2005 A Gathering of Nobel Laureates: Science for the 21st Century – Douglas D. Osheroff Autobiography
Douglas D. Osheroff
1996 Nobel Laureate in Physics
Ethnically, I come from a mixed family. My father was the son of Jewish immigrants who left Russia shortly after the turn of the century, and my mother was the daughter of a Lutheran minister whose parents were from what is now Slovakia. Mostly, however, I grew up in a medical family. My father’s father and all his children either became physicians or married them. My parents had met in New York where my father was a medical intern and my mother was a nurse. At the end of World War II, my parents settled in Aberdeen, a small logging town on the west coast of Washington State, where medical doctors were in short supply. Surrounded by natural beauty, it was a perfect place to raise a family, and I was the second of five children.
To this day I grow pale at the sight of blood, and never for a moment considered a career in medicine. Despite this, my father, who was usually engrossed in his medical career, inspired in me passions for both photography and gardening, which were his hobbies when time permitted, as they are mine. Natural science interested me intensely from a very early age. When I was six I began tearing my toys apart to play with the electric motors. From then on, my free hours were occupied by a myriad of mechanical, chemical and electrical projects, culminating in the construction of a 100 keV X-ray machine during my senior year in high school.
My projects often involved an element of danger, but my parents never seemed too concerned, nor did they inhibit me. Once a muzzle loading rifle I had built went off in the house, putting a hole through two walls. On another occasion a make-shift acetylene ‘miners’ lamp blew up on my chemistry bench in the basement, embedding shards of glass in the side of my face, narrowly missing my right eye. With blood running down my face, I came up the stairs cupping my hands to keep the blood off the carpet. My mother was by then at the top of the stairs. Knowing my propensity for practical jokes, she exclaimed loudly “If you’re kidding I’ll kill you! ” As usual, my father lectured me about safety as he sewed the larger wounds closed, and there was always an unspoken understanding that that particular phase of my experimentation was over.
In high school I was a good student, but only really excelled in physics and chemistry classes. While I liked physics much more than chemistry, the chemistry teacher, William Hock, had spent quite a bit of time telling us what physical research was all about (as opposed to my experimentation), and that effort made a deep impression on my young mind. My interest in experimentation helped me to develop excellent technical skills, but I did not feel motivated to do independent reading in those areas of physics or chemistry associated with my projects. I was intellectually rather lazy, and in high school I would always take one free class period so that I could get my homework out of the way, freeing the evenings for my many projects.
My parents were generous, and the home for me was filled with scientific toys and gadgets. In addition, their children were allowed to attend any university to which they could get admitted. I chose Caltech over Stanford to avoid a continuing comparison of my academic record with that of my older brother, then a Stanford undergraduate.
It was a good time to be at Caltech, as Feynman was teaching his famous undergraduate course. This two-year sequence was an extremely important part of my education. Although I cannot say that I understood it all, I think it contributed most to the development of my physical intuition. The Feynman problem sets were very challenging, but I had the good fortune to know Ernest Ma, who was an undergraduate one year ahead of me. Ernest would never tell me how to solve problems, but would give obscure hints when I got stuck, at least they seemed obscure to me at the time.
It was a shock to suddenly have to work so hard in my studies. I had the most trouble in math, and only through considerable trauma did I gradually improve my performance from a grade of C+ to A+ over a three-year period. Years later, when Caltech was offering me a faculty position, I confided that I did not have a very illustrious career as an undergraduate. To this remark the division chair replied “That’s OK Doug, we are not hiring you to be an undergraduate.”
The pressure at Caltech was extreme, and I am not sure I would have survived had I not joined a group of undergraduates working with Gerry Neugebauer on his famous infra-red star survey during my junior year. This experience made me recognize how satisfying research could be, and how different it was from doing endless problem sets. In my senior year, in order to get out of a third term of senior physics lab, I also began working in David Goodstein’s low temperature lab (David was in Italy). Two professors, Don McCullum from U.C. Riverside and Walter Ogier from Pamona College, were spending their sabbatical leaves there trying to reach a temperature of 0.5K by pumping on a helium bath in which the superfluid film had been carefully controlled. They filled my mind with the wonders of the low temperature world, and I decided I would go into solid state physics.
