John Clauser


Telephone interview, October 2022

“What a waste of time, now start doing some real physics!”

Telephone interview with John Clauser following the announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics on 4 October 2022. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.

As a young man, John Clauser set out to topple quantum mechanics, but all his faculty thought he was crazy. “I thought it was important at the time, even though I was going to ruin my career by doing it, and in some sense I did: I’ve never been a professor!” But, as he tells Adam Smith in this joyous call recorded in the middle of the night, as Clauser is besieged by reporters, he was having fun. And, as history surely confirms, “I proved that I was a decent experimentalist!”

Interview transcript

Adam Smith: John Clauser, please.

Bobbi Tosse: He’s Zooming right now with England.

AS: Okay, I understand that.

BT: But he should be off in a second. Hang on.

AS: Thank you.

BT: Or call back in a few minutes, maybe that would work.

AS: The only thing I worry about is if I hang up then I might never be able to get back in touch again, you know, because your phone’s going to be ringing off the hook.

BT: It has been since 2:50. It’s a very exciting day.

John Clauser: … Swedish news media, European and American news media …

BT: And this is Sweden on the phone.

JC: Oh hang on, they’re on the phone right now.

John Clauser: Hello?

AS: Hello, my name is Adam Smith, and I’m calling from the website of the Nobel Prize.

JC: Ah-ha! I’ve been talking all day with various news, I have yet to hear anything from the Swedish Academy.

AS: Well, gosh, my goodness. Well, in fact I’m not the Swedish Academy, but we have this tradition of recording extremely short interviews with new laureates, just…

JC: Okay.

AS: So if you can… I know you’re on another Zoom call at the moment, but if you were able to talk to me for three or four minutes that would just be wonderful. What do you think?

JC: Okay, hang on just a second.

AS: Yep.

JC: Can I talk to the guys from the Swedish Nobel Committee? If you can pause for a second.

[Unknown interviewer]: Yes absolutely.

JC: Sure, go ahead.

AS: First of all many, many congratulations on the award.

JC: Thank you.

AS: I guess you have already been, as you said, on calls all morning.

JC: Ah yes. Took me a long time before I even got a cup of coffee. I got waked up at three in the morning.

AS: My goodness, what a start to a very long day.

JC: So far it took me over an hour to even get my pants on, there were so many phone calls.

AS: That’s slow progress with the regular things in life but nice, nice distractions. This work that’s been awarded, I mean, you were the person who thought that it might be possible to test Bell’s theorems in the laboratory, and people didn’t believe…

JC: Yes, I had the idea independently with, from Abner Shimony and Mike Horne, and then we wrote a small… gave a talk, wrote an abstract and gave a talk, in an APS meeting, Physical Society meeting, and we got together at that meeting and decided to share our resources and we published what’s called the CHSH – Clauser, Horne, Shimony and Holt – paper in 1969, and that was, kind of, the first proposal for doing the experiment.

AS: But I gather…

JC: And then in 1972, I came… Or in ’69 actually, I got my degree at Columbia and I came to Berkeley, and actually then collaborated with Stuart Freedman, a graduate student. This became his PhD thesis at Cal, and we did the first experimental test of Bell’s theorem.

AS: I gather that many great physicists didn’t believe you, and you were turned away by people such as Feynman.

JC: Oh indeed, yes. Everybody at the time, my whole faculty at Columbia… while I was doing the experiment I had a short conversation where Feynman kind of threw me out of his office. He was very offended that I should even be considering the possibility that quantum mechanics might not give the correct predictions. And only through the very kind efforts of Charlie Townes and Howard Shugart here at Cal Berkeley was I able to do the experiments. And afterwards all of my faculty still in Columbia said ‘why, what a waste of time, you got the results that everybody expected – now start doing some real physics’.

AS: I love the thought of this bold young man hoping to topple quantum mechanics.

JC: Well, I was having fun. It was a challenging experiment. I thought it was important at the time, even though everybody told me I was crazy and was going to ruin my career by doing it. And to some extent I did – I’ve never been a professor. So… but I had a lot of fun doing some really challenging experimental physics. Didn’t have any money to do the work, and so Stu Freedman and I had to build everything from scratch. Spent a lot of time in the shop cutting metal and whatever. And then after he got his degree he left, went to Princeton, and I continued on doing three more experiments. And all of these had to build everything from scratch, so…

AS: I gather your…

JC: … there was very little money and so I was basically cobbling together old junk or scrap from the UC Physics department.

AS: Yeah, I heard you were famous for scavenging people out of the dumpster.

JC: Well, there was a lot of stuff unused in storerooms if you recognise what it is. Most people haven’t the faintest idea, and they just sort of say ‘well, it might be useful, we’ll put it in the storeroom’. So I would rummage around and say ‘oh hey, I can use this’.

AS: You know there was a famous… You know there was a medicine laureate called Oliver Smithies who had exactly the same approach, and people used to write NBGBOKFO on the equipment that they put out in the corridor, and it stood for ‘no bloody good, but okay for Oliver’.

JC:  I was working in labs later on, of some very famous people – Oppenheimer and Lawrence and whatever – and I’m told they were also scavengers.

AS: It’s a great tradition. And really a wonderful encouragement to people out there that you can be a Nobel Laureate and not be a professor.

JC: Well, whatever, so I just say we’re all right, in that respect it did ruin my career, that’s why nobody was interested in hiring me. I had a great difficulty finding a job, so I went off to Livermore Lab to do controlled fusion plasma physics experiments. So I proved that I was a decent experimentalist by doing these experiments.

AS: I think that much is proved, and it all turned out well in the end.

JC: Yes.

AS: Anyway, it’s an absolute joy to speak to you, and we… I look forward to…

JC: My pleasure.

AS: I look forward to speaking a great deal more in the future. We’ll record a long interview.

JC: I will too. I will finally get some dates and times of what I’m expected to do.

AS: Yes, you will, so over the coming days you’ll be sent lots of information by the Nobel Foundation.

JC: Great. Okay.

AS: And you’ll know everything. Thank you so much, and many, many congratulations.

JC: Okay, my pleasure.

AS: Okay.

JC: Okay, thanks a lot.

AS: Bye now.

JC: Bye bye.

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