Rob Phillips, Biophysicist, Biological Engineer, Solid Mechanician, and Developmental Biologist
How many Caltech professors never went to college, at least in the traditional sense? To behold the research agenda of Rob Phillips, which spans the gamut of experiment and theory, computation and field work, and draws from the most fundamental questions posed in chemistry, biology, and physics, requires one to reverse engineer Phillips's unique trajectory. As he reflects in the discussions below, Phillips immersed himself in science, history, and philosophy during his college-age years in a unique reading group, and through independent study. Between his deep love of surfing and adventure, and a self-identity rooted in blue collar sensibilities, the formalized structure of an undergraduate education simply did not fulfill what Phillips was looking for out of life.
After spending his early years in St. Louis, Phillips rounded out his childhood in San Diego, where the waves beckoned, where he pursued foundational questions about planetary motion and the nature of life, and where his drive toward self-support led him to work as an electrician. To this day, he says, those who work in the trades are "his people." After completing an alternative undergraduate program through the University of Minnesota, Phillips determined that graduate school and a life in science would be his goal and vocation. At Washington University in St. Louis, Phillips immersed himself in physics and statistical mechanics, and as a postdoc at Cornell he focused on the mysterious properties of quasicrystals. Perhaps because of Phillips's unorthodox trajectory, academic faculty positions eluded him until his dream job arrived: Brown University offered him the opportunity to join their program in Solid Mechanics. As Caltech professors and Brown alumni Ares Rosakis and Ravi Ravichandran can attest, Solid Mechanics at Brown was (and is) world-leading and discipline-defining, and Phillips excelled in this environment, where he earned tenure in short order.
Phillips would have happily stayed at Brown for the rest of his career absent the opportunity to join the faculty at Caltech - where the chance to delve completely into the world of biology - proved irresistible. By normal academic standards, Phillips's hire could be seen as too risky; the notion of a tenured hire of a professor entering a brand-new field with no proven track record would generally be considered a non-starter. But as Phillips attests, therein lies at least one aspect of Caltech's greatness: the Institute's willingness to take risks and to approach science with minimal concern for the administrative or intellectual walls we use to divide our study of nature into discrete areas. To state the obvious, the gamble paid off. Phillips leads a dynamic and expansive lab, and his appointments across three divisions is emblematic of a research purview for which almost no question of fundamental scientific research is out of bounds. And with his most recent project assessing humanity's impact on the global ecosystem, Phillips has demonstrated that there is literally no research project too big to tackle.
Connoisseurs of scientific oral histories might take special pleasure in the discussions below, for the subject himself is an enthusiastic consumer of the form.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Thursday, February 23, 2023. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Rob B. Phillips. Rob, great to be with you. Thank you for having me in your office.
ROB PHILLIPS: Thank you. It's really exciting. The oral histories have been a central part of my understanding of Caltech.
ZIERLER: That's awesome. First things first, is Rob your given name, or are you really militant about going by the nickname? Because I can't find a Robert anywhere in relation to you.
PHILLIPS: I'm militant about it. In fact, my dad's name was Robert Brooks Phillips. I'm Robert Brooks Phillips Junior, and as a kid, from my youngest age, he called me Robèrt, always. I could play for you, right now, on my phone, recordings. He died last year, and that will be a story maybe we'll talk about which looms very large in my life, and my nickname died with him, Robèrt. He's the only person who ever called me that. He called me that always, without exception.
ZIERLER: Just like a fun play on the French pronunciation?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, but from the time I was the tiniest kid, I've always been Robèrt, so that's what he called me, and somehow there's just—there are many things that I guess will get revealed: I kind of hate hierarchy, I hate formality. When I first went to grad school, as you'll hear, that was my beginning in college, and I saw everybody would use this name that they actually never used in real life on their publications, so I decided very early on in grad school, "Okay, I'm just going to use—people call me Rob. That's who I want to be. I don't want to be Professor Phillips. I want to be Rob." I need to collaborate with people, and I'm mildly militant about it, yeah. The only time I use that name is when I file my taxes, but Robert Phillips is my dad, and he's one of my heroes, despite being a very flawed guy, so that's his name. My name is Rob.
ZIERLER: All right.
PHILLIPS: Does that makes sense?
ZIERLER: Absolutely. On a more official level, what's your title here at Caltech?
PHILLIPS: I think it's the Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biology, Biophysics, and Physics—I think. It might be of Biology and Biophysics, but I think more appropriately, it's Biology, Biophysics, and Physics.
ZIERLER: Your faculty page lists Biophysics, Biology and Physics, but there's probably no meaning to the order of it.
PHILLIPS: I don't know of any meaning to it.
ZIERLER: Do you know who Fred and Nancy Morris were or are?
PHILLIPS: Only a little bit, and I wish I knew more because these named professorships are super important to us. The reason I say that is because they provide a mechanism for discretionary funding, and discretionary funding is super powerful because we live in this incredibly conservative environment, and often you want to do new things, and the formal mechanisms for doing new things prevent you from doing new things. You've run 10 marathons, and then the people want to fixate on, "Do you know how to tie your shoes?" It's incredibly annoying, and discretionary funds make that a possibility. I feel incredibly grateful, but the title itself is not the thing. It's the consequences of the title.
ZIERLER: Are you the inaugural holder of the chair?
PHILLIPS: I am, as far as I know, and I wish I knew more. I would love to go hug them and tell them how much they've meant to me. They've meant so much to so many of the bizarre projects that characterize my approach to life at Caltech.
ZIERLER: What's a kind of example of research or students support that you can give because of the name chair that wouldn't come from NSF, for example.
PHILLIPS: I've led 15 field trips, and that's going to be related to the Oral Histories, because for me, my introduction to the importance of field trips at Caltech was through Bob Sharp. The way I learned about Bob Sharp is through a very bizarre thing. I learned about him in a French book while talking to a French guy in French, and I was just completely weirded out. Then I ended up figuring out who this guy was, and having led many alumni trips, I see that Bob was one of the people who had the biggest impact over the last 50 years on our alums—one of the biggest, so I want to do hands on teaching. I want to do field-trip teaching. I want to take my group members on fishing boats in Alaska. I want to be out in the world making people ask questions with the words "I wonder," and there's no mechanism for that within the confines of NSF, none. And that's not a criticism of NSF; it's just to say, if I want to do something weird like that, I've got to appeal to funding that's not something I would get by government. Similarly for my weird book-writing projects or changing fields, like when I came to Caltech, I had never seen a pipette before, yet Richard Murray was generous enough and trusted me enough, or crazy enough, whichever way we want to interpret it, to say, "Yeah, we'll give you lab space." And here we are. You're sitting in my office, but we're right adjacent to my lab, and I'm a clueless guy that has a lab, a true lab, and we've written papers. And that's kind of astounding.
A Research Agenda of Everything
ZIERLER: I'll take your title as a jumping off point for a larger question about disciplines and being interdisciplinary. In studying your publication list, your overall research agenda, there really isn't a branch of science that you don't touch. It's all there: physics, applied physics, biology, chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry. What is your home discipline? Either by your academic training, by the core interests and research questions you have, or just where you currently are, how would you think about what your home discipline means?
PHILLIPS: My home discipline is the study of nature. I know that's going to sound incredibly pretentious. Next time we'll talk about my background, but my background is so off. I have these seven years in the wilderness. I left high school after eleventh grade. I did not meet a scientist. I didn't go to college. I studied on my own for seven years, so the disciplinary boundaries were just an artifice. They meant nothing to me, and they still really largely mean nothing to me. But if I'm being honest, fundamentally, the thing that makes my soul sing the most is physics as a style—not as a subject, as a style. That distinction is enormously important.
ZIERLER: Let's go with that for a second. What is it? What's the distinction of science and style?
PHILLIPS: Physics is a subject you can see by looking at books, like the QC section of libraries, or if you go to any bookstore back in the day, physics you can tell by what books are there: mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics and stat-mech, optics, blah, blah, blah. That's cool, and that's the discipline that I learned, but in fact, what you get out of that—you use the word "meta" earlier when we were chatting—the meta level is that there's a style, there's a certain key 10 things that if you really master them, then they are tools of the trade that will allow you to go off in all sorts of other directions. Again, maybe it sounds pretentious, but the "I wonder" aspect is really the fundamental thing. As far as what's the topic, the topic is the world—the world that I look at outside. And I have to say, I had a lot of epiphanies along the way. Like many people in physics, I was seduced early on by the fundamentality of the microscopic world, and I came to really challenge that. I think that Phil Anderson wrote this beautiful thing in 1972, More Is Different, and I really subscribe to that. I wrote a very obnoxious article called Musings on Mechanism: A Quark Theory of Proteins, and what I said in there is, "I'm not going to take structural biologists seriously because they don't mention quarks, and everyone knows the world's made of quarks." I was basically throwing their message in their face because they're like, "How could you talk about biology without mentioning molecules?" Well, how could you talk about molecules without mentioning quarks? And the answer is, of course you can. Nobody needs to know about quarks to talk about proteins. That's absurd. There's somehow a separation of scales. So, what I wanted to say is that I really, really feel that the epiphany was: Oh, I shouldn't even try to do microscopic fundamental physics, because the world in front of my nose is fundamental, right out the window—what you're seeing out the window today. We're in California; it's a rainy day. I'm keeping track of the moisture as a function of altitude for reasons of loving nature, but also because I want to go snowboarding at Mountain High on Monday, and the world's mysterious and wonderful, and it's just right there, and it doesn't care about our disciplines. So, my style: the fundamental way of approaching the world is mathematical, using the style of physics, and the kinds of questions that I think are the most interesting by far are the living because I think that's the most weird, amazing matter that we're aware of in the universe. It's the most exotic, weird matter that I can think of. Again, lots of things I'm going to tell you are subjective, and I think that we don't put enough emphasis on the role of the subjective. Science is full of subjective things, including taste, and I'm going to be super intense about my taste. They're not proselytizing; in other words, I don't need anybody else to share them. That's my independent story, is a love of nature. Just a love of nature.
ZIERLER: When did it dawn on you that biology or biological systems are the most fascinating?
PHILLIPS: All along I was pretty intrigued because I was a traveler, and I've always been a traveler, but I have to say there was a book about Delbrück—a history, a biography—written by a German guy that really, really caught my eye, so that was kind of big. But I would say it was especially when I was a professor at Brown. I was in my mid-30s; I wrote a book, Crystals, Defects and Microstructures, and somehow, as I got to the end of it, I realized that the parts of that book writing that I liked the most were the things that were done 80 years ago. They were the first arrivals on the scene, not the last, and I was realizing I was in the group of last arrivals on the scene.
ZIERLER: You mean, the entrée of physicists into biology?
PHILLIPS: No, I mean, for example, in the context of materials. In World War II, the Liberty Ships fractured. In the early days of aircraft, they had sharp corners on windows. It took people dying, to learn, "Oh, you need to be careful about stress-concentration factors." Nowadays, we fly around in airplanes that are designed on computers, and a 787 is an amazing achievement of engineering. But in the early days, we were figuring out the fundamental things—what does it mean to even talk about the strength of materials? What I'm saying is that I feel like we're living in an era in biology that's akin to that in materials physics, let's say, in the 1920s, 30s, or whatever, or in astronomy, let's say at the time of the transition from Tycho Brahe to Galileo, or something like that. We're living in a moment. I think one of the things that happened to me—there are many pieces to my transition—interacting with de Gennes. The guy blows my mind because he was such an original. He knew how to look at nature and tell us, "You know, gang, there's a subject here that's not in the traditional canon of physics, but it's just perfectly a beautiful subject for physics to reason about," so there was an aspect of that. It was people like Carlos Bustamante at UC Berkeley doing optical trapping, Steve Chu, and many others, Steve Block, where you grab on to a little micron-sized bead and you can hold onto a molecule while it's doing its thing. I could not believe that. And I saw an analogy—I don't know to what extent you've encountered, for example, in the Firestone building Instron Machines, but these are big testing machines, and in a way that was what I learned in my days at Brown was, how do you think about mechanics and material testing? And then I saw these optical-trap things and I said to myself, that's really just a microscopic version of an Instron machine. You're grabbing onto a DNA molecule, and you're pulling on it, and you're trying to figure out what the mechanical properties are, and even more interestingly, that has implications for the lifestyle of viruses and the wrapping of DNA. In every one of our cells, you and I have more than 1013 cells in our bodies, and every single cell—forget about red blood cells—has two meters of DNA, and it's in a five-micron nucleus. If you think about it, your hair is 50 microns or more in diameter; so, the nucleus is five microns, and it's got two meters of DNA in it. I think this goes back to what I was saying about my sense of wonder; I feel like I don't bring very many things to Caltech as a smart, super-fast intellectual, or whatever, but I think I can bring a sense of wonder that I feel so lacking. People get it beaten out of them, and for me, two meters of DNA in a five-micron nucleus is, how could I not find that an amazing question? How does that work out? Any time you take a piece of wire and shove it in your pocket, like your ear buds—when we used to use things to listen to our music—they were always tangled, right? How do you get two meters of DNA without tangles? What's up with that? Same for viruses. We just lived through this pandemic, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus is super interesting. It's got a 30,000-nucleotide-long RNA genome packed in a 100-nanometer capsid. It's amazing, and we take it for granted. That's my biggest theme as a Caltech professor: Everybody's taking everything for granted all the time. Again, I'm not trying to judge everyone else, I'm just saying this is how it feels to be me. I look at the world and I'm like, "I don't understand that. That's a surprising thing. That's weird." And it's super easy, just in plain English, to tell my mom, "Imagine five meters of things put in this little, tiny thing that's smaller than a hair."
ZIERLER: You alluded to it, but it's worth bearing out a little more, your unorthodox educational trajectory. How is that a foundation stone for how you view the world through a scientific lens?
PHILLIPS: It's everything, I have to say, and that's why maybe the scheme that you have in mind for the way this is going to all unfold won't work, perhaps, because everything about me is founded on that. It's that weirdness of independence that was a struggle. I didn't have anybody telling me which things were important, so I had to figure out for myself, "Oh, I'm going to make a big deal—I see now, this notion of normal modes is a really, really interesting thing, where we invent collective coordinates." Later on, once I got into the scheme of things, I would learn about people like David Pines—who I'm sure you know, an amazing guy. He wrote several books in which he told us how to formally think about collective excitations in solid-state physics, and that's super inspiring, because that's what biology is lacking, and needs, and is looking for, even though maybe biology doesn't know it. So, yeah, my educational background is a curse and a huge, huge gift, and the reason it's a curse is I have all these vacancies. There are all these holes where thing didn't appeal to me, or I didn't do the right level of sort of practice, like practicing my free throws. You've got to practice your free throws. You just have to, if you want to be good at something, so I missed out on some of that. By way of contrast, almost everything, I had to figure out my own take on it. That will probably be clear as we talk: I don't see that the way everyone else does, and that's why my teaching is weird, and the books I write are weird.
Science by Accomplishment Not Pedigree
ZIERLER: What about the fact that your academic pedigree is not the same as what most of your faculty colleagues' are?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's something that I think about every day. I come to Caltech, and I laugh with my best collaborators who arrive here with me in my car, because as you probably know, Caltech faculty members have named parking spots, and I pinched myself because my first arrival at Caltech was as a 17-year-old. I was a messenger boy in LA. I was driving around. After that, I was an electrician. I wore a tool belt that showed my butt crack in La Jolla. I worked in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I got to see how people treated me or acted towards me. Again, I'm going to probably sound pretentious, but in a way, when I walk around this place, I know all the people that deliver stuff, and I know them by name, and they know me by name, and I kind of feel like those are my peeps, almost more than my colleagues. When we march in graduation, I always feel so, in a way, insecure that I don't belong here. I just don't. I could not have gotten into Harvard. I tried to get into Caltech for grad school; I didn't. I couldn't have. I could not have survived here a month as an undergrad. Even now, I couldn't, even though I probably am better at a lot of the subjects than the 18-year-olds are, I just can't do the thing. I cannot for the life of me do the performance of academia, like being a student. Actually, I find it to be soul killing. I'm just not made for it. I'm not made for that environment. So, I don't know, I have a very weird relationship with this place, because on the one hand, every day I pinch myself. How did I get here? It's pure luck. Then there's this other super independent side of me, the part that's like, "Yeah, I'm not going to go to college. I'm going to go off on a sailboat. I'm going to learn physics on my own." And then I'm super arrogant, and I'm like, "Well, this place is complacent. We could be so much better. We could be more adventurous. We could be more experimental in the sense of let's try something new, and if it doesn't work, we'll go back." So many times we sit around and argue about minutiae instead of just being jumpers.
ZIERLER: Those seven years in the wilderness, were you science oriented at that point?
PHILLIPS: One hundred percent. April 30th, 1977, I got my mind blown, and the next morning, I told my parents, "I'm going to do science." And every day since, every day, it has not left me for more than 10 minutes.
ZIERLER: What was that event?
PHILLIPS: It's a very weird thing. If you'd asked me on April 30th, 1977 (which is Gauss's 200th birthday) what I thought of science, I would have said, "Yeah, it's another one of these belief systems of adults trying to boss me around, trying to kill my soul, trying to make me do stuff, and citing authorities." I didn't know enough to understand the distinction between: Those are authorities, and those are not authorities. I don't need any authorities on the Pythagorean Theorem. I don't need any authorities about whether or not there's a largest prime number, or whether or not the inverse square law is a good way for me to find out whether equal areas are swept out in equal time. So, what do I mean by that? I thought it was a belief system like all the others, and none of it appealed to me because I just don't like authority. I don't like righteous certainty. I don't like received wisdom. I feel like in many senses, I understand nothing. You think you understand something, then you realize, oh, there's some subtlety. We should talk about that, because I did an experiment in class here where a student threw a ball at my head in front of 200 people, and they all thought they knew what happened, and none of them knew what happened. We should come back to that; it's super interesting. I would love to do it again, but I've been told not to do such stunts anymore in this day and age.
I went to a friend's house, and his dad gave lectures every Saturday night. If you check, you'll see April 30, 1977 was a Saturday. This is in San Diego, and I went to this guy's house. He would start at 7:00 PM. Often we'd finish at 1:00 AM. It was pretty intense. He had an easel, and he'd write up there. This particular day, he told us about what he referred to as the anchor-point of history. He told us how Descartes, Eratosthenes, Archimedes, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler all fed into Newton; and that was somehow an integration, all these lines come in to Newton. Part of what caught my eye along the way was how Eratosthenes measured the radius of Earth. That blew my mind. I truly, at that moment, understood what I told you a little while ago, which is, "Oh, this is about ‘I wonder.' What can of individual human being do in the context of an ‘I wonder' question?" Eratosthenes could actually measure the radius of Earth by looking at noonday shadow at two different spots on the planet, and it really just completely changed my mindset. I was like, "Oh, I'm a curious guy. I want to understand things. I want order in my comprehension of the world, and this is a way to get it. You can be right, and also, you don't need any authorities." You may want, to quote Newton, "to stand on the shoulders of giants," but you can ask a question, and with persistence—I don't know if you've ever seen that super fun video of Feynman. It's very short, where he talks about confusion, and he talks about being like some sort of an ape, putting two sticks together to try to reach the banana. What I liked about it so much—I didn't know Feynman, and lots of people around here did, but I didn't; for me, he's a distant hero—but I liked it because I don't think that was false modesty. I think he meant that: You're confused, and that's science. What I like about science is we have a mechanism to emerge from confusion, whereas in Washington, DC, I think the scheme is very different. You arrive with certainty, and your whole goal is to prove that you're right, as opposed to in science kind of to debunk your rightness, and to probe it, and really, really, really try hard to make sure you're not fooling yourself. So, on that date, he gave that lecture. The next morning, I told my mom, "That's it. I've got it. I know what I'm going to do." And then I didn't go to college, and my dad wanted to know, "What are you going to do?" I had the two volumes of Maxwell's treatise on electricity and magnetism, and I knew that Maxwell had written down a wave equation that had a square root of two quantities, mu naught and epsilon naught, which are completely obscure things that have nothing to do with, ostensibly, with electromagnetic waves, they have to do with Coulomb's law and the Biot-Savart law, and yet, that little square root gives you the speed of light, and it's like, whoa! Electricity, magnetism, and light are all one. I told my dad, "I don't understand this book, but this is what I want to do." I want to understand, how does a human mind come to terms with that? That is amazing! I can't not do that." So, yeah, that's what happened, and like I said, there hasn't been 10 minutes a day since then that I haven't leaned into that.
Drawing on Science History for Lab Leadership
ZIERLER: All of this does need to be worked within the confines of running a lab, though. How do you do that, given you the range of your interests?
PHILLIPS: I always tell my students that—I don't know if you ever saw this movie with Jim Carey called The Truman Show. Just in case people who read this, or however this happens, want to know a little bit of the background, this is about a guy who basically lives in a giant dome. He doesn't know it, and he's the only person in his life that's not an actor. The way I like to think of this is, for sure, I'm the star of my Truman Show, but the thing that is important to remember is everyone's the star of their Truman Show. So as a lab head or whatever, I 100% view my job as to be an Academy Award winning supporting actor in everyone else's Truman Show. I'm not here, those students are not here to glorify me or whatever. In other words, I'm here to help them achieve their dreams. When people come through the door and they want to know what goes on in your lab, at this point, I have a very precise three things that I can tell them: We're trying to figure out what genomes mean; we're trying to figure out how to reconcile non-equilibrium statistical physics with Schrödinger's What Is Life?; and we're trying to figure out about human impacts, one of the great questions of the time. At this point, it's very clear what my public science is. What my private science is has always been, like I just told you, it's very, very diverse. It does not acknowledge disciplinary boundaries. It probably always is going to involve synthesis and book writing and all that, but as far as the lab goes, I wouldn't say I'm exactly conventional, but I definitely—we have projects. They make sense, in some sense. They're part of a deeper vision, but I feel like it's quite reasonable for the things that we're working on to do them in the confines of what you might call ordinary academic, scientific research.
ZIERLER: Why those three areas? Or, what is the connecting thread between them?
PHILLIPS: In a certain sense, you could say, pretentiously, that the connecting thread is, "What is life?" What is life? It's a super interesting question. I think if you were to ask people—Carl Zimmer just recently wrote a really interesting new book, and I read it before it got published for him, and there's a chapter in which people use things like machine learning to try to comb through the literature to see if they could come up with the definition of what is life, which I think is kind of funny, and one of the things that people will say, always, is that you have heritable genetic material. At the end of the day, in modern parlance, that's the subject of the genome. Every living organism has either a DNA or an RNA way of passing along genetic information from one generation to the next. What I would say, for me, the big thing that I find to be so weird is that, at this point, the NIH databases have more than 1017 nucleotides. If you work that out, that's—one full, complete works of Shakespeare is roughly 106, a little bit more letters, so we're talking about 11 orders of magnitude more than the complete works of Shakespeare. Basically, our databases on genomes dwarf the Library of Congress. Okay, so then that sort of raises the question: How good is that information? How meaningful is it? How much do we understand it? Nature understands it, but how much do we understand it? And what I'd say is, in the ‘60s, the genetic code was cracked. That means we figured out the relationship between sequence and protein, but the part having to do with how genes are turned on and off, which is why you have so many different cell types, that part is still, to this day, enigmatic, and to me, that's the big question of the moment. How do genes get deployed in space and time in different organisms in order to do the tasks of physiology or evolution? One's a short term thing, like you and I might go have lunch and eat cheese, and then we've got to digest lactose, so that's physiology, and genes will be turned on and off. But there's the bigger question of, "Oh, I'm a bacterium, and those humans have created an antibiotic; how are we going to get around that?" Or, I think about Magic Johnson, the fact that he's still around yet has HIV, and that's the brilliance of people realizing that you need to have three wins of the lottery, mutation-wise, in order to overcome that drug—if I remember correctly; I may not remember the technical details. Anyway, a genome is a way that the genetic information is passed along, and I can articulate what I think is a grand challenge at the time. That's not per se the reason that we're working on it, that we want to blow everyone else's minds, it's more that I simply just find it annoying and troubling that this super important part of the genome, we're not on top of. And just to give you proof of that, most people would say E. coli is the best understood organism. Maybe they'd Drosophila, or C. elegans, or yeast, or whatever. It doesn't matter, because the story is the same in all of them. In E. coli, for 60% of the genes, we know nothing about how they're regulated. I'm always inspired by Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson. When the first chimp-human genome comparisons were being made, if you look at your hemoglobin and a chimp's, they're the same. There's no differences, zero! It's the same amino-acid sequence. So, there was so much similarity, people were like, "Well, how do they turn out so different?" And Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson, to the extent I understand it, posited, "Oh, it's evolution of the regulatory part of the genome." And what I'm telling you is that's kind of like an intellectual dark matter. We're not on top of the regulatory part of genomes, so to me, that's a very, very fundamental question of our era.
ZIERLER: This is a discipline-wide blind spot, you're saying?
PHILLIPS: Yes, according to me, and I'm willing to defend it. Yes, it's a disciplinary-wide blind spot, and it's one you can verify yourself by going onto the databases for each of those model organisms and trying to find out, gene x, how is it regulated? In general, the answer will be, "We don't know."
ZIERLER: Is this simply because it's not low hanging fruit, and scientists are opportunistic?
PHILLIPS: No, I don't think so. I think it's hard. I think we really don't know a lot of stuff. No, au contraire, what I would say as an outsider, originally, to biology—hopefully I'm an insider now—but it's like, "Oh my gosh, the brilliance of people, the experimental brilliance, the conceptual brilliance, all of it is so overwhelmingly impressive." It's just incredibly hard. I marvel, actually, at the things that have been figured out. Let me give you an example. There's something that I would call "action at a distance," and what I mean by that is some gene-regulatory control region way over yonder bends over and kisses the gene of interest. Sometimes that goes under the word "enhancer," and we're not very good at figuring out where enhancers are. When we find out where they are, we're not very good at figuring out which gene they talk to, and within an enhancer, we're not very good at figuring out which proteins bind there in order to turn it on or off, or whatever. Is this a criticism? No, it goes back to our discussion earlier about the history of science. Why? As I was telling you before I think you started recording, even in semi-simple—although I don't believe those words, but I'm saying it just because people have said such things to me—examples like mechanics of the planets or whatever, we're talking about hundreds of years, so it's no wonder that when you undertake this endeavor in biology, that you should count on the fact that it takes time. So, no, I don't think—I wouldn't want to characterize people as opportunistic. I think it's a blind spot, and it's hard. It's just hard, and I look forward to seeing what happens over the next 20 years.
ZIERLER: Where does Schrödinger fit in?
PHILLIPS: He wrote this classic book, which came from a series of public lectures, which I think he gave in 1943 in Dublin, What Is Life? And if you look at it, he kind of had two primary themes. I love the first part, which is basically, what is a gene? In particular, he wanted to know, what's the size of the gene? And when he said that, he meant, how many atoms in a gene? The reason he was so fixated on that is so brilliant and so cool and so simply stated, which is, in small numbers there are fluctuations. In modern terms, the way I would say it is: In a way, pieces of a fly genome are more stable than the Earth. In other words, when did India collide into Asia? Fifty million years ago, and there were no Himalayas. Now there are. In those 50 million years, all these things about genes have just been cruising along. It's kind of fun! He worked out the size of a gene, and he's like, "That's kind of small. I would expect there would be more fluctuations, this would be a more tricky thing." So, the first five or six chapters of his book are kind of fixated on this. It's a fun topic you and I could have a lot of interesting debates about because Max Perutz had a super hostile reaction and said, "Everything that's original is wrong, and everything that's right is not original," and it's really nasty and I think uncalled for. Linus Pauling had a super bad reaction to the way Schrödinger treated thermodynamics, which, again, these are luminaries; I respect and admire them, but in this case, I think they're not on the right track in their critiques of Schrödinger. He basically was saying, "I think we're going to need new laws. Physics will still be applicable, but we'll need new laws." I'm just saying, I got amused when I wrote this review, the 75th anniversary of What Is Life? I kind of realized, oh, these two threads of my group are kind of the questions he posed. They're still completely valid today. "What's the nature of the gene," is one of them, and in a way, this whole thing of cracking what we mean by the regulatory genome is my take on the inheritance of that class of questions. The second part of his book is really about this question of the physical-chemical organization of living matter, and that's kind of the second thread, actually, of my lab, which is, I find it very amusing to think about the idea that one part of the group, in mathematical terms, has dot product zero with the other. They're perpendicular to each other. This is the one that says, "Remove the nucleus from the cell. It'll still crawl along just happily. It doesn't care about its genome. It's going to just keep on cruising, and it might even do chemotaxis, and genome, bah!" I'm kidding, but there's this whole parallel universe of organization of actin, and how the cell has its shape, and then how it moves. That has to do with being out of equilibrium, consuming ATP, and being driven, so I feel like one of the great unsolved problems of the day is non-equilibrium physics. Whether there is a solution, I don't know. Different people have very strong attitudes about this thing, and my point is if you review the history of thermodynamics, it's got an odd name. It's got the word "dynamics" in it, but it isn't. It's thermostatics: find the terminal privileged state of a system. That's what thermodynamics as we know it does. That achievement reached its heights with Gibbs, but we didn't really deliver on the promise of non-equilibrium, and I think that's a question—
ZIERLER: To this day, you mean?
PHILLIPS: To this day. And it's funny—you might know this guy, David Mermin, I'm guessing.
ZIERLER: Of course.
PHILLIPS: He wrote this thing, What I Would Like to Know in 2105, which I really loved, and people were opining on the 100th anniversary of Einstein, "Wow, how much have things changed in 100 years?" It's amazing. You can't even conceive—in the year 1905, you can't conceive of so many things, technologically and scientifically. So, Mermin was like, "Well, if I woke up like Rip Van Winkle at 2105, what would I like to know?" He said everyone else's answers were too provincial, and I think he's right. But he said, "I think I've got one example of a question: What kind of devices are you guys using now that would be as weird to me as us all talking on Zoom on a computer? What's an example of that in 2105?" And the reason I bring it up is, for me, my question really goes back to when I was 17, and it's not obscure at all. It really is the question of non-equilibrium, and the simplest way to state that is: Why does stuff happen? Why does stuff change over time? I want an equation of stuff of t where t is time. That's what I want, but for complex systems, how does that work? One speculation would be that there will be general principles that we'll find. Another argument is that every non-equilibrium problem is going to be its own adventure. I'm making the bet on the former. [both laugh]
ZIERLER: Because you're posing such existential questions, such fundamental questions about life, has that pulled you into astrobiology at all?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, actually, we had Templeton funding. The Templeton Foundation, I'm sure you know about them, but they're very interesting. The guy that founded that the Templeton Foundation was, if I remember correctly, a guy who was, I guess I'll just use the word "capitalist," like a businessman who was an industrialist of some kind. I don't remember that, but he had a deep interest in the fundamental questions, like, I might say, religion, but not in the way that you might think of it. At first I had a little bit of a bad reaction, but then I read a little bit more, and I actually turned that into a good reaction, like, "Hey, gang, the question of meaning is relevant, and I'm going to fund pursuits that try to go after meaning, which includes science." So, we had this notion of searching for alien life on Earth. We thought that the most interesting place to find alien life was on Earth. What I mean by that, and I think it's a really legit thing, is 110 years ago, we didn't know about viruses. Well, we kind of did, but let's say 130 years ago we didn't know about viruses. In the 1970s, we didn't know about archaea. Here are this life form, a domain of life that's as different from us as we are from bacteria, and it was just sitting here under our noses, and we didn't even know it was there. So, we got very interested in that, and as part of that proposal writing, I had a lot of discussions with people and debates about, what would be the signatures of life? Would you want to be looking for DNA-based life? And again, that brings back to non-equilibrium and Schrödinger, because I have a feeling that—this is pure speculation; we all make hypotheses and we have tastes, so mine is that the fundamental thing about life is being driven out of equilibrium, and that's what we would find in common with life elsewhere, not a genome.
ZIERLER: Regardless of DNA, regardless of carbon-based equilibrium.
PHILLIPS: Disequilibrium. Mechanisms of disequilibrium. The thing that's fascinating is, when you have the drive, you get structures that don't exist in the absence of drive.
ZIERLER: What's the signature that you would look for if you had the instrument to look for it?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. That's one of the things we really talked about a lot. I remember once I had the privilege of seeing Carl Sagan give a talk, and it was at Cornell when I was there in physics, and he was talking about how satellites would detect cow flatulence. Again, in the spirit of speculation, just because it's fun, I bet on the 20-year timescale, Science magazine's going to report life on an exoplanet, I think. Probably sooner is my guess. What will be signatures will be things like out-of-equilibrium atmospheres, atmospheres that reveal drive. On the other hand, that's tricky. Of course, that's way out of my domain.
ZIERLER: Meaning what? What does that look like?
PHILLIPS: That means that the concentrations of things are not what you would expect for an atmosphere that didn't have an organism that's doing some sort of weird chemistry or something. Here's a simple example: It's kind of a Maxwell's demon thing. Let's start with Humpty Dumpty. "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty took a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again." What's that mean? It means that if I run the movie of Humpty Dumpty backwards, and you see it, you're just going to be like, "Dude, that's not Humpty Dumpty. That's not the way the world works." But if I were to show you a video of ions going up their gradient, at first cut, you might be inclined to say, "That's not the way the world works either. Things run down their gradients." But then I'd say, "Yeah, but that's the way biology works. It's actually the way it works. The moment we stop doing that, sending things up their gradients, it's kaputz." So, that's a trivial—if you'll let me use that word—example of a driven system where what you see is a signature of drive. You know when you see things going up a concentration gradient, by the laws of thermodynamics, you know that there's drive. Somebody's paying. And that's the kind of thing that I mean. I mean it intentionally vaguely because I don't know what it's going to look like; people very clever are thinking about that. But somehow, I think there will be reflections of drive. That could be weirdness of entropy production, just for example. One of the analogies that captures my fancy is—I'm sure you know very well about the discovery of the neutrino, so what's the idea there? The idea is, we trust the conservation of energy so much that there must be something missing. There's a missing thing that's carrying away energy here, so that's the kind of thing that I'm thinking. We know thermodynamics, we know equilibrium and all that so well that we'll look at something and we'll say, "Oh, well, that thing is not behaving. It looks like"—the example I just gave you—"It looks like there's a gradient. It's going up its gradient, not down. It looks like Humpty Dumpty is going back up the wall." So, that's vague. Okay, it wasn't very serious, but that's the thing. That's what I expect, I guess, and yeah, we flirted with those kinds of things.
ZIERLER: Is that the same perspective to bring to origins of life here on Earth?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I don't know. I worry for myself—I'm not criticizing anyone else—I'm just saying, despite trying hard to understand and think about that topic, which I love as a topic, I think I sort of come from the school of the inevitability of life. Because of exactly this thing about physics and drive, I feel like life is the consequence of drive. You put drive in, you get life, so I imagine that it's going to be relevant. I just keep wondering—you probably know all the time that Newton spent on alchemy; it just wasn't the moment. It wasn't the moment, even for that greatest of great geniuses, if I can use that word. It wasn't the moment. We had to have people like Lavoisier, Joseph Priestley, Avogadro, Jacques Charles, Gay Lussac, all those people—Boyle—just doing the mundane work of figuring out, "Oh, this is how much gas there is of this gas, and how much gas there is of that gas, and things go in particular molecular proportions," and then there were these guys called the pneumo-chemists who figured out the stoichiometrically correct equation in photosynthesis, and that's very precise stuff that Newton couldn't figure out because it wasn't the moment. So, I don't know. When's the moment going to be? I wouldn't dare say, but I just wonder, is the origin-of-life moment out in the future? Maybe.
ZIERLER: The students who are attracted to your lab obviously have to be very self-selected for them to thrive in your plan. What are some of the shared characteristics of a successful graduate student who's working in your lab?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure. I really believe and hope that people come here that are driven by curiosity. They have a sense of adventure. They really, really want to participate in a version of biology whose language is equations. They have to be in a mindset that's a bit of the mindset of rigorous dissection, as opposed to adventurous exploration discovery. What I mean by that is, often we're taking things where many people might say, "We're already on top of that." I've already mentioned to you twice today this thing about the three-body problem, and I'm very inspired by that. I think it's amazing that people like Gauss spent 20 years on the orbits of asteroids, and a lot of people criticized. They're like, "Well, that's too mundane." But I guess maybe it's a belief in the importance of details. I guess that's it. Playfulness—there's for sure a sense of playfulness that I guess people want who join my lab, and then there's also a bit of a less emphasis on which journal you're going to publish your paper in, and that kind of stuff. It's really oriented towards: We're working together because it's fun and we want to try to understand things without too much patriotism to any one discipline.
ZIERLER: Are they coming from across the board, from chemistry, physics, biology?
PHILLIPS: Yes. What I would say is that in general, I will have a student or two from physics, literally physics grad students. Always we'll have some from BMB, which is biochemistry and molecular biophysics. In general, we'll have one or two from BE, which is bioengineering; sometimes from chemical engineering, applied physics; and interestingly, and perhaps oddly, less so from biology proper. Though, I fundamentally consider myself a card-carrying member of biology, so it's a little disappointing, and that's, in a way, about the culture of what it means to get educated, I suppose, in biology. Because, again, for us, the language is math, period.
Biophysics as a Merge Point
ZIERLER: I want to ask you specifically about biophysics. In the literature, I think that's the field or the discipline that's most closely associated. Whether that's correct or not is a different story. It's more mature than most people understand. It really goes back many, many decades. Do you see biophysics simply as a combination of biology and physics? Or is it something different? Is the sum greater than the parts? And have those distinctions changed over the years?
PHILLIPS: What a great, smart question. You're right, first of all, that biophysics has a learned society. It has a journal, and it's old, and it definitely has roots in things like methodologies for trying to query the behavior of molecules, and things about electrophysiology, and the nature of electrical signaling, and all those kinds of things. I have to say, one of the reasons when we wrote our book, we called it Physical Biology of the Cell, we wanted to do a recasting that would allow us to choose a name such that we did not have to fall under the umbrella of biophysics because what we were thinking of was something, in a way, that I guess I would call bigger, although that's no critique of biophysics itself at all. I'm just saying we wanted more breadth. Physical biology could include the meandering of the wildebeest on the Serengeti—herding, the nature of herds. That's a perfectly reasonable physical biology thing, I would say. So, to me, I guess what I would say is that, for sure, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts, and is, often, but I kind of hope for a future in which maybe that distinction won't be made anymore. It will just be like, "Yeah, we're studying life," and by definition, that subject has, like physics did and chemistry largely has, become a subject where a lot of the business is taken in the form of math, and there's a dialog between theory and experiment, and we take theory seriously, and it helps drive the way we do experiments. I'm going to say again what I said at the beginning: For me, it's a matter of style more than topic, so physical biology is that approach to the living which is the style of physics. That's, to me, what biophysics means in its best format, which is, physics has a certain style of approaching problems. When I say, "that style," what do I mean? I mean, of course, a rich interplay between theory and experiment; the importance of order of magnitude thinking; and the necessity of abstracting, idealizing, simplifying, and finding toy systems. Surely you know about this really wild thing done by Don Eigler, who was at IBM. This guy was able to take an STM and to arrange atoms in circles—just for example, make corrals. Why do I bring that up? Because in the early days, when you taught quantum mechanics, the first thing you learned is the particle in the box. It's like a schoolboy or schoolgirl exercise with no relevance to anything about real atoms, although I don't really buy that, I'm just kind of giving you the negative reaction.
ZIERLER: This is Alice and Bob.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, exactly. That's Alice and Bob, and in the way, maybe that's what I'm saying about the style of physics. Physics aims for Alice and Bob. But then a guy like Don Eigler comes along, and Mike Crommie, who is at Berkeley, and what do they do? They arrange atoms in a particular circular configuration, which is a quantum corral, and then they find a way to measure the wave function, and you can compare that to what you would solve. It's a homework I've given here, and you're like, "Wow, that's impressive. The energy levels correspond to what I expect from particle-in-box-ology, and the wave functions look like Bessel functions in the way that I would have expected," and so on. I think that's what I want to say, for me, biophysics could or should be, or physical biology is, which is, the questions are the questions of the living. Writ large, there's the living, and we want to understand the living, and the style is the style that you think of from physics. And I just gave you: idealization, abstraction, simplification, mathematical dissection, simple models, rigorous dissection, measuring constants—like, figuring out what the parameters are and really knowing them with error bars—and then prediction, and ultimately, engineering. That's another great achievement that we often ignore. So many of the consequences of physics and chemistry, you nail them so well, then you're like, "Okay, we've got this under our belt so well that now we'll play. We know the rules of the playing field, so now we'll play." Right behind you, there's that big beam, and that's related, as far as I know, to our better understanding of earthquakes in this day and age, which comes back to mechanics. People learned about random vibrations, a really beautiful thing that goes back to what I was telling you earlier about normal modes. What happens when you drive a system randomly instead of by a sinusoidal forcing, or something like that?