I chose to attend Cornell for graduate school largely because it was so far away from the Pasadena smog. In the end, it was a good choice, and a good time to be at Cornell. Soon after my arrival I met two people who were to become very important in my life. While still looking for housing, I met Phyllis Liu, a pretty young woman from Taiwan, who had also just arrived in Ithaca. We dated a bit, but then she found herself too busy with her studies for such diversions. We met again three years later, and were married in August, 1970, two weeks after she obtained her Ph.D. The other person was David Lee, the head of the low temperature laboratory at Cornell and the professor under whom I was to work as a teaching assistant my first year. Dave seemed to think that I was bright, and encouraged me to join the low temperature group.
Low temperature physics seemed even more exciting at Cornell than it had been at Caltech. New technologies and interesting physics made the field easy to choose, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying every minute of my work. In the spring of my fourth year Dave Lee asked me to talk to the Bell Labs recruiter, who came to campus in the fall and spring of each year. I was not ready to graduate, but we talked a bit, especially about making tiny electrical plugs to be used throughout the Bell Telephone system. It seemed interesting to me, although not really physics. In the fall, Dave suggested I start interviewing in earnest. I first talked with General Electric, who seemed to have no jobs whatsoever. I then talked to Bell Labs again, but this time to a new recruiter, Venky Narayanamurti, who had recently received his Ph.D. in physics at Cornell. Venky was enthusiastic about what I was doing, and felt that I might be able to get a postdoc doing Raman spectroscopy. I didn’t confess that I knew nothing about the subject.
We discovered our mysterious phase transitions in my Pomeranchuk cell in November 1971, and almost by magic, Venky called me up in early December with good news. The hiring freeze which had been in place for almost two years at Bell had been lifted. How soon could I be ready to come down for a job interview? I told Venky that we had stumbled on to something that was pretty exciting, and we fixed the date: January 6, 1972.
At Bell Labs, a job interview began with a thesis defence, and it could at times turn nasty. I was lucky that no one questioned my association of the A and B features with the solid. In particular, Dick Werthamer was in the audience, and he had done early work on the p-wave BCS state soon to be associated with the B phase. I think my enthusiasm carried the day, and ultimately Bell Labs offered me not a postdoc position in Raman spectroscopy, but a permanent position which would allow me to continue my studies on 3He.
Phyllis and I moved to New Jersey in September, 1972; Phyllis to a postdoc position at Princeton University, and I to Bell Laboratories at Murray Hill. This was the golden era at Bell Labs. The importance of the transistor, invented in the research area there, made management extremely supportive of basic research. The only requirement was that work done should be ‘good physics’ in that it changed the way we thought about nature in some important way. I joined the Department of Solid State and Low Temperature Research under the direction of C. C. Grimes, and began purchasing the equipment I would need to continue what I by then knew were studies of superfluidity in 3He. Some instrumentation was even purchased before I arrived in New Jersey. Yet I knew it would take at least a year to set up my laboratory, and I feared that most of the important pioneering work would be done before my own lab became operational.
I was surprised to find that by the time my laboratory did become operational, few of the studies that interested me had been done. Indeed, there seemed to be some question as to whether or not these new phases were all p-wave BCS states. In addition, theorists Phil Anderson and Bill Brinkman at Bell Labs had become interested in the theory of superfluid 3He. This set the stage for what was to be an extremely productive period in my career. Over a five year period, beginning in 1973, we measured many of the important characteristics of the superfluid phases which helped identify the microscopic states involved. We found the superfluid phases to be almost unbelievably complex, and at the same time extremely well described by the BCS theory and extensions to that theory developed during that period.
