Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Anecdote 3: The postdoc job talk and the Nobel laureate

Back when I was finishing up my doctoral work, I made a trip to New Jersey to interview in two places for possible postdoc positions.  As you might imagine, this was both exciting and nerve-wracking.  My first stop was Princeton, my old undergrad stomping grounds, where I was trying to compete for a prestigious named fellowship, and from there I was headed north to Bell Labs the following day. 

As I've mentioned previously, my graduate work was on the low temperature properties of glasses, which share certain universal properties (temperature dependences of the thermal conductivity, specific heat, speed of sound, and dielectric response, to name a few) that are very distinct from those of crystals.  These parameters were all described remarkably well by the "two-level system" (TLS) model (the original paper - sorry for the paywall that even my own university library won't cover) dreamed up in 1971 by Phil Anderson, Bert Halperin, and Chandra Varma.  Anderson, a Nobel laureate for his many contributions to condensed matter physics (including Anderson localization, the Anderson model, and the Anderson-Higgs mechanism) was widely known for his paean to condensed matter physics and for being a curmudgeon.  He was (and still is) at Princeton, and while he'd known my thesis adviser for years, I was still pretty nervous about presenting my thesis work (experiments that essentially poked at the residual inadequacies of the original TLS model trying to understand why it worked so darn well) to him.

My visit was the standard format - in addition to showing me around the lab and talking with me about what projects I'd likely be doing, my host (who would've been my postdoc boss if I'd ended up going there) had thoughtfully arranged a few 1-on-1 meetings for me with a couple of other postdocs and a couple of faculty members, including Anderson.  My meeting with Anderson was right before lunch, and after I got over my nerves we had what felt to me like a pretty good discussion, and he seemed interested in what I was going to present.  My talk was scheduled for 1:00pm, right after lunch, always a tricky time.  I was speaking in one of the small classrooms in the basement of Jadwin Hall (right next to the room where I'd had undergrad quantum seven years earlier).  I was all set to go, with my binder full of transparencies - this was in the awkward period when we used computers to print transparencies, but good laptops + projectors were rare.   Anderson came in and sat down pointedly in the second row.  By my third slide, he was sound asleep.  By my fifth slide, he was noticeably snoring, though that didn't last too long.  He did revive and ask me a solid question at the end of the talk, which had gone fine.  In hindsight, I realize that my work, while solid and interesting, was in an area pretty far from the trendiest topics of the day, and therefore it was going to be an uphill battle to capture enthusiasm.  At least I'd survived, and the talk the next day up at Murray Hill was better received.


Anonymous said...

Good anecdote Doug. Though not quite with as glamorous or critical a context as yours, I'm reminded of my own experience that had featured you on my Masters' thesis committee. Of course, other than being the nervous wreck that I was, the other committee member (apart from my M.S. advisor) had not quite appeared at the scheduled time in the room, and we had to uncomfortably wait for 10-15 minutes (while I sweated) making weird small-talk. After that I had to go about looking for the other missing committee member and found him in an undergrad lab casually chatting with some students, having completely forgotten that he needed to be somewhere else. Nonetheless, while I started talking about my work thereafter, the truth was I wasn't convinced myself that my work was going to get anywhere in the form of a respectable PhD thesis: yet, it was my job then to make the case that such an outcome was at least in the realm of possibility!

You were very kind, I thought, with your questions and things didn't go too badly that day, and I got my degree. I had however, already realized by then that my true passion and interest was in more applied/engineering research and went on to receive the PhD (in EE from UT Austin), with much less sweat during the defense and perhaps with some more distinction.

Don Monroe said...

When I first arrived at Bell Labs in 1985, I took a special trip down to Princeton to tell Phil Anderson about my recently completed thesis work. Again it was early afternoon. And he nodded off then, too. I believe he had just returned from taking a secretary (as they were then called) out to lunch, so maybe it wasn't *just* that my topic was boring . Unfortunately for me, there was no one else in the room to whom I could redirect my discussion.