Ancell Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Brandeis University; Visitor in Theoretical Physics, Caltech
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
June 3, 2022
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, June 3rd, 2022. I am very happy to be here with Professor Stanley Deser. Stanley, thank you so much for joining me today. It's a great honor to be with you.
STANLEY DESER: Well, I will do anything for the honor of Caltech. I will quote, I once met a very eminent colleague of mine, a French one, in a museum in New York and I said, "Come, I'll introduce you to my wife." And I said in French—I'm bilingual—I want to introduce you to one of the summits, it's called in French, of French physics. And then he said, "Oh, I'm just a poor bastard." So that's me. He said that in French. There's a worse word. In any case . . .
DESER: Let me just say I arrived here in the fall of 2005, which is now a reasonable long time ago, and I had just retired from Brandeis, where I'd spent my academic career with interruptions all over the world. John Schwarz was my official sponsor and, of course, Ooguri, so they're the two guys who occupied the Gell-Mann and Feynman offices across from mine. John I've known forever. Of course, Ooguri I met a little bit considerably later. He was younger. John has retired some time ago. I don't even know what happened to him really, but he lives nearby. I live near Caltech, as well. The reason I retired was I decided enough is enough of teaching, administration, and garbage. We all have to pay for that, but we don't have to do it forever. One of my children and her family had moved to LA, so we thought the climate might be something of a change from Boston, to put it mildly, or to put it not mildly. In any case, we drove across the country. We were quite old, but in order to really show that this is a breaking off point, and arrived in LA in the beginning of a Columbus Day weekend, and then we realized what it means to live in LA in those days. God! We had bought a house more or less sight unseen, our present house, could hardly find our way—there was no GPS in those days—and then we could hardly find our way out. Anyway, and lived happily ever since in the same house, and I'm going to go out feet first, I hope.
DESER: The hospitality from Caltech was primarily they gave me an office and services, and I didn't have to either teach or attend committees or any garbage whatsoever. No obligations, in other words. I happily attended the weekly theoretical seminars and the colloquia and all that, and that was fun because Boston was a very different atmosphere that way. I was always given a seat in the front because of my physical disabilities like hearing. In any case, it was a very enjoyable period. I looked up my CV just before and self-published something like 70-odd papers since I got here of varying degrees of quality. I also should mention several of the greatest honors that befell me, befell me here.
The first one was something called the Einstein Medal. It was called the Einstein Medal because it's got Einstein's picture on it but not mine. Still, it's a nice medal. Not gold but, hey. Then, my biggest honor of my life, actually, was a year ago—biggest in the sense of rarest. I was a remember of the National Academy long ago—but I am a Foreign Member of the Royal Society. That is an honor that I share with about 180 people worldwide and in all fields of science, most of which are not in theoretical physics. For some reason those committees don't appreciate our discipline enough. Neither of these achievements seem to have been recorded in the Division newsletter, perhaps because I am an unpaid associate. Of course, Hirosi Ooguri was very pleased and so was I. One other significant thing that happened was publication last year of my autobiography, a work in which I put down quite a lot of time. I think beyond a certain age people are driven to erect their own cemetery monuments and that's what an autobiography is. Of course, it leaves out more than it keeps in, but it was a combination of more or less—I had led a rather interesting life as a child and then some interesting chapters as a grownup, as well.
In any case, in addition to that, I had a number of more or less scientific addenda or appendices which expatiated on the various scientific issues, but not technical ones so much as deep stuff. It has been extremely well received, if I may say so. It even has pictures, lots of pictures. That came out last year. I'm unlikely to use up the royalties. [laugh] That kind of book doesn't sell that way.
Then, although I've been actually working on physics all along, more or less badly, I've also published a few articles on either borderline physics or on totally un-physics and a couple of journals. One is called Inference. It's published in France. I had never heard of it either but has distinguished physicists writing for it. And the other one is called Marginalia. It's sort of a lit magazine for my literary contributions. And that's been fun. Of course, it's a different universe.