In about 1977 I began to feel pressure from Bell Laboratories management to go on to study other physical systems. I decided to study solid 3He, my original thesis topic, and at the same time Gerry Dolan and I began a modest program to test some of the ideas that David Thouless had discussed on electron localization in disordered one-dimensional systems. This latter study had to fit within the extremely slow time scale of the solid 3He work. By late 1979, both of these efforts had succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. We discovered antiferromagnet resonance in nuclear spin ordered solid 3He samples which we grew from the superfluid phase directly into the spin-ordered solid phase. At the same time, the low temperature group at the University of Florida also discovered these resonances, but because we cooled our samples by adiabatic nuclear demagnetization of copper rather than Pomeranchuk cooling, only we were able to form and study single crystals, and could thus identify the allowed magnetic domain orientations. In the end, Mike Cross, Daniel Fisher and I were able to determine the symmetry of the magnetic sub-lattice structure, and correctly guessed the precise ordered structure, later confirmed by polarized neutron scattering. The frequency shifts resulting from this antiferromagnetic resonance have made solid 3He an extremely useful model magnetic system, and to understand them theoretically, we had borrowed some of the same formalism which Leggett used to understand the frequency shifts in superfluid 3He.
At almost the same time that Cross, Fisher and I made our breakthrough in our solid 3He studies, Dolan and I discovered the log(T) temperature dependence to the electrical resistivity in disordered 2D conductors which Phil Anderson and his ‘gang of four’ had just predicted would exist, as a result of what they termed ‘weak localization’. I did not continue the work on weak localization, as I only had one cryostat, and to do so would have meant that I could not continue my studies on nuclear spin ordering in solid 3He, since the two sets of experiments would have vastly different time scales. Somewhat ironically, I got a second cryostat two years later.
In 1987, after fifteen years, I left Bell Laboratories to accept a position at Stanford University. I had received informal offers of university positions periodically while at Bell Labs, but always found Bell to be the ideal place to do research. The combination of in-house support for basic science and first rate collaborators made Bell Labs unbeatable as an environment for doing research. However, my wife recognized in me a teacher waiting to be born. In addition, she was not happy with her job in New Jersey, and we agreed that she would apply for positions elsewhere. When she received offers from two biotech companies in California, Amgen and Genentech, I suggested that she accept the Genentech offer and that I would start talking to Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. Stanford, which has a small physics department, had just begun a search for a low temperature physicist. Ultimately, I received offers from both institutions, and chose Stanford because we liked the atmosphere better, and it was a better commute for Phyllis.
At Stanford my students and I have continued work on superfluid and solid 3He, studying how the B superfluid phase is nucleated from the higher temperature A phase and diverse properties of magnetically ordered solid 3He in two and three dimensions. In addition, we have developed a program to study the low temperature properties of amorphous solids. Our work has shown that interactions between active defects in these systems create a hole in the density of states vs. local field, just as is seen in spin-glasses. In amorphous materials, it may be possible to measure the size of coupled clusters of such defects, something which has been difficult in spin-glasses.
I have thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of university life, except for having to apply for research support. In particular, I have been fortunate to have had excellent graduate students, and to be able to teach bright undergraduates. Of course, with undergraduates one always has a few students who do not appreciate the professor’s efforts. In 1988, after teaching my first large lecture course, one student wrote in his course evaluation: “Osheroff is a typical example of some lunkhead from industry who Stanford University hires for his expertise in some random field.” Despite this minority opinion, in 1991 Stanford presented me their Gores Award for excellence in teaching. From 1993-1996 I served as Physics Department chair, and stepped down in September 1996, hoping to spend more time with my graduate students. The day I learned I was to receive the Nobel Prize, after just two and a half hours sleep the night before, I taught my class on the physics of photography, although the lecture was not on photographic lenses, but the discovery of superfluidity in 3He.
From Les Prix Nobel 1996.