ZIERLER: The great merging of science that you want to see, where the disciplinary boundaries fade away because it's all the fundamental questions—what role do you see for computation in encouraging that trend? Because science, over the past quarter century, has become so computational where it's all, sort of, data.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, it's weird. I guess to be honest, I'm a bit of a contrarian to start with, but I have a very, sort of tormented, dualistic relationship with computation. I do it and use it for almost everything, obviously. I just taught a course last week at Cold Spring Harbor, and one of the things we did was to analyze satellite images to try and find elephants in the Serengeti, and we tried to prove how bad ordinary thresholding would do, like when you change the environment where the elephants or wildebeests you're looking for are in. So, what does that have to do with anything? There are many, many things in this day and age that you cannot do by hand. Like, I've done some calculations with Mathematica. I did one in particular a few years ago that had to do with differential geometry, and it was a calculation that I knew the answer to, but I did it in a very obscure way that's right, but obscure, and when I hit return, it led to, like, 16 pages. I don't think Euler and Gauss could have done it. Maybe they could have; they're so amazing, but maybe they couldn't have done it. But for me, it was a keystroke of just hit return, Then I did a percentage—there's a thing to simplify, which is the percentage symbol, and out popped a little, tiny formula, which I knew to be the right thing, and that's an example of symbolic manipulation. But then the way we take in data—and that's something that I'm hugely interested in, taking in data and trying to understand it. For example, how many wildebeests are there on the Serengeti, and what's that as a function of time? In the 1950s, there were 250,000-ish wildebeests. Now there's 1.4 million, and it's due to a virus, and we knew how the population grew, and you can't handle that kind of data in the absence of computation. The reason I guess I say I have a tortured relationship with it is that I feel like we've reached a point where people almost view getting a "model of the data" which emerges from some of the modern, sophisticated techniques means we're done, and I just don't buy that at all. Poincaré had this great line where he said, "Science is built up of facts as a house is built up of bricks, but a mere accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house." I'm definitely super impressed with the way that we can handle data, and I don't want to be a dinosaur and pooh-pooh it, but I also feel like a very good litmus test is: What am I going to say to 18-year-olds in a biology freshman class on whatever, based on things that came out of data? What's my relationship with that data? What do I really want my relationship with that data to be? So, at the end of the day, it's an incredibly powerful tool. In grad school, I interacted with this guy Ed Jaynes—whose pictures right there and also up there; the only person, I think, who's in my office twice—and he was so far ahead in Bayesian thinking and all these things. There's also another guy who I really admire who was at Harvard, named Frederick Mosteller, a statistician, and this guy tried to figure out the in Federalist papers who the author was, Hamilton or Madison. There were like 15 of them that were controversial, and it was tricky, and that was early days of using Bayesian thinking and computation. I think about the great data that's in baseball and the ability to take that data and try to learn something about, "Well, maybe I could take a guy that's not as tall, and maybe isn't built the way you'd think of as a baseball player, but he knows how to get on base." That's something that you'd learn from the data that you might not have figured out in the absence of the data. I'm probably not answering your question very well. Stated simply, I can't imagine the modern world in all of its facets without computation. But I just keep wanting to say that the goal of science is to tell stories that are intuitive, that build on simplification, idealization, abstraction; and often, that's hidden when you do a computation, so I just wish there was more emphasis on that next step. How do you do idealization, simplification, abstraction, prediction? And prediction, to me—I have to say this is a little bit harsh—but prediction does not mean holding back 30% of the data when you make your fit, or you do your regression or machine learning. Then you show afterwards that remaining 30%, that you were able to explain 90% of the variance. That is, for sure, not what prediction is. Prediction means, "Hey, I'm going off into the world, and I'm going to tell you something about an experiment you may never have even thought of before, and I think I know what's going to happen." That's dangerous prediction. That's prediction when it really counts.
ZIERLER: Your facility in appreciating the divide, or the mutual relationship, between theory and experiment, I would assume almost certainly comes from a physics perspective that you're applying in a biological perspective.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, probably.
ZIERLER: Most biologists either will say they serve as their own theorist, they don't care about theory, or some combination of the two. Why is that? Why is physics so well developed in this symbiotic relationship between theory and experiment, and biology really isn't, or maybe isn't yet? What's your appreciation of that?
PHILLIPS: First of all, I think, likely, you're the one who should be answering that question. You're a historian of science.
ZIERLER: [laughs] But you are too.
PHILLIPS: I would actually love to hear your take on that.
ZIERLER: Part of it, to me, seems that biology is simply not as mature a field as physics is, that biology today is where physics was maybe a century ago.
PHILLIPS: That is kind of how I feel about it. I'm always saying, and I probably don't come across this way, but I want to be a lover and not a hater. I don't want to sit around and criticize people and take potshots or anything like that, and I note that I tend to rub people the wrong way in all the fields because it sounds like I'm criticizing, but it's not exactly that. I do have a sense—and again, it comes back to subjectivity—of what I want things to look like, so I think we're going to continuously circle back to education, whether you know it or not, but you probably already guessed that we're going to. I know so many people from my years at the Marine Biological Laboratory and everywhere else in biology, you use it or lose it. You don't use that stuff. You don't use the math that you learned. There's no context for your linear algebra and calculus, so you don't use it. This is a funny comment, but Thomas Paine said this great thing in Common Sense. He said, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right." So, not thinking it wrong that you don't use math gives it the superficial appearance of being right, yet I feel like it's like flying in clouds without instruments. It's that bad. I have one idea for you, which is—and it will probably appeal to you, because you're interested in the history of science—I think we have a great relationship with being wrong in physics that's better than the attitude about being wrong in biology. What do I mean by that? Let's take the specific heats. In the 1830s, Dulong and Petit measured the specific heats of crystalline solids, and they found a universal value, which is 3R, the gas constant. That's amazing. Then, along comes classical statistical physics, and you can explain it. You get that result. It's homework problem. We get it now. We didn't stop teaching it because it's wrong. Along comes this guy Weber. He was at the ETH. He measures the temperature dependence of the specific and finds it vanishes at low temperature, and that completely contradicts classical physics. And along comes the nemesis of Weber. I find that just such an irony of history. Here's this professor at ETH. He had a hated student. They did not like each other, and I think Einstein had 15 courses from this guy. And who comes along and explains Weber's data? None other than Albert Einstein. He writes, he said, "Well, no, I'm going to quantize this harmonic oscillator, and as a result, I'm going to find that the temperature dependence leads to the specific heat vanishing." But Einstein's models wrong too. You've got to do Debye. That's the next level, where you pretend that every atom's got it, that there's normal modes, instead of everybody vibrating according to the same frequency. But then you just mentioned computation; we actually know the Debye model is not right either. That's the right long-wavelength limit, so you've got to get phonons, and you got to do the whole spectrum. So, there's a whole hierarchy of wrong models that we happily teach, we celebrate, as examples of idealization, abstraction, simplification. To give you two examples, maybe from modern biology or one that I like a lot, is Turing. Turing wrote down, essentially, a reaction-diffusion model that's very odd, because usually you think of diffusion as smoothing stuff out. He writes down this model, and it leads to patterns, finite wavelength patterns, and people thought for a while, maybe this will explain the patterning in insects and their embryos. Then they realized, no, there's different control. This comes back to what you asked earlier. There's different control elements for each stripe, so this Turing thing is crap, and that leads to this sort of dismissal. What I would say is, the role of metaphors is so powerful, and furthermore, now it turns out, over the longer shadow of time, that now we think maybe the formation of our digits is Turing, and now the debates alive again. So, I just feel like, if I'm being maximally generous, maybe what I'll just say is that we need more success stories, so that biologists will feel—I hate using that word since I'm in the biology department, and I taught freshman biology like 12 times, and I want to be viewed as legit in that place although people will still say, "Yeah, you're just a physicist," but I think myself as a biologist. But anyway, enough success stories where biologists will be like, "Okay, maybe I'm flying blind in the clouds, and they offered me instruments. Why would I not use them?" That's kind of my take.
ZIERLER: What would be an example of a theory that you develop for biology or for pursuing one of these questions about life that actually helps you map out the experiment to test the theory?
PHILLIPS: Let's talk about some historical examples. One of them is related to one of the greatest people that was ever at Caltech, and that's John Hopfield. In the 1970s, he figured out—and that kind of came on the heels of Pauling; Pauling realized it as well and did experiments—the fidelity of copying of polymers in biology is way, way, way in excess of what you would expect based on simple thermodynamics. Tania Baker has this article where she says, "Let's imagine the diameter of DNA is a meter. The copying machinery is the size of a FedEx truck traveling at 500 kilometers per hour. There's a delivery on both sides of the street every 10 centimeters. It finishes its daily delivery schedule in 40 minutes, and it delivers one wrong package every three years. That's the fidelity of DNA copying." It's incredible. Hopfield wrote down a theory of what's called kinetic proofreading, and it's a theme. It's really a theme in modern biology, and it matters. If you think about immune diseases, often the point is failure to discriminate self and non-self. That's a specificity question, and often specificity in biology exceeds what we're used to in physics or in engineering or whatever, and it goes back to our earlier discussion of drive. You don't pay energy, you don't get the proofreading. So, that's an example. Another example is measurement precision. It turns out that cells measure molecular concentrations, and they do it with great precision. They measure length with great precision. The question is, how? You can't just say words like, "Oh, it's measured with such and such precision." There's a beautiful series of theories about how bacterial cells, and other cells, actually, decide when to divide, and I'll give you three examples. One is, let's say you start a stopwatch, and you wait a certain amount of time, and you divide. Alternative number two is, you measure how long you are, and when you reach a certain length, you divide. The last one is, you add a certain amount of material, and then you divide. Those are three separate models, and they all have different predictions, and until you do the math, you will not know that one of them, the variability diverges over time. The more generations you go, the more variability there will be. That's not observed experimentally, so you dismiss that model. In the absence of math, you don't even know that it makes such a radical prediction. And this is a very interesting thing about my relationship with art. I'm really, really into scientific illustration; I always have been. And I've been super interested in the fact that Lagrange did not want to have a single figure in his Mécanique Analytique. Good for him. I'm on board with that, but I think it's super interesting to go almost to the opposite limit of, maybe I'll say, like, Feynman diagrams. Like, "No, I'm not going to do the calculation. I'm going to write some diagrams, and that's going to implement what I think I understand." So, here, it's easy to write down the models I just told you. One's called the timer model, one's called the adder model, once called the sizer model. I can draw cartoons. I have drawn cartoons in our books. But in the absence of the math, you actually don't know that one of those models leads to a radical prediction which is just not true, and there are tons of examples like this, and that's part of what bugs me. In fact, there are success stories all the time, but I guess people are waiting for that big one that's like CRISPR or something, and that's overly ambitious, I guess. Or to me, it's inconsistent with my understanding of the progress of science. Little steps for little feet is my general sense of how it goes.
ZIERLER: I want to share with you what David Ho told me when I asked him what he saw in HIV that others didn't see.
PHILLIPS: Cool, I can't wait to hear.
ZIERLER: It was the easiest question for him to answer. He was an undergraduate at Caltech. He appreciated the numbers in biology, the quantitative nature in biology, in a way that his peer group—everybody that was in this race to understand HIV, in their own education as undergraduates, these formative years—did not get. Do you feel that institutional history here? That at least in this one area, Caltech has been ahead of the curve in the numbers in the biology?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure. And by the way, I think also, David Ho—I'm curious whether he would agree—but I think he was interacting with Alan Pearlman, who's at Los Alamos, and he's a master of all this stuff. I remember that about Ho, and I think it's just such a cool thing. The Luria-Delbrück experiment is a good example of this. Delbrück was really on top of those kinds of things. It's not exactly answering your question, but there's this tradition that involves a number of people like Peter Goldreich, Sterl Phinney, and Dave Stevenson: Order of magnitude physics. To me, that's one of Caltech's greatest courses, and it's imitated elsewhere. It's a kind of thinking that I think is just absolutely indispensable, and it's, I think, a great thing about the core. The bottom line is that the undergrads here have to take all this stuff. Sometimes they maybe don't appreciate it, but I see it unequivocally at places like MBL, Marine Biological Laboratory. Students from here, students from MIT that also has a core, they're just not fearful about that kind of stuff, and they see that as one of the prisms through which to view a given topic. I love your anecdote, and I think it's really super interesting, and I love the fact that Ho brought that up. That's really, really cool.
ZIERLER: What are some of the technological advances that have been really relevant to you?
PHILLIPS: We're customers. I wish we were people that were more cutting-edge in terms of developing new technologies, but often, the way I would say it is that lots of new technologies get invented, and I'm just sort of overwhelmed by how creative and clever people are. The whole suite of fluorescent protein palette, that means you have this opportunity to look at different colors and to use different colors; and then super-resolution microscopies—that's incredible, incredibly useful. Another one that's got a big Caltech connection is things like using sequencing. Barbara Wold, in 2008 or something like that, was really pioneering on RNA-seq, so there's an example which is weird and unexpected ways of using DNA sequencing. In my lab, we have this dream. It's almost like a challenge, and the challenge is—there are two parts to it. One is, we keep on trying to reduce the amount of time it takes to do one of my former student's thesis. So, we got it down to a week, and then we got it down to a day.
ZIERLER: Doing the whole experiment?
PHILLIPS: The whole thing, the whole thesis. And the other one is to replace all measurements; find a way to do them all by sequencing. Like, everything we want to know, can you answer that question via sequencing measurement?
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can explain: Why is sequencing such a jack-of-all-trades? How is it so universal?
PHILLIPS: That's the thing that I think is so fascinating, is that to me, to my little mind, I've been surprised over and over again how clever people are in figuring out how to use sequencing to find out a thing. Let me give you an example. We already talked earlier about the two meters of DNA in each of our cells. It's wrapped up. The DNA is wrapped up around protein octamers known as histones. The way you might think of it is, there are 147 bases that are wrapped, and there's some gap, so there's some linker, and then there's another one. So, here's the concept: I'm going to cut all the DNA that's not wrapped, and then I'll just sequence what's left, and that'll tell me where the things are. That's a perfect example, a mind-blowing example. Another one is called ribosomal profiling. That was developed by Jonathan Weissman, who's now at the Whitehead, and his idea was, mRNA are translated by ribosomes. Ribosomes grab on to the RNA, so let me lock the ribosomes on the RNA, and once again, I'll digest the pieces that aren't hidden, and I'll sequence with the parts that were hidden. That will tell you where the ribosomes were, but that'll tell you how dense the ribosomes were, which will tell you how fast proteins are being produced, so you can use that as a surrogate for a protein count! And it works; it's a calibrated measurement. So, over and over again, I guess what I've seen is that sequencing is a really cool way to query cells and learn things that are of physical-biology relevance. For me, I don't want to produce things in arbitrary units. That's a big, big thing for me: arbitrary units, or absolute measurement. I really want to see, can we turn sequencing into an absolute measurement thing? It's hard.
ZIERLER: What would that look like?
PHILLIPS: That would look like that I would actually just say, "I'm going to count the molecules that I'm interested in, but with error bars, reproducibly, and as I titrate something." Like, I might have a knob that I'm tuning, such as the concentration of some chemical that makes cells want to turn on an enzyme, or alternatively, there's some signal that says it's time for you to do some developmental pathway. I'm just saying that going from arbitrary units to absolute units is always hard, and it's easier said than done. There's a lot hidden in what I just said, but we've tried to take some of these RNA-seq things—this guy's thesis that I talked about, it's become a gold standard, and we've done that gold standard five or six different ways at this point, and so far, it's resisted our best efforts with sequencing. So, that's a project for the summer that I'm excited about, and I think once we nail that, we'll be much more ready to turn it into a true, calibrated spring, so to speak.
ZIERLER: Is it possible sequencing is not the answer?
ZIERLER: Or is it a matter of fine tuning the sequence?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. We don't know. Yeah, it's possible; just don't know. I hope not, but I don't know.
ZIERLER: Is your research agenda exclusively geared toward fundamental questions? Are you thinking about translations? Have you ever had startup kind of inspirations?
PHILLIPS: I'm the kid of two entrepreneurs. My dad was, from the age of 28 or something, until—he worked seven days a week until he was 88 years old. Loved every minute of it. My mom started her own bookstore, and I guess that's just as a way of saying that I feel like I've been around entrepreneurship. I've certainly watched a lot of my friends here as well, and I have to say that I've had borderline no instinct for it. I want to talk to you honestly and tell you about how I feel, but I worry that anybody that reads it might take it as a criticism of them, but it's not really that. It's just, for me, personally—
ZIERLER: It's you.
PHILLIPS: —I just don't feel excited about it, and maybe it's partly because of the transient nature of products. I was just saying to somebody in this office this morning, another professor in this building—we were talking about the future of energy, and I was saying, I'm always so intrigued by Blockbuster. Somebody could come along and say, "We're going to make Blockbuster great again, and we're all going to start using video stores, and we're going to go back to that and make it happen," and it's hopeless because there's just a better way to do it. And what I've seen—I'm a technology watcher, and I'm a huge technology fan, and probably my favorite technology, or one of them, is the third dimension. I'm so impressed with the third dimension. It's my favorite thing for humans, and making things cold. Those are two things that I feel like everybody takes for granted, and they're so mind blowing. I can go make a thing cold, and I can go in the third dimension, and routinely. I tell everybody that'll listen, between 2009 and 2019, I think there were zero civil-aviation deaths in the US. We basically have almost a Vietnam War every year worth of deaths on our roads, and we're talking zero people on airplanes dying for ten years. So, I'm a huge watcher of technology, but I also just see the transient nature of it. I admire that, in a certain way, because there are all these great, deep thinkers that are laboring away anonymously to get that next increment, but then the next increment is done, and you're on to the next increment, and all that. Maybe the simplest way to say it is, I just am super selfish about my curiosity. That's what it is. This is probably going to make you feel sad, but I think that if I never lived, it would make no difference whatsoever to the progress of science. But it's so fun, and it's so interesting, and I love learning about the world and the nature of how humans have penetrated a little bit of the mystery of things. Anything I can do to be part of that, to learn more about the world we live in, the wonder of the world we live in, is what I want to do.
Scientific Taste is Nontrivial
ZIERLER: To go back to the importance of taste in science, maybe it's simply that the questions that you're after are so fundamental that they don't really play well in the startup space. Maybe it's as simple as that.
PHILLIPS: Maybe, yeah, and a related point is each of us has this super-precious resource, and you and I are using it right now, which is our time. How do you use your time? There's so little time. I just feel like I would rather ride my bike, go surfing, and read books, both just page turners, but also science or whatever, and I'd rather learn about science and teach about it, with no criticism of anyone else. I'm just saying, that's my thing. The thought of going every day and cooperating with a bunch of people to make it so that we don't lose people's bags, which, by the way, is this huge achievement—again, we all grumble, but you'd when you actually sit and watch the whole procedure, it kind of blows your mind. If you actually stop and think about it, you're just like, "Wow, that's really impressive." It's a bunch of people just laboring away, being clever—getting yelled at, by the way. Everyone's always yelling, but actually, when you think about it, you're just like, "How do they pull that off?"
ZIERLER: Your graduate students might have ambitions for entrepreneurialism—
PHILLIPS: I hope so.
ZIERLER: —startups, and things like that. What are the kinds of things that are happening in your lab, regardless of your own tastes and ambitions, that obviously have translational or application value?
PHILLIPS: What I would say is, the thing I started with earlier about the nature of the genome, I feel like if we nail that—meaning we as a community, I'm not saying my lab in particular—but if we nail that as a community, that is a game changer. Why? Because it will mean that we have a bioengineering of genomes which is no longer enlightened empiricism, and more getting into the realm of rational design. What do I mean by that? I just mean that the toolkits we use right now to manipulate genomes are based upon certain key, well-known tools that came out of generations of hard work by molecular biologists, biochemists, and geneticists, et cetera. I'm also saying that the palette is still very limited, and we know that it's a huge palette because even though we don't have it mastered, nature does. Your and my palette are mastered and being used right now, so I feel like there's just nothing but opportunity there on every axis: for technology, for startups, for new methodologies, for all of it. There's no doubt about that. If I could have the website that I'm dreaming of for the regulatory architectures of genomes, the way I would put it is that the genome becomes designable in some sense. The more poetic way that I say it, which is the way I actually think of it, is if you want to write poetry with the genome, you need to know the grammar of the genome, which we don't, so I think that there's great capacity for that. The stuff that we do with Matt Thomson on active matter and non-equilibrium, that's using technologies that people like Viviana have done over the years where you use light to control. That's an amazing modern technology that's come out of biology, which is light-controlled switching. You shine laser light, and in a certain region of an organism or a biochemical assay, you get molecules to either turn on or off and do things that they wouldn't do otherwise. That, too—Matt has very interesting ideas about computation, about transport, about all sorts of things that are conceivably of technological interest. And obviously this whole world of -omics, there are tons and tons and tons and tons of startups, and my daughter, Molly, is working at one of them, and they're trying to do something very clever. So, there are tons of options. But again, I have to confess that my natural instinct is that I'm a very, very appreciative listener and consumer of that stuff, but don't really have it up my alley. As far as the students go, those at my lab, generally, while here don't do that, people do end up at companies, and they have fun.
ZIERLER: Cracking the genomic code, what are the human-health possibilities?
PHILLIPS: In some sense, I don't know the answer. I don't know how to even conceive of that.
ZIERLER: Do you see that we're in the Dark Ages right now, as far as that goes?
PHILLIPS: I hate to make it sound so critical, but watching my dad go through his cancer, I felt like I got to see so many amazing things. They removed one of his lungs, but above all, he was on immunotherapy. He basically did not die of cancer. He was good. He was cool. He was good. He had the right mutations to be able to have immunotherapy work for him, so that looks like an amazing achievement.
ZIERLER: It's not the Dark Ages.
PHILLIPS: That's not the Dark Ages. I was just the other day remembering breaking my arm while skateboarding, and it was really badly broken. I skateboarded home, but I was holding my arm. If that would been, I don't know, 1,000 years ago, that probably would have been a bad scene. What did I do? I just went to the hospital and got some x-ray. It was kind of gross because they pulled out my arm and reset it. They put a cast on me. I had eight weeks, and then they took it off, and my elbow was kind of sore, so I had to do a little physical therapy, but off I go. So, I'd hate to say anything like we're in the Dark Ages, but I guess I always come at things, in a way, from maybe just a mindset of, "I wonder how much better we could be." So, in that sense, of course, I agree with you. There's so many ways we could be so much better. I'm imagining, with no criticism of anybody, "What does it look like to be better?"
ZIERLER: You mentioned early mornings is writing time for you.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure.
ZIERLER: What do you write in the early morning?
PHILLIPS: Above all, perhaps I'd say it's calculation time. When I was a kid, I learned about this book called The Richest Man in Babylon, and that was part of my little education via this person that I met on April 30, 1977. In this book, it's about an Egyptian guy named Arkad, and he has this theme about money, which is, "A part of all you earn is yours to keep." The concept being: Every month, the first person you pay is yourself, and you never touch it again. What does that have to do with what you just asked? I believe a part of all your time is yours to keep. Most people, I don't think, live that way aggressively. I feel like I, every day, need to make sure that I have the time to remember why I'm doing science, so that means trying to do a calculation myself, for example, or looking at one of my students write-ups and giving them red ink. That means engaging at the level of true attention to details—little steps for little feet to get up the summit. If you don't use the ski lift, the only way I know to get to a summit is you go one step at a time. All of us, it doesn't matter who you are, Edmund Hillary or whoever, it's one step at a time. So, in the morning, I like to calculate things, and then what I write is books that attempt to synthesize what we have figured out in each generation. The way that I want to think of it is, there's this huge literature, and the question I carry around in my head is, what should I tell the most brilliant 18-year-olds that show up at this place, or the most brilliant 23-year-olds? Because they're the future. It doesn't matter what people my age, or my colleagues, or whatever, think, really. What matters is these people are the ones that are doing the work, that are asking the questions, that are dedicating their 20s to try to figure stuff out; so my job, in some sense, is to make a synthesis of, "Here are what seem to be the really interesting questions of the day, to my taste, and here are some case studies that I hope will blow your mind at the ability of humans to just do amazing things." I'm a big fan of YouTube because I like young people and their weirdness. There's this series—some of which is a little scary—about how humans are amazing, and you see stuff on there where you're kind of like, "Oh, if my kid did that, I don't think I'd be that happy." But at the same time, you kind of have to say, "Wow, humans are amazing," the things they try and they pull off, whether in the physical realm, intellectual realm, music, or whatever. So, yeah, in the mornings, I write books. I'm on my seventh book right now, and I've got, I'd say three more up my sleeve at the moment. I was trying to do a series in physical biology, four or five books, that attempt to cover the whole waterfront, and in a way, inspired by a few things: Inspired by Kip Thorne's Modern Classical Physics which attempts to cover the whole waterfront, and I think does so magnificently; and then those books up there, which are, I'm not saying I can even come in the same realm as them, but Landau and Lifshitz. They attempted to do for physics a certain thing, and nobody's really tried to do that for quantitative biology or physical biology. What are the things that are the canon that everybody should know? And how well can we do it in a way that's compelling and that's a little surprising? My book, Cell Biology by the Numbers, which I do with Ron Milo, we really wanted everybody, no exceptions, even the highest-ranking people in the field, to look at it and feel surprised every five pages, like, "Oh, I hadn't thought of that before."
ZIERLER: This gap in the literature, is this owing to the messiness of biology that you alluded to before? That this may have scared off other people from trying to establish a canon for such a messy field?
PHILLIPS: It's funny, because when I got hired at Caltech, the provost at the time was Steve Koonin, and I told him, "Oh, by the way, I don't know anything about biology, but I'm going to write a book called Physical Biology of the Cell, and it's going to try and cover the whole waterfront." That really is what dictated the first 20 years of my life at Caltech, was to try to do as many case studies as possible that were predictive. I'm not going to say who he asked me to call, but he asked me to call an authority in the field because he thought I was kind of full of it. I called the authority in the field, and the authority in the field told me, "Yeah, indeed, you are full of it." The way this person said it is, "The field is in no sense ready for prime time." And, I guess I don't care; it was worth a try. I think that biology is messy. I carry on my computer—again, I think you, as an historian of science, will be interested in this—I carry with me a spreadsheet with Tycho Brahe's data, and every time anybody wants to tell me astronomy is easy, or something, I just pull out that spreadsheet. Because what is it? It's Tycho Brahe, a naked-eye astronomer, telling me a date, a time, and a couple of angles. There are no elliptical orbits in that thing. Give me a break. It's a mess. It's a pure, unadulterated, horrific mess that you and I—I'll speak for myself—I literally, even now, I believe, have no hope of figuring out how to get to elliptical orbits from his data. I don't even know where to start. I literally don't even know how to start at looking at his data and getting anywhere. Again, somebody like Dave Stevenson or Konstantin Batygin probably do, but I don't, and I'm pretty into celestial mechanics. So, yeah, it's messy, but what is the article of faith that some people bring to science? It's that the world is comprehensible, that we will figure things out, and I share that article faith. I reject the defeatist attitude. People like to say, "Biology's different. It's the product of evolution."
Well, so what? Accidents on the highway are the product of a bunch of weird humans speeding and tailgating, but we can still tell you how many accidents you'll have per year. I don't know that you're going to get in an accident, but we make progress in cases where there's some extenuating circumstance. At the end of the day, I think we're highly impatient, and it brings us back to what we talked about before you started recording. That is, if people—I sound like I'm preaching—but if people had a better sense of the history of science, I think they'd be way more optimistic, because then they'd realize Maxwell started out with vortices and ether, and Lamarck thought that giraffes stretched their necks. It's easy to get a little bit arrogant. Then Sadi Carnot thought that heat was a fluid; the list I can make is so long of all the ways in which people didn't know what the hell they were talking about, and to my mind, that's situation normal. That's the nature of the beast. If you're a researcher, by definition, you're just living in the fog. That's what you signed up for, so then to be mad that there's a fog is kind of weird. I signed up to be in the fog, and then I'm mad that there's fog? If you don't want fog, then you go over there to that place where it's a sunny island, where science has already left that place behind. We're good over there, but that's not the research frontiers anymore. You see what I mean? With the research frontiers, by definition, you're in the fog.
ZIERLER: This is good for humility and discovery, you're saying?
PHILLIPS: Right, and also a sense of time scale. I just think that we're just a little too quick to dismiss, "Well, that thing didn't work out this time." I always bristle at this notion, "Because I couldn't do it, that means it can't be done." That seems like the lamest of human thoughts, "Because I couldn't do it, it can't be done." Again, let's talk about the third dimension. How long have people dreamed of the third dimension? It was only in 1903 that the Wright Brothers flew an airplane for 17 seconds, and 66 years later, people are walking on the moon. [David laughs] So, I don't know—which one's the good market, bull or bear? I'm bullish on science and humans, you know, cleverness. I'm totally bullish on it, and I don't like defeatism. Just because we haven't figured it out yet? Have a little perspective, a little patience. Don't be a hater and just tell me it can't work. Give me a break. I just don't have any use for that.
ZIERLER: When you told the provost at Caltech that you wanted to write this book for which you had no expertise, were you being provocative? Were you testing institutionally just how adventurous Caltech was?
PHILLIPS: Not at all, no, because Richard Murray, the guy who hired me, he was very clear, like, "We know we're hiring you at the senior level, and we know what we're getting ourselves into, and you've already told me in particular, Richard, that you're not going to do the same thing you did when you were at Brown, and we're good on that."
ZIERLER: Richard is a very special person.
PHILLIPS: I know. Well, Caltech's a special place. So, no, I wasn't. In a way, what I was revealing was my mode of operation, and it's always been that, which is, I don't know what the hell's going on. I probably never will know what the hell's going on, but I'm going to try hard to be rigorous and deep and scholarly. I'm going to try to know the difference between knowing when I know something, when I don't, and I'm bullish. Is that the right one? Is it bullish? I'm bullish on this. I know that we will figure this out. The book I learned calculus from, I bought at Caltech in the bookstore, as a 17-year-old. It's what you might call a trivial book that no one would take seriously, written by Silvanus Thompson in 1910. It's called Calculus Made Easy, and there's a quote at the beginning. It says, "What one fool can do, so can another." The way I think of that is, I think most people can get to a B+. You want to get into the A range? You want to be Steph Curry or LeBron? That's another matter. But getting to a B? What one fool can do, so can another. So, I felt like it would be fun for me to try to understand the waterfront of what does it look like to teach freshman biology? That's one spin on the way that I thought about my arrival here: How would I do freshman biology? What would be my synthesis of the study of the living? It doesn't have to be like anyone else's. Another one of my pressure points is that a lot of people who I encounter say, "Oh, well, that's not the way I would do it." And I live by the motto of: I want to interact with people where that's the feeling I'm going to have. I don't want to be around people where I'd know the way they're going to do it. I want the weirdness. I mentioned order of magnitude physics—I thought it was so amazing to sit at the feet of Sterl Phinney and to just listen to him, just to see the way the guy engages with stuff. Five times out of ten, "Well, that's not the way I would have done it." Well, half the time I wouldn't have known how to do it at all, but the cases where I knew how to do it, I wouldn't do it the way he did it, and I just loved that. I teach Phys 11 with Dave Stevenson, and I have the privilege, every week, of seeing that guy. Over the last few weeks, we did a few problems. One was: How high can a balloon go? And what's the thickness of an atmosphere? And just watching him—
ZIERLER: These are burning questions in the news cycle. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: —Exactly, well that's why. Phys-11 is often based on the news cycle. It was just a beautiful, beautiful thing to watch another human mind engage with a question and to show me how he thinks about a thing. That is Caltech. That's what I love about this place. That's what this place is supposed to be. I don't want to comment on other institutions, but this place is supposed to be that. What I mean by that is just pure, "We're going to engage with the problems with the world, and we're going to think hard about them," with no patriotism to, "Can I get funded?" Or, "Which journal is it going to be in?" It's just pure old, "Hey, there was some balloon at 60,000 feet. Hey student, hey all you 18-year-olds, how high can balloons go? And how thick is the atmosphere anyway? And what sets that scale?" And that got interesting—as I learned this weekend, I did not know von Kármán was the one who formulated the question of, "What's the thickness of an atmosphere?" It has to do with lift in a completely bizarre way that I had no idea. So, yeah, I was definitely not being provocative. I was just stating authentically, this is how I roll.
ZIERLER: Just where you were that moment in your life.
PHILLIPS: The first thing I did when I got to Brown was, "I'm going to teach this course. I'm going to write that book." It's that black book. I don't know anything about that. My belief about writing—this is going to sound weird, but—you should only write books about things you don't know anything about. [laughs] It's kind of the opposite of the usual model. I would never sit down to write a book where I'm a super expert. In fact, the editor, Simon Caiplin at Cambridge, he said, "You're the first author ever, when I asked to do a second edition of your book, you're like, ‘I would like to see that book be in the bottom of the ocean in a chest.'" [both laugh] There's no way I'm going to do a second edition to that thing. I gave my heart and soul. I told you what I think I know, and now I kind of know that stuff. You want me to go back and go revisit that? I want to work on books where I don't know anything.
ZIERLER: Not to put you on the psychologist's couch, but why do you embrace the daunting challenge of such a perspective?
PHILLIPS: What do you mean? It feels completely natural. It doesn't...
ZIERLER: But that's the thing that's unique—
PHILLIPS: Really? Are you sure? I don't know…
ZIERLER: —that people are comfortable in their wheelhouse, and that's where they want to live and spend their time.
PHILLIPS: Hmm, yeah.
ZIERLER: Where does that come from?
PHILLIPS: I have no idea, other than just a sense that—maybe this will come up in our next discussion—life is precious, and life is short, and life is fragile. There are many reasons I didn't go to college, but one of the many parts to that is that I had an apartment in Isla Vista. I was going to go to UCSB because my parents said, "You can quit high school and you can even not go to college, but you have to get into a UC school." I got into UCSB, and my friend Lance Martin killed a week before I was going to go there, and I was reading a lot of Jack London at that point. He said, "I want to be a fiery and superb meteor rather than a dry and dusty asteroid," or something like that. That was literally how I felt: Why do I just want to tread water? There are all these possibilities, and when opportunity knocks, I want to answer the door. But the other thing about the intellectual side is just wanting to make sense of things. I think that book, Crystals, Defects and Microstructures, I'm not saying it's some great thing or anything, but that's my testament as to what—that's my time at Brown. That's my thesis, my PhD thesis as a Brown faculty member. It's the best I got, and I don't want to go back and do it again, because then I learned about Carlos Bustamante and optical traps on viruses. I did my time on that previous thing, and that's what seems to happen each time. So, the human impacts is the current one that's really pulling very hard toward the future for me, as is the non-equilibrium thing.
ZIERLER: This is one of the three areas?
PHILLIPS: It's one of the three areas, yeah. I just feel the great human experiment is—you spoke about data; you spoke about computation—the greatest experiment done, ever, in the last 100,000 years, is us interacting with planet Earth, and there's just tons and tons of data. Everywhere you go, it's there for you to see. If you decide to fly to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore, you will get to see some data. It's called Palms. Then that leads to dominoes, like questions. What's up with the orangutans? How much area is being taken over per time? And then what's the relationship between number of species or population size and the area of their habitat? It's not linear; there are all these things. The human-impact type questions I just think are so compelling. And for me, it's got zero connection to politics, by the way. That's something maybe we'll touch on; I don't really know, but it's super important to me. "I want facts without beliefs" is the slogan.
ZIERLER: In refusing to revisit old topics, when you learn that you got something wrong, because scientists get things wrong all the time, is your perspective that, for you, that's in the rear view and it's for others to correct? And in some ways, maybe you've done even a service by sparking someone to go, "Hey, I think there's a new way of looking at that"?
PHILLIPS: I doubt I've done anything that any one cared about enough to feel that way, but sure. What I would like to do is, with humility, say, "Oh man, we screwed up. I'm embarrassed." But that's it. But I don't think I would consecrate somebody's 20s. I mentioned earlier, The Truman Show—I just saw one of my students walk by—the way I think of that, that's somebody who's decided to surrender their 20s to this pursuit, and I'm not going to send them in my rearview mirror in the name of something that we messed up. No way. Absolutely no way. In a way, it's almost just like I was saying earlier, that the way things go is kind of natural. It's just as natural to not be able to go backwards. I just can't see it. It doesn't make any sense.
ZIERLER: Last question for today. Your father—obviously you had a very special relationship, and we'll learn more about that—you mentioned he's an entrepreneur. You're not. He worked every day of his life. Do you feel like you work every day of your life, meaning that even when you're on the surfboard, are you thinking about fluid dynamics?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I think if you were to ask my dad, by the way, he would probably say he didn't work every day; and if you would ask my mom, she would for sure say he did; and if you asked his kids, they would say he did also.
ZIERLER: Because he loved what he did?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. He loved it so much, and he gave us a two-year lesson in grace as he died. He knew he was dying, and he was cool on it. He was grateful. He was happy. I used to go and rub his feet in San Diego, and he'd be like, "I've never been so happy." But he just loved what he did. He just thought it was super great. I get the impression because, my kids, my impression is they have mistakenly assumed that I'm working when I'm just goofing around. [David laughs] I kind of view my job as, like, I get paid to goof around. So, I would say yeah, I'm kind of cut from that same mold. But I hate to say it that way, because I look at a lot of people that I know—many, many people that I know—and I think of them as having more professionalism than me, more discipline, more willingness to engage with the systematics of keeping a place like Caltech running. I think I fail on all those fronts. But it's true: I get up every day at 3:30. And it's true that I've written seven books, and I know how to do that. I'm very confident I can do it again. I teach 10 courses a year around the world. I just taught 70 hours last week. So, you can plug me in tomorrow morning in a course, and I can just do that. Does that make me a workaholic or something like that? Because that's what we used to say about my dad. I don't think so. At a moment's notice, I'm ready to go right there, which is the Aleutian Islands, on my boat for two weeks and go surfing, and I don't feel any regret like, "Oh my god, I'm not working." But while I'm there, I usually read eight books. I have my own little berth on that boat. I always go out on the same boat, which Dianne Newman went on, by the way, with Jonas. They took their kid on that boat. You should talk to them about it if you feel inclined. But I'm not at all in some mode of, "Oh my gosh, I've got to be working or writing that next grant," or any of that. I think my relationship with work is very strange. I don't sit around at all and think, "How do I make my group bigger? How do I get another grant? There's this new call for grants; I've got to go hustle." I don't think of that at all, if that makes any sense.
ZIERLER: But the goofing around, having fun in the lab, the love of teaching, that probably means that, stubbornly, you're staying away from as many administrative responsibilities as possible. That would be the work for you.
PHILLIPS: That's right. Whether or not Caltech accepts this proposition—I don't want to mention names because I know at least a certain few people in places of importance do accept the proposition—you teach year round, fizzle out, and you do the bootcamp every year. You teach evolution. You teach BE/Bi/APh 161. You do all these courses. Maybe you don't have to go to that faculty meeting. [David laughs] This is super embarrassing to tell you, but I won the Feynman Prize two years ago, and they had to trick me. I had never been—I had been to zero faculty meetings in 21 years. [David laughs] Tom and Dave Tirrell were there, and Richard Murray, and Pamela Bjorkman is the one who basically did the trickery, and they tricked me into coming because I've never gone to a faculty meeting at all. Zero. And I haven't been to one since. [both laugh] So, that's roughly the story. I hide behind this notion of, "I swear, I promise I will do my absolute best. I'll teach twice as many courses as somebody else. Could you please, please, please, please make it so I don't have to go to those meetings." I have nothing offer. I have nothing to say. I don't need to have an opinion. I have no point in being at such a meeting.
ZIERLER: So, I'm not talking to a future division chair, provost, or university president? That's not in the cards?
PHILLIPS: No. But I was the director of the physiology course at MBL, and I think I did a super good job at it. When I put my mind to something like that, if my heart's there, I can do it. But people like Richard Murray are super-humans. Really, the guy is so exceptional as a leader, and this is one of my themes—
ZIERLER: And a problem solver.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I love to follow people who I trust, and he's one of the people I follow anywhere. I think it's important. We live in a world, I feel like, where people can't lose, or they can't get their way. Or if they don't get their way, they feel like somehow the world didn't work the way it's supposed to. What I like about Richard is you don't necessarily have to agree with everything. I always just feel trust. I feel like he listened. He has our division and Caltech, the best interests of everyone in mind. You just listen to people, and you know there's no solution to the problem called "everyone happy." My book coauthor, Christina, and I just got our book reviews back from Princeton University Press. One of the reviewers said, "This book is goes way too far, too fast," and the second reviewer said, "Many readers will probably find this book goes too slow." That is, to me, the reality. It's why I kept on mentioning subjectivity today. There's a lot of subjectivity. In the room over there where we have faculty meetings, I can assure you there are different perspectives. There's no way a division chair can make everyone feel they won. It's impossible, so people who have that job have got to navigate that, and I'm not going to be one of them.
ZIERLER: Rob, It's been an awesome initial conversation.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I really enjoyed it.
ZIERLER: Next time, we'll go back all the way to the beginning. I want to hear more about your parents, childhood, interest in science. We'll go from there.
PHILLIPS: Do you think that we covered the research stuff in the way that you wanted to?
ZIERLER: We have many more to go.
[End of Recording]
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Friday, March 10, 2023. It is great to be back with Professor Rob Phillips. Rob, once again, thanks for having me in your office.
ROB PHILLIPS: Thank you so much. It's really, really great to see you. It's an honor, and it's also extremely interesting, and it's both sad and happy. It's a moment to reflect on a life.
ZIERLER: We're going to run the gamut of emotions here. We're already in deep from our first conversation too. Let's go all the way back to the beginning now. How many generations do you want to go back in thinking about your family and establishing that narrative for when you enter the picture?
