby Dick. Is that a metaphor for science?

Riccardo Giacconi: I think that we do science because we must and we want to.

What do you mean by must?

Riccardo Giacconi: We can’t help it. We’re interested. We are lucky we hit upon a problem which really holds our own interest, and then we wish to carry out the work. One of the greatest difficulties is persuading somebody else which normally is required to give you funding, ‘somebody else’ means an agency, one or the other. For instance, in my case when I started off, I tried to convince the National Aeronautics Space Administration that I wanted to go and look at stars in x-rays and they thought this would not be interesting. Then I had to go to the Air Force and ask if they could be interested. They at the time were interested in studying the moon perhaps, so that’s why my proposal emphasised the moon because this was interesting for a sponsor. Basically, I was doing what I wanted to do. Then misfortune, criticism and so forth …

While you internalise a lot of this but basically you are doing what you want and that’s a fantastic reward, to be allowed to do in life what you want to do. It’s very difficult to reflect you, and adversity in a sense of what? Maybe one could give up, but it never occurred to me that I would. The adversity was just something that, particularly in space programme, you have to become accustomed to the fact that there may be failure. Do you stop? Not at all. You go on, you try to figure out a better way, you try to figure out some way to put in more disaster proof approaches and so on, but I haven’t heard anybody really involved that would quit. What makes people quit I think, is when they absolutely cannot convince their peers that what they want to do is rational. Therefore, they have great difficulties in getting support because of peer review system and so forth, particularly in the United States. Since we are sensitive people just like anybody else you tend to internalise that as a self-criticism. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, and at that point you’re lost.

It can be devastating, yes.

Riccardo Giacconi: I have been too arrogant to ever get to that point.

What about the story of Moby Dick?

Riccardo Giacconi: Moby Dick is only a funny story. When we launched the satellite there was a question of what should be the name and we had been very impressed with the name that the British gave to their own little satellite which was called Aerial. Aerial is nice because it gives you an idea of a live spirit, England. You don’t have to say more, you know it’s a British satellite. We were wondering what was the equivalent and some of my colleagues suggested Pequot. Now Pequot happens to be a Massachusetts Indian tribe. That was also the name of the ship of Captain Ahab and they saw some similarities between my behaviour and that captain Ahab.

Chasing the white whale?

Riccardo Giacconi: Chasing a dream, notwithstanding the difficulties and Nature. The white whale is evil so you’re chasing evil. Then this name was vetoed because congress would have objected and the environmentalists about chasing whales and the congress, particularly of the United States, would have objected in chasing white whales which would have been a wasted enterprise. We never got called Pequot but I always have kept in my mind the Moby Dick story because it’s reliving the myth of Prometheus, it’s been picked up by Dante in Ulysses, in the Divine Comedy. Then I think Melville … That was just a retelling of the myth in puritanical New England. I found it interesting.

I have another question. You two especially, Dr Giacconi and Dr Koshiba, you are leaders of big experimental groups, there are several hundred people, or eve thousands maybe, working together. What is the input or the role of individual creativity in comparison with the work in science of the group?

Masatoshi Koshiba: You ask me a very difficult question. I don’t know how to explain it.

How important is the individual in science?

Masatoshi Koshiba: Individual is very important. There’s no doubt about it. At the same time if you are carrying out a large experiment you do also need a good collaboration spirit. The only thing you can achieve or acquire this is that you get trusted by your colleagues. How? I don’t know. You just trust your colleagues and they trust you.

What would you say Dr Giacconi? You have also a big collective to lead.

Riccardo Giacconi: We are after all working in the United States so some of the things I’m going to say are fairly common, at least in management experience in the United States. One thing is I think that when you are involved in big enterprises it becomes a little bit different than being in a faculty. If you ever been to a faculty meeting there are 30 people and each one has his own ideas, and we rarely agree on anything. Therefore, if you are asking for a recipe for action this is very tricky. You can’t get action. When you are involved in major programmes and particularly in space where there is a deadline the problem is not only to have creativity by individuals but have that combined with discipline. You can’t have discipline. Discipline in science doesn’t work. These are creative minds they can’t be told what to do. What I found works very well is we work like a band of brothers. Meaning that somebody is the recognised leader, but he is the leader because he has ideas and because he’s contributing leadership. If he doesn’t somebody else in the wolf pack will take over. It’s not quite as wolf type image that I suggest because for instance I can say with fair conscience that the Hubble space telescope institute, which was created from the ground, no major decision of any kind, technical or managerial was taken without reaching consensus. I don’t mean vote, I mean consensus. We would talk until we were blue in the face so that we could agree. However, once we had agreed on a technical approach or managerial approach then there was an implied pact that we would carry out this decision even if we had disagreed originally with all our might, in all our loyalty.

In order to do any of this you need to achieve a level of communication and truth. That is hard to achieve. I was very accustomed as a leader of this group of scientists being told I was stupid, and that was perfectly OK. In fact, the only real bad thing was if somebody thought so and didn’t tell me, because that would have been really dangerous to our progress. I was able to do that when I was young at American Science and Engineering where we did the discovery work and then the work on UHURU, at Harvard and then space telescope. Later on I became a little bit more imperious because I’m getting a little impatient, I didn’t have the time to go through all of this and building up this through a period of education. That’s the way to do it. I see no conflict between feeling fully contributing and allowed to create as an individual and to recognise that you need to work cooperatively. When that works those are moments in human life which are very rare. There is a great sense of privilege in belonging to such a group. The young generals of Alexander must have felt that way.

