Today at Berkeley Lab

Veteran Physicists Pursue Their Passion Into Retirement

— By Keri Troutman

The Lab’s Physics Division recently held a celebration of its most senior scientists, whose combined years of research totals more than 1,000 years. Writer Keri Troutman sat down with three of them —Herbert Steiner, John Kadyk, and Geoffrey Chew — to talk about their lives and times at Berkeley Lab and in the world of physics.

Herbert Steiner

Conference following Emilio Segre’s (center) Nobel prize announcement in 1959. Steiner is pictured to the right of Segre.

Conference following Emilio Segre’s (center) Nobel prize announcement in 1959. Steiner is pictured to the right of Segre.

Herbert Steiner, who began his career at Berkeley Lab in 1953, describes his early years in the Lab’s physics division as something akin to gold prospecting in the mother lode: “In the 1950s and 60s there were lots of physics nuggets lying around, and if you kept your eyes open you could pick them up. As time went on and others joined the hunt you had to dig as little deeper using bigger and bigger shovels.”

In 1953 Steiner became a PhD student of Emilio Segrè and did experiments on fission induced by high-energy protons, deuterons and alpha particles at the Lab’s 184” synchrocyclotron. In 1954-55 he interrupted his fission studies to work with Segrè, Clyde Wiegand, Owen Chamberlain and Tom Ypsilantis at the newly completed Bevatron on the experiment that first detected antiprotons. Steiner says he was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, as the discovery of the antiproton in 1955 was recognized with the 1959 Nobel Prize to Segrè and Chamberlain. “I was extremely fortunate to be involved in that exciting project as a grad student,” Steiner says.

He completed his PhD later that year, and at the same time he involved himself in experiments that determined the detailed interactions of antiprotons. He then worked with Chamberlain on a series of pion-nucleon scattering experiments using the newly developed polarized target technique that Chamberlain had initiated. Detailed analyses of these results led to the discovery of a large number of new resonant states that were incorporated into the quark model.

More experiments with polarized targets were followed by experiments testing basic weak interaction theories, making precision tests of the Standard Model of Particle Physics, studying the interactions of energetic nuclei, developing new experimental techniques, and more recently studying neutrino interactions.

steinerOver the years he has involved himself in a wide variety of physics research and experimentation, something that has become less and less common as experiments became much larger, cost more, and took more time. “I tried to go where the action was, where things interested me, and I was usually lucky enough to do that,” he says. “I always tried to use my sabbaticals to go somewhere different and do something new.”

Steiner, who was also on the faculty of the Berkeley Physics Department, officially retired in 2000, but his passion for physics has kept him involved since that time. For the past 15 years, he’s been working on anti-neutrino physics, first in Japan and for the last 6 to 7 years with Chinese colleagues in the Daya Bay Experiment. Just a few weeks ago, five of these neutrino experiments involving 1370 physicists were recognized with the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Physics. He participated in two of them.

In his pre-Lab days, Steiner served as captain of both swimming and water polo teams as a Cal undergrad, and he coached water polo as a graduate student. Outside of physics he enjoyed hiking, skiing and mountain climbing in many parts of the world, but especially in the Sierras. Music is another of his passions. “To take a hike or a dip, or to listen to a Schubert quartet is a great way to recuperate from an all-night physics shift.”

John Kadyk

Kadyk, third from the right in striped shirt, after psi 3105 was discovered in 1974.

Kadyk, third from the right in striped shirt, after psi 3105 was discovered in 1974.

Though he retired in 1999, physicist John Kadyk hasn’t slowed down much. He has kept up his work at the Lab, advising students and pursuing his own interests since his arrival at the Berkeley Lab in 1959. He arrived along with Donald Glaser, physics professor at the University of Michigan. Glaser brought to Berkeley his bubble chamber, an invention which earned Glaser the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physics, and served as a key tool in much of Kadyk’s career.

