I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I grew up in Alcalde, New Mexico. Alcalde is a very small village in northern New Mexico, which was started by Spanish speaking people hundreds of years ago. It is somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, and has a culture that is very rich in tradition and folklore. The people in the village value education.When it came time for me to go to high school, I had to make a decision. The nearest high school was about fifteen miles away. My parents wanted me to go to Santa Fe (about thirty miles away) to Saint Michael’s, a boarding school, because it was supposed to be very good. I told them that I did not want to go because I did not have any friends in Santa Fe. In the end I went to Saint Michael’s, and it turned out to be a great experience. I learned a lot, made many new friends, and was still able to keep the old ones. St. Michael’s had excellent mathematics and science teachers. It was amazing how much fun it was to learn mathematics and science. My parents were really supportive, and it was their belief in a good education that helped me to appreciate the importance and fun of learning new things.
When I was growing up in northern New Mexico, nobody had a lot of money and everybody had to work hard. I would not have been able to go to college, except that by attending the high school that I did, I was able to get a cooperative student scholarship to New Mexico State University. This type of scholarship meant that I went to school six months out of the year and worked the other six months in a technical job. This turned out to be a good combination. I learned a lot in my classes at the university, and I was able to use what I had learned in my job. Similarly, the new skills I learned in my job helped me appreciate what I was learning in my classes. I worked hard and competed for the opportunity to study further. I was able to go to Germany for a year as a Fulbright scholar and study at the University of Göttingen, where some of the physicists I had read about taught and did research. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1966. Of the many different types of physicists, I am called a ”theoretical physicist.” I use mathematics to describe the atom and how it works.
Imagine trying to figure out a jigsaw puzzle given only a few of the pieces to begin with. What picture will finally emerge? This is what I do in studying atoms. Atoms are everywhere, but they are too small to be seen individually. In fact, there are more than a billion atoms on the period at the end of this sentence. Imagine trying to study just one atom on that period. This is the challenge that I am interested in. Because physicists cannot see the atoms, sometimes the only information we have about them is the pieces that come out when we smash two atoms together. I try to predict what will happen, and then use that information to understand how the atoms were put together to begin with. Because I only have pieces of the puzzle, it can be very difficult. I don’t even know if I have all the pieces.
Physics is the study of how nature works. What are the forces that make atoms move and form molecules? What keeps an atom together? What are the rules for our universe? How do stars form? These are the kinds of questions that I work on. I try to understand nature by using equations to calculate what happens when atoms collide. Sometimes it takes very large computers to figure out a problem. Other times we can do the calculation without a computer, just using logical thinking and carefully talking out an idea. I also help people design how they will do their experiments so that their measurements will yield the most information for us to use.
I work at a university, so I teach undergraduate and graduate students about physics as well. I also help high school teachers sponsor a high school physics competition every year. One of the neat things that our physics department does every year is put on a physics phun night where the public comes to watch demonstrations of experiments. We draw a large crowd of people who want to see someone’s hair stand on end, or wonder how holding a spinning bicycle wheel can make a person turn around. The best part of my work is helping students and others learn about the world we live in.