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February 27, 2007

The Uncommon Interview: Thomas Rosenbaum

When the University entered last year’s fight to retain control of Argonne National Labs, it turned in part to Thomas Rosenbaum, former vice president of research at Argonne, for help. Rosenbaum, appointed provost of the University in September 2006, comes from a strong scientific background. The John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics at the University, Rosenbaum is considered an expert on the quantum mechanical nature of materials.

Chicago Maroon: Coming primarily from a science and research background, how would you characterize your transition to the University administration?

Thomas Rosenbaum: I do want to note that I continue to be a scientist and a researcher. I’m still in the lab. I have three students and two post-docs at present. And that’s a very important part of my life here at the University…. One of the big attractions of coming to the University [from Bell Labs] was the opportunity to interact with people in all kinds of disciplines, really smart people. The evolution to being an administrator has been driven in large part by being forced, if you will, to learn about things that are not in my discipline, and in this way to have a natural way to interact with scholars across the University.

CM: You were a graduate student at Princeton University. Can you sympathize with some of the concerns voiced by graduate students at the University of Chicago about funding and financing?

TR: The economy in the sciences is very different than the social sciences and the humanities. Physics and biology are basically paid off grants. We were fully funded. I didn’t feel it directly in that sense. On the other hand, the graduate student experience is close enough that I understand well that unless you have the time to devote to your studies—that you have the financial wherewithal so that you’re not spending huge amounts of time worrying about working on other jobs to subsist—it’s very hard to succeed. So I think one of the big advantages of this new graduate aid initiative is to allow students to focus, to make them more effective and hopefully get them to their degrees faster, and to relieve some of the worries.

CM: Much of your research work has dealt with quantum mechanics. Hopefully you can settle the question of Schrödinger’s cat: dead or alive?

TR: [Laughing] He’s somewhere in between. Fortunately, I don’t cool down cats in the laboratory to measure them, so no animal rights activists need be concerned.

CM: You specialize in working with materials that are best treated at very cold temperatures, sometimes as low as –490 degrees Fahrenheit?

TR: No, absolute zero is –459 degrees. That’s the temperature at which all motion stops. In my laboratory, I can get down to a few thousandths of a degree. You get rid off all the fluctuation of thermal effects and isolate some of the underlying mechanisms for all kinds of collective behavior: magnetism, superconductivity, all kinds of electronic changes.

CM: But you are working with cold materials, in a cold place, the Windy City. Do you ever wish you worked in a warmer place with warmer things?

TR: I like to joke that in the winter I have a head start, getting closer to absolute zero.

CM: You’ve already got your scarf on.

TR: Right.

CM: Argonne National Labs is bidding to host the $1 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator. Could you explain briefly what a rare isotope accelerator is and what it can do?

TR: It looks at the ability of nuclei: It’s a big accelerator, and what it will permit us to do is understand how a lot of elements are formed, and in fact tell us a lot about the history of the stars and galaxies. It hasn’t yet been decided by the Department of Energy what exactly the shape of this machine will be, how it will be built, but Argonne will be a powerful competitor to host this machine.

CM: Argonne recently had to deal with a budget shortfall that affected many labs across the country. How has that panned out?

TR: There was a lot of anxiety because of the continuing resolution. Last week, the Congress passed and the President signed a bill which goes beyond the most draconian scenarios. I think Argonne should be okay. There could have been all kinds of layoffs and shutdowns and so forth, which fortunately have been largely avoided.

CM: Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” In light of your own research and scientific progress, do you agree?

TR: Einstein is wonderfully quotable. Defining problems and asking the right questions is often more important than finding the answers. Sometimes you can even be wrong in what your answer is, but if you’ve asked the right question it can generate a lot of inquiry in areas where people haven’t thought to turn, and you can be more influential in making the contribution to getting the right answer. Optimally you do both. I think there’s something about that that is very Chicago—we pride ourselves on a culture of inquiry and challenge.

CM: Oppenheimer once famously said there were children in the street who could solve some of his top physics problems because of the modes of sensory perception they had which he had lost.

TR: Yeah, sometimes we teach physics not in the optimal way, in that we sort of have this black and white view—everything’s very logical. In fact, there’s so much gray. When you’re in the middle of something, you often don’t know what to believe, you don’t know what the right questions are to ask, that’s what makes it exciting. That’s where imagination and creativity and intuition come into play.

CM: Your work in quantum mechanics might one day lead to the development of a quantum computer, vastly superior to the digital computers of today. How would quantum computers change everyday life?

TR: That brings up one of the interesting questions. Let’s say we do build one: Would it be broadly applicable or have niche applications? There’s no doubt it will be important for factoring things like large numbers.

CM: Quantum computers sound slightly sinister. Is there any chance they might take over the world?

TR: No, unless you’re worried that your laptop could do the same.