PHILLIPS: Maybe to grandparents, but do you mind if we just touch on something from last time that also matters today? Last time you wanted to talk about research, and that was fantastic, and I enjoyed it, but I was guilty of not giving enough credit to all the people that have surrounded me all the time. Of course, that's going to come up again today, but in particular, I'm saying that the vast majority of things that I have papers on, where I my name is on the paper, I could not have done by myself. I just feel it's super important to say, during my time at Brown, during my time at Caltech, during my graduate career, that so many people have been instrumental in the performance of science.
ZIERLER: How I like to muse about this is that humanities scholars study social organizations—people—but by and large, they work in a solitary manner, in the archives, writing a sole-author paper, which is by far the most common mode of scholarship. So, it's solitary work, studying communal organizations.
PHILLIPS: That's very funny.
ZIERLER: A scientist flips that around. They're studying nature, but they have to do it within a community. That's universally true. Scientists don't generally articulate what you just did, and it's absolutely crucial to appreciate the sociality of science.
PHILLIPS: I agree with everything you said. I just want to amplify it by saying that this notion of gratitude and humility, that neither of those are false. The gratitude is really meaning, "Wow, you enriched my life so much, and my intellectual life." The humility part is, honestly, to think—if we take Hernan Garcia as an example, who we'll talk about today, with whom I've written three books, he was a great student in my group, but he was a machine experimentally. In some cases, one of his experiments might have taken me five years to do, and he would do it in a week, and I probably still wouldn't have been able to do it correctly myself, so that's the part that kind of scares me at times, almost. I feel like I'm Phil Jackson or something: I'm the coach of people who are doing things I can't do. [phone rings]
ZIERLER: Go ahead, get that. Or silence it, whatever you need to do.
PHILLIPS: It's actually him calling from Germany, the guy I just mentioned, on cue.
ZIERLER: [laughs] His ears were ringing.
ZIERLER: All right, point taken. Grandparents.
PHILLIPS: I was born in Saint Louis. On the Phillips side, that's my dad's side, my grandmother, who we called Mimi, was probably the person who, in this life, I felt loved me more than anyone else has ever loved me. She just accepted me in all my glory, whatever that means. Her husband, who I called Pop, my dad's father, was a very kind man, but he was kind of grumpy, and he drank too much. Already, as a young kid, I started to notice my defiance, and it's very interesting. This is really relevant to who I am today. I remember being at the Thanksgiving table, and my grandfather, this Pop guy, now and then he'd pound his fist on the table and say, "Hear, hear! We're not going to talk about that." I really remember this. I might have been the one that at a young age precipitated some controversial topic about religion or something, and what was amazing—and this is the thread of my life—is that my dad stepped in and said, "No, but we are going to talk about it, because Rob wants to talk about it." That was really the family that I grew up in.
ZIERLER: So, the grandfather established a conservative rigidity?
PHILLIPS: Yes, and my dad absolutely bucked it in every single way and made it clear to me that it was totally fine if I did too.
ZIERLER: Your grandparents came from a working-class background?
PHILLIPS: No. You're going to hear that it's a family of people who lived in the nicest part of St. Louis in a place called Ladue. My other grandfather bought, during the Depression, what is now called Clayton and Ladue. He became extremely wealthy. He was a contractor and built all sorts of houses around Washington University and Ladue. My dad's father was the head of a clothing company, meaning he was the head entrepreneur, so it's a bunch of entrepreneurs—my dad, my mom, all entrepreneurs all the way, all independent people, all did very well.
ZIERLER: Your grandfather would have been World War II generation, or older?
PHILLIPS: No, World War I. In fact, it's very interesting: I'm the third generation of my family to be at Cornell. My grandfather and his twin brother, who I called Uncle Lee, were both at Cornell and both got drafted in World War I. They both went to the Navy, and neither of them graduated from college, and neither went back. Then my grandfather on my mom's side was also World War I-ish generation, so we're talking about people born in 1895, something that, so young men at the time of World War I.
ZIERLER: That's the Phillips side. What about your mom's side?
PHILLIPS: My mom's side, her name is Berkeley, Lee Berkley, and her dad was—I'm going to probably tell you a little bit about my dad and his death. He give us this two-year course on grace and gratitude during dying. One of the days, he was telling me about the five most important people in his life, and one of them was my grandfather, Buddy, that's my mom's dad. My mom worshiped this guy.
ZIERLER: Your dad was talking about his father-in-law?
PHILLIPS: He was talking about his father-in-law. It almost brings tears to my eyes, because my parents got divorced when I was 25, and my dad never stopped loving my mom until his dying day, and he never stopped loving her dad. But he was a very forthright person. He told me, "Buddy wasn't that nice to your grandmother," who I never knew. She died right about the time I was born. She was an alcoholic, and my grandfather just didn't vibe with that. I don't know the details of it; I'm never going to know the details. But my dad adored my grandfather, but at the same time he could, in an honest, forthright way, say, "But there were some blemishes here, or there were some challenges." I take that and I say, "Well, that's a human being, so that's kind of normal." The way I would structure my grandparents—I moved away from St. Louis as a young kid, but the way I would structure it is that my grandfather on my mom's side lived by himself. He was a very, very well-to-do guy. He was super forthright. He was honest and vocal and blunt and loving, but he was also tough. He used to laugh and say, "If I say, ‘Jump,' you jump, period. That's the way it is." But he loved all of us, and he was kind of a funny guy. He was pissed off at my dad for riding a motorcycle and taking his grandkids, meaning me on the back, but then he went on a trip to Mexico, and he had to rent a motorcycle himself. That was kind of his spirit. He ended up popping a wheelie and breaking his ribs. He was just a very interesting guy. One of the things that made a big impression on me about him was, I remember sitting at our dinner table in San Diego as a 16-year-old, and he told me that he was tired and that he was kind of ready. What I thought was interesting about that, because my dad kind of got to the same point as—I've had this brutal relationship with death. As an 8-year-old, I remember crying every night because the sun was going to burn out someday, and that's a weird thing for an 8-year-old to be—
ZIERLER: It's also pretty far reaching. This is 15 billion years in the future.
PHILLIPS: I know. That's what I mean: it's just kind of weird. But somehow that whole notion of the finiteness of things, and the pathos of existence, and all that stuff didn't sit well with me. I personally have never—I can't yet imagine getting to a point where I'd be like, "I'm tired, and I guess I'm ready." I can't see that kind of thing.
ZIERLER: Good, because you're going strong now.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. It always makes me wonder about, when does it become weird to still be a dreamer? How old should you be when you stop living like that? I haven't reached that point.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, so that's my grandparents. I would just say that they were around. My grandfather on my mom's side was a huge reader. He always was talking about books. They were all successful entrepreneurs. My grandmother, Mimi, was just very loving.
ZIERLER: Your parents both grew up in St. Louis?
PHILLIPS: Yes, and they went to very fancy private schools. My mom went to what's now called MICDS, Mary Institute Country Day School. It used to be an all-girls school, Mary Institute; all-boys school, Country Day. At Country Day, the boys wore coats and ties. It's a little private school. They win the football championship of the state every year, but all of them go off to do stuff. Just to give you an example, at one point, three US Senators, John Danforth, Pete Wilson, and Symington, were in the US Senate simultaneously, and they all are graduates of that school.
PHILLIPS: So, that's the kind of place it is, and I always felt I need to get out of this thing. I can't bear the weight of what it means to be part of the St. Louis Country Club: You're going to go to Princeton; you're going to become a CEO. As far as I know, I might be the only person—this is probably an absurd generalization—that ever went to that school that ended up in science. These people are super talented, and they do go off to Yale and whatever, and they really, really perform.
ZIERLER: Was there social engineering that brought your parents together?
PHILLIPS: No. In fact, I shouldn't tell too much, but I will just say that my mom was very, very close to Pete Wilson, and his wife, Gayle, has been one of the trustees at Caltech. We are very close to them as a family. I've gone with them to the Galapagos. My mom and Pete were together at some point, and all the families—the Wilsons, the Phillips, the Berkleys—all new each other. I really don't feel super comfortable saying much, but I can tell you this: Right before he died, my dad told me the story of his life with my mom. My mom, nine months before, had told me the story, and usually when people tell you a story, you're going to get a different account. It was identical. And two days after my dad died—the first time I cried, actually—was when Pete Wilson called me up, and I asked him how he was doing, and he's like, "Not too good." I said, "What's up?" And he said, "I'm just super sad about Bobby," my dad, and then he proceeded to tell me the love story of all of—which involved my grandmother bringing Pete to her house, my dad's mom. It was really something. So, no, there was no social engineering. In fact, my mom went to take a class after college. She went to Smith. My dad went to UVA in St. Louis. She met my dad there. They became friends. That's really what happened. They became very close friends, and in the end, they got married, and shortly thereafter, I showed up, and then my two sisters. It's a really, really lovely, real-life love story, because it involves lots of complications at the at its inception and lots of complications at its end.
ZIERLER: What was your dad's profession?
PHILLIPS: He was an advertising guy, so he had the capacity to go into the family clothing business which his brother did. There's a lot of defiance in our family. A lot. And my dad just wasn't having it. This is the kind of stuff that would be talked about at the dinner table at my grandfather's: "What's the definition of success? What's the nature of success?" He had an absolute and rigid notion, and my dad would always challenge us being like, "That's in the eyes of the person, not in the eyes of those that are watching the person." I've always been very intrigued—this going to sound a non sequitur, but when Michael Jordan left basketball to play baseball, lots of critics had commentary, but they were evaluating it as though what matters is how the rest of the world sees Michael Jordan. And that, at least to me, is to miss the entire narrative.
ZIERLER: The story is Michael Jordan doing what he wants to do next.
PHILLIPS: That's my take, and that was what my dad was really pushing hard: this is about me and what I want to do. So, he started an advertising agency. From the age of two until twenty, I was in all sorts of ads as a model. I was on billboards. I've been in Playboy magazine, SKI magazine. I've been in a jockstrap ad on a poster. I've done a lot of stuff, and he would always have us help him name products. He did the San Diego Padres and some banks and the US volleyball team. He liked sports and banks and stuff like that. He was a super innovative guy, so he started a company in St. Louis, and at some point, my parents—it took a lot of courage—they basically decided (he had been in the Navy), they were like, "We're going to go to California." So, they left, and then we flew out a week later, and that was it. That was the end of my life in St. Louis, until, oddly, I went there for grad school, which is another [story]; there's a reason for that.
ZIERLER: Your mom was a homemaker?
PHILLIPS: No, she actually taught at an all-black school called Soldan in St. Louis—taught history.
ZIERLER: All black by official segregation, or just…?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. There were zero white people at the school, and this is in the mid- to late-60s, so probably something happened along the way in the meantime. I don't really know. It was a really interesting thing, because it was a very conscious decision what she was trying to do, and it took, in my opinion, a hell of a lot of courage for a 30-year-old blonde woman to go to that neighborhood every day and to basically try to reach kids. That's her.
ZIERLER: Was there a civil-rights conviction for her, do you think?
PHILLIPS: Implicitly, yeah.
ZIERLER: Maybe she didn't use those terms.
PHILLIPS: She probably didn't use those terms, but actually, it's interesting, because this, again, is a very characteristic thing about my family, which is we're all very activistic, but zero of us participate in group things. There are no group things. You don't go to protests. It's just not the way it operates. It's more grassroots, and we'll come back to that, because it's very much part of my Caltech experience.
ZIERLER: Is it safe to say that your parents voted up and down the Democratic ticket?
PHILLIPS: No. Certainly in the end of their years, they were on the Republican side, and probably in the middle, in the same way that you could predict that 90% of the people at Caltech would vote Democratic, you'd imagine 90% of the people in the neighborhood of Ladue would vote Republican. I'm just guessing. They were probably moving away from that, but not like an academic.
ZIERLER: So, if you had to guess, Nixon or Kennedy?
PHILLIPS: Oh, I wouldn't know. I'll have to ask my mom. I really don't know.
ZIERLER: There's a much bigger center at that point in American politics.
PHILLIPS: I really, really honestly don't know, but I'm going to guess Nixon, but it's not an easy one. That's another thing that I loved about both of my parents, but I loved especially about talking to my dad, is he wasn't rigid along labels. That was a very big thing for me, and still is. Don't do your business by label. Do your business by logic, data, case by case, and your broad principles.
ZIERLER: What was your house like in St. Louis?
PHILLIPS: We lived in a really weird, super modern house, that's a beautiful thing designed by a famous architect.
ZIERLER: You would look at it and know that wealthy people live there?
PHILLIPS: For sure. Big, giant acre of land. Next door house is actually a former plantation house. All the kids were out at night playing around, and my grandfather is the one who built the house. It's quite beautiful. It's still beautiful to this day. It's very modern. It's got a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish sort of vibe to it. Yeah, clearly well-to-do, and probably, I'm guessing, but not certain, that maybe they were living a touch beyond their means because he was an entrepreneur, whereas all of his buddies were riding up the ladder of working in McDonnell Douglas, steel companies, being CEOs, or being doctors and that sort of thing. He was the odd man out.
ZIERLER: There was a keeping up with the Joneses?
PHILLIPS: Perhaps, but that's also maybe why this all exploded, and they just were like, "We're leaving, and we're going to San Diego."
ZIERLER: How old were you when they made that decision?
ZIERLER: Oh, so you remember a big chunk of your childhood in St. Louis?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure.
ZIERLER: What were your reactions when they told you this is what they were doing?
PHILLIPS: I cried, and I didn't feel any excitement, and I got to San Diego, and I cried some more, and I remember very much the early times that I was getting teased because I wore colored socks, and I wore Peter Pincher underwear instead of boxers. In very short order, I bought a surfboard, and I started surfing, and my life changed forever, and I still, to this day, fundamentally view myself first and foremost as a person of the ocean. That picture to your left is of me surfing in the Aleutian Islands. I go every year. That's a particular day when the seas were 40 feet. That's on the backside of an island. All the fishing boats were at anchor. It was a really rad day. I always go with the same guy who owns this boat, and he knew exactly where to find the 500 meters of coast with offshore wind, and where the swell has wrapped all the way around this island. It's 40 feet out in the sea. It's wrapped all the way around. It's basically coming in this direction. I feel like I'm my real self when I'm in the ocean. So, somehow, I started to fall down this path of a little bit of popularity and being cool for a second. My parents were really, really disappointed because we had been at these private schools that they went to themselves, and now I'm in a public school in Point Loma, and my grades dropped, and my interest in engagement with school and any of it went away. One of the defining stories was that at some point I brought home a D- in algebra, and my dad told me, "You're going to have to stop surfing," and within a week, I became good at math, and am to this day. [David laughs] It was really a serious moment.
ZIERLER: Did your dad take his business with him? Did he reinvent himself?
PHILLIPS: He went and worked for another company and then immediately started another advertising agency, this one way more successful than the St. Louis one. It became the largest one in San Diego, had 70 people at zenith of his time there, had all these amazing accounts.
ZIERLER: This is the heyday? This is print media? This is broadcast television?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and he was incredibly creative. Just to give you an example, all of his stationary—I could probably even find some—but all of his stationary was yellow with these red lines that look kind of like a notebook. I remember they went for one account, and all of them came in yellow hardhats with shovels. His thing was always about being creative, always learning to see things your own way. Always, no matter what. Also, always remember that there's someone in the room that you can learn from, always.
ZIERLER: Did your father's success mean nicer and nicer houses in San Diego?
PHILLIPS: It meant the house they bought was so nice that we didn't need to move. We lived in Point Loma—I don't know how well you know San Diego, but—on one of these beautiful houses looking down at Shelter Island, Harbor Island, San Diego Bay, and downtown San Diego, and the mountains. So, the city lights every night, and we had a big deck, and that's the house of my youth. There is where I learned to make surfboards, and…
ZIERLER: Was there a surf culture, beach bums, that kind of thing?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, totally. I grew up really close to the beach. I surfed twice a day, because I had a morning paper route, I'd go straight to the surf after my paper route, and then I'd go to school. Every afternoon, I'd surf. Here's what I think, and this is super relevant for Caltech, for science, and I feel it's—in a way, there's something lost, and I know you're going to appreciate what I'm going to say. I just want you to imagine the kid that takes some tape and on the garage, puts a square in the middle of the garage door, and then for three hours, throws a tennis ball at the square. I really resonate with that. Or Kobe Bryant. If you see what he was like as a kid, he would practice in his bedroom. I was learning about Jerry Rice, and he was saying he used to sit in his bedroom at night with the lights out, and he'd throw the ball up, and he just grabbed it with one hand. It has to do with what it means to perfect a craft. There are people here that I know—he's not around that much anymore, but there's a guy named Jeff Kimball who I'm sure you know of, a physics guy, and he's one of these people that feels, eats, breathes optics in a way that it's the intuition of feeling. So, that's what I'm trying to tell you about surfing; that happened to have become—that was my throwing the tennis ball into the square. Then I learned how to make surfboards, and then I started shaping them for other people, and then I was riding my own boards in Hawaii, and really, really getting into the craft. There's still part of me to this day that kind of feels—I was just in Hawaii a month ago. My daughter, Molly, took me to go see the whales, and I got to surf at Honolua Bay, one of the great places in Hawaii, and I remember I went there as a 16-year-old. I lived there. My friend ran away from home, and I went over there at Christmas time. Again, my parents are crazy people. Here's their 16-year-old kid off to Hawaii for five weeks just to surf at Honolua Bay, and there's a part of me that kind of regrets—going out there a few weeks ago, or month ago, I was just like, "Wow, this is really who I am. Being out here, I feel normal in a way that I'd never feel here." That may sound odd.
ZIERLER: Did you get into drugs as a teenager?
PHILLIPS: That's a great question, and this is where my character started to reveal itself. For a little, teeny, teeny time, I tried pot a few times, and then I saw that belonging was not as important as standing up for, somehow, what felt right to me.
ZIERLER: You saw smoking as being part of something, as opposed to whatever effects it had on you?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, it just didn't appeal to me. I remember, right by our house, three of my very good friends, surf friends. I came outside, and they were in their car in the back seat with a mirror with some cocaine, and I remember, consciously—and I was a teenager; I was not some old guy—I won't use the expletives, but I remember being like, "You know what? I am so tough and so independent, I just don't care whether these guys are going to judge me or not. I'm not doing this. It's just not my thing." And I don't know where all that comes from, because to many people around here, I'm a pretty adventurous guy; I go for it. But in another way, I'm a prude. I don't drink. I'm a weird guy. You can edit this out, but I've only been with two women in my whole life, and I've been married to both of them. What's up with that? Again, you don't need to include this, but jokingly, I asked people about their lives, and I always realized, "Oh man, I'm just behind." I'm an uptight guy on certain axes, and yet on any given day, you tell me, "Hey, do you want to go heli-skiing in Alaska in the Chugach?" And I'll be like, "Yeah, what time do we leave? It's just weird. I don't quite understand that. Or, "Do you want to just change fields or start a new thing tomorrow in science?" Yeah! What's there to be scared of?
ZIERLER: There must be a surfer's high that you got into.
PHILLIPS: For sure, yeah. And still. Again, I always regret that Caltech didn't buy the Pepperdine campus. [both laugh] That would be so much better.
ZIERLER: Yeah, it would be really unaffordable for all of us though. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that's true. Good point.
ZIERLER: When your dad made that smart deal where you automatically got good at math, did that put you on a path? Did you not just get good at math tactically, but you jumped in? Was that an entrée into science?
PHILLIPS: No, I don't think so. It was just a little bit of a nudge to a few things. One is the demand of excellence. My parents were just not going to compromise on that, either of them. So, I should have said, in St. Louis, from day one, I was a seven-books-every-two-weeks kind of guy, and I always have been. I still to this day, read 80 books a year. I keep track of every single one of them, meaning I write a paragraph or two about all of them, and at the end of the year, I kind of evaluate my reading. On papers, about 150 or so. My mom, my sisters, and I would go to the library every week, and I just devoured books, so that part was always there. Again, I don't really understand how to reconcile all the weird contradictory aspects of my trajectory and who I am, because I really didn't like the get-into-Harvard path already from a kid. I didn't like it in St. Louis. I liked it even less in San Diego, and I like it even less now. Somehow there's just something about me that doesn't like the notion of, there's a right path, that there are the professors who are the oracles. I just somehow prefer the, "We're all in a journey. It's confusing. There's things for all of us to learn. Everybody has something to offer. It's hard work most of the time. You're confused." That kind of stuff. Also, just the incredible value of reading. There's a thing in the Feynman Lectures—I don't know if you've ever noticed in the preface where Feynman was talking—it's from Gibbon, about how—well, I can just read it to you. I'll just grab it. I always think about this, because I think he's right, where he—let's see where this thing is. [pages turning] Oh well, maybe I can't find it. Gibbon says this point about, somehow, at the end of the day, the act of—oh, here it is: "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous." I like that, because for me, it's always been—and if we talk about when I got into that cult or whatever you want to call it—the epiphany for me was to realize that Eratosthenes had a question: What's the radius of the earth? And he himself, no authorities, no anything, figured out a way to answer that question. My abiding belief about education is that it's a relationship between you and truth, trying to get some truth, and that's why I don't view my job as a professor the way a lot of people do. I don't care about grades. I view my job, my one and only job, is to open people's minds and get them to not violate the educator's Hippocratic Oath, which is, "Don't kill souls." Don't make people hate Moby Dick. Don't make people hate DNA. Don't make people hate wildebeests on the Serengeti. Whatever you want to choose. Don't make them hate astrophysics by turning it into some performance.
A Wayward Path in High School
ZIERLER: Was your high school a feeder into elite colleges the way that, had you stayed in St. Louis, it would have been?
PHILLIPS: Yes, but it was public, but it was in Point Loma. Some of the most well-to-do areas in San Diego are either La Jolla or Point Loma. There are a lot of private schools La Jolla Country Day that will be much more of a feeder into Yale and Princeton and whatever, but for sure, a lot of the people that I went to high school with went to Stanford, but some of them ended up in prison or dead. In other words, I hung out more with the surfer guys than I did with the intellectual types, and I went through a little bit of a period of being judgy. I don't think I was particularly mean, but there are a few things I can think about, and I literally will cringe. In fact, I've even had thoughts of getting in touch with one particular girl who's now obviously a woman. The way that everybody treated her, it keeps me up at night, and I can't quite really know how much I participated, to be honest with you. It's too long ago, and it's too muddled. So yeah, it was a feeder, but in my case, I left after eleventh grade. I never went back. I didn't go to college. There was a whole thing going on for me, so for me, Point Loma High School, the only memorable things for me about it were the course that I took on drafting, where I learned how to use triangles, and one of those T things, and do lettering, and that kind of thing. I participated in a musical one year for reasons I have no idea why or how, but that was an interesting thing to do. Then the social part, again, I'm not entirely sure how much I should say to you about all of that stuff, but I would say my life's journey has been a very weird one in terms of the way that I related to, "What did it mean to find a partner somehow?"
ZIERLER: Were you politically active or aware as a teenager?
PHILLIPS: I was certainly aware that I was definitely not active, and I have never been active, but it's not accidental. I've only voted twice in my life, both times in the 2000s, and it's not an accident. In general, I don't vote here either, so I've got thoughts about that. In other words, it's something that—maybe it goes back to what I was telling you about our family, which is very oriented towards grassroots things. I try really, really hard. I will just comment on the times. I will try to do it a little bit gently, but there's a former student of mine who flew back here to be helpful to one of my grad students. He's a black guy, and he got stopped by Caltech security on San Pasqual, and I went through the roof to the nth degree. I used foul language. I went all the way to the president, the provost, the head of security, whatever, but it's not the thing where I would do any group-action thing. I really have always been reluctant. It goes back to maybe what we talked about before you started the recording, which is, I worry about the crowd. I'm just a skeptic of the crowd. I've always been a skeptic of the crowd, including in science, to bring us back to that. Politically, no, but I have to say, this thing that I'm referring to as a cult, the central message of that was about the social order of the world we live in. That's what it was about. It was about making a better world.
ZIERLER: To set the context for what happens in eleventh grade, did you see yourself on some kind of preordained path that you wanted to revolt from? That had you not been intentional about your next step, you would find yourself going someplace you didn't want to go?
PHILLIPS: No. By the time I was in my high-school years, the best way to characterize me from afar is lost.
ZIERLER: There was no path.
PHILLIPS: There was no path. I loved going surfing every day.
ZIERLER: That was the path. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: That was the path, and I wanted to have a girlfriend, and I wanted to read stuff. That's about it. The notion of performing, and tests, and all that stuff had zero interest to me. I did it because my dad and mom had requirements. They had certain requirements, and therefore I needed to abide by those requirements in order to be able to do the stuff I wanted to do, because they showed all three of us incredible trust, always. Always. From the time we were young, they trusted us, so I guess we trusted them. They demanded that I had a certain grade-point average, not for any real reason, but that was what happened.
ZIERLER: It's not entirely unreasonable from a parent's perspective.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I know, and I wonder about it myself to this day as a parent. It's something that Amy and I debated a lot and thought about a lot, and I don't know what conclusions we really came to other than that we've got two super interesting mid-30s kids that are very, very thoughtful about things, but they also are not—especially the older one—performing-monkey types.
ZIERLER: What year is it when you're in eleventh grade, just to set the broader chronology?
ZIERLER: 1976. Okay, so…
PHILLIPS: Son of Sam is one of the things that happened then.
ZIERLER: No, but I'm thinking, this is beyond Vietnam. It's even beyond Watergate. This is a calmer period in American history.
PHILLIPS: I remember those things, and I remember one of the things, when I was in junior high when we moved to San Diego, was seeing movies that talked about the draft and about Vietnam, so I'm just old enough, but barely, to have felt a little edge of fear about the fact that young men are cannon fodder. Again, I am going to be frank with you because that is where I stand on things political. Any time there's a war, always, to this day, the first and only thought I have is would I send Casey. If the answer is no, then I won't send anybody, and if the answer is yes, then I must really care, and then it's terrifying. There's a precious few times when I'm like, "Yeah, sure, I'll send Casey." Not very many.
ZIERLER: When you stopped going to school as an eleventh grader, did you have a GED in hand?
PHILLIPS: I did, yeah; that was one of my dad's and mom's requirements. I basically said, "I can't stand this place." I remember one of the things that I didn't like, and it's a theme that's gone on and on, was having classes ruin books for me. I was really a reader, and I remember that they would assign a book, and somehow we'd have to analyze it in some way, and it just reminded me of standing in a sunset and analyzing it. It's like, "Why, dude? Can't you just leave me alone and let me appreciate the sunset?"
ZIERLER: It's probably a formalism that you bucked against also, just the structure of the class.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, totally. It didn't work for me. One of the things I do want to tell you, maybe it's a little bit of a tangent, so we can come back to it in a sec, but what I would say is I basically had it. I already had reached the point where I just didn't feel like I was getting anything out of that, and by the time that year was over, eleventh grade, I was also really participating and listening to this guy, William Martin—Bill Martin—and this guy Galambos, which I kiddingly refer to as a cult, but these people were teaching me a lot of things. My dad and mom basically said, "Look, you can do this as long as you can get into a UC school." That was the requirement, the one and only requirement.
ZIERLER: "This" meaning what?
PHILLIPS: Leave early. So, I did, and I stopped school, and the last class of my life at Point Loma High School was super influential, and it actually touches on something I did here. I don't know if we talked about it last time, about the time the kid through the ball at my head?
ZIERLER: I don't think so.
PHILLIPS: Okay, so my last class was an American government class. I had a good friend named Gunnard Grau, and he came into class one day being very rude and very vibey with the teacher. At some point the teacher came over, and then Gunnard punched him in the face and ran out, and then the teacher chased him, and then another teacher came in and said, "You guys need to write down what happened because we need to call the police," so we all did. Then the two of them came back, and they had staged it. You can see this. [papers shuffling] What does it say? I can't really read it.
ZIERLER: "Diary #1: Thoughts, ideas, and opinions." This is a college-rule notebook, and cursive handwriting throughout.
PHILLIPS: [papers shuffling] Here it is. I don't know, maybe you want to just read this, little, tiny first bit of this paragraph, if you can read my writing.
ZIERLER: Sure. 9:50 PM, or above?
PHILLIPS: This part right here, starting there.
ZIERLER: "9:50 PM, July 1, 1977. In my summer-school class today of American government, Mr. Diannopoulos and Gunnard Grau, my main colleagues, acted out a teacher-student conflict. [Rob laughs] This conflict was real to all students in my class, including myself. I usually don't use this book as a diary of actions, but I feel that this incident was important enough to be put in my list of events."
PHILLIPS: You don't need to go on.
ZIERLER: So, what happens?
PHILLIPS: What blew my mind is that they came back, and we all read our accounts, and they were not consistent with each other. It really, really altered my world forever. There are two more things that are related. I bet one of my friends $500 that a picture in our yearbook was of some of person x. He said it was person y, and I lost, and we decided that I should pay out. I agreed with him; for the integrity of our friendship, I should pay this. I cleared out my whole paper-route bank account. So, that's another example of: You think you know what's going on, and then you don't. Now, fast-forward 20 years later, and I'm a professor here. Freshman biology, first day of class, I'm saying something and some kid goes, "Bull shit" while sneezing. I'm like, "Dude, you did that to the wrong guy." I was like, "First of all, this is Caltech. A stunt here is you change the scoreboard at the Rose Bowl. You don't do that. That's childish. Besides, I'm a guy who didn't go to college. It's a privilege to be here." So, I wasn't mad at all, but I kind of sounded mad, so he wrote me mail, and I'm like, "This is good. I got you. We're going to do something." Six weeks into the class, this kid—whose name was Paul, and we became friends—he comes dribbling his water-polo ball into class late, like 2:15. I'm kind of berating the class, and then all of a sudden, boom, the ball hit me in the head. This is in Kirchhoff 119, and I'm like, "You again!" And I chased him out of the classroom. I came back, and I told everyone, "I couldn't catch him. Paul, I guess, ran off. What happened?" And there was this one kid, and he's like, "At 14:13, Paul came in dribbling the ball," and he kind of gave this full account. Then this young woman student raised her hand, and she said, "I was watching, and Paul gave the ball to Tommy. Tommy was the goalie of the water polo team, and Tommy is the one who threw the ball at you." I said, "Yeah, that's exactly what happened, because we staged it, and this is what science is." I was teaching evolution. I said, "This is what science is."
ZIERLER: Wow, you had me going.
PHILLIPS: I said, "You are the easiest person to fool. Yourself. You guys think you know what's going on, and you don't. To me, these three things are the abiding lessons. If you want to know what I got out of high school, I just told you. Intellectually, that's what I got out of high school. I took the abstract notion of doubt and turn it into a fuel that burns every day in me. You don't know what's going on. You do not know what's going on, so stop pretending like you know what's going on because you don't." Normally, if I weren't being recorded right now, I would have just used the F-word when I said that because I'm a surfer, and I use that word all the time because it's a word to make my point. [pounds fist on table] It's like, "You fucking don't know what's going on."
ZIERLER: There you go. This is not a clean zone. You can curse if you want.
PHILLIPS: So, you don't. You just don't know what's going on. And know that in life. So yeah, that was the stuff that was boiling up inside of me. I went through this moment where I borrowed my dad's yellow convertible GTO, and I'd drive on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard to watch the surf, and I'd drive the speed limit. I was going through this moment of trying to find order in this world. I'm like, "Maybe I'll try to obey the laws," and it took me a minute to be like, "That's stupid." That's the same as, "Do you use your left fork to cut your meat, or your right fork?" And, "Do you switch hands an American, or do you not?" That kind of stuff would really bug me. That's why when I, on April 30, 1977, when I go to Bill Martin's house and he teaches me in a four- or five-hour lecture—I can't imagine a 16-year-old kid, and there were tons of us sitting in his living room, and he had an easel, and he's sitting there explaining to us Eratosthenes, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, all culminating in Newton. Why do a bunch of 16-year-olds that know nothing about science—I have never had a physics course in my life until I went to grad school, but this guy blew my mind. I'm like, "Okay, that's what science is. You want to make sense of this world? You can! Ask a question and work hard, and you might, if you're lucky, figure some stuff out." The next morning, I told my mom. I said, "That's it. I'm going to do science." And every single day, every day, zero exception, since that day, science has been filling my soul.
Education by Other Means
ZIERLER: You called this a cult. Tell me about the two gentlemen, how you met them.
PHILLIPS: One of them is the father of three of my dear friends, two of whom are dead by now, and that's part of the story. He was a very colorful guy, played Major League Baseball, was an insurance agent, quite an intellectual. Knew the Bible backwards and forwards. He was this guy's dad, and he basically just liked, on Saturday nights, giving lectures. It's kidding when I say that it's a cult. People would sort of say that, but what would we do? We would talk about stuff like World War II, and Churchill, and MacArthur, and Incheon, and Incheon landing, and the tides at Incheon; and it's not exactly a cult-y sort of thing. But we also talked about what this guy, Galambos, called volitional science, which was the notion of, "What does it mean for us to have a society? What are the features of a society that are worth knowing and preserving?" Bill would teach us all—a bunch of teenagers, boys and girls, both of my sisters went, they're younger than me. We all went, and one of the things that was amazing, right before my dad died, is he was telling me how he felt a little jealous of this, but he didn't intervene. I told him, "It's really amazing, because by not intervening, you're the one who emerged as the biggest hero, in a way."
ZIERLER: Could he have joined? Would he have been welcomed?
PHILLIPS: He could have; he would have been welcomed. My mom actually went and listened to the big cheese. My dad never did. He just was supportive.
ZIERLER: This was just an intellectually stimulating atmosphere? There was nothing weird going on?
PHILLIPS: Nothing weird. We would sometimes go ballroom dancing. He taught us how to do the bossa nova and the jitterbug.
ZIERLER: But no weird sex stuff, drugs?
PHILLIPS: Absolutely not. Au contraire. In fact, the reason I, in the end, couldn't take it, was it became a little bit too high and mighty [David laughs] about, "What is moral behavior? What is integrity?" Although I have to say, the notion of integrity, as taught to me by Galambos, is with me in full force to this day, which is: You try to do the right thing even if no one's watching, and even if the consequences for you suck.
ZIERLER: Did you have any idea? This is a pretty unique set up that you're part of. Who has this when they're 16, 17 years old?
PHILLIPS: Nobody. I always think to myself that my life has been a series of things that if I weren't so skeptical, would almost make me believe in things fate and karma and that kind of stuff. Because, had I not gone there, I have no idea what would have come of me. I was the quintessential example of the prepared mind, because the next day, I'm sitting there. This is my education. I didn't go to college, but [papers shuffling] this is my handwriting that you're seeing right here as I'm sitting here trying to learn. This is the first book, College Algebra. This is my book! This is where I learned algebra, not in high school. I learned it here, on my own, sitting in my room. Then, when I was done with that, I did this, Analytical Geometry. Then I did this book on trigonometry. I just sat there like I was just on fire trying to learn stuff. This guy, Galombos, he was in LA, and we'd come up here on a Friday night, and he'd lecture to us until Monday morning at 4:00 AM. Then we'd go home and we'd all go to work. We all wore coats and ties. It was on Slauson Avenue. Again, there was a sense of—it's funny, we were talking about Judaism earlier and being Jewish, and he was Jewish—but there was an element of, "You are part of the righteous ones," in a way. Galambos's story is fascinating and complicated, but he was from Budapest. His dad had the foresight to leave before Hitler came to power, and they went to New York. He was a very famous architect in Budapest. He wasn't an architect when he got to New York, and he did everything he could for his kid. He went to Stuyvesant High School and became a really, really outstanding physicist, but then he decided in the early 1960s that the world was not safe for physicists. That was his slogan.
ZIERLER: This is a response to Oppenheimer?
PHILLIPS: All sorts—no, not so much that; more the sense that scientific ideas are then used by people in power who don't understand them to do things like blow up cities, that kind of thing. It wasn't that in particular. So, he tried to create a theory of social science called volitional science. I don't want to get off on that tangent too much. I spent my whole seven years of being in the wilderness and not going to college by sitting at his feet and listening to him, and listening to his thoughts about the elegance of ocean liners. It's so obscure. I've been on the Queen Mary many times. That was one of his things; the pinnacle of civilization was ocean liners. I actually think differently. I think going to the third dimension is the pinnacle of human civilization. It was weird the amount of time I spent on Churchill, the amount of time I spent on the Holocaust, the amount of time I spent on the French economists like Frédéric Bastiat, and learning about Ludwig von Mises. It's a weird trajectory through the intellectual history of humanity. He taught an amazing physics course called Phi 201, which I took, and I still consider that—the first physics course I truly took, as at real at college or whatever, was grad school, essentially.
ZIERLER: What is Phi?
PHILLIPS: Phi is just the name of the course. Phi was the shorthand for physics. Like the Greek letter, phi.
ZIERLER: Oh, I thought you were going to say finite group theory or something like that.
PHILLIPS: No. So, he taught this amazing course that I didn't necessarily understand all of it, but it really just captured my imagination.
ZIERLER: Was his purview secular? Did he talk about metaphysics? Did he talk about spirituality? Did he talk about Judaism?
PHILLIPS: No, he talked about Judaism because he was a Jew, but he was definitely secular. In fact, I can't really remember very well, but he definitely was a fan of Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was another huge figure in him. Just watch this: "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right." That's Thomas Paine. Why do I know that? Because I read and read and re-read Thomas Paine.
ZIERLER: Tom Paine was militant about being Tom. Just like you are Rob, he liked Tom better than Thomas.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, there you go. [David laughs] I'm cool on that.
ZIERLER: So, you didn't learn about Judaism per se? You learned about his Jewish perspective on these secular—
PHILLIPS: On being Jewish. I definitely learned even about things having it going all the way back to the ancient history of Jews, and about Israel, and that kind of stuff, but above all, for me, I would say it was the issues about, what does it mean to be moral? He had definite points of view about that, and that influenced me a lot; and then about science—about the science of physics and mathematics and how they help us understand things. At the beginning of every lecture, he played Dvorak's New World Symphony, and there was a picture the Andromeda Galaxy. That was what was on the screen before the class started. I can barely listen to Dvorak right now without crying. It fills me. Unfortunately, it was played at the funeral of Lance Martin, the son of this guy who taught us, who died at age 16. It's one of the many reasons I didn't go to college. His death set me off on a sailboat a la Jack London, [snaps] Boom, like that, with two other guys.
ZIERLER: Like, life is too precious to waste your time in college?
PHILLIPS: That's exactly right. I had a poster on my wall of Jack London that said, "I would rather be a fiery and superb meteor." It basically just argued that life is too short. I read Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone about the life of Jack London, and I was just like, "I am not doing this." And that's true to this day, again. I am not going to do what everyone else says I need to do because it's the thing to do. Life is precious, and in my opinion—again, back to my job as a professor. That young woman you just met is quite amazing, so I should tell you, she was an undergrad here, and she's now a graduate student somewhere else. We're not going to mention her name, but one of the best I've ever known. She went with me to the Galapagos, and she's changed because of it. She's here today because I invited her to give a talk to my group, and I feel like, "Oh, I did my job." You could watch the video—I will send it to you—that she made, and you'll see, "Oh, that's what that means to be a professor." It's not about, "Get your A so you can be valedictorian, so you can go to get this Hertz fellowship," or whatever. It's more about, "Who are you? What are your core values? What are you curious about? How often you use the words ‘I wonder'? Is that part of your vocabulary?"
ZIERLER: During your would-be college years, did you live at home?
PHILLIPS: No. I left home, basically, at age 17, and never went back—16, almost.
ZIERLER: Your parents supported you? You had a job?
PHILLIPS: Both. First, I had six months on a sailboat, and I was on the crew. I got paid $20 a week, but I lived on the boat, and off we went.
ZIERLER: How big of a boat was it?
PHILLIPS: One-hundred-and-ten-foot gaff-rigged ketch sailboat. There were eight of us on the crew. We sailed 5,000 kilometers. We went down the whole west coast of North and Central America, through the canal, back up into the Caribbean where we were delivering the boat. It was one of those experiences that you just cannot really even conceive of because we had a scheme of three hours on shift, six hours off, all the time when we were at sea. That means I never slept more than five-and-a-half hours. Because of the number of us, we got shifted by three hours every time, so you had three-hour shifts at all times of the day. If you remind me, next time I'll bring in my charts, because I learned how to navigate. This is in a way related to my Bob Sharp stuff, and why I teach field science, and hands on, and Bi 1x. All of a sudden, trigonometry, clocks, vectors, currents, weather, all that became real, and I loved it. We did dead reckoning. So, dead reckoning—we had a thing called a taffrail log. It's a little thing on a rope that's a propeller, and it turns, and it tells you how fast you're going. We know the compass setting, so you draw a vector that tells you where you are, because you knew how fast you're going and what direction you're going. Then we do star sightings on Vega, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, whatever, with our clock, Greenwich Mean Time. There were tables, and we'd find our position. Sometimes we could be 100 miles off because of currents. So, all that is coming into my mind, and while everyone else is—there was a particular kid, I'm not going to mention his name either, but Galambos would always celebrate, "Yeah, Mr. X's son is at Caltech, and he's majoring in physics!" And I'd always have these thoughts of, "Wow, I guess I'm kind of a failure because Mr. X's son went to Caltech, and I'm an electrician, but damn, I learned how to navigate, and I'm pretty sure Mr. X's son doesn't, to this day, know how to navigate and do dead reckoning."
