The Periodic Metamorphoses of Richard A. Muller, Ph.D. ’69

Richard A. Muller, Ph.D.
Richard A. Muller, Ph.D.

In a field where the progress of research and career are usually sequential, orderly, and predictable, Rich Muller is a wild card, rocketing wherever the first tantalizing inkling of a puzzle takes him until he has the explanation pinned down satisfactorily. Then he abruptly goes elsewhere, as if cued by the Monty Python catchphrase (first used to introduce a sketch about a man with three buttocks) —

“And now for something completely different.”

Muller has become famous over several decades for his Berkeley-based endeavors — wide-ranging research that’s all tied to physics, his popular and audacious teaching, and, along the way, winning a MacArthur “genius” grant. Most recently, it’s his classroom identity, as melded into a briskly-selling book, Physics for Future Presidents, that’s become well known in part because it coincided, conveniently and coincidentally, with a long-lasting and hotly-contested presidential campaign.

To the Richard Muller who came to Berkeley in 1964, fresh from Columbia as a physics graduate student, the noted teacher he has become since was not even a speck on his far horizon. “I was in such awe of my professors, that was beyond even my wildest dreams,” he says now. “I wanted to do research. I loved physics. But I never thought I would have the capability of being a professor.”

There was no family pattern of tweed-wearing to follow — “Neither of my parents even graduated from high school.” When he went to college as an undergrad, his parents “worked very hard to help pay for that. They were deeply in debt and they never let me know that. I got a scholarship that helped, but nonetheless, they put me through Columbia.

Professor Muller giving an intense lecture to his students
Professor Muller giving an intense lecture to his students

Finding Whom to Be

At Berkeley, Muller, originally aiming at nuclear physics, worked in grad school as a teaching assistant (or TA, the predecessor title to Graduate Student Instructor, or GSI), and found, to his great surprise, that he enjoyed teaching and was good at it. But his initial motivation for taking the job was not imparting knowledge. He needed the money.

Plus, it was the only way he might have a chance to meet a scientist whose research intrigued him, physics professor and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory researcher Luis Alvarez, a daunting figure who as part of the Manhattan Project in World War II developed the detonators that set off the plutonium bomb and flew in the chase plane over the Hiroshima explosion to measure the blast, and devised several radar systems, one of which is still in use today.

Along with his awe, Muller had another hurdle to deal with in his quest to somehow connect with Alvarez. “I never considered myself anything more than a B student, so I figured he wouldn’t look twice at me.” Meanwhile, he applied for a TA position, and fate conveniently stepped in: the department assigned him to a course taught by Luis Alvarez. Muller, determined to stand out, “did a really good job,” and became the head TA. “I was a TA for two years, and it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.” It not only brought him to Alvarez’s notice, it caused him to do the very thing that never occurred to him he could do: teach.

“There’s a great joy in teaching,” he says now. “It’s one thing to know something; if there’s nobody to share it with, it’s not as much fun.”

In Alvarez, he found a lifetime role model, mentor, and friend, relationships that evolved at their own pace over time. “Alvarez could be very harsh on people. He was somewhat famous for that,” Muller remembers. (The phrase “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” became an old standby for writers of Alvarez profiles.)

“Alvarez was such a great man,” says Muller, “that I told myself when he criticized me, ‘That’s not really a criticism, it just means I’m not up to his standards’. And I would let him insult me and just accept it as part of the learning experience.”

Until he found Alvarez, Muller had wondered what path to follow, because most of the professors he encountered were “so scholarly, and understood things in so much detail. Alvarez, I soon discovered, didn’t try to learn everything.

Physicist Luis Alvarez is seen is his laboratory preparing to evacuate a Geiger counter. Image © Bettmann/CORBIS
Physicist Luis Alvarez is seen is his laboratory preparing to evacuate a Geiger counter. Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

He tried to learn what was important in everything, and not go into the great depth until he discovered something important that wasn’t being worked on. And then he would learn to whatever depth he needed.”

