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Featured Scientist - Rocky Kolb

From the Winter 1996-97 sciencelines

Edward (Rocky) Kolb, began working at Fermilab in 1983 to establish the first NASA/DOE astrophysics collaboration to explore the inner space/outer space connection.

Would you please describe your position at Fermilab for sciencelines readers? Please also give us the background behind the partnership of NASA and Fermilab.

The Fermilab Astrophysics group started in 1982 when Leon Lederman (then director of the Laboratory) decided it would be a great idea to have astrophysics at Fermilab in order to promote the interdisciplinary field of cosmology and particle physics--something he dubbed the Inner Space/Outer Space connection. He received some money from NASA as part of their Innovative Research Program, and combined that with funds from the Department of Energy. I was an Oppenheimer Fellow at Los Alamos at the time, and Leon offered me the opportunity to start the group. In 1983 Michael Turner took leave from the University of Chicago, and together we hired postdocs, organized meetings, and got the group off the ground in 1983-84. For the next ten years I was head of the group and Mike acted as deputy head. I think that ten years is about as long as anyone should be in the same position of responsibility, so in January 1994 I stepped down as head and Josh Frieman now runs the group.

So my responsibility now is to "just" be a scientist--but that's really all I want to do. As a theoretical physicist, I input coffee and output scientific papers. I very much enjoy doing science; in particular, collaborating with postdocs here at Fermilab and graduate students at the University of Chicago. Since cosmology is an international effort, I travel a lot to present lectures at schools, workshops, and conferences. I also give public lectures a few times per month, and I enjoy writing about cosmology. (Rocky's current book, Blind Watchers of the Sky is featured on page 10.) Sometime in the near future I plan to write an article about the birth of the universe for Astronomy magazine. I believe that communicating with the general public is important and a responsibility of all scientists.

I am also a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago. I enjoy teaching, but faculty meetings are not so much fun.

What is a typical working scenario for you? What do you most enjoy about your position?

I guess my job description reads: understand everything about the universe; boldly go where no one has gone before; fill in all necessary paperwork. The way I do this is to position myself at the leading edge of knowledge, and try to push it out a little farther. Of course when viewed from a different perspective, the leading edge of knowledge is also the raw edge of ignorance, so it is a dangerous place to be.
Since I am interested in cosmology, I want to understand the behavior of matter under the extreme conditions we believe were present in the first second of the universe. It is a great opportunity to work at Fermilab, because here is where the discoveries of the fundamental forces and constitutents of the primordial soup are made (for more on primordial soup see Chapter 10 of Blind Watchers).

One of the things I most enjoy is working with people--graduate students, postdocs, and senior scientists. I find the interactive aspects of science very rewarding. It is exciting to gather around the blackboard and attack a scientific problem. We'll argue about what's right and what's the best approach to solve a problem. We'll discuss with chalk flying and several people furiously writing and talking at the same time; to outside observers a scientific collaboration may look like a heated argument. But this is what pushes intellectual boundaries.

I would say that readers may be familiar with the tools of physics at Fermilab. How do the tools of astrophysics differ?

One of the surprising things that has developed in the last 15 years is the realization that the particle accelerator, the traditional tool of high-energy physicists, is also a tool of astrophysics. It is beyond our power to recreate the big bang (I am not sure we would want to even if we could), but by colliding particles at high energies here in the cornfields of Illinois, we can reproduce a very tiny piece of the primordial soup. All of the phenomena in the little piece of the primordial soup we make here at Fermilab should have occurred in the first second of the life of the universe. Looking at the result of high-energy collisions is like peeking into the earliest moments of the universe. All of the things we see here at Fermilab--neutrons, protons, leptons, mesons--were like croutons seasoning the primordial soup. If we can truly understand the ingredients of the primordial soup, we can understand why the universe today has the properties it does.

Tell us about your experiences before your position at Fermilab.

My experiences were similar to those of many scientists at Fermilab. I was an undergrauate physics major, received a Ph.D. in physics, then spent a few years as a postdoctoral fellow. In the early years of a scientific career it seems like you are a migrant worker, moving around every two or three years. But it is important to get experiences in many environments, because you can learn from many different people.
In graduate school at the University of Texas I learned how to do research. Although you often work closely with a graduate advisor, you learn by watching how others do research, and trying to emulate the successful ones. It was a good time--I didn't even realize that graduate students are at the bottom of the academic food chain. I spent a lot of time in the gym playing basketball. But just about the time you feel comfortable being able to do research, you graduate and are thrown out into the postdoc world.

My first postdoctoral position was at the California Institute of Technology. I worked in a really great group at Caltech led by Willy Fowler (William Alfred Fowler, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1983). At the time I worked for him he was 65 years old and was the grand old man of nuclear astrophysics. One thing I learned from Willy is to appreciate the work of others--your colleagues, and particularly younger people, who work for you. In politically incorrect language, he used to refer to his group as "my boys" (even though some of them were women, and he did a lot to promote their careers). Willy was very proud of his postdocs and graduate students. I have tried to establish that feeling here--a sense of camaraderie and pride in the accomplishments of all members of the group. Basic research is a very ego-driven enterprise -- everyone wants to make all the discoveries themselves. But I have tried very hard to reproduce here the family feeling and spirit of teamwork I learned from Willy. I am very proud of what our many postdocs and students have done over the years. I hope their experiences here were as rewarding as my experiences with Willy Fowler.