ZIERLER: Not to mention wire an outlet.
PHILLIPS: That too, yeah. So, that six months was fine. I came back. I lived at home for a few months. I bought a Volkswagen van, and off I went 15,000 miles, six months again. And this will give you a sense of the character of my parents. I'll give you two examples. One, when I went to rescue my runaway friend in Maui—he ran away from home—that's when I learned about the illusion of parental power. I helped him. I snuck him out. He ran away. Four surfboards; we had them made; off he went. That's the guy I went to go visit. On the way there, our plane actually had an engine problem. We had to dump all our fuel. There was foam on the runway. We land at LAX. I called my mom, and I'm like, "I'm getting kind of scared. Maybe I should come back." That's a 16-year-old kid. I'm leaving for five weeks, and I'm not going to be home for Christmas. She's like, "I think you need to go."
PHILLIPS: She said, "The pilot doesn't want to die. When he says the plane is ready, I think you just need to get in the plane and go." So, this happened, again, on my van trip. I met her after two weeks of being on the road in Colorado. I'd been already a week at Tahoe. I'd been to some of the parks of Utah. I met her for my cousin's wedding, and I remember kind of crying and saying, "I'm kind of lonely," and I was thinking of turning back. She said, "I don't think you should do that. I think you should keep going. You bought this van. You have your camping car. I think you should keep going." So, I left her at the airport, and I went to Wyoming.
ZIERLER: She's not playing to type as a mom. Mom's supposed to not encourage you to do crazy and dangerous things.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. Again, I'm not going to mention the name of the student that's down the hall, but she's a Korean American, and her mom has told her, "You need to do more crazy stuff. Quit worrying about the scholarships." Which is why she's here today, why she's one of my people.
ZIERLER: Wow! [laughs] Very cool.
PHILLIPS: The age difference has nothing to do with anything; that's one of my people.
ZIERLER: During your would-be college years, either then or now, looking back, you didn't feel privileged? You came from money, but you were not living high on the hog as a rich kid?
PHILLIPS: I wasn't, no. In fact, I would go farther than that, because remember, I was electrician. What that meant is that I wore a blue suit—uniform.
ZIERLER: Literal blue collar.
PHILLIPS: Literal blue collar, and boots, and I wore a tool belt, and I showed my butt crack, and I went into the homes in the neighborhoods I grew up in. I was just saying to somebody the other day—maybe I said it to you last week—but when I walk around this campus, all the people at the physical plant know me by name. I know all of them by name, and I really honestly, fundamentally feel—
ZIERLER: These are your people.
PHILLIPS: —those are my people. I crawled around people's attics in La Jolla and Point Loma, and I basically saw, "Oh, this is what this is like."
ZIERLER: Was this an apprenticeship with a master electrician?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, exactly, and I got to the point where I wore a pager, and I'd go out in the middle of the night by myself, and I'd drive the truck, and whatever. All that time, I'm learning physics, learning physics, learning math, learning physics. There are some episodes there, which are: I tried to go to college, and I got married. That's a whole story in and of itself. But, it's a hard job. My back hurt at night, I would wear duct tape on my ankles and on my wrists, because I was crawling through fiberglass all the time. Kind of the low point was when I was in the home of the owners of La Jolla Mercedes dealership. I was up in their attic, pulling wires. They were having an argument in their bedroom. I was walking on a two-by-four, and I took a misstep, and I fell onto the two-by-four, one leg on each side. I dropped the ceiling on top of them.
ZIERLER: That ended the argument, I'm sure. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Yeah, but it's the kind of thing where I look back upon it, and it goes back to the story about the little stunt that I pulled off in class. It reminds me of my first day at Brown, when a kid asked me if they had to come to class. It reminds me what happened last week. I've signed a bunch of course-conflict forms. Kids like to overload here and stuff, and I'm like, "Wow. You don't know anything. You don't know what it's to be out in the world and have a sore back and be bossed around." When I was in Santa Barbara as an electrician, my boss there made me install 110 without turning off the electricity. It was kind of scary. I just feel that all those experiences were so incredibly formative to the guy that I am today and make me feel out of place here. I have colleagues—again, I won't mention names, but I have a bunch of friends on the faculty here that are pretty annoyed by this narrative that I'm giving you, because they're like, "Get over it, stop it, quit worrying about acting because you didn't go to Harvard," or whatever. I don't think they're capable of actually understanding how when you feel a certain way, you just can't really change it. It's who you are. So, those seven years in the wilderness are—what did you call them? The "would-be" college years? They're more important than the actual grad school years. They're way more important.
ZIERLER: The tactile nature of being an electrician, the problem solving—have you drawn on that in your career in science, do you think?
PHILLIPS: No. In fact, it's very funny because I'm one of these people who totally does not romanticize working on your house. I love this notion of, "You can't buy happiness with money, but you can buy pieces of happiness really easily." Leasing a car is a good example; I just never have to get a car fixed, and I like that. Another example is that I just pay people to fix stuff. I have no romance associated with it. It doesn't appeal to me there. As far as science itself goes, I went to grad school and did theoretical physics, so I'm a theorist, although I'm an equal opportunity impostor, truthfully.
ZIERLER: You were going to not accept just being a theorist, of course.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, but! Practically, crawling around in attics, and how you figure out where a wire is broken, and continuity, and that kind of stuff...
ZIERLER: There are hypotheses to be tested.
PHILLIPS: Totally. So, that part really matters to me. Parts about attention to detail, parts about—one of the biggest, biggest, biggest things I can tell you that came out of that and comes out of any of those trades and crafts is the virtue of tools—having the right tools. When you have the right tools—let me give you an example. I'm looking at this outlet over there. In a house, an outlet like that, we could remove it. I had a 6-foot-long drill bit that was very elastic. I could put it in and then bend it, and I had a mirror, and I could get it, and I could go up through the joists, up into the attic. I would be waiting up there, or somebody would be waiting for me, and there's a little hole, and we'd put a wire in and then pull this thing back out, and now what we've done is we've run a wire in the wall without ever hurting the wall. So, it's all about the right tools. If you don't have a six-foot drill bit like that that's bendable, and a mirror, you're not going to pull off what I just told you. There are so many things that. So, that was another thing that was very practical that I learned, which is the virtue of having the right tools. And also to admire people in their craft. A good carpenter, a good electrician, or a good plumber, man, they're impressive. Let's be honest. They're really impressive.
ZIERLER: Oh yeah, absolutely.
PHILLIPS: And they have a lot of knowledge. It goes back to this feeling that I had of crawling around with my blue suit and showing my butt crack, and having people treat me a certain way. Many people were nice, but many people weren't. I was invisible or worse. I just feel like people have their stories. They have their craft, they have their talents, and that's always been a part of my feeling.
ZIERLER: Was your independent study a refuge from the difficulties of the blue-collar life?
PHILLIPS: No. It was just because I had to do it. I just loved it so much. It was pure.
ZIERLER: These are vitamins that you need to take.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and it's no different today. Even today, I worked on something; it's cut from the same mold. When I read Moby Dick, that's cut from that same mold; but also when I just read any old, ordinary romance novel, which I read at night because I want to fall asleep again, I just like the engagement of thinking about the world.
From Electrician to Physicist
ZIERLER: What age were you when you stopped being an electrician? Is that also the same age when you realize there's a different path, ultimately?
PHILLIPS: The day I stopped being electrician is probably the day I drove off to St. Louis to start grad school, so it's really a punctual thing. The story, in some sense, is that I'd sent out my resume to companies to say, "I've studied physics at the level of an undergrad major, and part of math at the level of an undergrad major," and I heard nothing. My ex-wife and I were on a trip in Europe for three months; we went off just to have a trip. We were on a train, and I met a guy named Don Trexler who was an executive at Westinghouse—the one and only time I ever saw the guy in my life. I like talking to people; I like hearing people's stories. I was talking to him, and I told him this narrative: I'd read Euclid and Descartes and Newton and blah, blah, blah, and he said, "You're just a total idiot." He said, "You need to get your union card. You need to get a college degree." So, I went to the UCSD library, and I found this book on how to get a college degree without going to college. I applied to Howard University, University of Minnesota, University of Alabama, and one other which I cannot remember. They all had leftover-hippie-level schools. Minnesota was called the University Without Walls. I happened upon this beautiful, amazing, wonderful man named Solomon Deressa, an Ethiopian, and he was the guy in charge of recruitment, and he contacted the head of the physics department. They had never had a student in the University Without Walls in the natural sciences. The head of the physics department was this guy, Chuck Campbell, and Chuck and I got to talking, and he said a lovely thing to Solomon, to the objection of his colleagues, which was, "Let him fail. Give him a chance. Let him fail." So, I flew out there, and Chuck and I talked, and we set up a curriculum, and he said, "You should apply to grad school." I said, "I don't know what grad school is. What is it?" He said, "I think you should apply to Washington University because there's this guy, Ed Jaynes." He's the only person in my office where I have two pictures though. Here's one of them, and here's the other. That's Delbrück, that's Newton, that's Galileo, that's Einstein, that's Darwin, that's Gibbs. Jaynes, twice.
ZIERLER: That's rarified company. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Yeah. Jaynes, I didn't know about him, but Chuck told me about him, because I've had, since I was 17, a love of statistical mechanics and a love-hate relationship with the second law of thermodynamics, and what is it that leads systems to change over time? That's the fundamental question of my life. So, he said, "Jaynes will be summoned, and it will make a big impact on you." I've shown you my books earlier, and this is one of my treasures, which is my copy of Jaynes, which is so dog-eared that you can see that the cover is gone. I've annihilated it. This is his collected papers. I really sat at this guy's feet and tried to learn from him. Anyway, I applied to 10 places. I applied to Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, UCSD, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, WashU, Austin, I don't know what else.
ZIERLER: Were you credentialed at all? Did you have any equivalency degrees of any kind?
PHILLIPS: No, nothing. I took the GRE, and I had letters. That's it.
ZIERLER: Who were the letters from?
PHILLIPS: Three guys in the physics department at Minnesota.
ZIERLER: Why Minnesota?
PHILLIPS: Because I was part of the University Without Walls. So, I went, I got accepted into the University Without Walls, and I ultimately, in 1986, got a degree from them, but I had already been in grad school for two years. So, I got a physics degree by independent study from Minnesota under the tutelage of this guy, Chuck Campbell, but he sent me off to grad school straight away.
ZIERLER: Does this Without Walls setup, does it still exists? Or do you have history of it?
PHILLIPS: It doesn't. I don't know the exact history of it.
ZIERLER: It sounds it was built for you, basically.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I know. It was. I think there were, like, 500 people who graduated from it, but I might be the only one who did something in the natural sciences.
ZIERLER: Wow! And it was strictly by correspondence?
PHILLIPS: Correspondence, yeah.
ZIERLER: There's no Zoom, obviously. Are you phoning into classes?
PHILLIPS: No, there were no classes; you make your own curriculum. I can show you my notebooks. Again, I'm showing you books, but this is my mechanics course: Mechanics, by Keith Symon. You'll see, once again, there are my notes. You'll see that it's very underlined. I've worked tons and tons of problems. What I would do is, I would go through and I would do five or ten homework problems per chapter and send them to Chuck. He had a series of professors in the physics department. One was Bill Zimmerman, one was Benjamin Bayman, and they would review my work. So, I did a stat-mech thing. I did EM. I did mechanics. They would review it. I did the whole Feynman Lectures. I'd write a report on every chapter. I translated Galois to prove my "competence" in French, and I still have a little doubt about something as to whether or not I cheated on that. Meaning, I think that Harold Edwards actually translated Galois, and I'm not sure whether or not I looked at his translation. I'm just saying, in the spirit of openness. Then maybe the most interesting part of all is that Russ Kingman, who is one of Jack London's biographers and ran the Jack London Bookstore in Glen Ellen, California, he agreed to be my faculty mentor for my English class, which I did about Jack London, so I wrote a thing. Then at the very end, I had to submit a thesis, but I'd already been at WashU for two years when they graduated me, and I still remember, actually. It was really weird, because it was kind of a thesis defense here, and the committee told me something which I didn't understand at the time, and I kind of still don't understand. They were like, "You don't suffer fools very easily," or something, and I just found it weird that they got to know me in a certain sense; I don't know exactly what it was. But the support there was incredible—the fact that those people were game to engage with me.
ZIERLER: What was your batting average at all the schools you applied to?
PHILLIPS: It's amazing. I got into UCSD, Michigan, Colorado, Austin, and WashU. I did not get into Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, there's probably a few more.
ZIERLER: That's the divide between the top tier and the second tier.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I didn't really apply, but when I interviewed here—this kind of goes to the defiance—I remember in my talk, I said, "There's some box at this place that says I'm not worthy as a grad student. You might want to reconsider." I remember when I did my tenure package that I was way more interested in the part of my tenure package on my failures, as opposed to my successes. I wrote this whole—I printed the thing, that thick. This was in 1986, because I got tenure early.
ZIERLER: At Brown?
PHILLIPS: At Brown. I was excited about the way that—for example, Darwin has chapter six, called "Difficulties on Theory." I just like it when we're self-critical. I think we should be our own worst critics. So, I wrote this report, and I see so many of them because I write 200 letters a year. I see so many of these. Nobody ever says, "I'm disappointed in these aspects of what I've done during this tenure period." They don't tell you that. But I liked doing that, and I guess I've always kind of liked that. I like to say, "This is where I tried, but this is where I fell short," and that was very much in the spirit of the Minnesota thing too. Anyway, I definitely did not get in here, and it's probably for the best. I think I would have crashed and burned.
ZIERLER: What programs did you apply to? Was it the same program at every school?
PHILLIPS: Strictly physics—physics grad school.
ZIERLER: You're so eclectic, you could have told me anything and I would have believed you. Why physics?
PHILLIPS: At that time, even though I had already read things about Delbrück and biology and stuff—and I loved math passionately, and still do—physics is, for me, the mother load. It's still, to this day, it's my number one intellectual love, and I guess I no longer think of it as subject. I think of it as a style. I don't know if we talked about that last week.
ZIERLER: A little.
PHILLIPS: I really, really think of it as a style. I think of it as an approach to try and to reach the truth through quantitative reasoning, the interplay between a theory and experiment, that kind of thing. It was definitely the right thing; I have no doubt about that.
ZIERLER: How strategic were you in thinking that physics is also a launchpad for everything else that you might want to pursue?
PHILLIPS: Zero percent. I had no clue. I had no clue at all what I was doing, where it led, what it meant, or anything. I got there, I showed up on day one, and they said I was going to be a TA for freshman physics, which obviously I never took, and I was terrified. The very first thing I did, I signed up, and I took quantum mechanics out of Baym's book; I took the right of passage: JD Jackson, Classical Electrodynamics; and mechanics out of Goldstein.
ZIERLER: Safe choices?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, well, that's what you do as a grad student. It's the hazing canon, and I was so lame. You have no idea how lame I was, and yet it was funny, because the TAs would be like, "God, your solutions are so strange. They're right." And they'd use them for solution sets, or whatever. Then there were other times when I'd take a test and I would just be clueless.
ZIERLER: It's too bad you didn't have this interview already. You could give it to them and say, "This is why they're strange and correct."
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I don't know.
ZIERLER: What was Jaynes's field? What was he known for?
PHILLIPS: He's known for the connection between information theory and statistical mechanics, and I loved statistical mechanics. One of the things that Chuck Campbell told me was he had been a grad student at WashU, Chuck. So, that's kind of the lineage. You might have thought, "Oh, that's because you were born in St. Louis," but that was totally incidental that I went to WashU.
ZIERLER: Yeah, I got that.
PHILLIPS: Chuck said, "It's really weird, because anybody who learns stat-mech from Jaynes will have to relearn it because it's so off," and I loved that. I just loved it, and it's shaped my thinking to this day. It really made me appreciate something that you can read about in Feynman's Nobel Prize lecture, which is one of the profound things that I don't really see anyone else call attention to. He talked about how, when you have different formulations of the same subject, that they're psychologically inequivalent when you go into the unknown. I can give you an example. In mechanics, I can use free-body diagrams. I can use energy methods. I can use Hamilton's equations, Lagrange equations. They're all different approaches, but they all give the same answer. If I do the problem of orbit of a planet or harmonic oscillator, they're all going to give me the same answer. Feynman's point was, when you launch into the unknown, they are not psychologically equivalent. One of them might be the trick. And he was speaking in his own case about path integrals as a way to do quantum mechanics. It's a different approach to quantum mechanics than Schrödinger's wave equation, or matrix mechanics from Heisenberg, and I've always really valued that. So, learning stat-mechs from Jaynes, I took his class twice. I took his class on E&M twice. After I had already done the Jackson thing, when he agreed to teach that course, of course he did not use Jackson, but I would just sit there and just listen to this guy, and I knew I was in the presence of a transcendental mind. Still, to this day. I've met everybody. I like talking to people. I've tried to meet everybody. When I came to Caltech, I took 70 faculty members for lunch in the first two years. I tried to meet people. I've met a lot of people, and I still will hold Jaynes as one of the truly unique minds that I've had the privilege of encountering.
ZIERLER: He came to information theory later on?
PHILLIPS: No, early on. He was right on the heels of Shannon and Cox. Right on the heels of them. His first paper was 1957, one of the big ones that was in Phys Rev. To this day, it still has haters, and it's very interesting because he, back when I was in grad school, was talking about Bayesian methods. It's totally documentable. You can go look it up. He was already on this case that we now have repackaged as things like machine learning and all that. I have to say, people like Mosteller in the ‘60s were already on this case also, using Bayes' theorem in the context of economics and stuff like that, and authorship of Hamilton and Madison on The Federalist Papers.
ZIERLER: Would he have talked like Feynman did in the ‘80s about computers and quantum mechanics, and ultimately, how that would lead to quantum-information theory?
PHILLIPS: Probably not.
ZIERLER: So, he was a classical guy through and through.
PHILLIPS: No. He did a lot of things on quantum things, so he definitely was into that. I just think that the dominant thing that he wanted us all to learn about was how to think about probability theory in a much more generalized way than we're used to. He also argued that Gibbs already had figured out how to handle nonequilibrium. He had a lot of really original ideas, and his book is a total classic probability-theory book. I would go talk to him. He was a bit taciturn. There's kind of a weird story about him that I don't know the truth of, which is that somehow Watergate changed his life. He used to throw parties and all this stuff. He was so disillusioned. Then he became a bit isolated.
ZIERLER: You mean that the president could commit a crime?
PHILLIPS: Something along those lines.
ZIERLER: I'm glad he doesn't live today. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Yeah, true. There's a funny story about my parents, too, because my dad's the kind of person who would always knock on a door and talk to people, and we were embarrassed as kids. One night, they decided to go knock on the door of the house my mom grew up in, which my grandfather that I told you about earlier built—a huge house. They knock on the door, and who answers the door, but Jaynes. He bought the house my mom grew up in.
ZIERLER: That's crazy!
PHILLIPS: And he was quite a pianist, and he played the piano for them. It's just the weirdest thing ever. Just really funny.
ZIERLER: What was it for you to be back in St. Louis? Did that register with you? Did you reconnect? Did you see family?
PHILLIPS: I did. I saw my grandmother all the time. I went to go visit my grandfather, Pop, in the nursing home, and I'd go with my grandmother. Amy and I had our first kid there, so she would see her grandmother almost every day. She adored Casey, our oldest kid. We'd go eat with her a couple times a week. I did reconnect with a couple of my friends from when I'd lived there, but I was definitely a surfer guy from California now. I just wasn't at all the same person. It's funny because when you do the numbers, it really wasn't that long that I had been gone, but I was a totally different person.
ZIERLER: You had lived a lot of years.
PHILLIPS: I'd lived a lot of years. All of them had gone to Princeton and Yale and Bowdoin and whatever, and I'd gone on a boat to the Caribbean and learned to navigate.
ZIERLER: [laughs] We skipped over an important detail. Amy was your first wife?
PHILLIPS: Second wife.
ZIERLER: So, you were already married.
PHILLIPS: I went through marriage and divorce while in grad school. My first wife, Sandy, and I moved from San Diego to St. Louis. Out of respect for her, I won't divulge anything other than to say that it's one of the most formative things of my entire life that is with me to this very day—this day, right now, today—influencing my level of happiness and how I function and whatever.
ZIERLER: So, your first marriage was electrician, independent-study years.
PHILLIPS: That's right, from the age of 19 to the age of 25.
ZIERLER: Nineteen, that's pretty young.
PHILLIPS: Pretty young, yeah.
ZIERLER: Both of you were young?
PHILLIPS: Both of us were young. I'm not embarrassed by what I'm about to tell you, but I told you, maybe earlier, that I felt I was weirdly—prudish isn't the right word. I grew up with the four cutest girls in my high school, and we all walked to school every day, and I heard their stories about the way guys treated them, and it made me very, very cautious about being around women, about being respectful, about—
ZIERLER: Not sexualizing them.
PHILLIPS: —Not sexualizing them. I had many opportunities, I had many girlfriends, and I was extremely shy, so my first wife was my real relationship if you know what I mean. There was a certain obligation that was probably really uncalled for on my part, and that led to me making decisions as a young guy that came from a place of principle, if you want to call it that, although probably a very misguided principle in some sense.
ZIERLER: Your first wife, did she share your unorthodox journey, your vision? She was along for the ride?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I don't even know how to answer it because her personal life, her personal history and story is so complicated. I would love to tell you when we're not recording, just for context.
ZIERLER: Sure, of course.
PHILLIPS: Maybe today we can do that, because it'll really make everything so much more clear, but it's just not my story to tell.
ZIERLER: You went to graduate school with her?
PHILLIPS: I went with her, and at some point, I reached a point where I said, "No matter what the consequences are for her, I can't do this anymore." I gave her the entirety of my inheritance from my grandfather, the one that we talked about, my mom's dad.
ZIERLER: Whoa! And this was significant.
PHILLIPS: Significant. And hoped, hoped, hoped that she would live a better life. I went home to San Diego because I was broken and crushed, and I'm still broken, I think, fundamentally. I don't think I ever really processed it. Again, you'll know more about what I'm saying when I tell you privately. Within a month, I met this amazing person at Haagen-Dazs. One of the sons of the guy, Bill Martin, who's also dead now, we have this thing. I don't know why we did this, but whenever we were at each other's houses, one of us would either get a knife or a meat cleaver, and we'd put it behind our belt, kind of down our pants, just so you can see the handle, and we'd be talking to each other, and then we'd turn around. The message was, "I've got a big knife." [David laughs] He had a meat clever, and he turned around and said, "I'm going to be really disappointed if you don't go ask her out." So, I went down to Haagen-Dazs and waited for two-and-a-half hours for Amy when she finally came out to close. She was there for the summer, just a summer job.
ZIERLER: Oh, she was not from St. Louis?
PHILLIPS: No, this is San Diego. I said, "I sure hope you remember me." She goes, "You talking to me?" She knew. She was playing with me right from get go. So, we had this whirlwind, but we're talking, literally, if I'm being most honest, six weeks between Sandy and Amy.
ZIERLER: Wow! Particularly with how broken you are, that's a fast turnaround.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I think I was just so grateful—so, so grateful—that somebody was nice and stuff. So yeah, it was super intense. Then Amy, she was at Chico State, and then she ended up moving to St. Louis, and in very short order, we got married, and she got pregnant. We lived in the same apartment that Sandy and I had lived in. One of the things I will say is that the level of generosity of Amy to my ex-wife, and the kindness that she showed. Again, you're going to know more about all this story in a little while, but it was extraordinary. Even she was a kid. We were all kids just trying to make our way in this world and trying to be good people. Anyway, Casey was born, and I was really, really intensely trying to do grad school, and already I could feel a bit like the odd man out because of my background, but also—
ZIERLER: How did you stack up in your cohort of all the kids who came from prestigious schools and graduate school? Could you hold your own? More so?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I could hold my own, and that's what I was just going to say, is that at the level of the things that were the kind of virtues that my parents really emphasized, like creativity, it was totally clear that I had just a different take on stuff. I didn't care about adults. I didn't respect professors. Does that make sense? I just didn't care. It's like, "Yeah, whatever. You're the professor, whatever." I'd go swimming with them all every day, because I swim every day. I've already been swimming today. I've got to do my exercise, and those guys were exercising, so at lunchtime we'd walk over. I just felt independent, I guess. As far as the classroom setting of getting good grades or whatever, when I took the qualifying exam, I passed tentatively, and the head of the physics department, whose name was Frank Shull—he was the guy who admitted me—he called me into his office, and he said, "We're kind of disappointed because we thought you're going to be a superstar." And I will tell you what I exactly said to him, which probably wasn't the nicest thing I could have said, but basically, the essence of it was, "Yeah, I've been struggling with going through a divorce, big time." But he was right. I probably should have been less defensive. I was a disappointment, in some sense, to them, at least in the early days. By the time I graduated, I became a named grad student; Anders would actually ask me to teach his class for him.
ZIERLER: Did you, yourself, or did he think that was a cop out because of your innate abilities? Like, the expectation was, "Yeah, you're going through troubles right now, but still, you could be doing better"?
PHILLIPS: Probably not, because when you hear the whole story, it was pretty hard, pretty rough. Actually, another one of Anders' students took a leave of absence when he went through a divorce. I powered on, but I definitely was hurting. It was not easy. But I think it's a reasonable thing for them to say, "You could have done better." But you've got to remember, the last time I had a class was in high school, and I'd never had a physics class in my life. I never had a biology class, and literally never had a chemistry class, and here I am taking Jackson E&M, and I'm trying to learn about Green functions, so it's a big, big stretch.
ZIERLER: How influential was Jaynes? This will be the last topic we'll cover today. How influential was he in developing your thesis research?
PHILLIPS: Well, that's probably not fair, but I didn't talk too much about my thesis, although I did use maximum-entropy methods. My advisor was this guy, Anders Carlsson. He was the huge influence on me.
ZIERLER: Tell me about him.
PHILLIPS: He's a Swedish guy—Swedish-American. He moved here when he was six, I think, grew up in the Bay Area. Both parents are doctors. His brother's a famous mathematician at Stanford. Both of them went to Harvard for both undergrad and grad school. Super brilliant guy. The first thing he said to me was, "I fired people before, and I'll fire them again." It was yet again the same thing Solomon Deressa said to me, the same thing Chuck Campbell said to me: "I'm going to take a chance on you, and it's up to you." I liked that; I appreciated that. The thing about Anders, he's a rather taciturn guy. We're still in touch to this day, and there's many ways in which things shifted where I was able to be helpful to him. He had a blackboard on his door. It was back in the days when there wouldn't be a window, and you'd shut the door with a grad student. He had a blackboard on his door, and he basically told me, "You're being becoming a theorist. The way you talk to me is with equations, so if you want to tell me what you've done, or what you're thinking, or whatever, you need to write equations on the board." It was so incredibly hard. What I find odd about it is now I can lecture, I can plug and play on probably 15 courses tomorrow without even panicking. You just tell me tomorrow, "You're going to start teaching X," and I'll just be like, "Yeah, sure." And I can do without notes, and yet, I'm a slow guy. I'm not that good at math compared to people such as Kitaev, or Preskill, or any of my colleagues, and yet, with all the practice and all the "I'm all about your craft" part—with all that practice, I've gotten to the point where what was so intensely hard with Anders is now the language. In fact, everybody in my group. The language of my group is mathematics, period.
ZIERLER: This is the square in the garage and the tennis ball?
PHILLIPS: Yes, it is 100%. That's where my competencies come from. My competencies are not from being a genius, which is true of some people. Although, we went to the archives with my students last week because I had a visitor from India, and we looked at the Feynman papers—which, I've always been interested in the article that was written by Silvan Schweber about him in Reviews of Modern Physics, and then the book also—but you can see what he did when he was 15. Actually, when I look at it, or I look at Newton with his decimal points, or Gauss, truthfully, it is the tennis ball in the garage. It is. If we're really being honest with each other, he was a genius. We can say all that stuff, but damn, the guy threw the tennis ball at the square on the garage. He did. There's no doubt about it.
ZIERLER: So, your conviction is that genius is never cheap. It doesn't just land on somebody.
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I don't want to get too strong on that, because I don't know about somebody like Mozart. But you're a historian. For me, one of the most interesting historians of science is Richard Westfall, and if you read his preface to his amazing book, Never at Rest, which is about Newton, he says that of all the things he did in the history of science, the only person who truly receded from him as he learned more about him was Newton. I like that. I'm super beyond impressed with Newton and his mind. I don't want to say much, but I will say this. For example, Gauss: The guy had an intimate relationship with every integer up to 1,000. [David laughs] Somebody like Enrico Fermi or Hans Bethe, those guys knew the log tables up to 10.
ZIERLER: There's a romance there also. There's a romantic relationship with those numbers if them at that level.
PHILLIPS: That's right, but I don't think they get it, in most cases, in one night. You look at people's notebooks, and you're like, "Okay, well, that's all my notebooks." That's real. That's the tennis ball on the square. Going back to what it means to be a Caltech professor and doing courses like Phys 11, getting ready to do Bi 1, I feel I have so little opportunity to reach our students with these things, which are more important than whether or not they know how to calculate divergence of a vector. Of course, I can do that in my sleep with them. The worst part of all is they're not open to it. They don't understand that that's more important to their development as people, as scientists, than are the technical details. What does it mean to be coachable? Again, I'm very interested in sports, and somebody like Phil Jack Jackson can talk to you about what it means for somebody to be coachable. I once sat next to Frank Thomas on—he's a Hall of Fame baseball player.
ZIERLER: Oh yeah, a big bopper.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. Amy's uncle was a very famous Major League manager for many, many years. Took the Boston Red Sox to the World Series.
ZIERLER: What's his name?
PHILLIPS: John McNamara.
ZIERLER: Oh okay, sure.
PHILLIPS: I was sitting next to Frank, and he wanted to talk, and I'm like, "Dude, I was going to leave you alone, but if you want to talk, then I'm just going to be normal. I'm not going to give you any sort of royal treatment or whatever. You want to talk?" He's like, "Get some wine and let's talk." So, I was telling him about John because John has an amazing Reggie Jackson story where they were down in the South—it's one of the classics. They check into a hotel, and they're not going to let Reggie Jackson stay in the hotel, and John's just like, "Fuck you guys. We're out of here." Frank knew of John McNamara and liked him, and I was asking him, "You played for Chicago. You were in Chicago when that was the Jordan era. Tell me about talent and work ethic." He said, "Oh, anybody that's at my level, they're the tippy-top on both. I was always the first guy in the clubhouse and always the last one to leave." Tony Gwynn is one of my great heroes. The guy, he would take batting practice after every game. There's this super amazing video. There's this guy from Oregon. He's a long-distance runner. I think his name is Rupp. Do you know this guy?
PHILLIPS: He broke the American record in the 10,000 meters, and then there's this video; it's like, 40 minutes later. It's going to make me cry because it shows him doing 400 intervals, and it's getting darker and darker and darker. There's this really great music playing. It's just like, "Yep, that's what that is." And I liked it, because, also, Kobe Bryant and many people have something to say about it. Kobe said, "I lost something." Vince Carter was saying, "It was weird. All of us would go on vacation in the summer as families, different teams. Kobe would never go." Kobe's like, "Yeah, I lost something. I didn't leave anything on the court." And everyone was like, "When he retired, he was so much fun, and we really like Kobe." But he was the Black Mamba when he was playing ball.
Going back to Frank Thomas and this thing about the work ethic, he was telling me, "Yeah, I was always a .400 hitter. From the time I was eight years old, I was a .400 hitter in my mind. I was just I was always there at the clubhouse. I was always working on my batting." Chris Bosh wrote this amazing autobiography. He had to retire early because of health, at the top of his game. He's quite a reader. There are so many interesting things to say, but what he was saying was, it really something to play on a team with somebody like LeBron James. He's like, "That's just different. You guys don't know it, but that's different."
ZIERLER: When the department chair registered his disappointment, did that light a fire under you? Did that positively influence the terms in which you wanted to leave St. Louis? You wanted to create a quality thesis?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I think you can see, I brought it up now, so it eats at me. It still eats at me. I think it was good that somebody said to me that there's this thing called excellence, and you don't live in the world of excuses. You try to do excellence, and it's about attention to detail. You try to do excellence. So yeah, I took great pride and still do. I took great pride in everything I tried to do, everything from figures, to when Anders would ask me to teach his class, to being a TA, to how I wrote, to making sure my calculations were right. One of my proudest things—I won't mention the names—but a very, very famous guy at Harvard wrote some paper, and I ended up writing them to tell them they had a bunch of errors in their paper, and they ended up agreeing. That's not a discovery, but it at least made me say, "Oh, even though I'm an electrician," because fundamentally, even to this day, that's kind of how I think of myself, "I've got some competencies. I can at least participate in this thing." And that was cool.
ZIERLER: Were there any contributions or conclusions of your thesis that are worth talking about, do you think?
PHILLIPS: I don't think so.
ZIERLER: It was the work can get out of St. Louis kind of project?
PHILLIPS: No, it's not that. I think it was super creative, but I just don't think it was anything that mattered very much to anybody. When I look back upon it, Anders gave me some things to think about, and I think that I thought about them very creatively. In other words, it's always fun to ask in a given thesis, "Would that have happened had anyone else done it?" A lot of things in my career, the answer to that's no. Whether or not it's important is a different matter, but I like that notion of, "I came to it on my own terms." That's what my thesis was. It was very much: I came to the topic and had my own things to say.
ZIERLER: Last question for today, maybe it's an obvious one. High school didn't work for you. Undergrad didn't work for you. Graduate school worked enough for you that you did it, and it got you to where you needed to go, so why did graduate school work for you? What does it say about you personally? What does it say about the structure of graduate school?
PHILLIPS: The thing is that what grad school is about is what I learned on April 30, 1977. It's the relationship between you and a problem, and that's, in many ways, the hardest thing for my grad students—now that I've done this for a long time—for them to understand. At some point they realize—I always refer to it as the year-three tears—when you realize there's no one who can save your ass except yourself. It's your thing. It's not my thing. It's your thing. You can come to the board and tell me things, but at the end of the day, it's your deal. I think that's what worked, is that I was doing the Eratosthenes thing. There's a lot of art to it. That's another thing that I love, is that I sculpted my results. My figures in my papers and in my thesis would never exist had I not done them, because they're very "me" in some ways. That's what I really liked, and I guess that's what worked. I should say that Amy and I offered both of our kids $10,000 to quit high school. Casey wishes he had taken it. Molly, it wouldn't have been a good idea, but for Casey, it would have been a good idea. It didn't work. None of it worked for him either. I can only say grad school only worked insofar as Anders let me go down this path of self-discovery.
ZIERLER: You made enough of the real world for you to survive.
PHILLIPS: That's right, and the class part was harder.
ZIERLER: Perfect place to pick up for next time.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, thanks.
[End of Recording]
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, March 14, 2023. Once again, it's great to be back with Rob Phillips. Nice to see you again, Rob.
ROB PHILLIPS: Good morning. Thanks for coming by.
ZIERLER: We left last time just at the point of view wrapping up graduate school. I want to ask first—I understand now how important stat-mech is to biophysics. Biophysics and biology is a sort of newer endeavor for you, but can you reverse engineer your interests back to graduate school and connect that with your entrée to biophysics later on? How do you see those?
PHILLIPS: I think I can, because in many ways, I became who I am scientifically very early on as a teenager. Maybe we talked about it last time, which is, I just have always been interested in stuff of t. When I say stuff of t—I'm going to write it on the board. I've been writing an equation, stuff as a function of time, which basically means, how do things evolve in time? Why do they change? I was initially very seduced by planetary motion, the great story of celestial mechanics, and how we figured out how planets move, and the law of gravitation, and the three-body problem, tides, and the oblateness of Earth. All of these things really excited me, but the reason for statistical mechanics and thermodynamics being so incredibly important is that, in some ways, taste is very hard to understand for any of us—why we're excited about the things that we're excited about. In my case, I love the idea of taking super complicated things and realizing that there might be some simpler story under the hood. For example, if we take the gas molecules in this room, we know that there is on the order of 1030 of them in this room, or 1028, or something like that; yet we can boil all of that down into a very simple law of the ideal gas. Pressure times volume equals the number of moles times R times T, or the number of particles times Botlzmann's constant times the temperature. That's an amazing thing that you can go from microscopics to some macroscopic phenomenological description. What that led me to very early on was being curious about, what are the right degrees of freedom? What are the right coordinates? What's the right language to describe a given problem? Did I read you the story from Borges on the exactitude of science?
ZIERLER: I don't think so.
PHILLIPS: Do you mind if I do?
ZIERLER: Not at all.
PHILLIPS: It's very short, but this was the basis of our book, Physical Biology of the Cell.
The Paradigm Shift of Anderson Not Kuhn
ZIERLER: No, we didn't do this one. You've pulled a lot of books off the shelf, but not this one.
PHILLIPS: There's a story from Borges that is called On Exactitude in Science, and in a way, I feel like this embodies my life in science more simply than any other thing, so I'll just read it to you. It's called On Exactitude in Science. "In that empire, the art of cartography attains such perfection that the map of the single province occupied the entirety of the city, and the map of the empire, the entirety of a province. In time, those unconscionable maps no longer satisfied, and the cartographers' guilds struck a map of the empire whose size was that of the empire, and which coincided point-for-point with it. The following generations, who were not so fond of the study of cartography as their forebears had been, saw that the vast map was useless, and not without some pitilessness was it that they delivered it up to the inclemencies of sun and winters. In the deserts of the West, still today, there are tattered ruins of that map inhabited by animals and beggars. In all the land, there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography." So, that's Borges, and to me, that summarizes my life in science right there. Why? Because no matter what, at the end of the day, you're trying to get a map. You don't want a map that's the size of the empire. That's insanity. Yet, sometimes I feel my life of interacting with other people in science is that they actually want to have a map that's the size of the empire. I'm just like, "What do you mean by that? What earthly use is a map that's the size of the empire?" Anyway, you asked this question about stat-mech, and I'm going to include, also, continuum mechanics. What I was intrigued by was: How do you represent this world without invoking every possible detail? What's the way that we boil off the fat and are left with something that's predictive, provides intuition, useful for engineering? When I think about the Golden Gate Bridge, when anybody thinks about the Golden Gate Bridge in the presence of an earthquake or whatever, believe me, they don't think about it made of iron atoms. Yeah, we all know it's made of iron atoms; it's got no bearing on the behavior of that thing. When I left grad school, we had been engaged in an obscure fad of the time which was related to Caltech in some interesting way, because it was the subject of quasicrystals, which are basically—you can't tile a floor with pentagons. Pauling and others have thought about this idea that you could not get diffraction patterns with fivefold symmetry, but in 1980, somebody had found them. So, we were working hard, my advisor, Anders Carlson, and I, on trying to understand things about where the atoms were, but there were all these people—Sriram Ramaswamy, John Toner, Tom Lubensky, Mike Widom—they're working on these theories where they didn't include the atoms anymore. There was a notion of what's called a phason, and the details don't matter, but what really captured my imagination was, there's a whole different worldview in which the atoms are no longer a part of the story. I know that so well now in the form of Navier-Stokes equations for fluids, the Navier equations for elasticity, all sorts of things, we get rid of degrees of freedom. One of the abiding themes of my life is, how do I get rid of degrees of freedom? How do I formalize that idea? The other connection to stat-mech was this thing about stuff of t. I wanted to know how complex mini-particle systems evolved, and that sort of got its start in condensed-matter physics, materials physics, crack propagation, defects, plasticity of materials, and all that stuff. I think I did mention this, also, a little bit: When I started out in physics, I had this conceit that I was going to do fundamental physics. I wanted to do particles, like many people who start out in physics wanted to be a particle theorist or whatever, and I was disabused of that notion in several ways. One, by people. I shouldn't mention names, but maybe there were famous people at WashU who made it clear I wasn't smart enough for that. I don't think that's the way a professor should behave, but that's how certain people do behave. I more actively would say that I was really inspired by Phil Anderson's "more is different" idea. I still think it's complete and utter nonsense that knowing about quarks will tell me anything about the patterns of clouds or about the thickness of an elephant's leg. It will tell me nothing.
ZIERLER: For the benefit of the readers, I wonder if you can explain a little, the "more is different."
PHILLIPS: Yeah, so Phil Anderson was a very famous physicist of the latter half of the 20th century. In 1972, he wrote an article in Science magazine called "More Is Different." This was, in a way, a fight for the soul of physics, is the way I would think of it. Frankly, as a student of the history and philosophy of science, despite the incredible importance of Kuhn's, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I have to say, in my heart of hearts, I actually think the little four pages of Phil Anderson in 1972 is more important about the nature of science. What Anderson was trying to say—I'm probably misinterpreting a little—but he was trying to say, "Hold on a second. It's just not true that if I master the most microscopic entities that make up our universe, that is in any sense constructive toward an understanding of many of the most fascinating pieces of matter in the universe, such as your brain." Again, that same kind of conceit lives now in biology. I feel like the battle of my career in biology has been to try to argue that biologists are like the particle physicists. Why? Because they think if you don't know the structure of the protein, if you don't talk about the molecules, you can't be talking about the real biology. The debate has happened all over again 50 years later. Back then, it was Anderson and condensed-matter physicists against the particle-physics types. Now, I don't even know how to define who the people are against the molecular biologists who think that knowing the structure of a thing is somehow the route to mechanistic understanding—which, again, I think is bogus. I really don't buy it.