I've led a mixed life. I've done a lot of reading, so I felt, why not try a little writing? That's the other activity.
Now, after arriving here in 2005, I continued to do a bit of traveling until about 2010 when we spent the month in Paris, which is one of my favorite places—whose isn't it?—but since then we really barely, if at all, traveled. I've stayed extremely local, partly because being 91-plus means I have to walk with a Rollator. I do have help and children here and so on but since COVID—of which I got a really nasty early dose, and then I've been triply vaccinated so I'm okay, I think—but in general, that has sort of restricted the universe. Yes, if I could press a time travel button I might go somewhere because, for example, my wife was Swedish so a great deal of family there. Then, my three daughters, one lives here, one lives in Boulder—she was just inducted into the National Academy, as well—and one lives in Palo Alto. So I can't say it's a distance, but they visit me. Boulder is a great place despite the altitude—because of the altitude, but I ain't got it in me anymore to fight the TSA. I guess private jets are not a possibility I've considered.
That sort of wraps me up. I don't know if there's anything left for you to ask. I will happily separately forward to you a list of my publications since then, although I don't know if you're in physics at all. Okay. You got a PhD in physics?
ZIERLER: I do. In history of science. I'm a historian. Stanley, if I may, let me ask a few questions that establish some—
DESER: I'm sorry I monopolized, but now it's all your, so go.
ZIERLER: Okay. Wonderful. Before you arrived at Caltech formally in 2005, I wonder if you can talk about what you thought about Caltech going all the way back to being a student of Julian Schwinger, and if you knew of Richard Feynman at that point?
DESER: Very interesting point. I am probably one of the very few people who never set foot in Pasadena before I moved here permanently. Never. However, it is, of course, difficult not to have known Murray and Dick. So Feynman I met, can you believe it, in January 1957, a date that will go down in infamy for me. I was a postdoc, finishing my second cycle, in the Bohr Institute, after the Institute for Advanced Study; had a wife and a baby coming, and no job prospects. And as you know, in those days once you were overseas, you didn't exist in the US. And so I came to the first conference on general relativity, which was organized by the DeWitts. They were then in Chapel Hill, so that was called GR0, the first—well, GR1. The first was in Berne in 1955, which I also attended. That was a really weird one. In any case, I had not managed to accomplish very much in Copenhagen, and I had one really misbegotten paper. The only excuse for it is that several super-great people had the same idea. But being super-great, they were smart enough not to have published anything on it, unlike me. [laugh] Oh, no, I'm serious.
I gave this paper and Feynman was in the audience and without much difficulty shot me to pieces, which I deserved, whereupon I got the worst flu I ever had in my life and nearly died. And he would spend most of the time off in my room in the hotel because he felt he had somehow triggered this.
DESER: We would meet from time to time; the last time that I really remember there was something called—what's the name of that—Shelter Island II, a conference which was a retake of the great Shelter Island I. The sequel is never as good as the original. In any case, so we came from Boston. Sidney Coleman and I drove down and we took the ferry from New London to Orient Point, the quickest way. And on that boat were everybody else almost on that particular ferry run, including Feynman, who then took me aside like the ancient mariner and for some reason began recounting his autobiography to me: his undergrad, how he learned quantum mechanics with Weldon and all that, on and on, until we landed in Orient Point. During the conference he was otherwise occupied, so that was sort of the longest engagement I had with him.
Murray—who I think was the greater of the two, actually, for what it's worth, but who's counting? Gell-Mann was an unbelievably snotty guy those days in his youth, and I watched him until he mellowed to a point far beyond what one could've ever hoped for. In any case—and there's a backstory there, not very sexy—but while I was a postdoc at the Institute after my PhD at Princeton, women essentially were nonexistent in Princeton because the university was, of course, not coed. So there were these two girls who were working with Hetty Goldman, archaeologist—Hetty Goldman was, I think, the only woman in the institute—and very nice, both of them. One of them was a daughter of no less than the brigadier general who ran Los Alamos. What's his name? Oh, you know, the military guy.
