Brookhaven's Schwartz: `An Artist Of Physics'

AUTHOR: MARCIA CLEMMITT, pg. 1, 6-7. After a decade of toiling in the business world, Nobelist Melvin Schwartz once again tries to make things happen in the lab Melvin Schwartz remembers his first physics experiment. "I was seven," he says, "and I'd read that you could make a magnet by putting [electrical] current around iron." Wrapping a light cord around a pair of scissors didn't work, he recalls, but "

By | July 8, 1991


After a decade of toiling in the business world, Nobelist Melvin Schwartz once again tries to make things happen in the lab

Melvin Schwartz remembers his first physics experiment. "I was seven," he says, "and I'd read that you could make a magnet by putting [electrical] current around iron." Wrapping a light cord around a pair of scissors didn't work, he recalls, but "there was a light socket, and I thought I'd try putting the current through the scissors."

The resulting short circuit blacked out the entire East Bronx, N.Y., apartment building where Schwartz's family lived. But it left the young experimenter undaunted. "I was absolutely intrigued by these physical laws," he says, "and with trying new ways to make things happen."

Fifty-one years later, colleagues say, Schwartz still epitomizes the experimental scientists' enthusiasm to penetrate the unknown. >From the rarefied realm of pure discovery in an academic lab to the bottom-line world of running a company--and back again--he's made a lot of things happen in science. And his enthusiasm remains unabated.

He's won a Nobel Prize in physics for work done in the early 1960s at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He's trained a generation of students while a professor and researcher at Stanford University. He's founded and presided over the growth of a company that dominates the small but lucrative field of computer security systems. And six months ago he returned to Brookhaven to bolster support for the lab's small-user-oriented facilities, the kind he says best fosters creativity in science.

Schwartz hopes to use his post as Brookhaven's associate director for high-energy and nuclear physics to push for a "return to the old style of high-energy physics, where you could come in with a few people, do an experiment for a couple of months or a year, then get out." He thinks that approach works better than the pattern, increasingly common these days, of assembling huge teams that spend years preparing for an experiment.

"If more things are tried," Schwartz says simply, "more things will be discovered. Too much management stifles scientists' decisions." Lab director Nicholas Samios hopes that Schwartz's openness to new ideas can stimulate creativity among the lab's staff and user community. "Mel says, `Yes, yes, that's exciting,' not, `No, no,' when he hears a new idea," Samios says. "That style fosters more new ideas." And an enthusiastic and creative user community, Samios says, is the best argument for continued support of any laboratory.

A Throwback

There are those who see Schwartz as a throwback to an earlier, more innocent era of doing science. And history, they point out, is not kind to dinosaurs.

"He's a guy from a different era, when high-energy physics was entrepreneurial," says Robert Cousins, associate professor of physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a former graduate student of Schwartz's. "He was a young high-energy physicist when there were no old high-energy physicists." And his generation flowered in that freedom.

"But now, the field is corporate, with bigger and bigger machines that seem to require more decision-making from the top. Fifteen years from now there will still be some people making discoveries with small experiments, using the smaller instruments. But you're going to have to be smarter than most physicists are to do it."

Even the skeptics, however, agree that if anyone can lead by example, it's Schwartz. "He's one of the best freelance artists of physics," says Val Fitch, a fellow Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Princeton University. "He was a superb experimentalist, who addressed the important problems. And he's one of the few who'd beg, steal, or borrow existing apparatus, then use his ingenuity to find new things with it."

There's no better example of that talent than the work that led to his 1988 Nobel Prize, shared with Jack Steinberger and Leon Lederman. "Mel was always daring to do what he thought of," says Konstantin Goulianos, a physics professor at Rockefeller University in New York. Goulianos worked with Schwartz as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1962 and the experiment that discovered a form of the massless particle called the neutrino.

"We needed what was at the time a very big [particle] detector," says Goulianos. "It had to be 10 tons--an unthinkable size at that point. But Mel's daring carried us through a lot. We'd be anxious, saying, `My God, is this going to work?' And we'd look up and say, `My God, he's really doing it already.'

"I want to call it courage, But, you know, for those people we call heroes, maybe it's easy for them."

Melvin Schwartz has never been one to let the rules stand in the way of an eager scientist with a good idea. Just ask computer whiz Steve Jobs, founder of Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple Computer Inc. and now chairman of NeXT Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.

Jobs was a college dropout when he "dropped in" to one of Schwartz's physics classes at Stanford University in the mid-1970s. Schwartz welcomed the nonpaying guest, Jobs says, because "even though at that point he was getting tired of teaching, he loved teaching people who wanted to learn."

A year or two later, when Jobs and then-partner Steve Wozniak founded Apple, they asked Schwartz for some business advice. "We didn't know what we were doing," says Jobs, "so he told us what he knew and helped us buy parts through his company [Digital Pathways Inc.]. They were a small company [then], just selling some things and keeping afloat, but they looked pretty big to us."

Just as Schwartz the scientist possesses a strong entrepreneurial spirit, so did Schwartz the businessman retain the scientist's joy in knowledge, Jobs says.

"He looked at business as a big experiment," Jobs recalls, "and that gave him a sense of humor about it all. As a businessman, he was having a ball, simply testing things out by doing them."


Lederman, the former director of the Department of Energy's Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and currently a professor at the University of Chicago, recalls "a kind of megalomania" surrounding what he calls "Mel's great experiment." "The AGS [Brookhaven's Alternating Gradient Synchrotron particle accelerator] was brand new," Lederman says, "and we wanted to build our detector out of old battleship parts--a 40-foot-thick rusty wall. The guy who ran it said, `Over my dead body.' Ultimately, we persuaded him by logic, threats, and tears."