As a postdoc you are on your own to find something to do. You have only two or three years to do something significant. When I was a postdoc at Caltech there were not very many people working in cosmology, so it was easier to have an impact. But when I first started working on the Inner Space/Outer Space connection, it was not clear it would have a future. Several people advised that I should do something more in the mainstream. But the work was too exciting to pass up for more traditional fields.

After Caltech I was offered a couple of faculty positions, but I wanted to spend all my time doing research. So I accepted a position at Los Alamos National Laboratory as an Oppenheimer Fellow. Los Alamos was a great place for science then. My mentor at Los Alamos was Stirling Colgate. I learned many things from Stirling, but the lesson I remember best is that even though in some respects science is hard, serious work, it can be enormously rewarding. intellectual excitement of discovery is difficult to explain to anyone who has not experienced it.

What were your undergraduate years like?

Academically, my undergraduate years at the University of New Orleans were pretty typical of most physics majors (if you can use "physics majors" and "typical" in the same sentence). Perhaps the undergraduate period was atypical in the sense that I met my wife Adrienne when I was a sophomore: we married junior year, and had the first of three children before I graduated. Having a family throughout the migratory early years of a scientific career presented some challenges, but it also provided stability during a very uncertain period.

Please tell me a little about your exposure to science and math in school and what sparked your interest in this type of career.

My interest in science predates school years. In fact, I don't remember wanting to be anything other than a physicist, even when I was four or five years old. I don't believe there was any single book or person who influenced me in that direction. Perhaps it was the climate. In the neighborhood where I grew up in New Orleans in the late 50's, the only air-conditioned building was the public library. If you've ever been in New Orleans in July or August, you know it is unbearably hot and humid. So I would play baseball in the morning, and then in the afternoon, when it was so beastly hot, I would go to the library to cool off. It was just a little neighborhood library, and I think in one summer I read every book there three times. I would read the encyclopedia from cover to cover. Several times per week I would check out about a dozen books and struggle home with them. After reading every book in the library, I decided I most enjoyed the books about science. I would always go to the science section, but the librarian would come over and move me to the children's section. Then when she wasn't looking, I'd sneak back to the science section.

I really didn't learn anything about science in elementary school (K-8). I always thought I knew more than my teachers about the subject.

Share with us some of your hobbies.

I enjoy playing basketball and working out. I've been doing that for a long time. The basketball league at Fermilab is a lot of fun. In addition to physics and basketball, I enjoy reading, opera, and my family. If I had to give up physics I guess I would like to be an opera singer. I sing in the opera now, but it greatly annoys the people sitting around me.

What is your hope for the future?

I want to know as much as possible about how the universe works. In the past few years there have been a number of books saying we've reached the end of science, or the end of physics. I think we probably know less than one millionth of one percent of what there is to know. My hope is to know just a little bit more than I know now. Curiosity might kill cats, but without it, science would be dead. I think if you ever lose the curiosity, you might as well stop doing science.

How do you see our place in the universe? Why did we develop from the same particles that make up everything else in the universe?

I wish I had a great answer for this. One of the things I've learned as an astrophysicist is that there seems to be nothing unique in the universe. Sometimes you read in the newspaper about the first discovery of something--black hole, wormhole, quasar, pulsar, you name it. You read about the first, but what you don't read is that in another year we know about twenty, and in another year we know about two hundred, and then thousands, and so on. There seems to be nothing unique in the universe. So, with that as background, I can't imagine our place in the universe is unique. I don't believe that the universe was created for us. Although there seems to be nothing special about our place in the universe, there is something special about the fact that we look up into the sky and wonder about the universe. It is really remarkable that we developed the curiosity to ask questions about the universe. How it happened, why it happened, whether it is a necessary part of evolution or not, I don't know. But it is really a remarkable thing, and something I am forever grateful for. I don't think we should ever lose sight of this, and we should always cherish our curiosity about the universe.

What advice would you give to students?

The advice I usually give students is that an undergraduate degree in math or science can train you to do many things--many things that you never dreamed of doing. Science and math teaches you to think and approach the world in a rational way (although I can't explain what goes on during science-faculty meetings). But I also warn students that they really have to enjoy science and love it to really do it well. Don't go into science or math just looking for a job. It has to be something more than a career. It has to be something that's part of your life.

There are many ways science is done. There are people who work alone, typically these are theorists who work either by themselves or in small groups. Then there are large experimental collaborations, where as many as five hundred people work together. Scientists have a wide range of skills--some can work together in large teams, while others work better by themselves; some people take direction, others have leadership qualities. It is hard to get across to students the sheer joy of science and understanding nature. Going home at night thinking that you understand something about the universe that no one else does is a feeling that really can't be described. It doesn't come every day. It is a rare feeling to have an insight about nature. It is something that you really have to experience. It is what drives me.