ZIERLER: General Groves.
DESER: The other one was a very nice British girl. We were very friendly but nothing more. And Murray married her and was in a period of childish jealousy so that the next time we met was on a sidewalk outside of the Niels Bohr Institute, some years later they were both there, and Margaret and I rushed to each other to say hello and he yanked her away and pushed me off and walked off. That's how the poor guy was. But he got over that.
In 1986 there was a Nobel Conference in Sweden on a tiny island—when I say island you could almost jump across but not quite, so there was a one-inch ferry—it was about the beginnings of string theory, of the string revolution. Murray was supposed to be the rapporteur at the end of the conference. We always have one in our conferences to summarize. So he humbly went around to everybody and asked them to explain to him why they were there and what they had done, which, of course, sounded pretty false to me. Then, at some point, he said that his wife was working hard in her métier. And he asked me if I knew what a métier was. So I said, "Yes, it's a loom," whatever the hell they do with these looms. And that sort of floored him because he thought . . . So then we walked around the island. Not a very big deal, about half an hour, during which he recounted one of H.C. Andersen's fairytales in the original language, which I happened to know, as well. But he did it without any accent whatsoever, and I know the difference. I speak many, many languages, almost all with a lousy accent but his was absolutely spot-on perfect. So those are the two people from Caltech. But as I said, I only met them offshore for that and never gave a talk here.
ZIERLER: Stanley, what was it that Feynman was criticizing you for that gave you the flu, allegedly?
DESER: Oh . . . Sounds like a leading question. Well, at that time—this was '57 so it was the end of QED's triumphant era and at the same time there were some problems, QED, of course, as we know, requires some pushing under the rug. And there was also something called the Landau zeros which were traumatic things for QED. People were trying to see desperately if there were any remedies. Landau separately and Klein and Pauli—not a bad start—all thought that maybe gravity could ameliorate those problems, on no particular grounds, but God forbid that they should publish anything on it. I had come up with that also independently, and one of the reasons I came up with it is that I knew nothing about gravity, which left me very independent. And so on to my paper—it was actually published in the Reviews of Modern Physics as part of the Proceedings—proposed a mechanism concretely whereby gravity would ameliorate or remove the divergences, but it was garbage. We all published garbage. Some of us are redeemed in other ways.
ZIERLER: Why was it garbage? What was wrong with it?
DESER: [laugh] Don't get me started.
ZIERLER: I'm trying. [laugh]
DESER: So it was a handwaving—it had lots of equations—handwaving thing that said the path integral—that's why Feynman jumped on it—of gravity would damp out the infinities of other field theories, period. Let's draw a curtain on that. Everybody's entitled to a few strikes.
Anyway, I didn't really know what GR was and little did I know that that would become one of my really most, if not the most frequest, subject that I worked on, but that didn't start until actually about a year later. After '57, I got a one-year instructorship at Harvard from my mentor Julian Schwinger to put me on my feet. Towards the end of that year, Dick Arnowitt and I started what became ADM. Here we had the—it's all in my autobiography—in the period of about two or three years we published over a dozen, if I may say so, brilliant, groundbreaking papers. To this day they're not appreciated by the GR crowd because they're not into field theory. They don't know from field theory. And they were not appreciated by the field theory crowd because they didn't know from general relativity. But that's what I'm most proud of, perhaps—well, one of the things.
ZIERLER: Did you ever hear Schwinger talk about Feynman or did you ever hear Feynman talk about Schwinger?
DESER: I've written some things about the two of them, published. They had very similar backgrounds, both born in New York the same year, both wunderkinder; they both respected each other—their rivalry was a purely trumped-up stupidity. They weren't friends, yeah, particularly because they were at opposite ends of the continent, and they were both prima donnas. I can't imagine two personalities more different from each other. In any case, I never spoke to Feynman about Schwinger really. Deep down I think that they realized they had a tacit pact not to talk about each other.