Just to maybe elaborate: I went from Washington University—I got lucky; I got to be a postdoc at Sandia National Labs in Livermore. As an example of the kind of weird choices that I've always made, Amy and I decided to live in Pacifica. I had an hour-and-a-half commute each way because I wanted to be able to surf at Ocean Beach when the surf was good. I told you last time, I fundamentally feel in my heart of hearts that being by the ocean and being a surfer is more who I am than the guy sitting in this desk. So, I commuted in this van pool. We had a no-talking rule; it was very interesting. So, we would think. I'd drive down to the San Mateo Bridge and get in this van, we'd cross and go to Livermore. I think I was an abject failure as a postdoc. I went through some personal struggles at that time, but I did a few things here and there. I was still trying to find my step, but it was definitely along these lines of, "There are atoms in the world, and then there's sort of descriptions of the things without invoking the atoms. How do I reconcile those two things?" So, I would say I had a two-year career there that was relatively unspectacular, and I learned a lot. Maybe I'm getting ahead of the narrative, but I basically got no job offers, but had the opportunity to go to Cornell physics as a postdoc, a second postdoc, under the kindness, the generosity of Chris Henley and Veit Elser. Both of them were undergrads here, interestingly. Those guys invited me to come there, and I had the chance of interacting with Mike Widom, and he and I worked really hard on, "What does it mean to get rid of atoms in the context of this quasicrystal thing?" Again, I learned a ton. Maybe one way to say this is that I don't know anything about talent. I don't know how to comment on that, but what I was, when I started grad school, was incredibly ignorant. Again, remember, I never had a physics course in my life, not in high school. My last math course was eleventh grade in 1977, so here I show up at grad school in 1984; I don't know anything. So, it took me a long time to get up to speed technically, but I could see that my powers of creativity, of asking questions, were developing and were likely stronger than most other people. I feel a little weird saying that, but I'm trying to be honest. I'm not technically gifted, but I definitely have a sense of wonder that exceeds what I think most people have. So, I got there, and Veit Elser told me, "You'll never have this much freedom again. Enjoy it." So, I spent a lot of time interacting with Mike Widom, trying to think about quasicrystals. I went to Roald Hoffmann. He's a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. He meant a lot to me because he was a Holocaust survivor and a poet, so that appealed to my universality of human experience aspects of who I am. I got to talk to Ben Widom. I took Chris Henley's courses. I took and sat in all sorts of courses. Jim Sethna and I really learned a lot, so I was learning, learning, learning, learning, learning, developing my own tastes, my own worldview. This probably not entirely nice to Chris Henley, although he had every right to say it, but at some point he sent a note saying, "It's time for me to write letters for all of you guys, for job hunting." I went to him and I said, "Yeah, I'm not going to let you write a letter." He said, "It's a good thing, because you're not one of the better postdocs here." [laughs] So, I've gotten a lot of knocks along the way, a lot of getting knocked down and trying to stand up again.
ZIERLER: Rob, I asked about, in our last conversation, how high school didn't work; you figured that out. College didn't work; you figured that out as well. Graduate school worked enough that you got through it, but when you decided to take that step about postdocs, had you already gotten comfortable enough that a life in academia was what you were after?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, but the reason is because of the reality of today. In other words, I feel I have actually invoked the academic life more, almost, than anyone I know. The reason I say that is that I have been incredibly independent from day one. As soon as I arrived there as a professor, I just said, "Okay, somebody's given me the keys to this room. They've given me some money. They've given me the trust to have graduate students." The beauty of the American system: It's not like some pyramid. You're given the keys, and you're told, "Go for it," and that's what I respond to in this life. I don't want anybody else telling me what to do. I don't want to tell anyone else what to do, but I feel very comfortable with the idea of pursuing my own curiosity. In fact, this is something I say to students all the time in this office, "That's the one thing you don't need to justify. You do not need to justify your curiosity to anyone, ever. Zero times." Despite all of the mechanisms in science trying to make you justify why something's interesting to you, which I find abhorrent. Again, my natural inclination as a surfer is to fall into language that I shouldn't be using, but the real me would use the F-word right now. Like, "What the F are you talking about? It's none of your business what I'm curious about, and it's none of my business what you're curious about." Does that make any sense? No, leave me alone. I just happened to like flightless cormorants. It doesn't have anything to do with you. I've been swimming with them. I've seen how they navigate. I've watched them dry their wings. I'm into that.
ZIERLER: Why do you think the first postdoc at Sandia was not optimal?
PHILLIPS: It's just on so many incredibly different levels. To be perfectly honest, I never, ever, ever really healed from my divorce. I never really, really let that sink in and deal with the implications of it for me, for what I am, who I am, for the pain that it caused me, and all that stuff, so there was a lot of personal stuff that poor Amy had to deal with. I probably didn't hit my stride as to what I was working on. In other words, what they wanted to do at Sandia was interesting, but it wasn't exactly in the strike zone of where my heart was.
ZIERLER: Which was what? What was the project?
PHILLIPS: What I was doing, among other things, was trying to think about, how do you calculate the interactions between metal atoms in a metal? There are lots of things about that that are bigger than that question, that are quite cool, that likeI a lot. I've never really had very many postdocs in my lab—this may sound a non sequitur—and the reason is that I'm a marathoner. I'm not a sprinter. I've never been a sprinter. I'm not interested in being a sprinter. I'm very interested in being a long-distance runner, and what that means is that I like working on stuff where there's a lot of runway. There are lots of years where one can digest what the questions are, and then think hard, and inevitably be confused. So, I feel the postdoc gig is really rough because you need to be productive; you need to get to some results. I had a few papers in Phys. Rev. Letters and whatever, which are the usual sort of places, at least for physics types, but I would just say, it was really unspectacular. As I was saying before, I still had so much to learn. Technically, the people I was around—there was a guy Murray Daw, Steve Foile, Dwayne Johnson, Darrell Chrzan—all these guys were just faster than me. They were more technically on top of stuff than I was, and I just needed to learn things. I really needed to learn things, so that was a long apprenticeship that was far from being over by that time, and yet, I was trying to compete. It would be a bit like trying to ski in the Winter Olympics as a downhiller, and you really haven't done your practice runs very much. Even if you're a good skier, you're just not going to compete. In a way, I think that's kind of where I was. When I really started to compete, to be honest, was at Brown, because at that point, for one thing, I had the support of the grad students who could do the technical things that maybe I couldn't, yet the vision was clearly in place already.
ZIERLER: Not getting job offers after the first postdoc at Sandia, did you interpret that as the world telling you that you were still in apprentice mode? You were not ready for professorship?
PHILLIPS: No, I interpreted it as that I would never be ready, but that I should nevertheless maybe give it one more try. It led to a very interesting conversation with my parents. We had two kids, and I remember calling them up—and you've already gotten a little bit of a sense of how supportive they've always been, both of them, to every shenanigan you can imagine—and I told them, "I think that, first of all, if I don't go to Cornell, I have no hope. If I do go to Cornell, I might get that blue-blood label on me that at least will get me the opening in the door." I want you to notice this. The readers or whatever won't be able to see it, but this right here—you can see, I'm going to give it to you—is the ad that showed up on my desk when I was at Cornell.
ZIERLER: Oh cool. "November 19, 1992. The Division of Engineering at Brown University announces the opening of a faculty position in the mechanics of solids group, available September 1, 1993. It will be made at the level of assistant professor with a tenurable rank of the university." Were either Ares or Ravi there at that time. Did you cross paths with either of them?
PHILLIPS: It became such a serious thing. That's the group. In my opinion, it's the world's most famous solid-mechanics group, and they have a long tradition of hiring super weird people, which I think is just the best. Neither of them were there, but I got to know them very quickly thereafter. Just to tell you, for that job, they had interviewed their whole shortlist. I wasn't interviewed, and they didn't like anyone well enough, so they decided to just take a risk on one last guy. I was an afterthought. Rod Clifton and Ben Freund, who are two absolute luminaries, both of whom have spent tons of time here—Rod was Ravi's advisor; Ben was Ares's advisor. Ben was my best friend at Brown. Those guys invited me over, and even though I didn't know it, by the night we went out to dinner, I had the job. They were recruiting me already, and they had asked me at dinner, "Hey, is there anything else you want to know?" I was just like, "I'm feeling super insecure that I'm the guy who didn't go to college, and that somehow you're going to let that get in the way," and they kind of laughed at me because, again, it was already over. I had already won the job. It was a one-day interview, and it was such an amazing thing to go there. It reminds me of that song in Hamilton, "Not Going to Throw Away My Shot," or the Eminem thing from 8 Mile, "If you're given one chance—your one chance—that's it." That was my one chance. That was it. I got zero interviews, man. Zero. I'm an afterthought.
Cornell and Quasicrystals
ZIERLER: I want to go back to Cornell. Who was the contact there? What was happening there that connected you to what was going on?
PHILLIPS: It was basically Chris Henley and Veit Elser, especially Chris. If you look on the winners of the Putnam exam over history, you'll see an amazing kid that I had in Bi 1 named Brian Lawrence, who won it four times. If you look back earlier, you'll see that Chris Henley won it when he was an undergrad here. He was a brilliant guy. I have to use past tense, sadly, because he died of a brain tumor, as did Joe Polchinski, two guys that I admired so, so, so much. Chris was a beautiful person. He was tricky. He was a little bit unusual, so that led people to misunderstand him and to misread him. He knew that I at least had some creative ideas about quasicrystals and atoms, and that he Veit were just game to take a chance on me. That's what they were willing to do, to take a chance, so I went there. Mike Widom was on sabbatical and from Carnegie Mellon. His dad's a very famous professor at Cornell, and we did some semi-productive things, things that I could actually say, "Maybe that was okay work."
ZIERLER: Were you in contact with Paul Steinhardt at all on the quasicrystal stuff?
PHILLIPS: No, I wasn't. I had his kid in Bi 1 here, actually. His other kid takes my Phys. 11 students. I wasn't. I don't have anything further to add about that. Maybe offline we can say a few more words about that, but no, I was not in touch with him. Of course, I knew of him and had met him at some meetings, but I don't think I ran around in his universe. I don't think I had much to offer him.
ZIERLER: When you mentioned discovery of quasicrystals, are you referring to that crazy trip that he took in Europe, or is that something different?
PHILLIPS: No, I'm talking about the Shechtman et al—well, I'm talking about two things. I'm talking about his theoretical papers, which I think were with Dov Levine, but I can't remember, so don't quote me on that, and then also, Denis Gratias and Shechtman, something, Jon Cahn, for which Shechtman won the Nobel Prize, the experimental discovery, which was in Physical Review Letters, if I remember correctly, so the existence of five-fold diffraction and all of that stuff.
ZIERLER: Do you see your interest in quasicrystals as a departure from what you were doing in graduate school, or a continuation?
PHILLIPS: It was a continuation. That's what I worked on, in part, in grad school. In grad school, one of the things that Anders and I did was to work on quasicrystal-related stuff. We did a lot of different stuff, meaning we looked at angular forces and how they might lead to icosahedral order, and we did some things on taking six-dimensional spaces and projecting into three-dimensional space to induce structures. One of the things that I loved that you probably know about is that you can represent these things as what are called Penrose tilings. What's neat about that is that that's a way that you can tile a floor and still get five-fold order and therefore five-fold diffraction peaks and that kind of thing. In other words, the original notions about diffraction were not entirely right, is the way you could say it.
ZIERLER: Can you explain five-fold order, what that means?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. What I mean is that when I talk about symmetry, let's take a square or a triangle. When I take an equilateral triangle and I ask you to close your eyes, then I rotate it by 120 degrees and you open your eyes again, you won't be able to tell that I rotated it. If I do it with a square, then I need to rotate it by 90 degrees. For a pentagon, it's 72 degrees. I rotate by 72 degrees, and when you open your eyes, you can't tell that I've rotated it. Now, that's an individual pentagon. This is more an empirical exercise for you and the readers: buy a bunch of equilateral triangles, and you can tile a bathroom floor. Buy squares, you can tile a floor. Buy hexagons, you can tile a floor. Buy pentagons, you can't. You will fail. There are deeper math things that are in play there, but that's not really my story at the moment. It's just to say that was a very surprising thing, to discover this kind of matter. I suppose that's another theme for me, and always has been: What is the nature of all the things that the periodic table can give rise to? It's such a weird world. There are so many odd things that one can do with the same fundamental units, the same atomic building blocks, and I think that's just quite amazing.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the intellectual atmosphere at Cornell. Obviously, it worked very well for you.
PHILLIPS: It was great. You probably know that at that time, this was the pinnacle of condensed-matter physics. That was where Ken Wilson was.
ZIERLER: Was he still around when you were there?
PHILLIPS: No, he had just left. It's where Neil Ashcroft, David Mermin, Jim Sethna, the list goes on—Ambegaokar, Eric Siggia. There's this whole list—Veit Elser, Chris Henley—these people that were profoundly thoughtful about condensed-matter physics—Michael Fisher, Ben Widom—all these people. The atmosphere was one of intellectual freedom, of adventurousness, of incredible creativity. I told you last time that I really value creativity. It's undervalued. You take somebody like Sethna, Chris Henley, and Veit Elser; those people are so incredibly creative. They just exude creativity, and to me, that's the great virtue in science. So, the speakers were amazing. Everybody went every week to colloquium, something that doesn't exist at all anymore, I would say. The traffic through there was great. The students were amazing. That book that I just showed you, Physical Biology of the Cell was written with Jané Kondev. He was a grad student. I decided to be office mates with the grad students of Ron Lifshitz, who worked with Mermin on quasicrystals, and Jané. That was what college would have, or could have, or should have been. That's what grad school could have or should have been: office mates, where you hang out with these people, and you learn so much. I was just talking the other day to this guy who was an undergrad here, and a grad student as well, who I think the world of, named Milo Lin. He's at UT Southwestern, and he was telling me what it meant to be an undergrad here and how so much of what you learn is from your fellow students. That was what Cornell meant to me. We talked all the time, and I was treated as an equal, and that was really amazing.
ZIERLER: It's exactly what you needed.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I don't think that's how I was treated or thought of, as you heard, from Chris Henley saying, "You're not the best of the postdocs." When the Neil Ashcroft heard I had gotten an interview at Brown, he raised his eyebrows at me, and there's a part of me that feels very defiant about that. I'm not going to say anything, but I got tenure within three years at Brown—fast. Then I was asked by Cornell Physics to write a letter recommendation for somebody else's tenure. So, I was like, "Don't raise your eyebrows at me. Now you're coming to me three years later, and you're asking me to write a tenure letter for somebody in your department. I'm the same guy always was, and you would have known that if you just listened." You asked my mom or my dad, and they'll be like, "Yeah, he's always—just, that's who he is: Thinks of things in his own way, defiant, a little bit angry, definitely creative," that kind of stuff. So, there was that element that got on my nerves.
ZIERLER: Maybe by the time you achieved tenure at Brown, you had the background that you needed. You were no longer playing catch up, right? In graduate school, you needed to backfill high school and college. In your first postdoc, you had to backfill graduate school. Maybe that sort of leveled out by the time you were clearly on fire at Brown.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that's probably somewhat true because, again, I kind of think of Jané Kondev as the metric. He, as a grad student, was writing papers by himself in Phys. Rev. Letters. He was Chris Henley's grad student, yet he wanted to talk to me, and that in itself is just like—he was willing to talk to me every morning for 10 years when we wrote Physical Biology of the Cell, so I'm all about action, and that's voting with your feet. That's not "blah, blah." That's like, "Yeah, I want to meet you every morning out of all the possible 8 billion people on the planet. You're the one that I want to talk to in the morning."
ZIERLER: I'm sad I never got to interview Joe Polchinski. That would have been great.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, me too. Have you read his archives?
ZIERLER: Oh my goodness.
PHILLIPS: You remember how it opens up? When he says, "When people ask me where I'm from, I'm tempted to say Caltech."
PHILLIPS: I went bike riding with him, and I was on the advisory board of KITP—another guy who we didn't spend a lot of time together. I wish we had spent more, but I felt he was a little bit out of my league or something.
ZIERLER: Could you track with his work on string theory and D-branes?
PHILLIPS: No, not at all. I didn't even try. Do I have the intellectual capacity? That, I don't have any idea, but I didn't even try. I had fun talking to him about writing books. He told me he would never write a book again, which bummed me out a little bit. I really got a lot out of talking [to him]. He, Carl Wieman, and I were the keynote speakers at a Hertz meeting, and it was really fun talking to him about his reading of papers, because I read about 150 papers a year. I was telling him that year that I talked to him, 130 of the papers I could have done without. He said, "Well, you're not picking the right papers." [David laughs] That gave me a little bit of the feeling that I need to be a little bit more discriminatory about the things that I read, and it also led to a change in my system of writing reports, where I use a color, now, to say, "That was a paper that I'm really glad I read this year." I wish you had been able to interview him. He was so incredibly special. Both of these guys make me quite sad, Henley and Polchinski. I hope you'll go look up Chris Henley. He was a super special intellect and person, and very caring despite making remarks like the one that sounded kind of mean spirited. But it's all right.
ZIERLER: Despite that feedback, what are you most proud of during your Cornell years?
PHILLIPS: I don't know that I'm particularly proud of anything, to be really honest. I feel I just was learning my craft.
ZIERLER: You were writing papers, though.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure. I knew very early on that that's the currency of the kingdom. There was one thing I did with Anders Carlson, actually, who was my advisor. We wrote this paper on what are called interatomic potentials, and what I was proud of there was that I learned something that I do to this day. I was doing my calculations, both writing Fortran code and Mathematica, and they agreed with each other, but they were both wrong. [David laughs] I had a reason to know they were wrong because of a certain asymptotic limit of something. I could look in some limit, and I knew they weren't right. At some point I realized, after five or six weeks, that I had a pi/25 when I meant pi5/2, or vice versa. I don't remember which it was, but what I learned from that is something very important, which is about the nature of debugging. In other words, I almost feel debugging a thing is a rite of passage for mastery, that you need to screw up all sorts of things to really get the confidence of, "Okay, now I'm pretty much on top of this thing." I did an interesting thing on the negative-curvature analogs of buckyballs that was kind of funny, and some things with Mike Widom on quasicrystals, but truthfully, nothing remarkable. I'm lucky that the Brown people said yes to me. That was more on promise than on achievement.
ZIERLER: To clarify, were you applying for additional jobs, and only Brown came up?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I applied for 70 faculty jobs, and it was the end. I'd already gotten an offer for a third postdoc in Germany. I'd already interviewed on Wall Street. I already had been interviewing with a company in San Diego that did molecular modeling on the computer. I'd interviewed at Livermore for a post, which I was told I was going to get, and in the end I didn't, so it was feeling pretty hopeless. It was feeling really, really pretty hopeless.
ZIERLER: How does that compare with after Sandia? How many appointments did you apply for?
PHILLIPS: Same: 70-80.
ZIERLER: So, you were like, 0 for 150-something?
PHILLIPS: That's right. Yeah, exactly. And that's my story to this day. That ad right there is posted, is sitting on my wall for me to look at is just a reminder of the little, little, little, teeny-tiny element of chance that stands between me sitting in this office with a named parking spot and a named professor at Caltech who, for whatever reason, is trusted to lead alumni trips, and to take kids to the Galapagos, and to teach freshman biology, and consider redoing the integrated core, and from that to being who knows what. That little, little, teeny-tiny element of chance because at least two people had the guts to be a little different. And they're both people who if you saw them, you would never say, "Oh, those are people who have the guts to be different." They're both national academy members of both academies, blah, blah. They're very fancy people, but they're pretty adventurous. From day one, when I got there, they were—they took my class! They had me teach a special-topics course—the notebook's right up there—and they sat in it! From day one. It was just like, "You're in." And before long, Caltech says, "Hey, can you come out here for six months and teach your class?" And that was the thing that precipitated early tenure, and boom, I'm in, [snaps fingers] like that.
ZIERLER: When you were thinking about Wall Street, was the response more like, "If I can't get a job, screw science"?
PHILLIPS: No, not at all. The other day, I watched one of my all-time favorite movies, which probably will sound corny, but it's a Kevin Costner baseball movie called For Love of the Game. There's a scene in that movie where his best friend is on the Tigers with him, and he's going to get traded to the Yankees because the Tigers can't afford him, and Kevin Costner kind of wants him to stay. He's at the guy's house with his family, they're packing up the house, and he says to him, "But the team's going to miss you." And the guy says, "You want to see my team?" He points at his kids. "That's my team." So, that's the story. That's it in a nutshell. I had two kids, so it wasn't about hostility towards science. I wasn't worried about social change or the structural faults of the mechanism of job hiring or anything that. I was just like, "I got two kids, and I want to make sure that they live the best possible lives they can live, and that means I need to earn a living, so let's be practical despite my broken heart." That's where it came from.
ZIERLER: Just emotionally, rejection after rejection, how did you deal with that? How did you respond?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I'm an incredibly sensitive guy, so I carry around a weird feeling of being unloved and unlovable. I told you last time, at the end of the day, when I walk around here—and there are certain professors that have been pissed off at me for saying this—but I feel I don't belong. I feel like I don't measure up, or I didn't do the right things to have this incredible privilege of being here. So yeah, getting beaten down like that is not fun. I was told even a few years ago that I generate a lot of hate. You've already had enough time with me to draw your own conclusions. [David laughs] Obviously I'm direct, and I express my opinions, and I'm willing to tell people my tastes, but it's not as though I feel I'm sitting around criticizing other people. I don't know; it's a weird world. People want to tell you they know how you should live your life. That's one of my conclusions at this age, is people are happy to tell you they think they know how you should do your thing, which I find absurd. That's why I liked the Kinsey Report so much, even though it was flawed. I just think it was a great lesson for we, humans, to just be like, "Okay, people are different. Get over it. Quit trying to ram your little provincial worldview down somebody else's throat." I don't know if I told you, but one of my girlfriends' dads pounded his finger on my chest when I said I wasn't going to go to college. He's like, "I didn't f*ing ask you if you're going to college! I said, ‘When!'" He was literally pounding his index finger. That guy that I told you about the cult, he pounded his index finger on my chest—literally pounded it on my chest: "What more important thing do you have to do than come work for me?" So, I've got a lot of fingers pointed on my chest. I have. Like I said, it leads me with a weird mixture of anger, defiance, hurt, and indifference, if that makes any sense. Because the truth of the matter is, today, I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and I do my thing, and believe me, I'm not sitting around wondering what anyone else has to say about it. There's no way you do the seven-year journey that I did on my own. That's not a journey of vanity. Do you know what I mean? It's not. There's no one that even cares that I'm sitting there studying whatever. Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Anybody in my world of electricians, and family, or whatever, they don't care. Are they going to be impressed that I know Maxwell's equations? No, they don't even know what that means. It really had to be a voyage of independence, so that's for sure there.
ZIERLER: Among the rejections that were substantive, that came with feedback, what were some of the themes that justified why you were the chosen candidate? Was it credentials? Is that really what it comes down to?
PHILLIPS: No. Well, I don't know. By the time that at least I got to WashU, I would say I had a mixed success rate. Sometimes on problem sets, my solutions would be so interesting and weird that they'd use them for the solutions, but then on the qualifying exam, I would crash and burn and only approximately get passed. So, any time that I was asked to be a performing monkey, to perform somebody else's symphony, that led to people saying, "This guy is not up to the occasion." Lots of times when people tell me, "Here's a thing, can you have a go at it?" Then I actually performed beyond expectations, whether it's teaching freshman biology here, or the evolution course, or Physical Biology of the Cell, or giving keynote addresses, or whatever. Then it's, "Leave me alone. Let me just be me," and then people will find that often—I don't mean that out of some arrogance. Maybe it just comes back to this general theme of, what makes life great is the differences between people. When people say to me, "That's not the way I would do it," that's always pejorative. I always wanted to say, "Hallelujah! That's why we're friends, because you wouldn't do it the way that I would do it, and that's the whole point. I want to hear what your take is." It's a lonely little life each of us leads, and other people have visions, and none of us are big enough to know everything or to see everything. So yeah, there were very concrete rejections. The guy on the train, Don Trexler, that was huge. It wasn't a rejection. It was just a very precise feedback: credentials. From Anders Carlson, my advisor, that was also very precise: "There's a blackboard on my door. You want to talk to me about physics? Write equations." So I did. I learned how to do that, and I learned how to do maximum entropy, and how to write the moments of the distribution, and I learned what a Gaussian was. I knew none of that when I arrived there. As far as postdocs go, I don't really know. It was probably just the give and take of daily life, of seeing the creativity of Henley and Sethna in play when they taught. Both of those guys were just absolutely off-scale—also Ben Widom. I learned a lot in classrooms by watching people, watching really active minds at work, because they weren't teaching some undergraduate required course; they were telling us their best vision of statistical mechanics, or their best vision of solid-state physics. Or, like I told with Jaynes; I had him for stat-mech and E&M. Those were his vision. They were not a recast version of Jackson or something. Anyway, I'm rambling.
ZIERLER: Not at all. You didn't apply in the first round for the Brown position?
PHILLIPS: You mean when I was at Sandia?
ZIERLER: No, when you were at Cornell.
PHILLIPS: No, I applied.
ZIERLER: You did apply?
PHILLIPS: I was sitting there in the pile of rejects, and then what happened is that they did their shortlist, and nobody bubbled up to the top, so they decided to go look again.
ZIERLER: In the reject pile.
PHILLIPS: In the reject pile, and then they invited me to come out. I rented a car. I drove over there. You can't imagine this, but they put me up in the Brown faculty club thing, and they had a schedule for me, and they met me for breakfast, and I didn't know anything about that, so I prepared hard. That's one of the things that I can offer people, is how to prepare, how to know what your—each stage has a reason—how to know how to prepare for a thing like that. I was very prepared, and I had already written what would amount to my first proposal. I didn't do it because I intended to show anyone, nor did I do it because I was going to use it. I did it because I needed to do the work of figuring out: What am I going to say my first two grad students are going to work on? What am I going to do if I show up here? How am I going to handle the fact that this is a solid-mechanics group, and I'm from a physics department working on quasicrystals? What's the bridge between those two worlds? And I had one, which is linking atoms to macroscopic behavior, and that transcends the particulars of quasicrystals. So, they bought it. It turns out there was a very aggressive questioner in my talk, and a little bit of my fieriness came out, and I don't know whether that was good or bad, but they already got a little preview of what kind of personality I have. Apparently they liked it, because the guy was a little bit difficult. I definitely wasn't having it even though it was a job interview. I was just like, "Yeah, not having this."
Nailing it at the Visit to Brown
ZIERLER: How much were you aware of Brown's reputation before the offer came through?
PHILLIPS: It was only about that time that I started to really get a sense—before the interview, I got a sense of it when I learned about Ben Freund. I had already been thinking a little bit about mechanics, and I learned about him on fracture mechanics, and I learned about Jacques Duffy, and basically just got a sense of what that department had meant, and then I knew that was really, really a serious place. It was interesting because I went from being my electrician guy, to WashU, which you might call second tier in some sense, to Cornell, which is definitely first tier, and now I'm getting a faculty job first tier. It was sort of disorienting, which I guess coming here was too. It still is. I went swimming in the pool last night, and I just had a thought while I was swimming, "What's going on here? It's weird. Even though I've been here 25 years, I can't believe I'm swimming in this pool, looking at those mountains. What happened?"
ZIERLER: You said you came prepared. What did you articulate when they asked?
ZIERLER: I remember very well sitting in Ben Freund's office. I was looking forward to talking to him, and he wanted to know what I was interested in. I said, "I just think that the notion of material behavior from first principles is a really, really deep thing." What I've been working on at Cornell is this idea of—we started out with, "Where are the atoms?" That was the first talk I gave. Then the second talk was, "Are there atoms?" That was a play on words, but it was really saying, "Okay, we're going to find a way to eliminate those degrees of freedom." Aside from what happened with this biomass paper, which now kind of has exploded as my most cited thing ever—not that I look at that kind of thing all the time—but other than that, it's these things on quasicontinuum theory, where, with Michael Ortiz, who was a professor here also, and Ellad Tadmor—and really, Ellad was the driver—we had a nice synergy that allowed us to figure out how to link up atomistic simulation with finite elements and to study material problems in a totally new and fun way. Again, was it of cosmic importance? No, but it was definitely an insightful, cool step forward, and it happened very fast. [snaps fingers]
ZIERLER: And you got the job, at least informally, during your visit? They had wrapped it up in their minds, and they conveyed as much to you?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, although I have trust issues. A week later, Rod Clifton called me at our place on Warren Road in Ithaca, and Amy and my kids were out on the tire swing, and I signaled out through the window that Rod had said yes, and they literally were doing backflips on the grass. Literally doing backflips, literally.
ZIERLER: Wow! And you were pulling for this. You were really hoping.
PHILLIPS: Oh God, I just couldn't imagine a life without it. I did not know what I was going to do. I had no idea. It was pure, unadulterated heartbreak replaced by the exact opposite.
ZIERLER: So, for that week, you were just hoping that what they conveyed verbally would come through?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and it did. It was just one of these things where you'd kind of pinch yourself, because they make you an offer, and then they say, "We're going to help you with moving," and they want you to come over first and stay in a hotel. Casey, our older kid, we've lost him, five or six times. The first time we lost him was for 45 minutes at age 11 months. We lost him for four hours at age three-and-a-half. For this time, we lost him in the hotel at Brown. He's really an amazing climber and quite an outdoorsy guy, and if you asked him about it—it's funny to ask him—he'd say, "I was never lost." [both laugh] He's never been lost. At any rate, they had us over, and then they recruited us, and they had dinners, and they treated us like we belonged, and we got a house, and it's just like, "What? I can't believe this. How did this happen? How could we be so lucky? How could we possibly ever be so lucky?" What was super fun was, right from day one, it was like, "Go ahead and teach a special-topics course," and that was kind of the moment of, "Finally, I can just do me. That course was weird, and it was me."
ZIERLER: It's almost, you get back to being a high-school student just doing your own thing.
PHILLIPS: That's right. That's what it was, and I realized it very quick. I realized very quick, "Okay, I'm just not going to be the normal faculty member guy. I don't share the values of people that care about grades, and this particular collection of people likes me as I am." Odd as it may be, they just like me as I am.
ZIERLER: Did you not concern yourself with the tenure decision?
PHILLIPS: Not at all; didn't think about it at all.
ZIERLER: The idea is, if they liked you at this level, that's all the sign that you need that you can be you, and it's going to work out.
PHILLIPS: I don't know. It also has to do with issues about core values and character. In other words, what's fair play? I just don't like the idea of too many attempts to game the system. I felt I should do my best. Did I tell you about writing my tenure thing?
PHILLIPS: Oh, I thought I told you this. I think I told somebody last week. I had to write this report, which I got bound, and I was way more interested about what I had not accomplished, and I was way more interested in the parts about the failures.
ZIERLER: Oh yeah, you did tell me that.
PHILLIPS: I really did that! It's not some joke; I really did it! And then they sent it out to people, and I just felt like that was being true to my core values somehow, just being honest. Along the way, I got to meet all these people at Harvard, like Jim Rice and John Hutchinson, and we had this wonderful tradition at Brown of, every week, we all went to lunch together at the Meeting Street Cafe every Friday, and it was just so remarkable. The way we did hiring was unbelievable. The notion was that everybody participated—assistant professors, same as everyone else—and that once we made a decision that there was no undermining it, there was no complaining, there was no whining, and everybody was welcoming and greeted the new person with open arms, and that was the culture. I've never seen anything it. I just thought it was absolutely stunning.
ZIERLER: Did you feel like you wanted to or needed to reinvent yourself as a solid-mechanics guy?
PHILLIPS: Totally, yeah. What I did, and you can see, this is my second year there. As you can see, this is En 221, fall ‘94, so what I did in fall ‘93 is I took En 221. This is the grad course on continuum mechanics, and once again, I didn't know anything. Part of what I mean by that is that in solid mechanics, the things that Ares, Ravi, Michael Ortiz, and that type know is finite deformation. There's a whole mathematics of differential geometry, the so-called deformation gradient, and all these things, and I didn't know any of it, so I did two things. I took the course, but I'm like, "Let me teach it next year, instantly." I wanted to retool myself and repurpose myself as quickly as possible, and that's something I tell anybody that will listen here, is we always have to remember that when we hire people, we will change; they will change us, but we will change them too. So, I went there knowing I was going to change. In other words, the accident of where you get a job when you become an academic, one can lean into that and say, "Okay, I'm at this place." For example, here—maybe I'm misrepresenting, but I don't think so—we have this wonderful, young evolutionary biologist named Joe Parker, and his career trajectory since he's been here, I think is an impossible career trajectory elsewhere. Ellen Rothenberg has told me the same thing about her career in immunology and so on, that somewhere else, she would not have been able to do what she did here. So, I just felt like I've got to embrace every moment, so I took every single person's class. I took Rod Clifton's class, K. S. Kim's class, Fong Shih's class, Allan Bower's class, Ben Freund's class twice. I just tried to absorb everything those guys had to say.
ZIERLER: How much was that about, this is the intellectual journey you're on, and these are new things to learn; and how much of that is just a sense of service and loyalty to the people who gave you a shot?
PHILLIPS: Probably not that much on the latter, but maybe that just comes from a confidence that I kind of live by a dictum, and it shows up when I'm swimming or whatever. It's, "Always do more than is expected of you." That's just how I live, so I'd never had any doubt that I was going to give my all to them. I felt it was just cool to be able to hear a different perspective on something like surface instabilities. I knew that it was related to my themes of stuff of t. I have these themes, they're long standing themes in my life, which is, "How and why do systems evolve over time?" Ben was working on thin films and how they will spontaneously undergo sinusoidal instabilities, and I knew that was an example of stuff of t, so I wanted to hear how he thought about it. It's fun because, for sure, my statistical-physics things insinuated themselves in his thinking. He would be writing notes, and then I saw him doing more and more probability theory, and he would be talking more and more about Boltzmann and stuff that, which always made me feel great, like I was a valuable member of the scientific dialog. But again, I just had so much to learn, and it was super fun.
ZIERLER: Once you've got your bearings—you took all the classes, you read all the books—where could you contribute? Where was your research at that point? Maybe year two.
PHILLIPS: The thing that I guess was true is that then I was really working on these themes that are themes to this day. The theme is, "What is the right map?" To go back to the Borges thing, "How do I make a map of a material? How do I think about a material without, for example, necessarily having to talk about every single atom in that material?" What we were doing—this is primarily with Michael Ortiz; we wrote about 20 papers together—we were trying to figure out how to use this quasicontinuum method, this notion of mixing atoms and finite-element continuum descriptions, and blend them seamlessly. There was a numerical computational part of that where we just wanted to be able to do simulations, but in the background, there was also kind of an analytical—what are the principles at play here? What are the rules that have to do with finding the right degrees of freedom? You might know from physics this whole idea that renormalization group, which is a way of formally getting rid of degrees of freedom, and I've always felt that was so incredibly important. How do you get rid of degrees of freedom? I know I'm repeating myself, but that's really what our research was. We were trying to understand material behavior, nano-indentation, fracture, and plasticity on the basis of these mixed representations. That catapulted me over the tenure and all the way to full professor in six years [snaps fingers], so pass-through associate all the way to full professor, très vite [laughs], shall we say, with some amazing adventures along the way, which includes the beginning of our time in France, which is a huge part of our lives.
ZIERLER: When did that happen during the Brown years?
PHILLIPS: That was ‘96. I'd already been giving talks. It was a KITP of all places, Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics. I gave a talk on this indentation stuff, and there was this guy, Gilles Canova, who was in Grenoble, and he instantly invited me to come spend three months. We were very adventurous, so I just said, "Absolutely, yes." That's the picture of up here. You can see that plateau. Right there, that's called the Vercors. It's in the mountains above Grenoble, and I learned that a lot of professors lived up there and descended every day to work in Grenoble. So, he said, "You can either live in town, or you can live up in the mountains," and we just said, "Yeah, let's live in the mountains." So, we just got on a plane from Boston and flew to France to Lyon, and rented a car having never been there, and showed up in this little village, and our lives have never been the same. We spent four years there. You probably don't know this, but I teach in the French class here. I lecture in France. If I could, I'd speak French all the time. And that's when I learned, as a 36 year old. We had the law of the car whenever we descend or come down to Grenoble or come back. There was no English allowed, and I was really intense about it, and developed the best friends of our lives. The guy in whose house we live, he was the chief of that whole park, which is called the Regional Park of the Vercors, and I've done every single peak, every cave, winter, summer, all that stuff. We really started spending a lot of time there. This guy, Gilles, and I became very good friends, and they were thinking about defects in materials in really interesting ways. And the same theme! The theme was, "How do I treat dislocations?" Their mindset was, think of it as a bunch of strings, or spaghetti, and now write a theory of the strings and how they interact with each other. So, that was the continuation of the Brown years, getting to the bottom of all that kind of material-physics stuff.
ZIERLER: Did you ever cross pass with de Gennes?
PHILLIPS: Yes, I did, and he's one of the inspirations for me changing fields. I had dinner with him a few times. We were the two keynote speakers of the thing together, but he was another one that was, I would say, kind of out of my pay grade. I don't think he was particularly interested in what I had to say, and it's not that I was trying to offer him anything, but I was certainly interested in what he had to say. I really felt that he was one of the main influences in my life. The reason I said that is, I wrote this book, Crystals, Defects and Microstructures, up there, and by the time I got to the end, I kind of realized that all the stuff that we were doing was eking out the last 10% of understanding, and I really felt that he was a guy who knew how to be the first person on the scene rather than the last, and that's what inspired me. I really thought that's what I would to be more a participant in. You encounter phenomena—he had such a wonderful sense of "I wonder," a childlike innocence—and then you try hard to come up with estimates, and simple models, and intuition; you do a good job at your pedagogy; you try to give good talks that are captivating; and you interact with the experimentalists. He's one of my life's heroes; there's no doubt about it. I spent a lot of time at ESPCI, so I spent a year as a de Gennes fellow, going to this place in Paris. So yeah, a huge factor.
ZIERLER: To go back to Brown, when you got tenure, there must have been so many emotions running through your head at that point. In one sense, it's the ultimate validation, but you're also the electrician, and those are always going to be your people, so I wonder how you balanced all that stuff out.
PHILLIPS: I don't think I did, other than just as I do even today. I feel this immense sense of gratitude that you're sitting in my office talking to me, and that we're at the California Institute of Technology, and that people trusted you and me—both of us.
ZIERLER: One hundred percent.
PHILLIPS: You're actually a part of the great tradition. I was just in the archives a few weeks ago with some students, and we were looking at the various shelves, and I was like, "Oh, there's Willie Fowler." What's sad is, most of the people in my group don't know who he is. I'm just like, "Really? You've got to learn a little history, I think. You're not alone in this universe. There are other people who have come before you." So yeah, I felt an amazing sense of gratitude. I felt, and do to this day, so incredibly impressed that that collection of people would hire—Rick James, Michael Ortiz, and not that I'm up to their level, but people like me—they really take risks on people, and I admire that so much.
ZIERLER: Tell me about your research group, the graduate students you had at Brown.
PHILLIPS: I had amazing grad students. The first couple were Ellad Tadmor, Ron Miller, and Vijay Shenoy, three absolutely off-scale, brilliant guys, totally game, just a couple of years younger than me. They made me feel excited. They made me feel insecure. They made me feel responsible, but my passion, my sense of wonder, my sense of listening, gave them a lot of encouragement. I took Vijay and Ellad to France for a month and a half, going back to the ‘96 thing. We'd have parties all the time. I remember Vijay would come in my office, and he would take one of these markers—[paper shuffling] he's very mathematical—and he would always put the cap of the pen on his pinky finger like this, and then he would write equations on the board. What I would say is that I got there, and there was kind of a vision of how do you link up atomistics and continuum theory? Ortiz and Ellad had already been moving on this, and maybe what happened is I brought a few insights that allowed them to get past some of the things they didn't quite understand about how to do the atomistics. In very short order, we were getting super interesting results. I just loved them coming to my office. I would stay until 6:00 PM, and they'd come and we talk at the board, and they'd show me their results, and I would say, "Hey, what about this? Or wouldn't this be interesting? Or would this be exciting?" They really saved my ass in some sense. As I told you last time, I want to make sure to acknowledge the people who have made my life in science possible because I don't think I have the technical capacities to have done all the things that have been done theory-wise, computationally, and experimentally, myself. Those three guys, especially because they were the first three, really pushed things. There were others who came along the way who were also really interesting to work with. There was a guy who's now a professor at Urbana named Harley Johnson who worked with Ben and me and was thinking about how to merge quantum mechanics with these finite-element things. That was really fun in the context of quantum dots. There was a guy, Dan Paweskar. There was Nithin Bhate and Kedar Hardikar, where these guys were the next generation of people game to think about how to use quasicontinuum. I had a French visitor, David Rodney. We wrote a couple of, in my opinion, really beautiful papers. Then Vijay's brother, Vivek, came as a postdoc. He's a professor at Penn now. We hired him at Brown. So, I had two sets of brothers. I had the Shenoy brothers and the Tadmor brothers, all of them incredibly brilliant. It was just such a privilege to be able to work with people that were so talented, and I think part of what I offered them was some creativity, some oomph of, "Yeah sure, let's try it! What do we have to lose?"