There is this spirit in science that science goes its own way somehow, that scientists can be replaced. Something is in the air. If I don’t do this maybe somebody else will do it. What do you say about that Dr Koshiba?

Masatoshi Koshiba: Science is a special type of recognition and by its nature it is a common asset of the entire human being. Therefore, if I didn’t build the detector and detect super nova neutrinos. Well, a super nova happens every 30 years in the average galaxy but in our own galaxy the previous one was more than 300 years ago. However eventually other people will think of detecting such neutrinos and then find it – there is no doubt about it. When it comes to different type of recognition, like when you are listening to the music you like, then you and the recognised subject there is no separation between the two. You and music are just one entity. You enjoy it, you don’t analyse it, you don’t study it. You just feel it, this is the type of recognition different from scientific recognition. For instance, I used to say if Mozart didn’t make this particular music there would be nobody who can produce the same thing.

Do you agree with that? What do you say Dr Davis?

Raymond Davis Jr: I certainly believe that scientists like each other. They don’t give in. They like to hear your story. I’ve never had any trouble with that. Most people are interested in what you are doing. It’s free. It’s very important to be at a really good laboratory that has a very good staff. I was lucky going to Brookhaven National Lab because there were so many scientists on all kinds of things, there are engineers and so forth. At Brookhaven, if you do an experiment and you talk to somebody you say rise time counting. I never heard rise time counting. I just go to the electrical engineers and they ‘I’ll build you one of those’.

Even if you work alone you need this …

Raymond Davis Jr: Yes, you have a large body of scientists to talk to. We all talk to each other.

Andrew Davis: You shouldn’t have the impression that you’re sitting a mile underground for the tank of carbon tetrachloride by yourself counting argon atoms. This enterprise involves discussions with lots of different people. You discuss with scientists and engineers every day every aspect of your work. It’s constantly an interaction of different people and expertise from many different fields. That’s the way science gets done. There is a lot of talk and a lot of back and forth of ideas.

Do you agree with that Dr Giacconi? That individual scientists don’t matter as much as individual artists.

Riccardo Giacconi: We have had a running discussion with Professor Koshiba who obviously has thought about this longer perhaps than I have, but I do not. I do not agree to this, but I don’t have a very good way to express it, so I can only express it by stating some things. For example, let me think a moment of Kepler, the astronomer. Kepler had the following problem that he was thinking about the motion of the planets. He was very careful in interpreting Tycho Brahe data and he tried to express regular laws. However, there was a fundamental problem in his mind. He wasn’t obvious how the planets would be dragged in the sky according to these laws. What was the actual mechanism? There was an Italian scientist not quite as famous who had solved the problem by saying that the planets were inhabited by living beings who would fly like swarms flying around the sun in formation. Now Kepler didn’t accept that at all, thank God. However, he had no idea of gravitational laws. For him to say that there was a law of distance whereby the sun could influence the motion of the planet was like magic. It was worse magic than what he suggested which was that there would be magnetic brooms pushing the planets along in their orbit. At least it was a physical explanation.

Now the jump of going to that from that to recognising the physical laws that regulates this motion to me is a creative jump. The question that I really have been asking myself more since I’ve heard this concern of Professor Koshiba was the following. It is quite true that presumably we are living in one world and if we knew all about it, all aspects of it, then we would have to agree how it works. However, it’s not clear to me that for instance during the period in which you have no idea at all of probability, quantum theory, you really are conceiving the world in the same way as you would if you have a different theoretical outlook. Whether that would be part of reality that would remain hidden, or unimportant, or not interpreted to you. All I’m saying is very simple. Does language determine our thinking in a fundamental way because then certain different discoveries can be interpreted in a linear way? We are progressing one on top of the other but basically we are within a confined civilisation, a certain type of language. Is there some other aspect that we can never appreciate if we continue in that language? That’s why it would be interesting to find an alien civilisation. I’m sure that it would work in the same world. Would they really conceive of it in the same manner? I don’t know this. I want to think about it more, but it seems to me that maybe not.

Finally, one should say that I did feel as a creative scientist all my life and to be told that I’m not I don’t like it, psychologically, but he may still be right. But I was trying to put enough of a thought about it to say, well this example I’m using of the aliens is that obviously the aliens should ultimately come to the same conclusion. Now they could have had infra-red vision, they could have had x-ray vision or whatever. At that point would they come up with the same world view that we have? I don’t know. I can’t answer.

This is another way of putting the question of what you are doing as a scientist. Are you studying the nature as it is or are you just testing your morals?

Masatoshi Koshiba: You’re my spokesman.

Riccardo Giacconi: He does that to me. He did that to me once before. Then he’s very tough on me when I don’t give the right answer. I know this trick. I have seen this trick.

What would you like him to say?

Riccardo Giacconi: I think what Professor Koshiba is saying is that you get into a car and you don’t anything about impulse or momentum etc but if you hit a wall you hit a wall, so you must come to a certain conclusion. All I was saying was that yes, I agree with that and thank God we have a proof. But I was asking a slightly different question. Have we really conceptualised in our mind in the way we look at the world. Here we are. I see that tripod. I see the chair. That’s obviously a concrete structure. I can’t perceive it as waves. I can’t do it. Is it because I’m too dumb? Would somebody else who has been trained in a different way see it as an energy pattern, a field? What conclusion would he draw about the natural world? That’s all I’m saying.

Thank you for taking your time and sharing your thoughts with us. Thank you very much.

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