ZIERLER: What was it that got you heavily involved in gravity after Feynman dressed you down?
DESER: That's a good point! So at the end of my instructorship at Harvard, I had written a few papers which survive—three papers with Sudarshan of the famous V-A theory, and Wally Gilbert, who went on to get a Nobel Prize in molecular biology. In any case, at the end of that I moved to Brandeis. I got back in touch with my old pal, graduate school roommate and all that, Dick Arnowitt, who was then at Syracuse, and we started talking about what's left to do. QED was gone. Supergravity was, of course, far-off on the horizon. So after spin one comes spin two. And we didn't know from relativity, but we knew from field theory. We first started off doing pure spin two but a la Schwinger. It had first been done by Pauli and Fierz in the ‘30s and by a poor Russian called Bronstein, which was also Trotsky's real name. That was a mistake. He was shot at the very early days of The Terror. Apparently, they just got people from the phone book. He was right up there with Landau and Gamow and all that, really bright guy, as I discovered later.
The ‘30s brought on field theory. We were doing ‘50s quantum field theory so we also did the linearized field, and we did it beautifully because it was easy. In those days, the joke was you could publish any paper in Phys. Rev. just by starting, "According to Schwinger . . ." Then you would write an equation and it would go on and say, "And therefore . . . " so we did it according to Schwinger." John Wheeler at Princeton got wind of our—in those days, communications were pretty weird. We had a technological miracle called the mimeograph. I don't know if you know what that is. You ever seen one?
ZIERLER: I have, yes.
DESER: These blue pages, almost illegible, would be mailed out between privileged labs. It was the arXiv of its day. [laugh] He got interested so he said, "Come on down." Arnowitt and I came down and for me, of course, Princeton was ancient territory, but now I didn't come down as a visitor or a postdoc but as a genuine—I finally had begun to do research. And Wheeler about whom you must—do you know his personal habits? He had these huge, lined notebooks and tape recorders the size of a trunk. So we started telling him what we had done, and he stopped us, and said, "This is most interesting. I have a very bright graduate student who would really be perfect here." And he called up Charlie Misner, whom I'd actually met at Chapel Hill but not really, and he, Charlie, showed us what he had done. He didn't know what a treasure he had, and he didn't know what our modern field theory was, and Wheeler suggested that we might collaborate. Since we were not grad students or let alone postdocs we said, "We'll think about it." We ain't taking on no snotty kid. By the time we got to Princeton Junction on the way home we said to each other, "This is utter stupidity. We've got to get Charlie on board." And that's how ADM was born.
I cannot tell you how—we worked a lot in Denmark, the summers, particularly in a kindergarten, unfortunately demolished without a plaque. The nice thing about this kindergarten, it had blackboards. Denmark is very good that way. The height of kinder, in other words from the floor up to the knee, and we would crawl and write equations. And the papers just poured out and then it all ened, totally happily. I'm in still in contact with Charlie. Dick died, unfortunately, a couple years ago. So that's the story.
ZIERLER: Was Feynman following ADM? Were you in contact with Feynman or Gell-Mann?
DESER: Not at all. Not at all. Feynman gave lectures on gravity which I felt were not so special, and in particular one of the things I've done in my life of which I am very proud was that the derivation of gravity from self-interaction in one step. This is a subject many people—and it's usually attributed by the "Matthew Principle" to Feynman. In his lectures he tries to do it, but he doesn't do it my super clever way, but uses second order formalism instead of first. So he gets an infinite series, shrugs his shoulders, and says, "Well, what else could it be?" By general covariance that series must sum to the Einstein equations. But of course that's begging the question. I was not very impressed by these lectures, but he was teaching himself general relativity and he was a smart guy.