ZIERLER: Did you become more theoretical at Brown?
PHILLIPS: Probably not. No, I was already pretty oriented in that way, although my math just continued to get better and better. I got to the point where I could teach that course that I mentioned, 221, even without note, and then I even figured out things that none of my colleagues there knew. There were certain questions I got interested in, and then I figured out, just for example, how to use symmetry to figure out how many elastic constants there are. This is not something I discovered. Other people knew it, but it's not something that, using group theory, most people know how to do. So, I felt good. Every time there was one of those moments where it was like, "Just do the craft, do the details, and trust the process." That's one of my main themes in life: If you don't show up, surely nothing's going to happen. Trust that if you show up, things will happen. And in general, they do, is what I have found. Does that answer your question about the students?
PHILLIPS: And note—up here, let me show you, because it's a cool thing—Ron Miller and Ellad wrote a two-volume set of books, and in a way, it's like, what more could you want from your former students than to do something that?
The Research and Cultural Pull of France
PHILLIPS: You can see, "Continuum, Atomistic and Multiscale Techniques," so that's what we all did together. The two of them both became professors, one at Minnesota, one in Canada. You can see as we page through [pages turning], it's obviously very mathematical. The electrician version of me is a little bit thrown by the fact that I actually could maybe even know what all those symbols mean.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Have you gone back to France? Has it been an anchor in your life?
PHILLIPS: A total anchor every year. In fact, I was just there. I'm trying to become a French actor. It's a bit of a joke, but I have lessons all the time. I just recently taught. I just took a job in Bidart, which is near Biarritz, on my human-impact stuff. A few weeks ago, right here, I just got interviewed by the governor of the largest region of France, which is Aquitaine, relative to starting a new lab. I was in a room, basically, and what they told me afterwards was I was one who tipped the meeting, and that was all some California guy doing it in French. So yeah, we spent a year there on sabbatical, and then every fall, I go to Biarritz. We have an apartment on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, and that's where I finished all my books. If I could, I'd spend all my time at the mountains and ocean in France, and I would speak French all the time. There's a reason for that that has to do with not taking life for granted. You and I take our lives for granted because we use our native tongue, and by not using one's native tongue, you get to see things you wouldn't see otherwise. That's why I like it so much. It makes it realize all the things I take for granted. Look at how easily you and I are blabbing, but there's a lot of subtlety that we're not acknowledging, whether it's idioms or, I don't know, just everything. The thought process is very interesting. So, every year.
ZIERLER: To set the stage for next time, you were happy at Brown. You could have stayed there your whole career.
PHILLIPS: For sure. In fact, the surfing version of me was definitely happier there, and is to this day. In other words, my life as a surfer was better in Rhode Island than it is living here, and that bugs me quite a lot. I surfed all the time and loved it, and the crowds were less, and the ocean is beautiful and wonderful. I was indeed very happy there. There's no doubt about it. I consider it one of the signature privileges of my life to have been associated with Brown University. I loved being part of that little, weird Ivy League school. I think Providence is a secret of the Northeast, and Rhode Island is the best state in New England. I love the ocean. It's called the Ocean State, and I absolutely loved it. We had a sailboat, and I just thought it was magnificent.
ZIERLER: So, this was obviously a very hard decision for you.
PHILLIPS: It was, but in a certain sense, the notion of coming home made it. There wasn't even a negotiation. In other words, coming home made more sense.
ZIERLER: For my last question today, what were you working on either generally or specifically in the timeframe that turned heads at Caltech?
PHILLIPS: Fundamentally, it was the development of this mixed atomistic continuum theory that I already told you about, and we can talk about it next time, but the discussions that I had with Richard Murray when I got hired here were super interesting, because I said, "I'm done. I want to have a lab. I have not even seen a pipette once in my whole life, but I want to have a lab. And I'm definitely going bio, and I'm not going to do it by dipping my feet in the shallow end. I'm going the whole way."
ZIERLER: Richard must have been the perfect person for you in that moment.
PHILLIPS: He was. I was his first hire. I was the first person he hired when he was division chair in engineering. He was like, "Yeah, you go for it." It's really amazing because, first of all, I was living in France. We were on sabbatical when he and I did all the negotiations, and then when we came back here, there was a two-year gap of writing no papers. The thing that's important is I turned down every invitation for invited talks. I did not renew my grants. I basically said, "I'm doing this. I'm going hell or high water. I'm doing this." In retrospect, it was a pretty intense decision, but that's the privilege of tenure, right?
ZIERLER: It better be. That's the ideal.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, so I just feel like I should not waste that privilege. Caltech, every single time, has risen to the occasion and been there for me, and I hope I've been able to be there for it a little, teeny-tiny bit. [David laughs] They have been there for me, starting with that, with Richard. That was an amazing negotiation. Perhaps a few of the people in the solid-mechanics group here were disappointed by what I did when I got here, or maybe they weren't quite convinced that I would do it so aggressively, but hopefully, over the long haul, I can retrospect over the—by the time I'm done as a professor here, people will look upon it and say, "Well, even though he didn't deliver on the promise of solid mechanics or whatever, what he did otherwise was okay." Something like that.
ZIERLER: Next time, we're going to pick up on the question of how and when you went full-in on biology.
PHILLIPS: That'd be a blast.
ZIERLER: That's the next question.
[End of Recording]
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Wednesday, April 19, 2023. It is great to be back with Professor Rob Phillips. Rob, thanks again for having me over.
ROB PHILLIPS: Thank you. Nice to see you again, as always.
ZIERLER: Question to start: Just administratively, did you have a visiting professorship here before the official position? Tell me the circumstances, how that came about.
PHILLIPS: That was in 1996, and I think it was called the Clark Millikan Visiting Professorship. It was in mechanics or aeronautics or something like that. It was under the auspices of Michael Ortiz, Ares Rosakis, and Ravi, I think, were the ones who kind of pushed it.
ZIERLER: And you knew Michael from your Brown years.
PHILLIPS: That's right, and I knew those guys too, because they had also been at Brown once upon a time. Their idea was for me to come out, I think, in January, and to spend maybe two terms here. I taught basically the same course I taught at Brown, here. At that point, I think that there was some move afoot to possibly hire me, and then the feedback I got—this is probably not that great to pass along—was that, "I wasn't ready yet." [both laugh]
ZIERLER: Meaning big time? Like at Caltech?
PHILLIPS: I guess. I take that that's what it meant. Then there was another three-and-a-half years of me being at Brown, which was delightful. I have absolutely nothing but great things to say about being there. When I continued to learn, I finished my book. But yeah, I was visiting professor here, and I thought it was great. I loved being back in California, which is where I'm from, and my kids went to a private school here that maybe doesn't exist anymore. But yeah, that was a situation.
ZIERLER: The visiting professorship was exclusively in the mechanics part of your—
PHILLIPS: That's right.
ZIERLER: This is not biology.
PHILLIPS: Absolutely not.
ZIERLER: You're not thinking about any of that at this point.
PHILLIPS: No. In fact, aside from having read the biography of Max Delbrück, at that point, probably, biology was not a very big thing for me. I was aware we would have speakers. For example, Lorna Gibson, who's at MIT, would come to Brown and give talks and seminars about bone mechanics and things like that. It was clear that there would be very interesting things to consider, but it wasn't really until, let's say, 1999, that it all started to really become clear for me.
ZIERLER: So, you didn't really have interaction with biology professors during the visiting professorship.
ZIERLER: The fact that David Baltimore, eminent biologist, was president, that didn't really even register?
PHILLIPS: Didn't register at all. There was zero. I didn't know anybody in the biology division at all. Not a single person. They weren't even a blip on my radar screen, and I wasn't one on theirs either.
ZIERLER: But you were here long enough to know that this was a terrific place—
PHILLIPS: For sure. That part was obvious, and it was definitely a sense of coming home.
ZIERLER: Then you mentioned 1999. What happened in 1999?
PHILLIPS: I'm in the final stages of finishing my book, Crystals, Defects and Microstructures. We were running a search at Brown, and one of the candidates that really rose the top there and got hired was a guy named Tom Powers. He came from UPenn working with a guy named Phil Nelson, and Phil was working on a book called Biological Physics. Here it is. I wrote him, and I said I would love to read the draft version of this thing. This is when I was getting ready to go on sabbatical. I read every single page of it, did every single calculation, sent him all sorts of comments, and he has, in the meantime, done the same for me more than once, actually, on my books, and we became really great friends. Basically those two things happened, so we hired Tom Powers. I really got to see that there was a lot of excitement.
ZIERLER: You hired Tom Powers in your department at Brown?
ZIERLER: Was that intellectually very important in terms of the crossover appeal of what biology could bring too?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and I think I told you before that I was very impressed with the way that Brown did hiring. That Division of Engineering solid-mechanics group was always very liberal in their interpretation of mechanics. They were very forward looking. They were always ahead of the game. Not to be snide or anything, but I think that in general, Caltech is not in that mode. I'm sorry to say. I think that Brown was way more adventurous about, "Okay, this thing looks like it's going to be an interesting thing, not because it's a fad, not because it's the thing everybody's doing. Au contraire, because it just seems interesting." So, hiring Tom, I think, was big. We were one of the first solid-mechanics groups to make such a move, and then many followed, and lots of people follow Brown. That's been my experience.
ZIERLER: Tell me about Tom's trajectory. How did he get to writing that book?
PHILLIPS: You mean Phil Nelson?
ZIERLER: I'm sorry, Phil Nelson.
PHILLIPS: Tom was his grad student. Phil, he refers to himself as a recovering string theorist. [David laughs] He was a fellow at Harvard, super, super heavy-duty theorist. Princeton undergrad in physics. Harvard, I think grad school, and then also Harvard fellow, and doing string theory, and then he got hired at UPenn. When he was there, he met people like Tom Lubensky, and he started shifting, and then a super serious player. He became a great friend of mine, somebody that supported me from day one and that I've learned so much from. We've written some papers together as well.
ZIERLER: To contrast this idea that institutionally Caltech is not as adventurous as Brown in their hiring decisions and our expansiveness of fields, how do you square the circle with Richard Murray and you being his first hire when you were about to jump in the deep end of the pool?
PHILLIPS: Maybe that renders what I said a bit unfair.
ZIERLER: Or maybe it just speaks to just how unique Richard is. Also, his first hire! That is really adventurous.
PHILLIPS: Very adventurous. He basically took me at face value when I said I was going to change fields. I did not intend to keep going down this path that I had been on, and he took me seriously. I think he really believed that and was supportive of that. My intent is not to criticize Caltech at all. It's just to say that maybe it's also a statement about size. At Brown, the group is 10 or 11 people, and they just have a culture of working together. Our divisions are much bigger, and there's a lot of competing views.
ZIERLER: The circumstances of your hire here, were you hired on the basis that you would be a mechanics guy? And then in your conversations, you said, "If I'm coming here, I'm doing biology"? Or had you already adopted the mantle of, "I'm doing biology, and if you hire me, that's how it's going to be."
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I think it's probably more the latter. You'd have to ask people like Michael Ortiz, Ravi, and Richard what they think. Just to continue the story, I was getting ready for my sabbatical. I learned about this experiment done at UC Berkeley by Carlos Bustamante and Doug Smith in which they grabbed onto a viral genome and measured the force that builds up when the genome is pushed inside of the viral capsid. That was the end for me. When I learned that you could do mechanics—there are machines in Firestone building called Instron machines, and they're giant loading devices. When I learned that you could use a one-micron bead and put it in a microscope and essentially reproduce an Instron machine, I just was blown away. I just thought, this is what I need to do: I need to do mechanics at the microscopic scale as it pertains to biology. So, that was the limited vision at the time that I got hired here. My version, which might have some element of sarcasm to it, is that I was going on my sabbatical in 2000, and UC Santa Barbara recruited me. I didn't apply there, but they recruited me, and they made me an offer, and Caltech asked me to come yet again because I had been and given a lot of talks, at that point. This is a week before we were leaving for France for a year, to that place. I came out, I gave a talk, and I just almost laughed. I just said, "You guys have been flirting with me for four years, and it's hard to take this very seriously at this point." They had me meet with people in applied physics, like Kerry Vahala and Steve Quake. I met with Niles Pierce, which was really interesting. That was Richard basically saying, "Look, here's a guy that started out as an applied mathematician and shifted to biology in his postdoc with Steve Mayo." Oddly, to my great surprise, when we got to Lans-en-Vercors, which was where we were living, Richard got in touch with me. We went through several months of negotiations, and in December of that year, while I was on sabbatical, I left Brown and started my job here. I started my job while living in France and did not come here for another nine months.
ZIERLER: Were the negotiations about how to build up a lab?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that among other things. That was one of the things that Richard and I did. I said I really thought that unlike the maturity of mechanics or physics, people who were doing theory in biology were not going to get the attention of experimental biologists to "test" whatever it is that they're thinking about. I kind of had a hunch that we would need to test our own thinking. Indeed, that was right. That's still true to this day. So, we negotiated space. We negotiated some startup, which was, now in retrospect, how silly I was not really knowing what it would take to start a lab or anything like that. I started out in Thomas building, and then I moved to Steele. I took over John Crocker—I forgot his name—Crocker's lab, and then I moved into this building in 2005, so I had a five-year period of getting up to speed experimentally. We didn't write any papers for a couple of years also, which was exciting, because I really turned my back on my former life. I might have told you that. I did not pursue renewing my grants. I said "no" to invited talks. I really was through. I felt like I needed to go all the way.
The Move to Caltech and Embracing the Entirety of Science
ZIERLER: What did you take with you, at least intellectually, as you're posing the new research agenda, as you're building the lab? What is your prior experience in forming what you want to do?
PHILLIPS: There, I have to say that in some ways, that's entirely seamless. There was no change from postdoc to Brown to Caltech. Already, as a postdoc, I think I mentioned to you that I was giving talks with titles, like, the first one was, "Where Are the Atoms?" And the next one was, "Are there atoms?" I was already on this mission of, "What are the right degrees of freedom?" If you're going to do theory about the world, what are the right degrees of freedom? And how do you not fall prey to the dictum of the short story of Borges, which is to not construct a map the size of the empire. To me, for theoretical science, that is the goal. How do you make a map of the natural world that's not as big as natural world? That's the goal. That was absolute continuity. Truthfully, when we were working on DNA packing—and there's some evidence that backs this up—as soon as Michael Ortiz found out about it, he and his former student and my dear friend, Bill Klug—we're going to have a sad moment talking about him—they basically wrote a really interesting field-theory paper. I had done discrete DNA molecule packing with this guy, Prashant Purohit, who came from Kaushik Bhattacharya's group, and my friend Jané, and those guys wrote a field theory of the DNA packing. The reason I said we will have to have a moment of sadness is Bill got his PhD here. He became a professor at UCLA. He did a sabbatical right down the hall here. We went on a surf trip to Indonesia, and you might or might not remember, but I don't know, 6 or 8 years ago, a grad student went to UCLA and killed his advisor, and that was Bill, my dear friend Bill. I wrote his obituary and I still feel really sad about that. But that's just to say that, it was clear that there was really, very interesting stuff to do on mechanics. When I was getting hired, Steve Koonin wanted to talk to me. He was the provost. I told him I was thinking of writing a book on physical biology even though I didn't know the difference between a protein and a nucleic acid, and I was going to try to do mechanics in biology. This is while I was living in France. He said, "You need to talk to some people at Caltech, and the person you need to talk to is Doug Rees." So, I called Doug, and we had this great discussion because he was working on the mechanosensitive ion channels, which is something to this day that I remain interested in. In fact, just two days ago, I was at USC talking to my former postdoc, Christoph Haselwandter, and he and Rod MacKinnon are doing beautiful things on these Piezo channels, which are how we experience touch, among other things. So, Doug and I had this long chat, and he was nothing but generous with me, and we wrote a couple of really interesting papers on mechano-sensitive channels, which, in a way, are paradigm changing. This was with Paul Wiggins, and really had a totally new idea about what it means for tension to couple to a protein and how you open up an ion channel in response to mechanics. What I'm saying is that the DNA-packing problem and the mechano-sensitive ion-channel problem, those were my two first things that I dug my teeth into. Both of them had complete continuity relative to what I've been doing at Brown, except instead of thinking about aluminum and deformation of aluminum, I was thinking about lipid bilayers and proteins. But in both cases, the question was, how does force get transmitted to objects? And what happens when force is transmitted to objects? That was really what the topic was.
ZIERLER: Is this, just at a deeper level, part of a realization that it's all science?
PHILLIPS: Yes, and in fact, it's so funny you mentioned that because I'm teaching Bi 1 this term, and on the first day, I told them, "I'm going to rename this course. Welcome to Nature 1. We're not going to do this thing—these names of these fields are a human-made construct, and I'm going to talk about the natural world that we see out the window. That's nature, and we're trying to understand nature, so welcome to Nature 1. That's what my course is called."
ZIERLER: Even more than that, it's Nature 1 that encompasses living and nonliving materials.
PHILLIPS: That's right. At the end of the day, in the 1800s, this guy, Mendeleev, found a great way to see simplicity in the different materials of this universe. Like, there are elements and you can take those elements, and you can do stuff with them, and one of the things you can do with them is make amazing materials, like the modern airliner. But another way weirder, to my mind, way more provocative thing you can do with them is you and me. I still kind of marvel, in a way, at why physics as a field hasn't been more aggressive in saying, "Sure, high magnetic fields, low temperatures. That's cool, but come on. We're walking around. Those are the elements of the periodic table walking around." You're sitting in my office.
ZIERLER: With consciousness. [laughs] These two problems that you mentioned—of all the things to work on, why these two? What's the bigger story there?
PHILLIPS: There's a lot of accident, but the Doug connection just seemed great. I really liked him, and I thought the problems were amazing, and in both cases, there was a killer experiment. The killer experiment on the viral packing thing was the Bustamante experiment. They calculated how much force builds up as the genome is pushed into the capsid, and they measured a force in piconewtons, and I wanted to calculate the force-displacement curve. For the mechano-sensitive ion-channel case, this guy, Eduardo Perozo, Sergey Sukarev, Boris Martinac, and others who I'm forgetting, they put the channel in different lipids. The lipids have different thicknesses. In other words, the membrane has a different thickness, and what they found is that the gating tension, how much force you have to apply to get the channel to open up depends on the thickness of the bilayer, that's a smoking gun that somehow the surrounding medium is not a passive bystander. So, for both of them, there was a killer experiment which was calling for theory to be done, so we did theory. That's what our first papers were, and then the theories made predictions, so that led to a 10-year effort in experimental science where now the paradigm is very different from the standard biological paradigm. We're doing what I always refer to as figure-1 theory. I wrote a paper on this that a lot of people, I think, resonate with. When I say figure-1 versus figure-7 theory, I think, often in biology, figure-7 theory is the way things play out. What does that mean? People spend five years doing their experiments. At the end of their paper, they put a model, and that's their theory. Figure-1 theory is where the theory is ahead of the experiments, and you design the experiments because you have a prediction you want to test. That's what happened, both for the mechano-sensitive ion channel, and for the viral DNA packing and DNA looping, and many of the other things that we've done. We thought we knew what we were talking about. We were willing to make dangerous predictions. I always imagine, you put your head on the chopping block and you're like, "I think such and such is right, and here's how it will scale with salt concentration, genome length, lipid bilayer thickness, whatever." We think we know.
ZIERLER: In physics, there's a very clear demarcation between experimentalists and theorists; biology, it's a little muddier than that. A lot of biologists don't even think about theory or the value of theorists for their work.
ZIERLER: Given your background, what advantages did you see in terms of making a mark in the field, adding value with the perspective that might not have been there?
PHILLIPS: Maybe this will sound like false modesty, but I truly believe that it's not like we've made some mark on the field necessarily, but stylistically, for the long run, I just believe in this approach to discovery. In other words, do I want to denigrate the great achievements of the subject of biology? Absolutely not. But! On the other hand, if you can't measure a 1/106 thing, you don't get to discover exoplanets. So, I feel that the field of biology needs to demand more of itself, and part of that means—like nowadays, we in my lab make curves, and I always make the joke, we could change the labels on the x-axes, and I can trick condensed-matter physicists to think that I'm looking at current-voltage, or something like that. That's pretty damn good that that's the state of art. That's, in a way, how I feel about my career since I've been at Caltech, and there's a little bit of annoyance with it, which is people keep moving the goal posts. They keep saying, "You can't make predictions." And every time we do and they work, they're like, "But that's not the real system," or, "That's not a eukaryote," or, "That's not a multicellular organism," or that's not a this, or that's not a that. My view is this is what it takes to really, really know and understand stuff deeply. So, I put a high value on rigor, maybe, and I think the response, often in biology, is that we're dotting i's and crossing t's. And I'll live with that. Each of us makes bets, and my bet is that in 50 years, when physics and biology are taught, lots of times they will look more like what we're doing in my lab than they do in some more qualitative, old-school ways. But that's a bet; I don't know.
ZIERLER: It's a stylistic mark, as you were saying.
PHILLIPS: It's a stylistic mark. And again, in terms of impact, I feel rather pessimistic about that. But at the end of the day, I guess the little contribution that maybe one could say that we've made is to try to share some enthusiasm for the natural world with students, both undergrads and grad students, and when I do my boot camps, faculty members that come from elsewhere, or postdocs. Just somehow to be resonant with our curiosity and a sense of wonder, and then also a sense of wonder at the power of the human mind. This week, I'm going to give homework in freshman biology where they're going to use potassium-argon dating to figure out how old Lucy is, the fossil, and also how old the Galapagos tortoises are. The reason this is interesting is that probably all of us know about radioactive dating, but do you actually know, given a rock, and you measure potassium and argon, what formula to use to figure out the age? What I'm excited about is—and I do this in the evolution class too—I'm excited to let the students see for themselves the power they have in their minds. They're going to write down differential equations. They're going to integrate them, and they're going to get a formula, and the formula is going to be of the form, [writes on chalkboard] age of the rock is going to be equal to one over the decay constant, which is like the half-life or the rate constant, and a logarithm of one plus number of argons over number of potassiums, or vice versa, I don't remember. But, that superpower kind of shocks me—that just the human mind, just by sitting and thinking can come up with such a crazy thing, which is: You tell me how many argon and potassium nuclei you've got in that rock, and I'll tell you how old it is.
ZIERLER: That's pretty amazing.
PHILLIPS: It's pretty amazing, and that's what I feel—you talk about contribution or whatever; again, I have a pretty pessimistic view of that, but in the classroom, there will be some small number of students that might have that little moment of, "Wow, I just sat there by myself"—like we were talking about Eratosthenes. It's the same thing. I sat there by myself, and I dreamed, "How would I figure out the age of that rock?" We talked about Clair Patterson. In his case, the ratio was uranium and lead; it what was the same basic idea.
ZIERLER: Tell me about building up the lab. First of all, what instrumentation do you know to ask for? How do you figure that out?
PHILLIPS: I didn't, so we didn't buy anything in the immediate short-run at all, really. My scheme always is to teach things, so with Steve Quake, I started teaching everything that I possibly could. I started flirting with these little versions of boot camps. I did ME, maybe it was Mechanical Engineering 96; I don't remember, but a lab class. I scraped together some AFM from somewhere. I got a microscope; that was something that Richard probably helped me out with. We used our own lab microscope in teaching, and that was something I did all the time in the early years of my lab, and we still do, which is, we use our own equipment for the purposes of teaching. So, I had a Nikon, which we still have; I can even go show it to you. We figured out how to make vesicles, in other words, spheres of lipid bilayer that are fluorescently labeled, and look at them in a microscope. We figured out how to label DNA, and for 10 years, we sat around and tried to learn how to do things, and that was the power of some amazing people, like Paul Grayson, Lin Han, Paul Wiggins, Hernan Garcia, Frosso Seitaridou and Tristan Ursell, the early generation, all of them were game to join a lab where I didn't know what was going on, and to do the adventure.
ZIERLER: I was going to ask you about attracting graduate students and postdocs, and if that was at least dicey in the beginning. It sounds like it wasn't.
PHILLIPS: It wasn't particularly dicey, and I generally don't have postdocs, and I didn't during that era. There were no postdocs that came and were the dominant force; it was really the grad students. If you look at the publications, you'll see—let's just take Paul Grayson. He was one of the early ones on the phage stuff, so he figured out how to do single-molecule experiments looking at DNA being shot out of viruses, and it's an amazing thing in the sense that—I became friends with Seymour Benzer; you might remember that in the early days, he worked on phage. He came to my lab downstairs here, and we showed him DNA being shot out of phage lambda fluorescently, and he literally said, "Oh my god." What a moment for us. We figured out how to do this experiment.
ZIERLER: And you blew Seymour Benzer's mind. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and we blew Seymour's mind, and that's a good thing.
ZIERLER: What was Seymour like?
PHILLIPS: He was the best. I don't know if you ever read Time, Love, Memory, but I've read that three or four times, and I might have told you, Jon Weiner's son was in my lab. Did I tell you that? The author. The reason—I've got a very weird personal connection. Jon's dad was Jerry Weiner, who I was hired to replace at Brown. Jerry had a grandson who was Jon's son, I think his name was Aaron, who was thinking of not going to college, or dropping out of college. So, John Weiner called me up, and he's like—
ZIERLER: Just the man to talk to. [laughs]
PHILLIPS: Just the man to talk to. I said, "Hey, let's have him come hang out on the lab." So, he came for maybe six months or something. Anyway, Seymour was a wonderful, maybe the most impressive person I've known since I've been here. I'd loved his spirit. He had a sense of wonder. I don't know if the story about when Sarkis gave his job talk, but when Seymour died, they read a letter, an email that Seymour sent to Sarkis the day after. Seymour was so excited that when he went poop the next morning, he grabbed it and put it on the microscope because he was so excited about this notion of the microbiome. I just felt like every time I talked to him, I was engaging with a mind that was not focused on the careerism stuff, but that was focused on the joy of discovery, the curiosity about what the world's like, and that kind of stuff. He was a really, really great guy.
ZIERLER: Not having postdocs, is there a grand theory there for you?
PHILLIPS: I don't know if it's theory, but I just like working on stuff where I don't know the answer and where we have six years to let things unfold.
ZIERLER: So, a postdoc appointment of two or three years is just too short a time frame?
PHILLIPS: It's too short, and too much responsibility in the sense that they want and need to get jobs appropriately, and that kind of means hitting the ground running. I've got a bunch of new grad students right now, and in all their cases, you see kind of the amorphous emergence of their own vision. I have had several postdocs, and they've been amazing. Two of our most interesting experimental papers were done with this guy, Rob Brewster, and another postdoc Franz Weinert. Super proud of them, but they were here a long time. They were here like grad students. They might have had longer times here than they did in grad school.
ZIERLER: So, the deal is if you're a postdoc, to work with you, expect to be here a while.
PHILLIPS: Well, but I think that's true in most postdocs-in-biology's cases. It's a long thing, unlike physics, but in general, it's not my thing. Right now, I don't have any postdocs, really. I share one with Dianne Newman—Avi, who you know.
ZIERLER: It wasn't risk in terms of tenure, obviously, but risk just in terms of new institution, new field, new lab; did you have a feeling of, "Oh my god, this is working. It's clicking." Is there a singular moment where that happens? Is it a sort of evolutionary process?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I just feel so much that over and over again, I've had luck. One of the first things that happened when I came here is I got some Keck funding, which is internal. Then, the amazing thing that happened to me—stunning, which could not happen now—is that I got the NIH Director's Pioneer Award. I was in the first group that got this thing. It was a new idea from Zerhouni, when he was the director, and there were like twelve of us, and it was some insane—it's for five years, roughly $800,000 a year. It's a huge amount of money. I basically asked them right from the get-go, "Can I bank this on no-cost extensions?" And I ran my lab on it for eight or nine years. So, that was the era in which we patiently learned how to do our craft, and it was due to the brilliance, the patience, and the openness of this collection of students. Each one had a thing. Lin Han figured out how to do DNA looping experiments. Paul Grayson figured out how to do the DNA packing and ejection things. Tristan Ursell figured out how to do lipid-bilayer mechanics. Hernan Garcia figured out how to do gene regulation. It goes on and on like that, and we would sit in this office, and we would discuss. Just to give you an example, I'm very proud of certain papers not because they're referenced by anybody, but because they reflect our learning. Hernan, James Boedicker, Heun Jin Lee, and I wrote a paper in Biophys. J. that basically was nothing more than comparing different ways of measuring gene expression. You could use enzymes; you could use fluorescence; you could count mRNA molecules using what's called FISH. People are partisan about these things, and I don't want to be partisan. I want to know how to do all of them, and I want them all to work. In other words, if I measured g, little g—you might know the classic story about Niels Bohr with the barometer.
ZIERLER: Oh, yeah.
PHILLIPS: I love that. Just for the people who don't know that, I'll just say it very quickly, which is, they asked this guy on a qualifying exam how to figure out the height of the building using a barometer, and he basically says something like, "I'd give it to the guy who works at the building and tell him, ‘I'll give it to you if you tell me how high the building is.'" At any rate, it was supposedly at the University of Copenhagen, and they said, "You're flunking the test." So, he came back, and he said, "I would hang it from a rope and measure the period of the pendulum at the top and the bottom, and I would drop it from the top of the building," and he gave all these things showing, of course, a clear command of physics. And he said, "But I know that the answer you expect me to give you is something about using pressure difference at different heights, but that's stupid." So, I loved the fact that we could just see whether different methods agreed, and we spent a lot of time on that kind of thing.
ZIERLER: From those first initial questions, where did you go from there? Or what did you build on as a result of—
PHILLIPS: Right at that time, always, 100% integrated into all of this stuff was teaching. Maybe that's why it wasn't freaking out, because I just knew that I could, every year, go into the classroom and do Physical Biology of the Cell, I could do BE 262, APH 162, which was a lab class. The beauty of the lab class is the way that Steve Quake and I did them. They were investigative. It wasn't like, "Oh, we're going to measure the charge on the electron." It was more like, "Here's some stuff, and this time we're going to try x, y, and z." And we just kept doing that. We kept doing that here, and then we started doing it at the Marine Biological Laboratory. I got invited very early on to be part of that course, so teaching and research were just the same thing, It was always, "Here's a snapshot of where we are today, and we're just going to keep trying because we're confident; we trust the process." So, this book with Jané Kondev was what I was working on from 2000 on. Constantly, constantly, constantly, the goal was, every chapter of this book, there needed to be a paper. You can see [pages turning] it's like 22 or so chapters, and we basically met that goal. What I mean by that is that we were working in a way that, to many people, looked neurotic. Why? We worked on viruses. We worked on DNA looping. We worked on mechanosensitive channels. We worked on reduced alphabets for protein-sequence comparison. We worked on the cytoskeleton. We worked on allostery. Endless sets of things that we were doing seemed to lack a coherent vision, but the coherent vision was, can we make biology predictive? That's what they all shared. Let's say until 2017, those first 17 years here were nothing but a series of case studies in physical biology, always with the intent of demonstrating the figure-1 theory mentality, the interplay between theory and experiment, the idea that you can do physics on biological systems. You can, and it works.
Aiming for Predictive Biology
ZIERLER: Let's back up. This idea—the quest to make biology predictive, the world of Max Delbrück's biology—would he have aiming for that? Would that have been a concept that would have even been available to him? What does that mean chronologically?
PHILLIPS: It's overly simplified for me to make it sound like we're the first ones on the scene. We're obviously not at all. People like John Hopfield, who was also here, they were definitely doing predictive things about hemoglobin, for example, and about kinetic proofreading. Even as long ago as Luria-Delbrück, they had a prediction about what their experiment would look like if evolution took place randomly, in other words there were random mutations, as opposed to the presence of an antibiotic, antiviral, virus, or whatever actually inspires mutation. There was a prediction. I think often about the early days of neuroscience when people like Helmholtz measured the speed of an action potential. People had some ideas about it being instantaneous, and the moment you make the measurement and you find out that it's finite, that changes the conversation. Similarly, the notion of synaptic communication, there's this whole debate between Golgi and Ramón y Cajal about the continuity or lack thereof of neurons, and whether or not there's chemical communication. There were super interesting things that were done using statistics. How many photons it takes for us to register vision? That's absolutely cut from the same mold as the kinds of things that we were up to, so I wouldn't want to claim that we were at all even early comers to that. I just think that it's the systematic nature, maybe, that's the thing that our book tries to illustrate.
ZIERLER: Are there advances either in instrumentation, technology, or theory that make the notion of predictability in biology more feasible in the early twenty-first century?
PHILLIPS: Absolutely. Here's an example that I think is a general theme: many of the old school methods for doing lots of things measured averages. Let's take gene expression. You take a ton of cells, and you extract enzyme that is the product of some gene, and then you use that enzyme to turn some substrate yellow. That's a bulk measurement. In this day and age, using microscopes, or using sequencing, I can get single-cell information, and that means I can get noise. The reason I mention that is that knowing the mean is great, but knowing the statistics around the mean is totally different, and when you know that, it's a window on the mechanism.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can explain, why is it totally different? What does that mean?
PHILLIPS: Because there are many ways to get the same mean, but the shape of the distribution is a lot more mechanistically dependent. If I were to talk to you about the length of filaments inside of cells, they have a cytoskeleton, so you could compute the distribution of length, and you could also measure it, and you get a histogram. If I make a plot—I'm making a plot on the board—this axis is length, and then on this axis is the frequency of the observation, and now there's a histogram, like that. The theory of the histogram is interesting. Let's take a classic example. You're the Prussian army, and you have a bunch of units, and then you find out that a certain number of soldiers are killed by getting kicked by horses, and there's more in this unit than that unit. Is it the fault of the commander? What we can do is we can actually have a null hypothesis, and here's my null hypothesis: it has nothing to do with the commanders, sometimes life's unfair. There's a classic example of this, which is the number of times a given neighborhood in London was hit during World War II by V-2s. People thought, "They were aiming at my neighborhood." But if you do the calculation with the Poisson distribution, you find, "Nope, just bad luck." So, using distributions as a window onto mechanism is incredibly powerful. I'll give you another example that I love; this is an experiment that was done by Dave Savage, who is at Berkeley. Cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria, have four thingies called carboxysomes, which have Rubisco in them, which is the thing that fixes carbon from the atmosphere. When the cell divides, you could have a hypothesis that every one of those things flips a coin. Sometimes you get two and two, and the two daughters; sometimes you get four and zero; sometimes you get three and one. So, they measured the statistics, and what they found is it's almost always two and two, and that tells you it's not a coin flip. Then they figured out which gene is the thing that segregates it, they break it, and now it becomes binomial—it becomes a coin flip. There are tons of examples like that, where knowing the distribution tells you, "I know something about the mechanism," and indeed, that was the trick of Luria-Delbrück.
ZIERLER: This realization then makes what possible?
PHILLIPS: It makes it so that we can say we understand things better. It means that we made progress. We predicted when that next eclipse is going to be. Next time Caltech sends mail that says they're going to put out telescopes—there was a transit of Venus, if I remember correctly, some years ago—they were like, "We'll be on the athletic fields at 2:04," and you go there, and you see the planet arrive and go across the sun. That's what I'm talking about. That's what biology can and should be like, at least in parts. That's what I'm talking about. I want to know, on December 25 of next year, high tide is going to be at such-and-such time, and it's going to be that many centimeters. That's the kind of science that I—that's the hopes that I hold out for biology.
ZIERLER: For you then, life must not be chaotic.
PHILLIPS: No, it's not that. Part of the beauty of people like Maxwell is that they realized that there's a theory of chaos. There's a theory of things that are random, and it works amazingly well. It works amazingly well. Because something is a random process, or there's stochasticity to it, does not mean that we're not able to predict it. We know that from insurance; we know very confidently how many people are going to die on our roads this year, unfortunately. We don't know who, so that's not part of the theory.
ZIERLER: Maybe the better word is, life might be anarchical.
PHILLIPS: Hmm, I don't know, maybe.
ZIERLER: Because chaos, as you indicate, suggests that there's a fundamentally predictive nature to it, which means that it's not anarchic.
PHILLIPS: The power of evolution is so enormous, and that's the umbrella over the processes over time, and I don't think of that as being anarchical. There's selection, there's drift, there's migration, there's mutation. We kind of know what the things are that give rise to the fact that, over the last 30-million years, these things that we call baleen whales started to exist. We know something about that. We know how that can happen.
ZIERLER: Rob, a few institutional questions. David Baltimore did not register with you during your visiting professorship. You came in 2000, right in the middle of his presidency. All of the ways that he worked to raise the profile of biology, life sciences, and biotech on campus during his presidency, did that open up things for you in a way that might not have been possible if Caltech had a physicist or engineering president?
PHILLIPS: I don't really know the answer to that, but I will say that things like the Keck—there were various kinds of internal fundings along the way, which, even to this day, I have been privileged to be part of, so that's what I imagine. How it is that I ended up talking to Koonin, I don't really know. I got to know David Baltimore much better later, because we co-advised two students, and we did some hard work together that in the end didn't deliver, unfortunately, as much as I hoped that it would have.
ZIERLER: What was the work?
PHILLIPS: We were trying to look at these proteins called the RAG proteins that do recombination. The way to think of it is super interesting. The words that are used by Jeremy Gunawardena are "genetic imprisonment." In other words, the genome is there; how many possible proteins could you make? At first cut, the answer is not that many. But then you look at our immune system and you say, "Well, there's this huge complement of antibodies; how do you generate that much diversity?" It turns out that there's this process known as V(D)J recombination where gene segments are assembled together, and also, mutations are put inside of that. So, we were trying to study, at the single-molecule level, the enzymes that do that process, with his former student or postdoc, David Schatz, who's at Yale. It was incredibly enlightening and super fun. We always referred to them as Big David and Little David. [both laugh] I don't know if they thought that was funny, but I thought it was very funny, and I really delighted in that exchange. The reason I say that it didn't really workout is I was hoping that we were going to have the same kind of success with that that we had earlier with how DNA gets looped by transcription factors. There, we were able to really go all the way using statistical physics, and to make predictions, and we could draw the curves before we made the measurements, and the data would fall right on them. We had a vision like that, and it really wasn't realized, largely. Especially my student, Soichi, he had such a clean vision. And this is a part of my career that I find fascinating is all the times that we've crashed and burned. I think that's a very important thing. I don't know how often other people talk about it that you've interviewed, but I'm intrigued. You talk about responsibility and fear; the biggest responsibility, the biggest fear, is the students. With Griffin Chure, one of my great ones, we worked on something for three or four years, and he kept coming and sitting in this office, and I kept telling him, "Look, we've got to draw a line in the sand, and on that date, we've got to stop." And he'd come in, and he'd say, "Just let me try one more time." Finally, we bailed. We bailed long after he was in grad school, and started over. That was probably the biggest example of that, but Soichi is another—the David Baltimore collaboration. It just fell short.
ZIERLER: But, falling short of a concept, of crashing and burning, that makes sense when you're talking about the career prospects of a student, not the value of the research to science, right? There's plenty of value in a failed experiment for what it tells you doesn't work.
PHILLIPS: Maybe, but I feel like the papers that we wrote on that stuff will probably not even be a blip, unfortunately. Whether they made an impact on Big or Little David, I don't know, but probably not that much of an impact. That's my guess. In that sense, I don't think of it as being something that moved the needle in some sense. I think the people in the field likely were not particularly enlightened, although the vision we had, they would have been had it all worked out. I think that's just the way it goes.
ZIERLER: So, you arrive the early 2000s. Just a broad sweep of biology at Caltech: This is the beginning of Caltech Biology's embrace of big science, biotechnology, startup ventures, and all the kinds of things that Lee Hood wanted to do when Caltech wasn't ready 30 years earlier. From a double outsider—new faculty member, new scholar in this field—what is your sense of where things were when you joined the faculty?
PHILLIPS: First of all, people were very nice to me. I decided to try to have lunch with 70 people, and I would say, "Let's meet at the ATH, or go to Saladang," or whatever. So, I went and sat in Pamela Bjorkman's old office over, I think, in Kerckhoff, and sat with Steve Mayo, and I obviously met with Doug Rees, and I talked to Mary Kennedy, and I talked to Elliot Meyerowitz, and I went through a very long list of people. I was definitely deeply impressed by the microfluidics revolution, which was really Steve Quake's and Axel Scherer's thing. I think they did amazing things in that regard. After that, my mind got blown both here and elsewhere by the ways in which DNA sequencing could be used that were different than the naive version of, "Oh, you get the genome." That's something—today, actually, we got mail that Barbara Wold got elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she really pushed that agenda. Steve Quake also; he was doing single-molecule DNA sequencing. I remember the very first experiments because it involved my senior scientist, Heun Jin Lee. I think they sequenced five bases using fluorescence on a microscope. But, that's the seeds of an idea. I talked to Henry Lester a lot, and that gave me a lot of things to think about in terms of ion channels and what it means to probe the electrical properties of cells. Other than that, I don't know. I feel like, in some ways, I'm probably not a good person to ask, necessarily.
