SLAC Director Emeritus Burton Richter discusses early years, energy and the environment

by Mike Ross on April 26, 2012

Nobel Laureate Burton Richter, former director of SLAC, is one of the Menlo Park-based lab’s most notable and influential scientists. In this Q&A with SLAC Today writer Mike Ross, he talks about his early days in science and his current interest in advocating for a climate-friendly energy policy.

Richter will be presented with the Enrico Fermi Award on May 7 in Washington, D.C. Then on Thursday, May 10, he will deliver a lecture entitled, “Fifty Years on the Science Frontier: The Scientific and Technology Evolution of SLAC.” The talk is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. in Panofsky Auditorium, and RSVPs are requested by May 1 to

MR: When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

BR: Since I was 9 years old, I’ve wanted to know how the universe worked. The skies over Queens, Long Island, where I grew up, were dark due to World War II blackouts, so I could see the stars in the way that no kid in an urban area can see them now. The Milky Way was like a band of diamonds strewn across the sky. I was interested in science and had a supportive father.

MR: Describe your father’s influence.

BR: My father was a lawyer by training, but not by practice. He and his brothers started a successful business in 1931 just as the Depression was getting deep. But he had really wanted to have been a doctor. His family needed him working, bringing money home. You couldn’t become a doctor at night school, but you could get a law degree, so that’s what he did.

But he was determined that his kids were not going to have this problem. He encouraged us to pursue our passions, which for me was science.

MR: Who were your college mentors?

BR: Two MIT professors were particularly important – Francis Bitter and Francis Friedman. After my sophomore year, I worked in Bitter’s famous magnet lab, where he had built the world’s highest-field magnets. With Bitter, I became an experimenter, while Friedman turned me onto the beauty of theoretical physics.

In graduate school, my lab work involved what I call “backwards alchemy” – turning gold into mercury with MIT’s cyclotron for experiments using Bitter’s magnets. I was also working a theory problem with Friedman. But I preferred doing alchemy, even if backwards. So I told Friedman my interests were with experiments, and he said, “Blessings on you, my son.”

Burton Richter's Nobel Prize press conferenceMR: What was your first technical success at Stanford?

BR: In 1957, the second year of my Stanford postdoc, I did the first high-energy test of quantum electrodynamics, the theory describing how light and matter interact. I was asked to give an invited paper about it the next January to the meeting of the American Physical Society. This was a very big deal. I invited my father; he wanted to see his boy in the spotlight. It was in the hotel’s biggest ballroom, which seated 3,000 people.

My talk was right after Robert Hofstadter’s report on the size of the proton, the research for which he shared the 1961 Nobel Prize in Physics.  When I walked up to the podium, about 2,000 people walked out of the ballroom. My talk was well received, but my father was very indignant.  “How could those people be so impolite as to walk out on you?” he said.

“Pop,” I replied, “it isn’t remarkable that 2,000 people walked out. It’s that 1,000 stayed!”

MR: Your subsequent particle physics accomplishments and tenure as lab director have been well-documented. Now you’re focused on energy technologies and policy. How did that come about?

BR: My introduction to climate issues came in 1975 when I participated in the annual six-week-long summer session of the JASONs, an independent group of scientists that analyzes selected issues and advises the U.S. government. I was intrigued by presentations assessing the impact of doubling the carbon dioxide concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere.

I believe this JASON study was the first modern assessment on human-caused global warming. Way back in the late 1800s, the famous Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius estimated it would take 1,000 years to double the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide concentration. Today, that doubling is more like 100 years!

What’s different now? The Earth’s population has exploded, world economies have grown tremendously, and everyone has been using more energy.

Beyond Smoke and Mirrors by Burton RichterMR: What prompted you to write your book about energy and global warming, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors?

BR: One of the biggest problems the world faces is providing the energy our society needs without harming the environment or making global warming worse. Unfortunately, extremists on either side of this issue are loudly distorting the facts. Deniers believe global warming is a conspiracy, and exaggerators think civilization will end if the temperature rises more than two degrees.

I wrote the book for those in the middle who want to know the real problem and practical solutions. Without any doubt, the greenhouse effect is real. Some improvements are easy to do, but others will be very difficult.

MR: What are some of the winners?

BR: An immediate winner is energy efficiency. While most other options cost you money, energy efficiency can actually save you money.

Second, there’s no reason why standard single-fuel vehicles can’t get 50 miles per gallon, twice the current federal mandate. Moreover, if all light vehicles were plug-in hybrids with a 40-mile electric range, we would eliminate two-thirds of the oil used today in those types of vehicles.

Third, we should substitute natural gas for all of the coal-fired power plants in the United States, reducing power-plant sector greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of three. That’s a really big deal, and we know how to do it.

MR: What about nuclear power?

BR: Nuclear power is one of the most effective low-emission ways of generating electricity. Many experts believe increasing nuclear’s contribution is essential to solving the global warming problem. Considering end-to-end life-cycle impacts – from extracting ore or oil from the ground and building and operating power plants to cleaning up and disposing  wastes – nuclear is much better than coal and natural gas and is comparable to solar.

Opponents have a whole bunch of issues – safety, radiation, costs, proliferation and spent fuel that must be dealt with. I believe they can be.

MR: What puzzles you the most?

BR: It’s a mystery why we cannot get beyond the current partisan gridlock in the U.S. and adopt an energy policy that will benefit our economy, national security and the environment.

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