ZIERLER: What about Gell-Mann, was he following ADM?
DESER: No. Murray was totally uninterested in gravity whatsoever. In fact, it reminds me of Sidney Coleman, who was a pretty bright guy, and once after Bruno Zumino and I had done supergravity, he sent me some students from Harvard and he said, "I am uninterested in gravity and super-uninterested in supergravity, so take these guys." So that's the answer. In general, no, as I said, the field theory guys didn't care about GR and the GR guys didn't care about field theory. That's part of these bridges to nowhere is, to this very day, believe it or not, not fully appreciated. People always refer to the ADM energy, which is indeed one of the gems, but even then, they don't understand what it is. In fact, I wrote a paper about that, because you've heard of a couple of random people called David Hilbert and Emmy Noether?
DESER: After Einstein, they tried to define energy in general relativity, but they had no luck: they were mathematicians, so they couldn't possibly because they were too general. They didn't realize the gauge invariance of the second kind does not provide charges. It would have to be broken to gauge invariance of the first kind, so ADM energy required physics.
ZIERLER: Stanley, do you have any insight into Gell-Mann's interest in promoting John Schwarz and his interest in string theory?
DESER: Oh, very much so. At some point Walter Kohn invited Bruno and me to run a program at Santa Barbara at ITP that had just been established. This was the time of the string revolution, Green and Schwarz. Bruno said to me, "I'm coming a couple of days after you. I wish you'd get these guys up here because I just heard from Murray about Green and Schwarz," and he explained it to me. So at that point I think Murray very much promoted it.
ZIERLER: What about you, were you following the developments in string theory closely?
DESER: I will be frank with you, not closely. I'd read, but was never truly attracted even to super—well, to superstrings. Somebody said that was a piece of 21st century physics that dropped into the 20th century, but I think the answer is it was a piece of 21st century math, and I saw no future in it. I still don't see a future in it, but I am not infallible. There's something there. It's both too little and too much; from the Wilsonian point of view I can sort of see why one might look that way, but thousands of papers later no physical results.
ZIERLER: Do you see a more plausible path to a quantum theory of gravity?
DESER: Would I be talking to you?
DESER: No, no, no. Perturbative gravity I've worked with enormously much, and I certainly believe it has to be quantized. I've recently found, believe it or not, a zero-equation proof where relativity has to be quantized, not that we need it. Normal quantization exists and all that, and the theory is so highly nonrenormalizable. Of course, string theory was to be the panacea and would include a finite gravity. Alas, it does but includes far too much, as well. So the answer is I'm talking to you.
ZIERLER: Stanley, I'll run a quote by you. I'd like to hear your reaction to it in terms of the stature of Caltech. Mark Wise shared with me that when he got the offer to come to Caltech Shelly Glashow said to him, "Oh, you're going to the big leagues now." Mark said to Shelly, "We're at Harvard and you're a Nobel laureate. How can you say such a thing?" And Shelly said, "There are Nobel laureates and there are Nobel laureates." Does that ring true to you?
DESER: Well, look, I got my PhD at Harvard, right, with a Nobel laureate who was a Nobel laureate. I knew Shelly when he was a grad student with Julian, as well, whence he went to Caltech. As I said, though, the golden years of Gell-Mann and Feynman coincided to some extent with Julian's last golden years. So yes. Look, anyplace that had those two guys was the center of the universe. That's how theoretical physics works. You find even one guy—Harvard had Julian and that was the center of the world, and then Caltech took over. Harvard was scarcely the bush leagues. Shelly was a guy who was fond of these aphorisms. Then, of course, Harvard became pretty good with Sidney. Sidney Coleman most of all.
The greatest physicist of the time—I mean, we've had since Feynman and Gell-Mann—was, of course, the late Steve Weinberg, and that made Austin the center of the universe. I met Steve in 1964. He actually did something with GR vaguely then; I really admired him. We were very friendly. Since 1964—do the math. I had invited him to the Brandeis Summer School. Did you know him?