ZIERLER: Did you feel like you were doing small science in the Caltech mode?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, for sure, and it didn't take long; I think maybe 2004 or 2005, I already was teaching Bi 1 with Pamela Bjorkman. I taught that three or four times with her, and then I went to Ed Stolper and said, "I think death by PowerPoint is a dumb way to do freshman biology. I want to do a lab class." That's when he made it so that I could have some funds to do Bi 1x, and we built a lab, actually, and that's been a hugely successful course.
ZIERLER: Tell me what that means, the x there. What is that?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I think of it a lot of different ways. I think of it as x for algebra. I think of x for unknown. I think of it as x for extra.
ZIERLER: It's choose your own adventure.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. The idea of that course was, every week, we did a different experiment. The whole idea was we were not going to teach the canon. We were not going to try to cover the waterfront of biology. We're just going to do cool things. That's it. I still love that model. It's still the model that I think we should go for, for the core, writ large. It was really fun because we recently had a meeting that involved a number of us, including Carver Mead, and it was just cool to hear at least there are some colleagues that viewed that, like, "Let's not do the canon. Let's get over the canon. Let's instead, just do crazy stuff, interesting stuff." As far as how Caltech felt—that was when we were starting bioengineering—I just felt welcomed. It was very quick that they absorbed me into the Division of Biology—this was before it was BBE—and I was just really grateful. When I got here, I remember saying to Amy, "Maybe someday, just maybe I would even be able to be part of the Division of Biology, or an equally weird dream would be to be a part of PMA." In the end, those are my two homes. I really don't have much of a connection anymore to mechanics, and there's a mechanics group here. Which is sad, but I really moved, and now I'd say I'm in physics and biology. Those are my natural homes. I don't think I can get hired in either of them though.
ZIERLER: [laughs] Fifty percent of you could.
PHILLIPS: I don't think so. It's kind of funny.
ZIERLER: When the experimentation, or when the lab reached the level of maturity when you could start thinking about instruments—you mentioned earlier, "no instruments because we don't know what we're doing yet"—what were the instruments? What was the cutting edge that was available?
PHILLIPS: The very first things were trying to use microscopy in sophisticated ways. The beauty of that is when Steve Quake left for Stanford, his senior scientist, Heun Jin Lee, was kind enough to stay behind and stay in my lab. He's truly an expert at optics, and that began this long-term thing of building our own microscopes. We did that at [the MBL in] Woods Hole. We've done it every year in the boot camp here, and it's almost like a rite of passage for people in my group. Every year we have 50 people in our boot camp in the fall, and every one of them built a microscope. We have four setups, so if you go downstairs, you'll see that Heun Jin, over and over again, would design an experiment where we used custom homemade optics. I had students, like Dave Wu, who got into that. We had a paper in PNAS where we pulled on tethers. We had a membrane; we pulled tethers, and that's very sophisticated, so it's a lot of that kind of microscopy stuff and measurement of gene expression. Then there became the era of getting into DNA sequencing—flow cytometry and sequencing. In that sense, I don't think we're particularly cutting-edge, but we're kind of cutting-edge in the way we use things, the level of rigor, and the reproducibility, and the error bars.
ZIERLER: Did you see yourself operating exclusively in a basic-science environment? Were there any translational or biotech kinds of interest that you pursued?
PHILLIPS: No. You referred to me as being militant with respect to my name, and I feel like maybe I am slightly militant about it, but probably inappropriately. I don't know; I feel life is short, and I just wasn't that interested in the transient nature of a product. In fact, this has even come up recently in the context of my very intense relationship with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and what they're trying to do on the 100-year timescale, and what constitutes a tool. What constitutes a real step forward for philanthropy to really be proud of? I don't know; there's a dichotomy there, I guess. So, the answer is no, I have it really thought that much about translation, but not because I'm opposed to it, I just don't have any idea. It's not that I have a good idea that I feel like we need to make a patent or company.
ZIERLER: When you say life is short, your efforts—you just want to discover stuff? You want to be curious and figure it out?
PHILLIPS: Above all, I want to learn stuff, yeah. I want to make sense of this world, and my life in it, and your life in it. Even simple things like—I won't get specific because it's your story to tell, but—how many kids you have, and the way you think about a family, and what does it mean for each of us to live our lives? All those questions matter to me, and there's only so much time in a day. We didn't really talk about it, but I ended up in the hospital at the end of my time at Brown. I was at a seminar, and I thought I was having a heart attack. My skin was tingling, my face got all weird, and I went to the hospital. After a week of tests and stuff, they basically laughed at me because I was telling them, "Yeah, the only time, lately, I feel like I can breathe is when I'm kicking people's asses in the pool or on a bike." They're like, "You're not that smart, because that's not the way heart attacks work." [both laugh] "You breathe best when you're exercising hardest. You're going through some sort of anxiety." I'm like, "But I'm a super tough guy. What are you talking about? Anxiety? I'm not having a panic attack or something." They're like, "Yeah, you are." What I got out of that was a firm belief that all of us have our limits, every one of us. I don't know anybody who's an exception to that. Therefore, I can't say yes to everything. That's the high-level umbrella take on it. So, I've watched a lot of my friends do their entrepreneurial things, and it's cool that they like that. I infinitely would prefer to write books and teach, to doing that. I don't want to have to engage with the law. I don't want to have to engage with marketing. I don't have to engage with all the compromise. I'm not interested in team teaching. I want to just show up and do my thing. It's selfish.
ZIERLER: Have you seen your research take on that life beyond your lab, where it does go into applications? Or are your graduate students really self-selected, where they want to be fundamental researchers like you?
PHILLIPS: I think they're largely self-selected. I don't think it has gone that way, regrettably. Although the things I did at Brown, that finite-element atomistic stuff, that's a thing, for sure. But that's, in a way, a thing I turn my back on. The thing we're doing right now on genomes, if we succeed, I think it'll be a game changer, honestly, and people will care about it. But we're still in the process of seeing whether we can truly pull it off. I hope it will make a splash and will make an impression on people. I don't understand why they aren't more annoyed by the state of the art, and my hope is to solve a problem with the state they're in.
ZIERLER: What's the problem?
PHILLIPS: The problem is that currently we have about 1017 nucleotides deposited on the NIH databases. I believe that's a factor of about 10,000 more than the number of letters in the Library of Congress, so it's all this sequence information. Yet, what do you think are the best understood organisms on Earth? Let's choose five.
PHILLIPS: Fine. Go smaller.
ZIERLER: Smaller? Let's say an amoeba?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, okay. Yeast, E. coli, C. elegans. Maybe humans. Let's say E. coli is maybe the best understood of all the organisms. It was the basis of modern molecular biology in the ‘50s or ‘60s. It has a genome, and the genome is 4.6 million base-pairs long. That means the length of the complete works of Shakespeare. It has roughly 4,000 genes, and for 60% of them, we know nothing about how they're regulated. Now let's go to humans. You have 3 billion base-pairs in your genome, 20,000-ish genes, and in general, we do not know how they're regulated. There was a very exciting moment in the early days of genomics, let's say, when Allan Wilson and Mary-Claire King wrote a beautiful paper in Science Magazine, if I remember correctly, about the contrast between the chimp and the human genome. People were surprised by how similar they were—super similar, like, our hemoglobins are identical. The question was, how are we so different? And at least a partial answer is, because the genes are regulated differently. So, I'm trying to make a big deal about regulation. It's one of the great discoveries of modern biology. In fact, Monod made this remark about "the second secret of life" when he discovered the nature of regulation. For E. coli, for 60% of the genes, we do not know how they're regulated at all. Zero. For Drosophila, C. elegans, and yeast, it's more than 90%. You're a writer; it'd be like writing in a language for which you know nothing about the rules of grammar. It'd be gibberish. And it is gibberish in the sense that if I pick an arbitrary gene in E. coli or yeast, and I tell you, "I want to know how that gene reacts to the world. How does that gene express the fact that it cares about what's going on in the world?" The answer is, we don't know. And we don't know squared, because not only do we not know how the gene is regulated, but we also don't know how small-molecule signals talk to it. It's like a double ignorance, so to me, that's one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science, and I'm in shock that more people aren't bugged about it. We hear this whole enterprise of synthetic biology; what does that mean? It means you take a parts list and you build things like Legos, with the parts. I'm trying to tell you that we know that there are all these parts. There must be all these parts, but we don't know anything about them. We just know that they must be there.
ZIERLER: Theoretically. We don't even know what they are or where they are.
PHILLIPS: I think we know in the E. coli genome that there are in excess of 200 transcription factors, perhaps. People probably know that better than the way I just said it; I don't remember the details. But, how a large fraction of genes are regulated, we don't know. We just simply don't know.
ZIERLER: This double ignorance, what were the advances? You know the Socratic idea of, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know." What were some of the advances that opened up this window to realizing how little—
PHILLIPS: I would say two things: there's the modern history of molecular biology, which, there are various versions of this. You probably heard of Beadle and Tatum. The way you might say it is, "One gene, one thesis." [David laughs] During the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, people were doing incredibly hard work to figure out how gene x works. That's how it worked. People would take multiple theses to figure out how the gal operon worked, or the lac operon worked, or the arabinose operon. The arabinose was something that Bob Schleif, at Johns Hopkins, worked on, over his whole career, and he really dissected it. And graduate student after graduates student after graduates did that. Then arrives the sequencing era. Now we got the whole E. coli genome. Now we realize, okay, we know where there's 4,000 genes. We know where the starts are. We realize, wouldn't it be nice for that gene x that we don't know anything about, if we had the same state of knowledge as we do about lactose, arabinose, galactose, or whatever. That's the path, in a way, that we're on right now, which is to go from complete ignorance to statistical physics predictions of a whole genome at once. I hope, in a year or two, I'll be able to tell you we're done with E. coli. And done doesn't mean a bunch of cute figures; it means a website that has what we call energy matrices, so anybody can basically design the genome. That's the goal: all the way from ignorance to the finish line. Victoria Orphan and I kind of formulated a project, which we call the Alvin Challenge, which is, she goes down into the sea floor sediment on the submersible Alvin, grabs some organism that's never been seen before, and a week later, we have the whole thing solved in the sense that we know how to do statistical physics on every single gene and how they're wired together. You might remember that Eric Davidson was famous for these diagrams of the wiring of the genes in the specification of the body plan of the sea urchin. That's what we need, but even that's insufficient. That's kind of a linkage diagram that shows how different genes talk to each other. That's a very special piece that's picked, and the point is, there's a whole spectrum of those things for every organism. As we just were saying, there's a concentration that's not present. How many copies of all those molecules are present? That matters. And then who talks to them? What are the small molecules that talk to all of those transcription factors that dictate when things are on and off? When you and I drink milk, genes are turned on to digest lactose. Until then, they're waiting for the signal, which is like, "Hey, there's some lactose sugar around, dude. Better turn on the genes so that you can handle that. Clip it and make use of it."
ZIERLER: We talked about a seamless intellectual transition psychologically, or even intellectually, from Brown to Caltech. We haven't talked yet, really, about computation, how you interface with computers in your mechanics life, and now in your biology life.
PHILLIPS: I think there was a lot of intention there in the sense that my life at Brown was super computational. In other words, the thing that we did, this quasi-continuum method that we did with Michael Ortiz, it's intrinsically computational. There are pieces of it that you can do on a blackboard, but in general, it only exists as a computational notion. My reaction to a statement you made earlier, when I got here, was—your statement was about the role of theory in biology—I really despised this idea that theory in biology means computation. There's this field called computational biology. So, I felt almost an obligation to exaggerate in the form of pencil-and-paper theory to the exclusion of computation because I so wanted to say, "I'm sorry, computation is a tool. You don't have a wrench mechanic. You have a mechanic who uses wrenches to fix things, but also, he or she uses screwdrivers and whatever else. The computer is a tool." So, in the early days, we were really fixated on pencil-and-paper type theory. Over time, it seems silly to not embrace the reality of the fact that we have this tool that allows us to do things that are absolutely unimaginable in the absence of a computer. The example that I always think of as being most simple and transparent is, I'm impatient. I go to LAX. I might have a mask on. I go to the high-speed security line known as Clear. I always have my phone. They take a picture of my irises, like Tom Cruise in some Mission Impossible movie, and as soon as the picture's taken, I always take my phone and I slap it down on the scanner, and I go, "Robert Brooks Phillips Junior." Machine learning, boom. [snaps fingers, pounds table] There's my name. My irises! It's like out of Mission Impossible. What do I take away from that, or beating the world champion at Go? What I take away from that is, I'm an idiot if I'm going to not embrace the fact that we have these tools that allow us to do things that the human mind, by itself, cannot do. Once again, everything for me always passes through teaching. I want to try to inspire the next generation of students, not by letting them use black-box machine-learning stuff, but by having them understand what it is and write their own. So, that's what's going to happen in Bi 1 this term, they'll write their own little, teeny-tiny version of a machine-learning thing just to get a feel for it.
ZIERLER: To clarify you saying that computers are a tool, that they make things possible, what do they make more efficient that could be done—just, it's more efficient to do it with computers—and what literally could not be done absent computers?
PHILLIPS: It's getting harder and harder to say that things could be done by hand. Some of our early experiments, you didn't really need a computer.
ZIERLER: Just because the data sets were small enough?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. If we're measuring enzyme action, we can actually get a readout on a spectrophotometer or something like that, and we can plot points. But by the time we're doing experiments using this method called FISH, and we're looking at 10,000 cells, you're not going to do the image analysis by hand. It's just simply not possible. One of the things that's always been interesting to me, and my NIH Pioneer Award proposal was called "A Terabyte Too Far," and in the proposal, I calculated how many terabytes of data were in what was then called the Millikan Library, and it's two. What I said is that in my lab, we can generate a terabyte of data in a day. That makes me feel like we all need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and feel a little sober about that, because, in a way, the two terabytes of a library is all of human knowledge, and then in one day's use with a camera on a microscope, I can generate terabytes worth of data. It just leaves me feeling cold. We have a responsibility to try to tame that data and figure out what it means. Anyway, to answer your question, image analysis, sequence analysis. The thing we're doing now to try to dissect regulatory genomes, that's hopeless. We're generating, truly, millions of sequences. Millions. So, absent the computer, forget it. It's not even possible.
ZIERLER: This leaving you cold. What's the responsibility there? That we shouldn't create data for the sake of creating data? That we should be intentional with these experiments?
PHILLIPS: Anything that involves everybody agreeing to anything, I'm not in favor of.
ZIERLER: No, I'm saying for your own philosophy.
PHILLIPS: For my own philosophy, my own subjective thing, I just feel, at the end of the day, the easiest criterion for me to use is, "What am I going to tell those brilliant 18-year-olds?" I don't think we talked about it, but do you know the story about the young Einstein at ETH and how unhappy he was? And they didn't teach Maxwell's equations. That's 30 years after Maxwell. It'd be like in 1950, not teaching quantum mechanics. It makes no sense at all. I always think about that. What am I not doing for a bunch—those 18-year-olds in Bi1 that I'm teaching, some of them are going to end up being the movers and shakers of tomorrow, right? Do you agree with that?
PHILLIPS: So, it's pretty arrogant for me to think of them as a bunch of 18-year-olds. I need to project them 25 years forward; what did I neglect to tell them? When I think about data, I always tell them the quote from Poincaré, "Science is built up with facts as a house is built up with bricks, but a mere accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house." We're each entitled to our world-views, but I reject the idea that finding correlations in data is a satisfactory version of modern science. Maybe I'll be dismissed as old, but that's the way it's going to be for me. It's back to the Borges story; our goal here is to be able to make a map of the empire that's not the size of the empire. That's my job description. To me, it's super exciting—the Barbara Wold success. You get a transcriptome; that means you measure the mRNAs that are present in a bunch of cells, and maybe it's a long developmental pathway. What is that data set? It's a series of 20,000 dimensional vectors. Why is it a 20,000 dimensional vector? Because every gene has a count; there are 20,000 genes. I have a vector which is this cell's current state of how many copies of each mRNA there are, and then I have another cell, and then maybe I have a time evolution, and the question is, are we going to be satisfied with 20,000 dimensional vectors? Is that the best we've got? I say no way.
ZIERLER: Because of the tools we have? Because of our imagination?
PHILLIPS: No, because of the history of science and the of goal of science. To my mind, the goals of science is to figure out how to tell stories about the natural world and to see the unity in things that appear to not be unity, like a pendulum. Galileo sees a swinging chandelier. You couldn't even in that year say the words "RLC circuit." But 200 years later, people are figuring out how to do capacitors and inductors and resistors, and you realize, "Oh, that's the same as a pendulum." It's literally the same mathematics. Or, Thomas Young: he discovers interference of waves, and then he says there's something about acoustics, and there's something about the Gulf of Tonkin, which only has two tides per day, a high tide and low tide—mind-blowing weird—and interference of light. They're all the same thing. That's my job: What is the same in biology that people don't yet see is the same? There's this beautiful piece of mathematics called graph theory, which is old at this point. It was already started with Euler and the bridges of Königsberg, the thing that you probably know about. But, graph theory is a unifying language that allows me to talk about regulation, food chains, and signaling all in the same way, the same mathematics. There are nodes, there are edges that connect the nodes, which are rate constants, and I can work out the time dependence of that thing. It doesn't matter whether I'm talking about Svalbard and polar bears and arctic foxes and terns, or I'm talking about gene expression. I can abstract away and say they're nodes on a graph, and that's not the normal thing that you would say about biology. In other words, if you pick up a big fat book on biology, the tone is not going to be, "Hey, graph theory is a unifying umbrella over that stuff." I think there should be more of that. That's what my job is.
Caltech as Pedagogical Adventure
ZIERLER: Because you care about undergraduates so much, I wonder if you can provide a composite view of a Caltech undergraduate—their interests, their motivations, what got them here, and because of your appreciation of their potential, what they could go on to achieve, how that influences the way you interact with them.
PHILLIPS: That's a super hard question, and I feel super disqualified to answer it, in a way. Their profile is so the opposite of mine. We talked about this. What was I doing when I was 18? I was on a sailboat, and then I was on a van trip for six months, and then I became an electrician and fell through the roof of the La Jolla Mercedes Benz dealer's bedroom. That's me at age 24. I don't want to be negative; I have to fight kind of hard not to get a little bit carried away with how they got here. It's a lot of stamps on their academic passports, and a lot of rigor, and a lot of taking AP classes and doing really well, and performing for the man, or however you want to put it. In fact, I told this freshman class on the first day of class, "Look, we are here because of a sense of wonder. I don't care if you're a valedictorian. In fact, I have to confess, I'm a little suspicious if you're a valedictorian, just a little." I think that they have been disrespected until now, and that's the first thing I always tell them. "You're ready. You are ready. The grad students, you're ready to make discoveries now. You're ready to ask the right questions now. Even though the authority figures are going to tell you need to have your PhD, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah—it's true there are a lot of apprenticeship pieces, but that doesn't mean you're not ready to be playful." That's why I like YouTube also, because there, youth are free to show us what happens when they are unencumbered by all the pressure. Anyway, to answer your question, I feel like I'm their biggest fan, but I may be their biggest critic too, because I'm really angry, almost, about their obsession with grades, units, being triple majors, and all the stuff that are matters of appearance as opposed to matter of soul. I like the freedom of inquiry that you see when you get them out of the classroom just being themselves exploring something. I feel that, again, we kind of disrespect them. They've been disrespected before they got here, and we continue to disrespect them, which is why I did Bi 1x, it's is why do the evolution courses, it's why I do the boot camp. Those are blown up versions of what it means to be in a classroom. Did we watch Saehui's video from the Galapagos?
ZIERLER: We did. It was incredible.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, that is what I'm after. I'm still in touch with her. She's a changed person, and that's what my view is: Feel free to discover what you have inside of you in this one and only little, teeny-tiny life of yours. Nobody tells them that, or not many people tell them that. Most people are telling them about the progression that they need in order to do the next thing in the progression. And not much about, how do you take—these are the notebooks that we hand out to the students in our evolution course. These are all mine. These are just, "I wonder," when we're the field. You probably know these notebooks, but they're geology notebooks. You can pour water on them, and then you can write.
PHILLIPS: It's called Rite in the Rain, which you can see right there, Rite in the Rain. I feel like the undergrads need encouragement to ask questions.
ZIERLER: To break out of their success tunnel-vision mode.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. To get into the right grad school, to get the right fellowship, to get the right postdoc, to get the right job, to get the right grant, to get the right—it's endless, right? I feel like we undervalue creativity.
ZIERLER: What does that look like when you break through, when you unlock that mindset for an undergraduate?
PHILLIPS: One of the things that looks like is, one of the students that went with me to both the Galapagos and Indonesia, she canceled her MD/PhD at UCLA. That's what it looks like. [David laughs] There are others, but it's not my story to tell. There are a number of people who have made decisions where they decided, "Okay, I'm going to—" I don't know, the Jack London quote that we talked about—"I'd rather be ashes than dust," that they're going to go for it. They're going to try to get off the academic bunny slopes and get on a black diamond. When you came in the office, you asked how my trip was. I was just in Colorado with two of my best friends, and we were pretty aggressive. They're skiers, and I'm a snowboarder; I used to be a skier with these guys. One of the days we had to transition from one side of the ski area to the other, which involved a double black diamond through the trees, and I had the second-worst crash of my whole life and had to go to the hospital. But at the same time, the analogy is meaningful to me. You've got to go on the double black diamonds, and when you do, sometimes you eat it. As far as people in the lab, I really like to encourage that sense of, "This is your one and only chance." You know that Eminem song that's in 8 Mile?
ZIERLER: Oh yeah. That's it. That's your shot.
PHILLIPS: It's your one shot. It's also in Hamilton. Maybe these things are clichés. I feel like a walking cliché in some sense, but the only thing I can say is that my actions have largely been aligned with my clichés. [both laugh]
ZIERLER: Maybe it's a good epitaph.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, maybe.
ZIERLER: Rob, last question or topic for today. You mentioned 2017 as sort of a book end of this quest in predictive biology. What was happening around that point?
PHILLIPS: What happened is that year was a particularly productive year at the Marine Biological Laboratory. My book, Cell Biology by the Numbers, was done; Physical Biology of the Cell had been out for a while. I had articulated this idea of doing a series, kind of like the Landau and Lifshitz series. That's very arrogant to say it that way, but representation of deep dive into different pieces of biology. While I was at Woods Hole, I came back to the scientific problem of my life, the one that I've been most attracted to, which is non-equilibrium physics, and basically set up what amounted to, in the end, probably the strongest collaboration of my life with my book coauthor, Christina Hueschen. We wrote a couple books together and a bunch of papers, but that really transitioned my lab onto non-equilibrium physics of the cytoskeleton, and we focused as a lab. I focused much more on only two problems. In other words, I got off the Physical Biology the Cell, new paper for every chapter, sort of neurotic, cover the whole waterfront. I feel like we succeeded, even though I don't know that anybody got that. I got it. More or less everything we tried—except for a few massive failures which were amazing, like with Dianne Newman we had a massive failure—kind of worked. We were able to do this predictive thing. We really focused down: genome, the thing that I told you about a few minutes ago, and active matter, and non-equilibrium physics. Then another new thing spawned off of that, which is this whole human-impacts thing. I've had like three or four super meaningful collaborations. Jané Kondev, who's at Brandeis, that's still going on, but it was especially potent during 2000 to 2015. Ron Milo and I talked constantly both by Skype and by me visiting Israel for roughly eight years. Constantly calculating. We calculated almost every day together, and then Hernan Garcia with whom I've written three or four books at this point. And then Christina Heuschen. Those are the people I really had a mind-meld with, where we worked every day for years on end.
ZIERLER: Intellectually, from a personality front, what might be the commonality between these collaborators that have been so good for you, for your collaboration?
PHILLIPS: The way I'd put it, I always said with respect to Jané, I could call him up tomorrow or today and say, "I don't remember how to solve a linear equation," and he would just start walking me through it. There's no sense whatsoever of trying to worry about sounding smart or dumb. There's a sense of playfulness, a sense of willingness to just engage with any and all questions. That was true 100% with Jané. It's true 85% with Hernan, and then 100%, also, with Christina. All the time, we just did stuff.
ZIERLER: How did the collaboration with Christina get started?
PHILLIPS: She was a student at Woods Hole. We decided to write a review article, which then became a book, The Restless Cell, which is now in copy editing, so it'll be out shortly. Hernan and I have been working on this thing called Physical Genomics from E. coli to Elephants. Jané and I, we did Physical Biology of the Cell several times, and then we also have written tons of papers together. I'd say it must be 20 papers, and each one of those comes down to spending the mornings—he's on the East Coast—spending the mornings on Skype or Zoom or on the phone. We agree on notation, and we do calculations side by side. And we always teach together. He and I will teach at the EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Lab in Heidelberg in July. It'll be 60 hours, just the two of us. We steal the talk from each other at the board. It's almost like an act. And we're talking about new things, again, like the cost to make gradients. We've already got this year's teaching-creativity things out on horizon.
ZIERLER: To set the stage for tomorrow, and then we can bring it right up to the present tomorrow—do you see the new focus in 2017 as dramatic as what you had done in 2000, coming to Caltech?
ZIERLER: No. It didn't involve as big a shift. In a way, the thing that maybe makes it a little different is that it feels like, of all the things that I've thought about in my whole life, it's really working on the question that, more than any other, has bugged me. That's the reality of what happened in 2017, is truly saying, "I'm going to, with open arms, greet the problems that mean the most to me." If you want to talk about it tomorrow or whenever, in October, I went to Israel to meet with Ron Milo, who's another—I should have mentioned him as well. He and I had this amazing adventure together. He also belongs on that list. Many years—a decade—of, it wasn't so much calculation as trying to understand the numbers, but when I was there visiting him, we tried to think about our advice to each other about our lives and careers, like, "What next?" He brought it up the other day on Zoom two or three days ago. He looked at me and he said, "I think you should keep going to teaching. Your active-matter stuff is cool, and your genome stuff is cool, but the things we're doing on human impacts are so important that I personally," meaning him, "think that what you should do is, in a way, jettison everything and only focus on that." So, it might be fun for us to talk. It's a very, very different thread of things related to biomass on the earth and stuff that emerged out of thinking about the bio-numbers database.
ZIERLER: Let's pick up on that. Human impacts.
[End of Recording]
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Thursday, April 20, 2023. It is great to be back with Professor Rob Phillips. Rob, as always, great to be with you. Thank you so much.
ROB PHILLIPS: Good to see you.
Human Impacts and Entropy
ZIERLER: We're going to pick up right where we left off yesterday, 2017. A really important point I want to make sure I understand: When you are talking about the scientific problem that has always bugged you, and then we started talking about how with Milo, you got into the human impacts, is that scientific problem prelude to human impacts? Or is that the origin story to human impact?
PHILLIPS: Actually, it's neither. I have to say that the problem that has always bugged me is a strictly scientific thing having to do with—the way I've been couching it lately, and I did it in class in Bi 1 this year, and I've done it in my talks, is what I call stuff of t. What I mean by that is, any old thing, almost, that you want to think about evolves in time. In other words, it changes over time. Some of the classics we maybe talked about, I don't remember, but planetary motion is a very obvious one, and that's sort of the origin of mechanics. Of late, there are all sorts of fascinating stuff of ts having to do with human impacts, such as the change in CO2 and the atmosphere, the change in the hydrogen-ion concentration of the ocean, the change in sea level, the number of cows on Earth (which has been increasing), the decline in various species—those are all stuff of t questions. But also, the evolution of the position of the island called New Zealand over the last 80-million years is a stuff of t question. The question that has always bugged me is: Why do things change, and what are the mathematical rules and regularities of things changing? Originally it was tied to the notion of entropy and thermodynamics. It's a little bit of a misnomer, in my opinion. I learned this from Callan, that we really should call it thermostatics. What I mean by that is, although the intent, let's say in the mid-1800s, was to write down a theory of the timed evolution of complex systems like the gas molecules in this room, in the end, what we really succeeded at is equilibrium, which is the terminal privileged state of a system. That was especially in the hands of Josiah Willard Gibbs, probably the greatest American-born scientist. He told us how to calculate that terminal privileged state. He gave us some hints about how to get to that terminal privileged state. In other words, when I prepare a system like the gas in this room, we could move a bunch of molecules to your side of the room and put a partition, and then remove the partition, and what would happen is there would be a wind as the molecules filled in the part of the room where I'm sitting here in a vacuum. We really don't have general theoretical ideas about that other than words like "entropy increases." The abiding problem of my whole career—at home, Amy and I have always referred to it as the heat problem—but the abiding problem is, what's the basis of spontaneous change? And in a way, life is a very weird, I won't say exception, but it seems counterintuitive because if you play a movie of—did we talk about Humpty Dumpty?
PHILLIPS: Okay, it's a sad biography. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty took a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again. If we play a movie of his life backwards, you'd cry foul, right? You'd be like, "That's not the way the world works." But at the molecular level, there are many things where, if you play the movie backwards, it's actually the way the world works. For example, the concentration of ions in cells often has pumps that push it so that the ions are going up a gradient rather than the "natural direction," which is down the gradient.
ZIERLER: Natural because of gravity?
PHILLIPS: No, natural because of entropy. In other words, if I put more molecules on your side of the room than mine, they will naturally, just by statistics of coin flips, actually, they'll smooth out. So, the movie that we're used to is smoothing out. Maxwell's demon is this idea that instead of smoothing out, you could accumulate gradients, and the thing I'm saying about life is that life has machines whose job is to accumulate gradients, but energy has to be paid. So, the abiding problem of my life is, how do we go beyond words like "entropy increases"? How do we go beyond the classic laws of heat conduction, like Fourier, mass transport, like Fick's law, to the full nonlinearity, the full generality? Because, again, what Gibbs had to tell us was super general. I can use it to understand degree of ionization of atoms in a star. I can use it to think about the formation of ice. I can use it to think about whether or not a material is magnetic, the binding of oxygen to hemoglobin when I take a deep breath, [inhales deeply] like I did just now. All those are examples of equilibrium statistical physics, terminal privileged states, and it's generic. The question is, the thing that really has fascinated me is, are there generic things to be said about dynamics? Biology is a good place to look for those. The human-impacts thing is another example of time evolution, but it's not really tied to that problem. It's just something that happened that is very tied to my going off on a boat as a kid, and then going on a van and just having always had a very deep relationship with nature and designing my life accordingly. I go to Alaska—that picture right there—every year on a boat. I go surfing for two weeks. I try to go to the Galapagos every other year, or every year, on a boat. I want to be out in the ocean in the Maldives in Indonesia. I want to be out in nature, and I feel in many ways that's the story of my life in science. We talked a while back about how, originally, I thought I was going to do particle physics, but in the end, I have no hesitation in saying that I'm much more fascinated by the world right there, the world out the window. The human-impacts part comes from things like that picture you're looking at. It's deep in the Aleutian Islands, and there's no one there. There are some feral cows. When we go to the beach to do our business, you lower your wetsuit, and what you see is plastic everywhere on the beach; it's like a trash can. There's no one around. There's no one and nothing around, yet there's tons and tons and tons of evidence of human activity. I mentioned to you, I went to Israel in October. I sat with Ron Milo. Over the course of a week, we each told the other what we thought they were doing wrong with their lives. I had some thoughts for Ron, and his thought for me was, as I told you yesterday, "Look, all that other stuff you do is cool, but the human-impacts thing, maybe, is the thing that matters the most, where we uniquely are poised to possibly make a difference." I'm not sure that's true.
ZIERLER: I'll get to you, but tell me about Ron Milo. What's his background? What's his story?
PHILLIPS: He's an amazing guy. He probably is the best person on thinking about data that I've ever met. You can watch some of his courses online, which I'd recommend you do. They're called Biology & Sustainability by the Numbers. He's a professor at the Weizmann Institute. He is very sharp. You probably know every Israeli has to go into the army, and every year they choose at age 18, about 30 people who they devote to this special unit, the Talpiot. Many famous people, like Uri Alon, were also in this unit—people who we know in science. It's like an eight-year commitment, and Ron was in that. You go to college; you learn CS, physics, and math. I wrote this piece on the Feynman Lectures on the 50th anniversary, and I interviewed a lot of people about the Feynman Lectures. My last paragraph is about some of the characters I've known: a guy in the Yugoslavian Army who used to read it when he was in the army, an Indian guy that was an IIT student in engineering that would, in his privacy, read Feynman. Ron was known as a nerd amongst this group, [David laughs] and he would sit around and read the Feynman lectures. At any rate, he did his grad work with Uri Alon on at Weizmann. He went to Harvard to work with Marc Kirschner as a post-doc and then went back to the Weizmann as a professor, and was doing, let's call it, systems biology, but got interested in this by the numbers thing. Started the by the numbers website. He and I got together early on, actually, as a result of Elliot Meyerowitz, who's on the visiting committee of the Weizmann. Ron and I started working really hard on this by the numbers worldview, and we have a totally different view of things. He always wants data first. I may have told you I never want to see data. I always want to calculate data before I see it, so our book that we wrote, and many of the things that we've done together, are all about the juxtaposition of the best data that's vetted, that you can look at and know. And then my angle is, can you do an order of magnitude estimate to justify that data? For example, how much land do we use as human beings? Did we already do this?
PHILLIPS: Let's just do it fast. You eat a few times 102 kilograms per year. Few means three. I may have told you, I learned this from Sanjay Mahajon on, who was the Caltech and somebody should maybe talk to. A few times a few is ten. This is my Bi 1 thing; I just tell them, I only do one-few-ten arithmetic. So a few times a few is ten. You and I eat few times 102, a few-hundred kilograms per year. The next thing we need to know is, how many square meters of land do you need to get one kilogram of edible biomass? And the answer is a few; that's for plant. So, a few meters squared per kilogram times a few-hundred kilograms per year means minimum of 1,000 square meters for each of us, for our food. It's actually more because when you add cows to that, you can take it to 5,000 square meters. You and I together, if we both eat meat, take up one European football stadium. That's our footprint. Now, just multiply by the number of humans and you've got how much land we use, and what you'll find is it's, like, 30% of the land. You can do estimates like that on any and everything. One of the amusing ones that I liked a lot that's in our book, is when we do shakers of bacteria in the lab, we have a headspace, meaning there's a region where you have air. And you can work out why you're shaking and how much headspace you need to have enough oxygen in order for the cells to grow. Anyway, along the way, as we were doing bioNumbers, it naturally led us to question such as, what is the biomass of Earth? And what is the dominant player in the biomass of Earth? What's the most abundant protein on Earth? That, slowly but surely, naturally led to questions at larger scales.
I did want to say a few more things about Ron. He has real administrative skills. When I was visiting him, I was telling him I thought he should say "no" to twice as many administrative engagements, and "yes" to twice as many scientific engagements because he's so clever and thoughtful with data. He's just a really, really special guy. During COVID, he was the guy talking to Fauci. He was the guy talking to the relevant people in Israel. We wrote a couple papers. I don't know if you saw, we wrote one on SARS-CoV-2 by the numbers. We did another one that meant a lot to me, and this is my contribution to it, which is if you go to Albuquerque, you can go to the nuclear weapons museum, and you can see the size of the two bombs that were used. The thing I want to say about that is somehow the notion of leverage. What I mean by that is, consider the mass of material that, in less than five seconds, killed on the order of 70,000 people. Well, at the height of the pandemic, the mass of all of the SARS-CoV-2 virions on the planet, a few kilograms. I just find that so shocking because we're all, even now, still reeling from the pandemic, yet the mass of that is just like a little ball, like the size of my little ball over here. I think I wanted to say something else; maybe it'll come back to me, and if it does, I'll make a comment. But he and I have had this really, really long-term relationship of trying to think about numeracy, and what does numeracy mean? I feel like that's the most useful thing that I do with respect to teaching here. I don't know if you've talked to Sterl Phinney and Peter Goldreich, but both of those guys have taught this order of magnitude physics course, which is maybe the most important course at Caltech. And that is the thing I try to teach the undergrads, or teach everybody, the point being that we have all these discussions in the world, in our lives. How many people were at the inauguration? It's just inane, in a way, that people can't independently say, "Look, I don't need to listen to Donald Trump or to listen to the newspapers. I will just take a picture of the mall in Washington, DC. I'll use my own powers of estimation and observation, and I will draw my own conclusions." That's very much lacking.
ZIERLER: So, it was Ron that convinced you to jump on this human-impacts project?
PHILLIPS: It just happened naturally between the two of us over 10 years. In our book, Cell Biology by the Numbers, there are some macroscale figures of things, and I'll show you a couple of them that caught the eye as we were doing this. For example, we have a figure about the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and you can't plot something like that. We had another one that had to do with the number of cells per cubic centimeter as a function of depth in the ocean floor. To me, those are really interesting things, but the moment you look at something like that, you can't unsee it. [papers shuffling] So, there is the Gulf of Mexico, and it just gets bigger every year, so the question—
ZIERLER: The red is the deadest.
PHILLIPS: Yeah. It's the amount of dissolved oxygen; basically, it's oxygen starved. Those kinds of things just caught my fancy and caught his fancy, and there was just a natural evolution. Here's another example of a great question for you: When will the amount of human created mass exceed biomass?
ZIERLER: You mean our mass? What we're made of?
PHILLIPS: No, all biomass. We're nothing in the grand scheme of biomass. Plants are where it's at. You can figure out how much total biomass there is on the planet, and the question is, how much anthropomass is there? How much human-made concrete, steel, plastic, all that stuff? The answer to that question is, it already happened. There's more human-made mass on this planet now than there is biomass.
PHILLIPS: Those kinds of things are worthy of consideration. The claim is made that the number of humans that can be sustained on Earth without synthetic nitrogen is four billion, so we've doubled the population relative to what can be done in the absence of synthetic nitrogen fixation in the form of Haber-Bosch. So, the human-impacts things matter a lot. Obviously we have the Resnick Center here. There's a lot of interest among the students. People want to make a difference, and my thought is that it's important to know what's true before one starts talking.
ZIERLER: Was the database the endpoint from the beginning of when you started this with Ron? Was it always going to be the database?
PHILLIPS: There are two databases. There's bioNumbers, which has been around now for more than a decade and gets 30,000 or 40,000 hits a month. As we started to proceed on the human-impacts thing, I would say, no, originally the idea was not a database per se, but there were particular case studies. This anthropomass thing was a case study. We've been writing vignettes, but I got intrigued by the idea—during the pandemic, I taught a course, basically, just as soon as the pandemic hit third term, I decided, "Okay, I'll do an online version of human impacts by the numbers as a course," like I had earlier done cell biology by the numbers as a course. It just occurred as we were doing this, the students were having fun helping us write vignettes and think about numbers that it would be useful to have a one stop source of vetted numbers. What I mean is, if you take a look at the database, every entry is the same. It has the value of the quantity of interest in many different units. It tells you a summary of how it was measured. It reports the errors. It has a link to a GitHub where you can collect the original data itself in clean format, meaning just in a .csv file that's well organized so that you can just straight away put it into python. Usually there's a graph which shows the time series and who made the entry.
ZIERLER: It's open source? People can add to this?
PHILLIPS: They can't add to it. They have to tell us. And that there's a reason for that, which is the vetting part. We have received some suggestions, not that many. But allied with that is the notion of doing a book and doing estimates and vignettes. To me, the two go hand in hand. In other words, it's very important to have the data, but it's also very important to see if the data makes sense. I'll give you another example, though it's a little bit trite. Obviously, CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere. We're over 400 parts per million. You can calculate how many molecules are in the atmosphere. Pressure times area is mass times g, the acceleration due to gravity, so you can figure out the mass of the atmosphere. You know that the typical molecular weight is thirty, because it's oxygen and nitrogen, so you'll find 1044 molecules. If you work out what 400 parts per million is, that'll take you up into the 1038 or 1039 CO2. Then you can ask, given the 70,000 power plants on the planet, how much CO2 is being injected into the atmosphere every year? And you find a figure that's completely coherent with that. Ditto for cars. In other words, they're not orders of magnitude off of each other. They're actually very coherent, and not in some political way. In other words, you don't need to spin anything.
ZIERLER: Yeah, it's just numbers.
PHILLIPS: You just say, how many cars are there? How many kilometers do they drive per year? How many CO2 molecules are omitted per liter? We know all that stuff, and you just do the multiplication. Same for power plants. If I got a bunch of 500-megawatt or 1-gigawatt power plans, I can estimate how much fuel they're burning. I know how much heat you get out of burning fuels, so we also know what the CO2 footprint of those things are. So, you can work it out, and it's coherent. Again, I'm a novice all this. There are tons of people on the campus that know a lot about these things. The same goes with—just take your pick. You can ask about methane. I personally find things related to food super interesting. How many chickens do we slaughter a year? Eighty billion. What's the standing population? Around 25 billion chickens? How does that square? Because we kill them every seven weeks, so that's how you get to this figure of 80 billion slaughtered per year. You have 300 million cows, and then the biomass. How many whales were killed in the 20th century? It's like three million. How much biomass is that? It's 100 megatons, something like that. And then you could ask, how many krill do they eat? There are a bunch of dominoes that fall that are super interesting.
ZIERLER: How did you go about defining the project? How do you determine what counts as a human impact?