“When I first came to the Lab, the Xenon bubble chamber had just been invented, and it had about 20 liters of liquid Xenon,” says Kadyk. “Now, LBNL is participating in an experiment that plans to use about one metric ton of liquid Xenon!”

These days, the liquid xenon is not being used in a bubble chamber, but in the quest to find dark matter. “Dark matter is 85% of the matter in the universe and yet we don’t know what it is,” says Kadyk. He estimates there are dozens of experiments, which either have been looking for dark matter, or are planning to, yet there is not yet any convincing observation of it. He is also involved in a search, in a less sensitive, but perhaps more convincing way, to observe dark matter particles. “Really, most of universe we don’t understand, which explains why there are a large number of people going into cosmology.”

Kadyk worked on a variety of interesting projects over the course of his long career at the Lab, with a break in between for a sabbatical. Starting in the 1980s, much of his interest was focused on gas avalanche detectors.

“Some of the first electron experiments I was involved in were very exciting—one led to the discovery of a new form of matter—quarks,” says Kadyk. “The psi particle was discovered in 1974 on my birthday while I was working a shift at SLAC. Another was the production, also on my shift, of the first neutral intermediate vector boson observed at SLAC. For this I received a bottle of wine.”

In his free time, he has enjoyed longtime hobbies of bicycling, hiking and mountain climbing. He has climbed all the (then) fourteen principal peaks in California above 14.000 in elevation. He has been involved with the LBNL retirement group, the EX-Ls, and was their president for the year 2006.

Geoffrey Chew


When Geoffrey Chew first came to Berkeley Lab 68 years ago, it was an exciting era, both politically and scientifically. Chew’s entry into physics had been by way of Edward Teller and the Los Alamos wartime atomic-bomb development–the Manhattan Project.

At the age of 19, freshly graduated with a BS physics degree from George Washington University, Chew was called to Los Alamos by Teller via George Gamow, a Russian-born nuclear-theorist colleague of Teller on the GW faculty. Gamow had been excluded from Los Alamos by the US Army Intelligence’s presumption of his susceptibility to Soviet Intelligence. Chew was an undergraduate student of Gamow.

Many physicists had been called to war, so younger scientists were being called into National Labs to help research projects. “It was a strange experience; during my first 6 months at Los Alamos I wasn’t allowed to contact the outside world,” says Chew.

After Los Alamos, Chew followed esteemed Los Alamos colleagues Teller and Enrico Fermi to the University of Chicago, where he attended graduate school with Fermi as research supervisor.

After his Chicago PhD, Chew arrived at Berkeley Lab at the height of the McCarthy era, which in 1949 lncluded the UC “loyalty oath” controversy. Faculty were required by Regents to sign a statement of no communist affiliation.

“There was a huge division at the Lab during that time,” says Chew. “The unpleasant atmosphere was why I left in 1950; it just took the fun out of being a physicist.” The entire UCB theoretical-physics faculty departed.

chewChew nevertheless was back at Berkeley Lab in 1957, revolutionizing the study of subatomic particles with his call for a new “nuclear democracy” that would erase the division between elementary and composite particles. His approach evolved throughout the 1960s as a viable alternative in the study of nuclear forces. Chew is probably best known for his bootstrap theory of strong interactions, for which he won the Hughes Prize of the American Physics Society, the AEC Lawrence Award and the Majorana Prize as well as election to National and American Academies of Science.

Chew spent years as head of the Lab physics division’s theory group, four years as physics department chair, and six as Dean of Physical Science. Though he officially retired in 1991, he continued on a research path and comes to the Lab regularly. “The questions I started thinking about since I retired have led me,” he says, “to switch emphasis to quantum cosmology.”

During the last decade, Chew muses, ‘’I have come (perhaps because of early exposure to Fermi) to appreciate incapacity for exact statements by any human language, including that of physics. Mathematical language, applied to quantum cosmology and never employing the word, ‘measurement’, stands a chance.’’