ZIERLER: I met Steve, yeah.
DESER: He was far from flamboyant, and so was Julian far from flamboyant. That seems to be more of a Pasadena characteristic. So now we've gone through all the giants, at least of modern times, Schwinger, Feynman, Gell-Mann, Shelly, and Steve. Pretty good bunch.
ZIERLER: A pretty good bunch.
DESER: Yeah. Sidney was a different story. He was more of a—he knew field theory better than anybody in the world. I had discussions with him about various things and he was very smart.
ZIERLER: Of all the places you could've retired to how come you never came to Caltech? Was it just happenstance prior to retiring here?
DESER: Oh, no. Prior to retirement I wasn't thinking about retirement, frankly. What triggered it was my youngest daughter's moving here with her husband and baby. And then we said to ourselves, put A and B together, look, you're not going to stay at Brandeis the rest of your life. You have to retire someday. On the other hand, you're not brain-dead yet, so we'd like to go to a place that at least has it all, the climate, family, and physics. So that's how—we weren't totally stupid.
ZIERLER: What were the research topics that you took up when you came to Caltech?
DESER: Oh, there was a series of them. Some of them were debunking, like massive gravity. Some were on quantum cosmology, which is still an ongoing major project with Richard Woodard, who was one of my students.
ZIERLER: Stanley, let's stop on that. What does quantum cosmology mean?
DESER: Oh, well, after the Big Bang, gravity—well, of course, there was general relativity, and it was quantized. Although we don't know the details, in this case the big quantum contributions were in the infrared finite so that Woodard and I have argued that you don't need dark matter and all that garbage; that, in fact, gravitation and quantum excitations in the infrared can explain a great deal. So that's what it means. It's a use of, again, effective field theory. That was one thing that was major. And then, 35 papers all over the map. I'll send them to you. You can decide.
ZIERLER: Were you influenced at all in your research by what was happening in Caltech physics?
DESER: Not really because Ooguri was too mathematical for me, and John Schwarz was too stringy for me at my age. That's the trouble, as you get older you get rigid, so you follow your own world line.
ZIERLER: What about John Preskill? Being a student of Steven Weinberg did you interact? Did you work with John at all?
DESER: I didn't work with him, but he was a very smart guy and I talked to him on occasion, yeah. But remember, he then went over to this quantum information stuff with his own separate building.
ZIERLER: Did you follow those developments? Are you interested in quantum information at all?
DESER: Super uninterested. That's me. As soon as I hear the word applications I reach for my gun.
ZIERLER: [laugh] A true theorist.
DESER: Well, at least in spirit.
ZIERLER: [laugh] But you do want to see your theories being borne out experimentally?
DESER: And how. That's what this quantum cosmology is all about. And of course, even if you're working on super basics, you're still subject to—in fact, I just wrote a paper called The Anthropic Principle Revisited, which is in limbo in some journal. It was one of Steve Weinberg's, what shall I say, lesser contributions but a very interesting one which I disassemble and discuss and so on, so that's a place where theory and experiment really meet.
ZIERLER: What kind of experimental verification will you be looking for for quantum cosmology?
DESER: No, no, no. The Anthropic Principle has already been experimentally made happy. In fact, as I write in my paper—Julian once wrote a paper in which he said, "But we have gone too far." That is to say the physics of 1932 was sufficient for us, so the Standard Model is just overkill, so it's been done.
ZIERLER: So the Standard Model works for quantum cosmology?
DESER: Well, no. No, I wouldn't say that. The Standard Model is removed from quantum cosmology. Remember, that's only five percent of what's around. It is a strange dichotomy between then—this is the crown of modern microphysics but not macro.
ZIERLER: What's remaining in macrophysics? What are you thinking of?
