Steven Chu Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Scientist's Random Walk: Conversation with Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate, Physics; Geballe Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University; February 13, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 6

Working at Bell Labs and at the University

Before we talk about your research (and in a way that I can understand, and maybe the public, too) in your career there was a period when you went to the Bell Labs. I want to understand how that contributes to your research, and understand exactly what the difference is between being in a place like Bell Labs versus being in a physics department at Berkeley or Stanford.

Well, the reason I went to Bell Labs, I was here as a graduate student at Berkeley and I was a post-doctoral fellow here. After two years of that they actually made me a faculty member in the Physics Department. But this was a bit unusual, because I had spent eight years at Berkeley, and I was essentially toilet-trained here, and had a very narrow vision of science. What a department really wants is to bring in people from different [scientific] cultures. But they decided they wanted me as a professor. It was a beautiful place, so I accepted.

But then they did something very unusual. They said, "You can start your group and go about your business. Or, because you spend so much time here and this was your only real experience, you also have an opportunity to go somewhere else for a year or two." I thought, "Well, that's wonderful. I have a job at the best physics department in the world, and so I'll go off and spend some time and broaden myself." So I decided to go to Bell Telephone Laboratories which, at the time, was one of the premier research industrial labs. When most people think of industrial labs, they think of, "Oh, you're making better widgets. You're making something that's going to be good for the phone system." Now, ultimately, that's true. But at Bell Labs in that time -- this is in 1978 -- allowed a small fraction of us -- fifty, sixty, eighty -- to do whatever we wanted; really to do whatever we wanted.

So I joined Bell Laboratories. My department head said, "Steve, you can do whatever you want. It doesn't even have to be physics. All we ask is that you don't go to a high-energy accelerator and do high-energy physics, because that would be hard on the stockholders." (My thesis project, and when I was working as a post-doc, addressed a high-energy physics problem.) He said, "And by the way, don't do anything immediately. Spend six months. Talk to the people around the labs, and just keep an open mind." This was a devastating experience for me, because of the freedom to do whatever you want and being told, "Don't do what you think you want to do now, but explore." So I spent some time exploring and thinking. And there, I really felt pressure, because he would say, "We expect great things out of you." I didn't want to hear that. It's much nicer to have a little problem to work on; it's very cozy.

But it did have a real influence on me, because it got me in that mode of going and talking to people outside of my field. When I finally started doing things at Bell Laboratories ... and I started, first, in an area that was in condensed matter physics that I knew nothing about, but using techniques in my old field, atomic physics and laser physics. But it got me into the mode of, "I've got this crazy idea." I'd go to some colleague in Bell Laboratories and say, "How does this sound?" And they would tell me, "No, this is the stupidest thing I've heard," or "Yeah, maybe you have something there." It set the tone for what I've done for the rest of my life -- collaborating with people, especially outside my local expertise. It was a wonderful experience.

I also should say, in the years I was there, '78 to '87 -- there was an economic slump in the mid-seventies; Bell Labs just started hiring people -- and there were a group of us, maybe a few dozen, two or three dozen, and we all were young, energetic, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. We were all being put in this position: "Do something important. Here are the resources of American Telephone and Telegraph System. We expect you to do something wonderful." We were there at night. We were there on the weekends. We knew what each other's cars looked like, so we knew who was in there, let's say, on a Saturday or Sunday. We would party together. [Looking back,] I think either five or six of us [later] got Nobel Prizes. Over a dozen are in the National Academy of Sciences. It's like this: we all were growing up together. And we had these really wonderful senior scientists there as well.

It was a remarkable period of time. Everything was exciting, and something would come along that was not in my field, and I would say, "Wow, this is really interesting." We'd go in, we'd discuss it. People would jump fields, or jump areas. There was this feeling of the excitement of the science, that even though we were doing this, it was all right to move and do that. You wouldn't be considered a failure because you gave up this, because something else even more exciting came along, either from your own laboratory or from a colleague's lab, or from the outside world.

So freedom in the best sense, but in an environment where it could lead to new levels of understanding.

A positively electric atmosphere. You'd go in the lunchrooms and over lunch ... everybody went there around noontime. You'd sit in these big round tables and, "Okay, what's new?" People would leave; other people would come. You would be sitting there chatting, socializing, but talking a lot about science. A lot of ideas were invented on those lunchroom tables. And so there, again, it was something where there was this real community.

It was pretty magical. People who are close to science and especially in the areas that Bell Labs was touching knew that there was something magical going on at the time.

How can we distinguish that experience from, say, being at Berkeley in the Physics Department, or being at Stanford? Was it just a question of there being enough resources to bring all these people together to create this magical moment?

No, there were other things. For example, in a university, like Berkeley or Stanford, you're a professor, you have students. Part of your job is to teach undergraduates; part of your job is to teach graduate students. You teach graduate students by developing with them their own projects. A lot of energy and time is spent nurturing students. Because of that, your first duty is to look towards your group.

In Bell Laboratories we didn't have groups. The biggest you could have would be a technician and a post-doc, and usually not both. If you wanted to do something that required more than one or two people, you would have to work with other people. That builds collaboration into the system. And because no one had an empire, even a mini-empire -- in the basic science areas of Bell you're one and two or three -- you have a lot of time. You're not taking care of people. You have a technician or a post-doc, and so it's a very different structure.

We are trying to do something like that at Stanford, in a multidisciplinary way. We're bringing people interested in biology, physics, chemistry, and computer science, centered around biological problems, where people from very many disciplines will come and have their own genres of what to do. One of the things is to limit the size of your groups. In the university, let's say you're a synthetic chemist; you can have groups of forty. And with a group of forty people, you're not going to have much time to interact with colleagues. You're not going to have much time to explore elsewhere. So [we've] limited the size of the group to fifteen, which is still very large. You couldn't limit it to three, because there are very few professors that have [only] two or three graduate students in something related to the biological sciences. There are typically more. So the structure is slightly different. It's not clear how much you can create the structure we had at Bell Laboratories, because you have these other responsibilities and duties.

Next page: Nobel Research in Physics

© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California