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Featured Scientist - Peter Kasper

From the Fall 1995 sciencelines

Peter Kasper, this quarter's interviewee, is featured in the newsletter both as a Fermilab physicist as well as an expert birder and Internet author. Peter is married and has three children, Heidi who just started at UIUC in architecture and two sons, Lachlan and Nathaniel, who attend Geneva High School. Between work, family and birding there is very little extra time, but in his spare time Peter also likes to play computer games and read sci fi or classic books.

Peter, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you explain what it is you do at Fermilab?

I am head of the Research Division Operations Department. This position is divided into service and research responsibilities. The majority of time is spent on service (administrative) responsibilities such as motivating others, budgeting and the like. A position like this allows me to have an impact on the program by bringing physics to the management of the projects. I devote my research time to advising three E683 students as well as working on experiments E687 and E831. The service component of my job is the position I hold as a Department Head. My department is responsible for the design, operation and radiation safety aspects of the fixed-target beamlines. We also supply the building managers for the fixed-target service buildings and beamline enclosures as well as operational support for the CDF and D0 collider experiments. We are preparing for the change to the fixed-target run to begin in Spring of 1996.

Prior to this position, what did you do at Fermilab?

I joined Fermilab in 1986 and was assigned the job of liaison physicist for experiment E687 and E683. In this position I was an interface between the Laboratory and the experiments. I made sure that the experiments got what they needed from the resources at Fermilab and that the experiment did not have undue expectations of the Laboratory or put undue stress on the resources.

What did you do before Fermilab?

My first postdoc position was at Rutherford Laboratory in England for three and a half years. My second postdoc was at Saclay Laboratory in France and lasted 18 months. It was all research.

What do you remember about your science and mathematics experiences in elementary school and high school?

I was in four different schools as I grew up in a working class family in Victoria in Australia. My father worked for the railway.I was too smart for my own good. Elementary school was poor. It was unacceptable to be smart.

I do remember a time when the class was sharing things and this one student brought in an egg collection. I was amazed! He had about thirty eggs and I couldn't get over the idea that there were so many different kinds of birds and that they were all around and you could figure out what they were! Between the two of us we scraped together $5.00 to buy a field guide and I began my interest in birds.

In high school things improved. It was more acceptable to be smart. In my senior year we took five subjects - two math classes, physics, chemistry and English. In earlier years one might have as many as ten different subjects in a single semester. Unlike the American system we covered more subjects with smaller time allocations for each, and all evolved together. It was possible to see the relationship and integration of the subjects. I think the American system is inefficient compared to the French, English and Australian systems.

But, I was bored to tears; I never did anything in the way of competitions and the like. I did once represent the school on a TV quiz game - we lost: 2nd place. No one really nudged me. I had one math teacher who showed an interest in me though. He would get some of the smarter kids to solve some of the math problems that he couldn't do. Once, a teacher showed the class a geometry problem that needed to be proved and he expected the class to memorize his proof of about twelve steps for the next day. I said I thought there was another way to do it. I put up a proof that was about three or four steps. So, most of the class memorized my proof for the next day - I was NOT popular with that teacher.

Describe your undergraduate years?

I was the first from my family to go to the university. I had no clear concept of what I wanted to do. I didn't know there was such a thing as a Ph.D. until I was in the university. At the university there were many distractions and my study techniques were very poor. I had to find new ways to learn.

How did you select physics?

I just liked physics. My only concern was where physics was going to get me. I had no concept of the kind of jobs, if any, that physics could lead to. I was especially impressed with the ideas of rotational physics and relativity. I had an instructor who would do a demonstration with a rotating top that would just amaze me, and the idea that he could explain it with physics was what I really liked. I can't bear the unexplainable.

What do you see for the future?

You can't do physics as a hobby. But at Fermilab I can do top quality physics at the premier physics laboratory in the world and I can do birding. Fermilab has been good to me. I'd like to see physics be seen as the term we used to use: Natural Philosophy - the essence of physics.