PHILLIPS: One of the ways we did it, which was a lot of fun, is we started a spreadsheet with the students in the class, and we just tried to independently think about things that qualified as human impacts. Then we made a list and prioritized and tried to see, what are the things that seemed unequivocal as human impacts? One of the hard topics there, one of the most insidious things, is shifting baselines. I was telling the students in the class the other day that when I go surfing the Maldives, I wear my swim goggles around my neck. The reason for that is a lot of time when you're surfing is spent waiting because waves come in sets, like 15 minutes apart. So, between sets, I put on my goggles, I have my leash attached to my board, but then I go down, and I swim around, and I look at the reef and whatever. What I can tell you is that over the last 40 years, research is not the same. I've been talking to this guy, John Terborgh. Did you ever see The Serengeti Rules, the documentary?
PHILLIPS: You have to watch it. You have to watch it, like, today.
PHILLIPS: Sean Carroll did this for HHMI. It's about an hour and a half long, and it won all sorts of awards. It features about six or seven amazing scientists: Mary Power, Robert Paine—he's at the top of the pyramid. He's the guy who took the sea stars. In the in a small patch of the state of Washington, he removed all the sea stars, Pisaster ochraceus, and then over the following years, he saw that it went from having 15 species to almost none. The reason is because the Pisaster, the sea stars, is a keystone predator. It manages all the things below it. This is related to something called the Green World hypothesis, which was posed in the ‘60s. Why are trees green? You could say chlorophyll, but that wasn't what the guy meant. What he meant is, why don't insects eat them all away? The answer is, because there are predators above them. Anyway, John Terborgh is one of the people who you'll see in that video. He's going to come teach my class, and it would be great if you want to talk to him. He wrote a book called Where Have All the Birds Gone? There's a paper in Science; you can look at it. We've lost 3 billion birds, but here's the thing I'm going to say. You might be too young, but I'm not sure. When we're kids, and we go on a trip with the family in a car, every time you go to the gas station…
PHILLIPS: Yeah, you've got to wash your windshield, right? If you drive to Las Vegas now—just think about it—you literally do not even have to clean your windshield. That's the shifting baseline. Back to my surfing story: I take students to Indonesia, and they go snorkeling or something, and they see some colorful coral heads here and there, and they're excited. And I'm just thinking to myself—I literally am on the verge of crying, the situation is so bad relative to what it was. I don't mean to sound like some sort of environmental freak, or Jacques Cousteau or something, but I do think it's true that there are shifting baselines. And I don't know how to penetrate that. This is a topic for you in your former life at the American Institute of Physics. Your current life, for me and my life, how do we engage with the public? How do we engage with the spirit of the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and the desire to know things?
ZIERLER: Did you appreciate that this project would, by definition, take you out of a scientific, data-driven bubble? That it would get you into politics, activism, science communication, and all that?
PHILLIPS: I did, and I've done everything in my power to avoid it. And I continue to. I just gave a talk about it on Monday at USC, and people always want to ask me about policy. I always say, "What I like about science is that it's a system of militant ignorance." That's been coming up, actually, in the context of the Resnick, for me, personally, is, I don't have anything to say about all that stuff. I want to be the person that can be trusted, as you'll get a balanced view of what appears to be the truth, as best we know it. So, it's interesting. Going in, we knew that there was an annual report from BP on energy, and all of us on our little team were skeptical. In the end, we concluded that it's actually really one of the better places to look, and that made me feel good. I'm willing to shop at Whole Foods, and I like the notion of no pesticides or whatever, but interestingly, in some sense—this is not an accurate statement, it's like a metaphor—I don't trust the mothers of the Central Valley on pesticides. In other words, just the act of trying to get to the data is a little bit scary because people are so concerned with their agendas. I've tried to make sure that we are solid on the data without expressing opinions.
ZIERLER: The Resnick Institute supported this project?
ZIERLER: Tell me about your feelings of the word, or the concept, of "sustainability." Scientifically, it's very amorphous. How do you use that in a rigorous way?
PHILLIPS: This is probably weak of me, but I have to, once again, refer to my belief in militant ignorance. I don't know what that means. I don't know how to think about it. When I go to the Galapagos, I see both at the level of very small animals, like ants, and very large animals, like goats. Also, when you drive across Santa Cruz Island, when you're in the middle of the island, which is very fertile there, there are so many invasive plants. I even see it in my mountains here, when I go on my bike rides; there are all these invasive plants, so I don't know how to think about it. On four of the islands in the Galapagos, they use helicopters, Sarah Palin style, with guns. They had a few emissary female sheep with pheromones that were tagged, and they killed 25,000 goats. I misspoke before, it's goats on four of the islands. Now there's this eco-terrorism thing going on where people who are unhappy with policies in the Galapagos have said, "We're going to release goats." That's the kind of stuff that makes my head explode and just don't know what to do. But, our impacts are so broad and wide. I just have to say, "I don't know." I had one of the people the other day in my talk. I gave my human impacts by the numbers exam as a talk. It's just a series of questions. And at the end, this person said, "You just make me think even more strongly that I want to go seed the clouds and put small particles in the upper atmosphere." And I said, "This is a great example of where thinking, rational people can so strongly disagree," because I said, "I'm terrified of your prospect. I wouldn't do that for anything. You could offer me a billion dollars, and I wouldn't do it. No way." Maybe that's just my shortcoming, but I just don't know. I just don't know. And I was so damaged by the pandemic, because at the beginning, I ran this coronavirus discussion group, and we had so many sophisticated scientists, and it was three times a week, and it was super interesting and super cool. And after about four months of seeing the way people were reacting; everything from Bill Gates wanting to put chips in my arm through a vaccine, to it's just another influenza, to just all of it. I just felt like I'm not cut out for this world. I don't know how to interact with that part of society. What about you? I know it's not your interview, but what's your take?
ZIERLER: Scared the hell out of me, absolutely. And we're not ready for the next one either.
PHILLIPS: We're not. And I fear it's a bit of the boy who cried wolf thing, because you can expect the possibility of something with a tenfold higher mortality, like a bird flu or something. And then everybody's going to be back into their mode of, "Masks don't work." Even in the last month, I have had that kind of a discussion, and I like to personalize things. Like, every time the US has used its military, my thought is always, "Am I willing to send Casey," my son? If the answer is no, then I'm not in favor. I've got to be willing to put some skin in the game. So, when I hear these polemics, and I don't want to force you to wear a mask or anybody, but the upshot, is that person really telling me that they would be game to have a surgeon working on their kid without washing their hands and without wearing a mask? Really? That's the world we live in? Some people are so polarized by their politics that they'd just sacrifice their kid in saying, "No, I don't believe in microbes. I don't believe there's any such thing as transmission by air," or whatever. I'm just like, "Wow! What a weird world of privilege. People are driving around their Tesla's with their GPS, spouting off that stuff." I had a really, really intense exchange on a Southwest flight once. We were flying from Denver, here to Burbank. We have a left-hand-side window seat, and it was during the big fire, the one on these hills, which you weren't here yet for. So, I could see the fires out the plane, and at some point it came to light that they had gone to Oral Roberts University, and they felt that I was destroying the world—people with a scientific worldview. I told him I thought that people like them should not be allowed to fly in an airplane, because science is not a smorgasbord. You don't get to pick and choose which pieces you like; the nuclear reactor that heats your home is also the same nuclear physics that dates rocks and tells you about whether or not there were humans at the same time as dinosaurs. I'm sorry, I'm kind of ranting.
ZIERLER: That's why you like to stay in your bubble.
PHILLIPS: That's why I like to stay in my bubble. I just don't think my disposition is right for it.
ZIERLER: If you assess the human impact from a broad level, what numbers have been most sobering for you?
PHILLIPS: Going in, I didn't appreciate the simplicity of the question of us eating. It feels like a few questions allow you to unravel the whole thing. What do we eat? Where does our water come from? And how do we power our world? If you follow those three threads, you've got it. Obviously there are other things that are interesting, like I have radioactive isotopes in me because of atmospheric nuclear testing. That's an interesting human-impact type thing, but I just feel like those three questions frame the whole story. I don't want to pick on anybody. Again, this goes back a little bit to the focus on facts without beliefs, but I do want to say that I've become very sensitized to, let's just say, our relationship with our domesticated animals. This village right there, you can see the white patch up there, this thing. This is in the mountains near Grenoble. That, in the summer, is all pasture land. I was just there last summer, and it started to strike me. Back on the right, you can see Mont Blanc. I was up there. I went and climbed a mountain, and I really was struck by what fraction of high-altitude Alps is dedicated to pasture. And the valley of the Vercors, I tried to get an accounting of how many cows that whole valley feeds. I was very much struck with this question of, how are we going to eat? How is this going to work?
ZIERLER: For all of the ecological consciousness that permeates society now, real or not, any raise of optimism? Or are there any numbers that are trending in the right direction?
PHILLIPS: I need to think about that a little bit. I don't want to be a doomsayer, because, again, I want to express my militant ignorance.
ZIERLER: It's just the numbers.
PHILLIPS: I don't think I'm smart enough, or have thought hard enough, to quite understand the implications of the numbers. One point I suppose I would make—but again, I'm speaking from a place of ignorance—is a lot of this stuff is tied to power, how we power our world. If you look at our one-page summary—I don't know if you've looked at this before yet.
PHILLIPS: It tells you the sources of all of our power, and we measured in units of lightbulbs, so you and I each are worth, like, forty 100-watt lightbulbs. The vast majority of that comes from conventional burning of things. It doesn't come from wind. It doesn't come from nuclear. It doesn't come from hydroelectric. It primarily comes from burning things, so I suppose my piece of optimism is that smart people are thinking about the fact that there are 1,000 watts per square meter of sunlight incident. People are thinking hard. I know there are a lot of small-scale operations, now, that are thinking about ways of using fusion, but that's been on the horizon.
ZIERLER: Forty years.
PHILLIPS: Yup, you know from the American Institute of Physics days, it's just around the corner, it's just a decade away. It just keeps being a decade away. So, I don't know. This is taking me too much into the realm of my ignorance to make any prognostication, one sign or the other. One thing Ron does every hike he goes on is bring a trash bag. When I was with him in October, every hike we went on, we collected trash. One of the things he was commenting on is—have you watched Mad Men? I remember this era where you go out on a picnic, and then at the end, you pull the picnic thing you have on the ground, and you leave the trash behind. If you think about smoking or about our handling of trash in the US, those definitely have gotten better. One of the most interesting museums in Paris, oddly, is a couple blocks away from the Eiffel Tower, and it's the Sewer Museum. I don't know if you've ever been to it.
PHILLIPS: It has the history of the sewers of Paris, which is absolutely fascinating. In a certain sense, what happened is, long ago, almost 800 years ago, the Seine river was getting ruined, so that was the origin of how they realized they had to do something, because they were fouling themselves. Those kinds of stories are very interesting, that we have figured out how to do smart things in our cities. Maybe this goes back to my job as a teacher—my hope is that young people, instead of getting—I don't know this is my particular prejudice—overly political, instead, get overly innovative.
ZIERLER: This is not a policy question; it's really more deeply spiritual or philosophical question: In looking at all these numbers and seeing where they're headed, do you ever think maybe the planet would just be better off without us? Do you ever go there? Or do you not want to go there because you want to believe in innovation, you want to believe in solutions?
PHILLIPS: I don't even know what it would really mean to say that. Better in what sense? I just feel like the natural world is the natural world, and we're part of it. There are interesting speculations—in fact, I got an email after my talk the other day—about civilizations destroying themselves. Is it an inevitability? And all these kinds of things, and I don't know anything about all of that. I don't know what to say. I just don't know what to say, because humans, we're complicated. There are really great things about humans, and there are really awful things about humans, and we tend not to be very good at anticipating things and planning for them and then being ready. But we're very good at responding to challenges. So, I don't know. I just don't know how to think about how all that will play out. I just don't know. You probably know the book, The World Without Us, which is a fascinating book. It's got a comment—I don't know about the numbers, but for example, that New York City would flood within days, the subways and stuff, if you turn off all of our electricity; just stop burning fuels, turn off all the electricity on the planet. Done. So many things will happen, but I wouldn't want to say that the world would be better off. Maybe whales would be better off. I could imagine lots of things like that, I suppose. But I don't even know what I mean. What would happen to the Serengeti? I don't know, it's an amazing experiment to think about, but it's not one I want to do.
ZIERLER: Here's a much simpler question moving the narrative closer to the present. When the pandemic hit, were you able to keep portions of the lab open? Was there automation that you could rely on? Or did you really shut down for a period?
PHILLIPS: We shut down for a little while because it was really mandated, in some sense, by Caltech. But the moment that we were allowed to have people in the lab at lower density, we did. We had a schedule because we have some people who are morning people, some people who are night people, so we divided things so that people could still try and get work done, but I would say, unequivocally, that it was a slowdown. Unequivocally. And we'll never get that time back. We tried to be very proactive. We tried to meet a lot in unusual ways. I tried to keep my mind on this idea of, what can we do that's different? Avi, who you know, was really insistent about us meeting at the park for lunch, which we did. I decided to use my discretionary funds to feed us as often as possible outdoors, and maybe at some point in the middle of the pandemic that might even have been a little bit off the policies of Caltech. I don't quite know. But we definitely got together, and tried to get together, pretty often as a group, and do team building or whatever you might call it.
ZIERLER: As a mentor to graduate students—some are international, they're stuck here, they're home by themselves—what was that like, just sort of keeping everybody sane?
PHILLIPS: It was terrible. I'm not going to mention any names, but there were certain people who I feel like they just almost didn't leave their apartment for a year, and I just don't know how to characterize the intensity of the consequences of that for any of us. I'm still, definitely reeling from the whole thing.
ZIERLER: Scientifically, did you have something to offer in terms of understanding COVID?
PHILLIPS: I don't know. I like the papers that we wrote. They're pretty interesting. If you look at the number of citations on the SARS-CoV-2 by the numbers paper, it's skyrocketed up into the very highest citations that I've had in my life. The PNAS paper was about the mass, the mutation rate, and all that stuff that also mattered, but did it make any difference to the grand enterprise? I doubt it. I don't know if you know this; were you here? When did you come? I gave seven public lectures to the employees. I talked to all of the staff. I think there were 800 people on Zoom. I put together a bunch of slides, and I gave a week-long course for the undergrads on viruses because I'd worked on viruses, so that's the kind of thing I tried to do to be helpful. I gave that talk at lots of places. I gave it at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and gave it in Dresden. I gave a lot of time to SARS-CoV-2 by the numbers, as a curiosity, I suppose. Or, at least just to say, look, in 1665, they sent Isaac Newton back to Woolsthorpe, but they didn't know what the hell was going on. We knew a lot about what was going on, and I figured I could at least share with people: Here's the Baltimore classification; it's probably the best classification we have on viruses. What does it mean? Why is there a classification? What does it mean to be an RNA virus versus a DNA virus? What's mean to be double-stranded versus single-stranded? Why does it piss me off so much that you say influenza and SARS-CoV-2 are the same? Influenza is so amazing, it has eight separate RNA molecules. Give me a break. It's like super weird as an object. We can't insult it like that. [David laughs] And SARS-CoV-2 is interesting for its own reasons. It has a 30,000 nucleotide genome that's got proofreading. These things are amazing. So, I was just trying to be helpful. Maybe this is being a bit pessimistic and a little sad, in a way, because I brought it up yesterday as well, and I think it's probably a feeling I have, which is, somebody like David Baltimore, at the end of the day, can make the claim that he's made a difference, and I'm not sure that I have. It's a sad reflection on a life.
ZIERLER: But that's always for other people to judge.
PHILLIPS: Maybe. That's a good point of view.
ZIERLER: Bringing it right up to today, what are you up to these days? What's on your plate?
PHILLIPS: It's three primary scientific things, as far as research goes, and then book writing and teaching, so that's at work. Out of work, there are many questions, as well, that have to do with, what does it mean to get older? What are the big questions in a life? How does one stay in shape? But at the level of science, I've already indicated it to you. One of them is, for sure, the human-impacts thread.
ZIERLER: This is going to stay with you for a while?
PHILLIPS: This is what I was telling you about what Ron thought I should do; he thought I should devote all my effort to that. I think it is going to stay with me. I would like to with, for example, my former student, Griffin, write a book on human impacts by the numbers, that's like this one, a series of short vignettes. Each vignette has a topic, whether it's water evaporation in hydroelectric—that's an interesting thing. When we make dams, we lose a lot of water by evaporation because there's more surface area. I didn't know that going in. Anyway, the human impacts thing is a thread that's going to keep going. I hope that I'll be able to find a way to support a student on that. Then the big question that I mentioned yesterday, which is the nature of the meaning of genomes. I told you we have 1017 or so nucleotides on the NIH databases, but we're really quite ignorant of the rules of regulation. How genes get turned on? How do genes get turned off? That kind of thing. Then the last area is related to this sort of perennial problem that I've had on my mind, always, which is the dynamics of systems that are out of equilibrium. Are there general principles? We have an experimental system that allows us to explore that in the form of biological filaments known as microtubules, molecular motors that are known as kinesins (which are present in our cells), and ATP, and really trying to do a careful experiment-theory dialog. So, that's what's going on in the group. We'll see how many more cycles of NIH funding that I can get. I question always about, when do people make room for others? That, I find interesting to think about. Selfishly, I don't have any immediate desire to go do something else. As far as book writing goes, I just finished this book called The Restless Cell, which is about active matter, and getting close to finishing one on the genome question, which is called Physical Genomics from E. coli to Elephants. I have a personal, sort of, autobiography without any personal stories; it's more about the science that I've loved. So, there's a section on the mathematics that's meant the most to me in this life, the physics that's meant the most to me, the biology that's meant the most to me, and then the nature that's meant the most to me, and it will finish with the books that have meant the most to me.
ZIERLER: Oh, cool.
PHILLIPS: Because I may have told you that I've asked about 1,500 people to tell me the five or ten books that have meant the most of them, and I have this master list, and that continues to be an important thing for me, just the role of reading in a human life, the role of the written word, what Clifton Fadiman referred to as "the great conversation." And then teaching. I'll be teaching freshman biology for the next few years, anyway. I'll continue to do the evolution course, continue to do physical biology of the cell, probably will do a human impacts course. I'd love a chance to do something about statistical physics again. But those are the kinds of things that are on my mind.
ZIERLER: Well, you've alluded to it, but now I want to move to a thematic portion of our conversation. I want to touch on teaching, reading, and writing. They're so important for you. So, teaching first: When are you inspired to innovate a course? And what administrative leeway is there, really, to just do what you want?
PHILLIPS: I would say even at Brown I had that leeway. I started as a professor in 1993, so I'm at the 30 year mark now, and I've had the privilege at every stage. It's always been my tendency to try and figure out how to state a subject for myself. That's, for sure, the only way that I know how to engage with a topic. All these notebooks that you see up there, all of them are courses that I've taught at Brown and here. I feel like the support I've gotten at Caltech has been intense and incredible. We already talked about it a little bit. I started teaching freshman biology with Pamela Bjorkman. We did a course that was based on HIV, Bi 1, which is this required core course. I went to Ed Stolper and had suggested that it would be cool to do a strictly experimental course with weekly labs, so they built a lab for me in the Braun building. Basically, we would take 24 students a year, and I really tried to put together a cult of TAs. A lot of our best courses are cultish. Phys 11 is an example of that; Tombrello was the cult leader. Axel Scherer had a fabrication course that was, for sure, cult-based. I remember very well when I first got here, every year, the continuity of TAs, because a lot of these things depend on TAs, which I always think of as being performance art. I always tell them, I may be the conductor, but you're the performers, and you take ownership of it. Anyway, Bi 1x was a smashing success. Shortly after that, there was the evolution course with the notion of going on a field trip. That was very much inspired by Bob Sharp. Did I tell you the story of how I came to know of him?
PHILLIPS: I was just so moved when I read his or his oral history. I've led four alumni trips, so the number of alums—he is the most-cited professor at Caltech that I've encountered, with all of my interactions with alums. Robert Sharp. Why? Because he took them to see the world, so I was really deeply inspired by that. At this point, I've led on the order of 15 or 20 trips: Galapagos 11 or 12 times, New Zealand twice, Indonesia twice, Alaska twice, Dinosaur National Monument. That is, besides the order of magnitude thinking, the best thing that I can do, is give kids those little Rite in the Rain notebooks, ask them to start sentences with the two words, "I wonder." You'd be surprised how hard it is for people. Every day, we have two 15 to 20 moments of silence—maybe I mentioned that to you—and that's very big. Physical biology of the cell was another one that was something I just did there. Order of magnitude biology is a new course that Justin Bois and I did together. So, I just think it's pure privilege at Caltech. I can, more or less, just teach whatever I want. As far as innovation goes, again, I think that I have been accused of being an elitist, because instead of teaching to the canon, or teaching to the task, or teaching to the MCAT, or teaching to the curriculum, I just have an attitude of, "Let's consider this topic and see how far we can get. How would I state it if I were on a desert island?" Not, "What does the canonical textbook say?" But, "What would I think of if I wanted to tell you?" Let's say you and I decided to spend six months teaching each other things, and we each are going to be our best selves. I just think that that's the best plan. It's very at odds, though, that there's a set of things to be taught, and I find myself partly at loggerheads with the people who do education research. The reason I say that is because, there, all the emphasis is on performance, performance metrics, and all that stuff, and it doesn't give any credence at all to the innovation of the thinker that's saying, "Hey, I've got a way of thinking about the world that isn't a curriculum. It's the way I came to conceive of biology." As I told you yesterday, the Physical Biology of the Cell is a conception. It's a vision. And I was discouraged. I'm not going to mention names, but Koonin put me in touch with people who he wanted me to talk to, and I was just told, straight up, "This subject's not ready for primetime. It's not ready for you to write a book called Physical Biology of the Cell." Well, tough luck. We did it anyway. Anyway, maybe those are the things I would say about teaching. It's just a huge privilege. It's an amazing way to learn. It's an amazing way to innovate. It's an amazing way to create. We lack respect in the academy for synthesis, and that demonstrates to me a lack of understanding of the history of science. You probably know very well about the three articles in Reviews of Modern Physics by Hans Bethe on nuclear physics. That led him, in a way, to his Nobel Prize winning discoveries about how the sun works and stuff. But also, it was used by everybody. He did the same thing in Handbuch der Physik with Sommereld in a way that created modern solid-state physics. There's a very interesting story, and I saw Frank Wilczek make a reference to this. Enrico Fermi gave a summer school set of courses at the University of Michigan in 1930 or so, 1931. He wrote this article in Reviews of Modern Physics called "Quantum Theory of Radiation," and everybody studied it. And then he, himself, by virtue of that, saw how to make the first quantum field theory in a way of weak interactions. I may be off a little bit on my history, but the act of synthesis is so incredibly important to our enterprise. What is our current statement about the subject of biology, or our current statement about the Earth system? It changes, and it's amazing and great when profound thinkers permit themselves the self-discipline and the opportunity to say, "This is my witness statement." David Attenborough just wrote a book. It's called A Life on Our Planet. It's his most recent book. It starts out in Chernobyl. He also made a documentary series. He refers to it as his witness statement, and I just am a believer in that. I have wished so many more people would do their witness statement and permit themselves to let us see them, as opposed to just see their papers. What is your witness statement? What have you concluded about our science, about the human condition, about our relationship with the truth? Take your pick; all those are relevant. People like Philip Anderson, he was a superstar at this. He wrote this book, Basic Notions in Condensed Matter Physics, and no one else could have written it, period. That's what I'm after. De Gennes is another one. He wrote these books no one else could have written. They're uniquely Pierre-Gilles de Gennes' witness statements on polymer physics, liquid crystals, and capillarity. So, that's what the privilege of teaching gives us.
ZIERLER: The students today overwhelmingly want to study computer science. What's the challenge for teaching students with that interest? And what are the assets in terms of their skills and their motivations?
PHILLIPS: I'm not sure I even know, because it's so hard to talk to them. In other words, I would love to get more undergrads to come sit in my office, eat lunch with me, and just tell me, honestly, what are you thinking? What are you up to? How many of you are doing this because somebody has brainwashed you that everything's about getting a job, or about the six figures, or whatever? How much of it is about fads? How much of it is about peer pressure? I don't know the answer to any of those things. The other day in section, one of my grad students had all the students tell the TAs something about themselves, and one of the students said, "I hate bio." I wasn't there, but I just thought, "Wow, that's such a remarkable thing to say as an 18-year-old at a science institution." Like, really? Did you ever see a whale breach? Do you know that you can release an alligator and it will find its way back more than 100 miles from where it started? What's to hate about that? I could easily say I hate the way biology's taught. I hate coloring mitochondria orange on some worksheet. That's fine.
ZIERLER: That's a representation of immaturity more than anything, probably.
PHILLIPS: Maybe. And I have a hard time with that. I've always had a hard time with that. My reason is because of my own experience at age 18, but also the reality of their lives at age 18. They can go get sent to a war and get killed. They can, for sure, have a kid. They can go to prison. They can do all the stuff. So, you're right. When I go to the beaches of Normandy and I go to the cemetery, I have to say, in a way, the one that hurts me the most, actually—and this is going to sound odd—is the German one. There are so many 16- and 17-year-olds there. Those are pitiful, teeny-tiny kids. They're just meat in a meat grinder, is what they are.
So, I try not to worry. I try to get people to suspend their disbelief and to just simply be there with me with an open mind, and just try to listen to the interesting notion of the Craighead brothers, who were the first people who really tried hard to track animals. They put collars on grizzly bears in Yellowstone. It's pretty amazing. [David laughs] It's a pretty amazing thing. Could you just let go of all the other shit for a second, and just think about a grizzly bear? [David laughs] And do they know each other? And where do they go? And what's it like to be—I should show you a picture of these guys. They catch them in a cylindrical tube on the back of a truck. They tranquilize them and they pull them out, but their eyes are open. They're putting a collar on this grizzly bear that's got its head lifted up, and they know it's a ticking time bomb; they've got to get out of the way. Then they tracked this thing, and they find out they know each other, the bears. And they hang out, and they go places, and there are corridors in Yellowstone, and there's just a lot of stuff. So, I just keep on trying every day. Like today, I'm going to go into Bi 1, and I'm going to talk about the fossil record of whales, and how over the last 65 million years, mammals that were that big went into the ocean and became 10 meters long. What's up with that? Do they have genes for enamel? Toothless whales, baleen whales, and humpback, do they have the genes for enamel? Yes, they do. Is it working? Nope. What's up with their odorant receptors? Do they sniff stuff? They've got odorant receptor, but they're mainly not working. There's a lot to think about if you stop for a second. What's the nature of the fossil record? And why are there so many whales in the Himalayas? What's up with that? Again, I just don't know how to relate to not finding that interesting. That's my problem, in a way; back to the CS students. I just don't know how to be not interested, so I can't really relate to sitting in a classroom and just being pissed off, or whatever.
The Fundamental Goal is to Inspire Curiosity
ZIERLER: Well, maybe the thing to do is you just convey that enthusiasm, that love of curiosity.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, I think that's right. On the other hand, I'm totally 100% contradicting myself, obviously, because I completely relate. That's exactly why I didn't go to college. I 100% relate. I had no desire whatsoever to sit in freshman physics. Zero. Like, even for 10 minutes. So there you go, contradiction of my life.
ZIERLER: People are complicated.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, exactly.
ZIERLER: You're a voracious reader.
PHILLIPS: True, 75 to 80 books a year.
ZIERLER: Prolific writer.
PHILLIPS: I don't know about that.
ZIERLER: Look at how much you've written! It's a lot! It's a lot for a scientist. It's a lot! It's a lot.
PHILLIPS: Okay, I'll take your word for it.
ZIERLER: How is that a two-way street for you? How does that work in the most beneficial way?
PHILLIPS: For starters, reading is one of life's greatest pleasures for me. It's something that I can remember, back—I think I told you that this already, I remember every week going to the library in St. Louis. I can picture going in there with my mom and my copy of Serengeti Shall Not Die, which I really think you need to get. Maybe I'll even get you a copy. It's got one of those old-library funny bindings, very thick with the cross-hatch patterns. I just remember taking six or seven books home a week and just reading. I remember being a super serious surfer guy, but then I remember going home and sitting on my couch and reading Alive. Remember that book?
ZIERLER: Oh yeah.
PHILLIPS: That's the one about the soccer team that crashes in the Andes—and just being transfixed, and there are so many times that I've had that experience. As we talked about, I went to Bill Martin's house and learned about Clifton Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan, and that led me to very odd things. Like, I never in a million years would have thought that I would read Herodotus's Histories, but I loved that. It's like gossip. Then I read Thucydides, and that one was more dry, but also interesting, and learned about Pericles. I just always found what Fadiman refers to as "the great conversation" to be so incredibly compelling and such a privilege, again. To have access to the thinking of great minds like Jane Austen. How does that work? So, reading has just been paramount. I'm poorly educated, but I'm largely an autodidact, so reading has been my root, primarily. I like the slow pace, and I like the "trust the process" aspect. And I like the confidence. At the beginning, I didn't necessarily have the confidence, but I have it now, knowing that in general, if I give my time and energy, I will figure it out. And then, as I mentioned before, I love the Phil Andersons and the de Gennes of the world. In general, I'm not a big fan of the generic textbook, but when somebody tells me, "This is my witness statement," oh my God, I just lap it up, because I want to see, how do people engage with their lives? How do they live their lives? They're different than me, and it's fun and interesting to see, and often I learn things about how I might do it. Let's see, I might even have the book here, which is called Darwin's Armada. It's so interesting to see the continuity. It runs from Humboldt to Darwin, and actually, Darwin tried to go to some of the same places that Humboldt went. And then after that, Wallace, Hooker, and Huxley, they would all stop because they'd read Humboldt and Darwin—like The Voyage of the Beagle—they'd try and go even to the same rock on an island. I just think it's such a privilege to be privy to the independent thoughts of independent thinkers. That's what I love. Sean Carroll—not our Sean Carroll, but the biologist, Sean Carroll—probably our former guy is also an amazing writer—but I've been more taken by the Sean Carroll at HHMI and the one who also has The Serengeti Rules documentary. They're just such an act of originality. I love that. I just love that. I'm repeating myself, but it's just an amazing thing. And then fiction, I love discovering new authors, and I'm surprised even to this day. I learned about Borges and Robertson Davies from Roald Hoffmann, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and I got to talk to him a lot when I was at Cornell. I had no clue that there was a guy called Robertson Davies, and I didn't know about Borges. They've meant a ton to me in the time sense. Recently, in terms of fiction, I've become a huge fan of Taylor Jenkins Reid. You may have heard of her through a new show—it's either on Amazon or Netflix—called Daisy Jones and The Six. She's just an amazing writer. She wrote Malibu Rising. I like watching interviews with her. She's young; she's super dynamic. And then there's this woman, Maggie Shipstead, who wrote Great Circle, which everybody should read. There's a great video of her. It's five minutes long. It's basically about female pilots, and it's a love letter to flying and the world. It's really cool. In fact, maybe when we finish I can show you the video just so you can get a sense of it. Anyway, I love the world of fiction, whether it's the classics, like Moby Dick, Ulysses, whatever, or contemporary romance. I'm pretty indiscriminate.
ZIERLER: For your own science writing, when is it a book and when is it an article?
PHILLIPS: Articles are generally what goes on with grad students when we've got a quantum of insight, a quantum of experiment, a quantum of theory, or something like that. As I was saying earlier, the book thing is just about synthesis. It bugs me to have had a 30-year career and to see all the papers, just the endless stream of papers, and to wonder what have we accomplished? For you, who worked at the American Institute of physics, I would love to hear your views on this. Where is Heisenberg now? What I mean by that is, I had the privilege a few years ago, it was 2017 or 2018, of going to a Solvay Conference, and it was the first one on the physics-biology interface. There were a lot of Nobel Prize winner types there, and we had our pictures taken. You know the famous pictures of Solvay. I was saying to another person who actually was an undergrad here once upon a time—was a famous professor somewhere else; I'm not going to say who—there are a lot of sharp people here, but I don't feel like I'm in the presence of any Heisenbergs or whatever. Then I thought a little bit about this Dirac comment, or at least supposedly a Dirac comment, about, "In the 1920s, a third-rate scientist could do the first-rate science; and in the ‘50s, first-rate scientists would have a hard time doing third-rate science," or something along those lines. As I looked at all the people I was at the Solvay with, some of them are super smart, super sharp, and creative. It just made me wonder, what does it mean to be an impactful human being in this era? Is it that the quantum era is mythology, and it's always been like this, that there are a bunch of foot soldiers? Or, is it that we live in a world where it's hard to make a big insight? I don't know the answers to any of these things, I just find it interesting.
ZIERLER: You mean that there's maybe a lot more noise in the world now than there was in the ‘20s and ‘30s?
PHILLIPS: There's noise, but also, there's a lack of, "We made this compelling advance that's going to touch everything." My friends and I, when we reflect on the last 60 or so years of physics, a lot of times we come to the idea that renormalization group, Ken Wilson, and all those people, that was the last big, big thing. But I don't know if that's true. Maybe you need the distance to be able to look back and say, "Oh yeah, between 2000 and 2020 was an amazing time, and that's the era in which quantum computing came online, and that's going to transform the whole of society forever." I don't know at all, but I like to write books because of this point. Coming back to your question, which is, what have we accomplished? What have we learned? What does it mean? How do we bring it under one umbrella? Can we curriculumize it? Going back to the thing about Einstein at ETH, what am I failing to tell all these brilliant 18-year-olds that I'm going to meet at 1:00 this afternoon? What am I failing to tell them? And the only way I can know that is to try to have a bit of a broad view of what we've accomplished in our science. And I'm terrible at it, but I've tried to figure out what's going on across the waterfront.
ZIERLER: You mentioned Enrico Fermi. I love this idea of people who knew him. This idea that if you could ask Fermi, "Are you an experimentalist or a theorist?" He would have looked at you funny, because those distinctions were meaningless to him. One of the themes of our talks has been, for you, this need for fluidity between experiment and theory. Do you see that as an ideal, that in the long run, looking to the future, that's where scientists need to head?
PHILLIPS: Probably not. The reason I say that is I'm truly a believer in diversity. Did we talk about the Kinsey report at all during all of our conversations? That meant a lot to me. What I mean by that is—maybe it's statistically flawed. I don't want to get into whether or not the Kinsey report was statistically flawed, but what I want to say is that I believe that the breadth of human experience is quite wide, and I'm going to use human sexuality as the basis of that for the moment. People have different tastes. They have different natural instincts. I don't want to say the wrong words and piss somebody off, but at the end of the day, I accept that people have different ways of navigating their lives, sexually or whatever. And that's, to my mind, totally cool. I don't want to say that there is one way for science to proceed. I just think that's silly. In fact, going back to Fermi, I heard again—it may be apocryphal—he was asked what Nobel Prize winners have in common, and he said, "Nothing, not even intelligence." I don't think he meant it as an insult. He meant, it's all out there; different people have different passions, different strengths, different obsessions, different talents, technical talents, or whatever. So, for me, personally, I'm not an experimentalist, but I have incredibly solid, super strong experimental group members. Obviously I write a lot of papers that are experimental papers, but that fluidity is absolutely central to me, for me, in this life. It's necessary in biology, in part, at the moment, because of a lack of respect for theory. I crave for the day when people like Daniel Fisher, who's a theorist at Stanford, will be taken even more seriously by the biology community. I think they're wrong, not him. They're dead wrong. Like, I've been with him in meetings where—maybe I shouldn't be calling out an individual, but I have so much respect for him—I can tell that the biologists are, in a way, thinking that they're his superior. And I'm 100% thinking, "Got the sign wrong on that one." This guy's really important. He's more important to you than you are to him, in other words. The specialization in physics is awesome, and it's necessary. With rare exceptions, the people who build LIGO just require a sophistication. Do you know this guy, James Gunn?
PHILLIPS: He's another one, like Fermi, that really, really impresses the heck out of me in this regard. When they did the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, as best I understand it—this is based on not being a participant, and reading some popular book about it—he's a guy that practices as a theorist; he practices as an observational astronomer; but also, he practices how to design the cameras. I just find that to be amazing. And when I think about Fermi in the ‘30s, it's stunning; I just told you, he wrote the defining article, in a way, on quantum electrodynamics, Fermi-Dirac statistics. What is his gang doing in Rome? They're basically shooting neutrons at every single element they can—systematic, rigorous. I'm going to lead this associate's trip in October, and we're going to the Enrico Fermi Museum for just that reason. Then, there are some really interesting articles. This guy, Jay Orear, who was a Cornell, talked about Fermi, the data analyst, and how he was already doing Bayesian things in the ‘50s. That was his way of conceptualizing it, like, right in the spirit of Laplace. So, he's rare, right? Fermi is about as rare as they get.
ZIERLER: Yeah. Rob, I want to ask one last question to wrap up this amazing series of conversations. It'll have a retrospective element, and then obviously one looking to the future. In terms of your identity, you're really still an electrician, right? The way you see the world, the way you see yourself.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, and a surfer.
ZIERLER: And a surfer! Looking to the future, in all of the dramatic ways that you've pivoted, taken on new things, followed your nose, just doing the things that are interesting and real to you, being a surfer, being an electrician, how might that serve as a guidepost for the science you want to do, for however long you want to be active?
PHILLIPS: I have to say that I just don't know the answer to that. Maybe one of the points of this whole adventure is a belief in the nonbelief of the plan. [laughs] I've had lots of plans, and they're good guideposts, to use your word, for action, but it just seems like almost never do things turn out the way the plan specified them. As you probably have been able to guess, I'm in a bit of a low point, actually, in my life; I'm just going to say that frankly. I don't know what the future holds for me. I'm in a bit of a pessimistic mood. So, I'm thinking hard about what the "what nexts" might be. I don't want to teach the same course and do the same things over and over again, so that's a big question. Being honest, as I get older, the question of meaning has always been critical for me. That's why I went off on my adventure on my own to study physics, and I maybe told you about driving my dad's car at the speed limit. I think I told you about that. I was on the quest for order and meaning, and I feel that science has brought me a lot of meaning, but as our mortality gets closer to the horizon, I find that I don't know how to deal with that. I don't feel that I've got that part of meaning figured out. And I hate the idea of coming here and just going through the motions. So, "I don't know" is the most honest answer I can give you. But I don't think, psychologically, I will ever be able to escape being the surfer-electrician guy. I'm 62 years old. At this age, how am I going to get over that? I told you there are faculty members here that have criticized me for that insecurity, or whatever you want to call it. But I reject that. That just means they don't understand, in my opinion.
ZIERLER: So, you'll stick around as long as the science is compelling. You'll never stop learning. You'll never stop reading. You'll never stop writing.
PHILLIPS: That's right.
ZIERLER: But all of the motions of a professorial life, that's going to end as soon as it's not interesting to you anymore?
PHILLIPS: I would think that would be true. I'd want to be a bit careful about it. Like, I'd want to make sure that it's not a bad mood, because then I'd let it maybe ride for a couple of years. I do think that it's something where, life is too precious to let yourself just do something because that's what you've always done. When I was a kid, I read many times Thoreau's "Life Without Principle." Did we talk about that at all?
PHILLIPS: That meant a lot to me. Like, what are your motivations? Maybe it's overly idealistic on my part. Maybe one needs to be some element of practical, and I don't know the answer to that part either. There are all these meaning questions that are front and center.
ZIERLER: It's funny, maybe we can end on this. As a surfer, you don't have to have faith in the next wave. It's coming, right?
PHILLIPS: Right, it is.
ZIERLER: But as a scientist, it sounds like what you're saying is you need faith in the next big thing to keep you engaged, to keep you energized, and maybe you're not so sure. You're not as sure as the next wave.
PHILLIPS: I don't know because, aside from bad mood, I don't think my curiosity about the world and my sense of wonder has ever gone away at all.
ZIERLER: No, but I'm saying in the professor's context of papers and grants in a lab, and students, and all of that stuff.
PHILLIPS: As far as that goes, I'll have to think about it a little bit more. Not that it'll be part of this conversation, but I don't know the answer to that. I view my job as a professor as trying to help people realize their dreams, and as long as there are students who come thinking that my lab is a place where they can realize those dreams, that's a good reason to continue. There's the very hard question of: Does the National Institutes of Health decide to continue my having the privilege of getting funded? And that's a tricky one for reasons that we discussed over the course of all of our—
ZIERLER: And there's the ageism thing with grants and all of that.
PHILLIPS: That's right. Where all that will play out, I don't know. I could imagine maybe doing things that are more theorist-oriented again, rather than having the lab. But, I don't know. Again, these are things that you and I can talk about privately, where there's a lot of enlightenment to be had. Like, what's the meaning of a life? And how does one accept and move through change? And when does one need to actually accept change? And all those things, I don't have answers to any of those things.
ZIERLER: I'll tell you what. When you figure it out, we'll reconnect for another session.
PHILLIPS: Thanks. All right, sounds good.
ZIERLER: Rob, this has been awesome. Thank you.
- A Research Agenda of Everything
- Science by Accomplishment Not Pedigree
- Drawing on Science History for Lab Leadership
- Biophysics as Merge Point
- Scientific Taste is Nontrivial
- Genteel Roots
- A Wayward Path in High School
- Education by Other Means
- From Electrician to Physicist
- The Paradigm Shift of Anderson Not Kuhn
- Cornell and Quasicrystals
- Nailing it at the Visit to Brown
- The Research and Cultural Pull of France
- The Move to Caltech and Embracing the Entirety of Science
- Aiming for Predictive Biology
- Caltech as Pedagogical Adventure
- Human Impacts and Entropy
- The Fundamental Goal is to Inspire Curiosity