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A Q&A With New Department Heads Linda Peteanu and Scott Dodelson

As new department heads, Scott Dodelson and Linda Peteanu sat down for a Q&A to get to know each other a little better. Scott came to MCS in 2017 from the University of Chicago to head the Department of Physics. Previously serving as acting head since January 2016, Linda was officially named head of the Department of Chemistry last August. Linda began by asking about Scott’s first job, and from there, the conversation flowed from one topic to the next, while turning the traditional Q&A style on its head. Back and forth, the pair touched on everything from the importance of science communication to the appeal of the Big Bang Theory, their experience as department heads and their visions for where the physics and chemistry departments will be in the coming years.

On their first job…

SCOTT: My first job was cutting echocardiograms and dipping dipsticks in urine and putting blood in centrifuges in my father’s office. He was a doctor.

LINDA: I don’t have to ask why you became a physicist then!

SCOTT: And not a doctor. How about you?

LINDA: I was a candy striper for a hospital. I thought I wanted to be a doctor so I was a candy striper. I think the most memorable candy striper job I had was in Bellevue Mental Hospital (in New York). I was like the occupational therapist. I was supposed to come up with activities for the very significantly mentally ill. Back then, they were a little bit faster and looser with what young people could do, so they put me in a lockdown ward.

SCOTT: How old were you?

LINDA: I was in my teens. It was before there were a lot of medications and so forth for mental illness. It was a little disappointing to think that these people are so ill and there’s not a lot that could be done. And the revolutions that have happened since then, it is a completely different world.

SCOTT: Did you grow up in the New York area?

LINDA: Yeah, I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You carry the accent. Where did you grow up?

SCOTT: I have an accent? I once met this guy from Australia who said to me “You have the worst New York accent that I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t even realize I had one. I grew up in New Jersey, actually.

On Science Communication, the Big Bang Theory and Einstein…

LINDA: The way science is communicated is tricky. At a science and communication discussion with Dietrich College, I discussed that the idea of the general public understanding what uncertainty actually means is probably the most important idea we can convey. A scientist says caffeine is good for you, another says caffeine is bad for you. And that’s all the headlines say, and then we lose credibility as a field. Obviously, climate change is another victim of this kind of thinking. I think that’s often the case with fields that people feel touch them in their everyday experience. I mean, physics has the notion of being remote and beautiful and so forth. Whereas with chemistry and biology, people feel it’s their daily experience. I think it plays to physics’ strengths. Do you watch the Big Bang Theory?

SCOTT: I’ve seen it.

LINDA: I love that show. I have family members who haven’t been to college and they love it and relate to it. There’s something about physics that has this charm to it, I think, that other fields don’t quite possess.

SCOTT: You don’t think that could have been a show about chemistry?

LINDA: I don’t think so. They’ve got some biologists in it, but I think ultimately physics has a certain persona in the popular mind that other sciences don’t quite share. How many pictures do you see of Einstein riding a bicycle and all this sort of stuff?

SCOTT: I used to think Einstein was overrated. It turns out there’s this myth that he was against quantum mechanics. But he actually understood it before anyone else. If life were fair, he probably would have won about seven Nobel prizes. Quantum mechanics inherently is probabilistic theory. There’s a probability this will happen, a probability that we’re having this conversation in a different room. Everything is possible, and there’s this misinterpreted quote from Einstein saying “God doesn’t play dice,” which seems to speak against that idea of probability. Quantum mechanics, we know, is the underpinning of most of chemistry now. So, it survived. However, I learned that in the early 1900s, Einstein was the person who understood quantum mechanics before anyone else. I once read a famous paper he wrote with Pudulski and Rosen about the basic paradox of quantum mechanics, which only he was able to articulate, and it was the only paper I read from 100 years ago that you could understand. He was a very clear thinker and writer. He was smart. I guess that’s not a bold statement to say that Einstein was smart.

On Being Department Head…

LINDA: It’s been a change. I’m not teaching a class and that made it a bit of a change in my routine. Strangely so far, I like it. I got so many emails of sympathy from inside and outside [when I became head]. All academics think administration is “Oh, you poor thing, who hates you?” For me, it’s been kind of fun because I like to solve problems. And novelty really drives me. Off-the-wall things are constantly happening, and there are always problems for me to solve.

SCOTT: I had an experience about four years ago, which kind of formed the way I think about leadership. In high energy physics, the budget each year is roughly a billion dollars nationally. There are panels of 20 people once every five to 10 years that decide how to spend that money. As I said, there are one or two big questions in physics, and they try to figure out what those questions are and allocate this $10 billion over the course of the decade. I was on one of those panels, and we took not a single vote. The notion of reaching consensus by talking through things was a very powerful idea that we’ve tried to do in physics, and I think it would be great if we could do that nationally — if people who disagree politically come together and reach consensus by talking things out. I hold out hope that that is possible because I saw it happen and $10 billion was at stake. People’s livelihoods were at stake. Everyone around the table talked things out and managed to come to a consensus, and that was tremendously informative.

On their vision for their Department…

SCOTT: In terms of the vision for what physics will look like in 10 to 20 years, I think we all are beginning to appreciate that we’re headed to a future which has enormous possibilities with neuroscience, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and so on. The world in 30 years is not going to look like it does today, and it will be limited by laws of physics. Physics departments in 20 years are not going to look the same. We have to gradually get to where we can contribute to the way the world is inevitably going to be changing over the next decade.

LINDA: My vision for the department is that we grow our strengths, our interdisciplinary strengths. And we keep making progress towards what we consider to be our big questions, which is how we can use chemistry to improve people’s daily lives both in the area of their environment and their health and in the products that are available to them.

♦ by Emily Payne