Technical Mastery

Twenty years later, Schwartz would use the same approach to build a company from the ground up. And just as a successful entrepreneur must learn every aspect of the business, from product design to marketing, Schwartz has always stressed how important it is for a scientist to understand every aspect of the technology.

"One thing he imbued in us [as students] was to understand what's inside black boxes," says UCLA's Cousins. "Today students are handed computers and other instruments, and when they break, they send them off to the manufacturer. If anything broke when Mel was in town, we took it apart and found the problem."

The result of such thorough technical mastery, Cousins says, was the kind of "extremely elegant experiment" they conducted at Fermilab in the 1970s. "Whenever you take data, you get a signal--usually a little blip--and background noise--usually a large buzz. But the way Mel had arranged the electronics, our signal was a huge spike on no background," Cousins says. "We could easily measure one part in 10 million. You don't get elegance and clarity like that without enormous attention to technical details."

A successful entrepreneur has to find his niche--the important market area that established companies have left unexplored. Likewise, physicists say, a successful experimentalist finds his own questions to ask, unswayed by current theoretical fashion. "I've never done any science anybody suggested I do," Schwartz says. To many of Schwartz's colleagues, that approach is the secret of his success.

"A theorist tells the experimentalists, `Go see if things work the way my model says,' " explains Johns Hopkins University physicist Aihud Pevsner. "But physics is more than theory. It's the phenomenological world. Good experimenters like Mel want to look at that, to the maximum detail technology allows. And Mel always had very strong intuitions of where to look. Ultimately, theory is based on what such experimenters find."

"Mel is a first-rate experimentalist, one of the most original I know of," says Samios, who has known Schwartz since both were graduate students at Columbia University in the 1950s. "He has the taste to choose the important experiment because he doesn't depend on theorists. And he's a good theorist in his own right, with his own deep conceptual knowledge of the subject."

But that kind of originality on the part of an experimentalist runs counter to the current trend in high-energy physics, where ever-more-costly machines squeeze out risk-takers like Schwartz. In the early 1970s, when Schwartz was a professor at Stanford, a committee at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center [SLAC] turned down one of his experiments three times before allowing him to run a truncated version. And his anger over the experience eventually helped propel him to abandon academia for the business world. "We need experimenters like Schwartz," says SLAC theoretical physicist Paul Tsai. "But there's often a problem between them and the system. In a big laboratory, you can't let the director decide everything. So you use a committee [to approve experiments]. And committees aren't often very farsighted."

"Mel wanted to dump the SLAC [particle] beam into a pile of steel and concrete, then put detectors at some distance away and look for new particles that might have been made," explains UCLA's Cousins. "He basically said, `I'm Mel Schwartz, and I want to do this experiment.' He thought the fact he had a reputation for doing elegant experiments and knowing what questions to ask should be enough."

But Schwartz's hunch didn't convince the committee. "They kept saying, `What are you going to see? What theory are you testing?' " Schwartz recalls. "But there wasn't a recognized theory, and they weren't receptive to that."

The scaled-down experiment Schwartz finally conducted was too small to produce irrefutable evidence of the new particles he expected to see. But it was large enough to convince Tsai and others that Schwartz had the right idea.

"If they had allowed him to run the experiment longer, and on a slightly larger scale, as he wanted, he would have discovered neutral current [uncharged current that provides experimental validation for the theory unifying electromagnetic and weak forces]," Tsai says.

"That's what he was seeing. And he may have discovered the j/psi [an elementary particle whose existence required major changes in the quark model of matter; its discovery in 1974 by Burton Richter and Samuel Ting yielded them Nobel Prizes in 1976]."

Schwartz As Entrepreneur

Schwartz's dismay at what he saw as the increasing stodginess of the high-energy physics establishment in the 1970s led him to spend less time in the Stanford physics department and more at his small Silicon Valley company, Digital Pathways Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. By the end of the decade, the one-man engineering design firm had grown to a six-person company with a multimillion-dollar market niche producing clocks readable by minicomputers, and in 1979 Schwartz left Stanford to become the company's full-time president.

Under Schwartz's direction, Digital Pathways grew in the 1980s into a several-hundred-employee operation, specializing in computer security systems. But with the company finally well established, some of the fun went out of it. "After you've been through every business problem once," he says, "the challenge [to do it again] isn't as great anymore."

So Schwartz headed back East to Brookhaven. His new challenge is to restore the Upton, N.Y., lab to what he sees as its glory days. "The lab was incredibly productive in the early 1960s through the mid-1970s," he says. "Look at the three Nobel Prizes for work done on the AGS." In addition to Schwartz's experiments, the lab was home for Samuel Ting's efforts and for work that James Cronin and Val Fitch did on the asymmetry of subatomic particles, for which they won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1980.

Schwartz says he realizes that tight budgets may force him to rely on words, not equipment, to make his point. "Lately the lab has been treated rather poorly," he says. "It's been stuck between two different parts of [DOE's] funding operation, and the instruments are running only a fraction of the time.

"Any changes we make will have to be through talking, persuading--missionary work." He pauses, then adds, "I wish there were something stronger we could do."

Even so, his colleagues think that his personality should be more than strong enough to make a difference. "Mel pushed his students to get their Ph.D.'s fast, and then to get out and do their own thing," says Cousins. "A guy like that, who has 500 ideas a minute, he's got to encourage others to have ideas, too."

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