DESER: Oh, what I'm thinking of right now, and I can promise you it will not go further, is why there are six leptons. Who the hell wants six stupid leptons when the electron would suffice? We have six color quarks. Okay. I can sort of see why. But there's no reason that I can see why—you can't justify anything ad infinitum. There are axions, but somehow leptons—that's just a very strange story.
ZIERLER: Why so strange? What are you thinking of?
DESER: I'm wondering how and why the tau and the muon and then neutrinos—the tau is the most amazing thing, right? It's as big as a nucleon but its neutrinos are small as the other neutrinos, that complete insanity of scale. You tell me more. I know no more, but I think about it in the times that I have to think, which are few and far between but still there.
ZIERLER: What have been some of your other collaborations since 2005? Who else are you working with?
DESER: Well, one was the guy called Andrew Waldron who is at Davis. That was about massive gravity and debunking it. Don't get me started on that. He was my postdoc, very smart guy. My mind is going blank, but I did a lot of solo work and here and there collaborations. I'll send you the file on that topic.
ZIERLER: Going to seminar, following what's happening, are you keeping track of interesting things happening in Caltech physics nowadays?
DESER: It can all be done at a distance, so I look at seminars that seem to be of interest to me, which I'm afraid are smaller in number these days. We're really stuck.
ZIERLER: You mean theory is stuck?
DESER: I mean theory is stuck. Experiment—well, it's micro-experiment and the Standard Model are sort of stuck. People are desperately looking for anomalies in the twelfth place, which there may well be. So cosmology is where it's at because that's where the instruments are. Well, unless LHC III comes through with some amazing stuff.
ZIERLER: What about at Fermilab in the Muon g-2 experiment?
DESER: That's what I'm saying. That's one of those high decimal place anomalies. Apparently, it sort of depends on how you calculate it. One way of calculating—I'm not up on this—sort of removes it down to a few sigma rather than many sigma, so I'm not holding my breath. But that would be the sort of place where something might happen. I hate to depend on the kindness of strangers, tenth place or whatever it is. You'd want something really to hit you in the face like a pie.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Stanley, beyond physics, is there anyone else at Caltech that you interact with on a social basis?
DESER: I interact with almost no one on a social basis because of mobility. Oh, I did—sorry. You may not believe this, but he just died very recently. Noel Corngold was a professor of applied physics and he and I met in high school, in Brooklyn. We also shared a room for two years at Harvard. Beat that.
ZIERLER: That's pretty good.
DESER: Then we never had anything to do with each other again until I got here, so we interacted socially. Of course, he was far away in applied physics. That's it.
ZIERLER: Stanley, thinking about the giants of physics in the twentieth century, is the field sufficiently advanced where it's really not reasonable to think of individual giants in the field anymore?
DESER: My gut reaction is to disagree. I think that big jumps are made by big people rather than by tiny accretions. The accretions come after the big jumps. I do realize we've had half a century since the Standard Model. Bad news. That's longer than we've ever had a hiatus.
ZIERLER: So we need more big people? That's the issue?
DESER: Who the hell knows what we need. Well, we haven't got it. And on this note, unless you have any more questions for me . . .
ZIERLER: I guess just one last question, Stanley. Maybe it's a philosophical question. There are big people but there's also the idea of low-hanging fruit, and maybe there was low-hanging fruit fifty years ago and there isn't now.
DESER: By definition if it's low hanging it would have been plucked, so the answer is a posteriori, you can say that but not before. Who would've thought before Einstein that general relativity was low-hanging fruit? I met him and he was absolutely the greatest thing since Newton and he became reviled and despised. Oppenheimer warned me not to have anything to do with him when I came to the Institute.
ZIERLER: Why? Why did Oppenheimer give you that advice?
DESER: He said he's an old fool, first of all. Second of all, GR was garbage, and your career cannot advance if you do that. Given that Oppenheimer-Snyder was his best paper it's a little bit odd. But Oppenheimer was not very much after the war.
ZIERLER: [laugh] Stanley, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really appreciate it.