skip to main content
Home  /  Interviews  /  Steven Koonin

Steven Koonin

Steven Koonin

Professor of Information, Operations & Management Sciences; Director, NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP)By David Zierler


May 14, 2020


In this interview, Steven Koonin, University Professor at New York University, recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and his education at Stuyvesant High School, which he credits for providing an excellent education in math and science. He explains his decision to pursue a degree in physics at Caltech, where Willie Fowler supervised him, and where he focused on nuclear physics. Koonin discusses his graduate work at MIT, where he studied under Art Kerman and focused on Hamiltonian variational principles for quantum many-body systems and on the study of nuclear motion. He explains the opportunity that led him back to Caltech for his first faculty position without going through a postdoctoral experience first. He describes his interest in then doing a postdoc in Copenhagen, where he had more opportunities to collaborate on theoretical nuclear physics than at Caltech. Koonin describes the pleasures of teaching quantum mechanics to undergraduates, he describes the impact of personal computing technology on his research in the mid-1980s, and he discusses his contributions in extrapolating nuclear reactions to get astrophysical rates. Koonin discusses his involvement in national security issues including the Strategic Defense Initiative as part of the JASON group, and his advisory work for the Department of Energy and DARPA. He describes his administrative accomplishments as vice president at provost at Caltech and the institutional advancements that he fostered in biology and high-performance computing. Koonin explains his position to take a position at BP as chief scientist where he had a mandate to push the company to pursue alternative energy resources, and he describes his decision to accept Steve Chu's offer to run the Office of Science at DOE during the first Obama administration. Koonin describes his focus there on exascale computing and high-energy density science, and he discusses his long-range interest in climate science and some of the inherent challenges this field presents in both the scientific and political realms. He describes his decision to accept his current position at NYU, and at the end of the interview, Koonin describes his goals in founding the Center for Urban Science and Progress.