Muller worked for Alvarez as a grad student and then a postdoctoral researcher, essentially on soft money, for over a decade, during which he had offers for faculty positions elsewhere and turned them down so he could keep learning from Alvarez (who thought he was crazy to stay in any non-faculty position).

What especially drew Muller to Alvarez was that he was “doing research that was unlike anybody else’s. He wasn’t fine-tuning previous work. He was coming up with brand-new, truly innovative things, totally unlike anything that had been done before, and I wanted to learn how to do that.

I told him ‘I don’t necessarily want to learn what you’re doing, I want to learn how you do that.'” In the late ’80s, Muller wrote, of his formative self: “I was beginning to see, in the way Luie worked, a possibility for my own research. There were always others far more talented in mathematics than I was, and there were always others far more comprehensively knowledgeable. But Luie’s approach to physics wasn’t mathematical or comprehensive; it was clever and inventive. The gaps in his knowledge were surprisingly large, but not detrimental to his work. He seemed to have a knack for learning just the right amount about everything. Luie was a puzzle-solver, an adventurer, an explorer.”


During the world war, events had shifted Alvarez away from nuclear physics. On his return to Berkeley in peacetime, he changed his career emphasis to investigating the subnuclear, using a variety of particle accelerators. At the time Muller came to Berkeley, Alvarez was devising a radically new approach, using cosmic rays to study the properties of particles. Because the earth’s atmosphere stops most of the rays, Alvarez was going to suspend a complete physics experiment from a 300-foot balloon that would fly to the upper edge of the atmosphere. During his second year in grad school, Muller heard about the attempt from a fellow TA and was “entranced,” not only by the boldness of the experiment, but by the fact that Alvarez was trying something so different, as if he were shedding his skin, leaving his previous research persona behind. Muller was soon itching to take part.

After one of Alvarez’s Physics 4A lectures, Muller got plucky and asked Alvarez about the balloon project. Alvarez sat him down and asked why he was interested. Muller blurted his dream of not being in the rut of a specific kind of physicist, but becoming one who did experiments that had never been done before. Alvarez promptly invited Muller up the hill to the Radiation Laboratory to see the experimental hardware, gave him a tour, probed the way his mind worked, and recruited him on the spot to the High Altitude Particle Physics Experiment (HAPPE, pronounced happy) project team.

To the surprise of his other researchers and grad students, Alvarez spent a lot of time with Muller, the new guy. The growing association survived even a mishap that Muller feared would cost him his career in science. Helping another grad student mount a light-detecting tube in the experimental apparatus, Muller dropped it. “It imploded just like a TV picture tube, with a loud and sickening crash. I had just destroyed $15,000 worth of hardware.” Which was twice what Muller made in a year as a research assistant. When the gruff Alvarez appeared, Muller abjectly confessed his sin. Alvarez shook his hand enthusiastically and said, “Welcome to the club! Now I know you’re becoming an experimental physicist.”

The Thrill of Them All

One event with Alvarez was such a high-water mark that the thrill is still fresh, even four decades later.

“I became his graduate student in 1965,” Muller recalls. “He got the Nobel Prize in 1968. So I had the great thrill of turning on the radio in the morning and hearing while trying to tune in a station, “The Nobel Prize in Physics…Berkeley…Alvarez!” It was the most exciting moment in my life. I called up the lab and I spoke to Alvarez’s secretary, Ann McLellan, and said, ‘Ann, I just heard on the radio…’ ‘Yes,’ she interrupted, ‘isn’t it wonderful!’ Alvarez was so loved, nothing else happened that week. There was champagne every day. It was such a wonderful, happy time.”

The prize was given to Alvarez for all the discoveries that had come from the bubble chamber, which he had turned into the primary exploratory tool of elementary particle physics. He was the sole physics winner that year. (The bubble chamber, invented by Berkeley’s Donald Glaser, is essentially a pressure cooker with windows, filled with superheated liquid into which atomic particles are fired, their path marked by tiny bubbles which reveal much about the particles’ nature.)

Clocking the Universe

While still a graduate student, Muller was more than content working on a project that Alvarez had come up with, but, with degree in hand, “I felt I had to create my own project to see if I could do it, and use the principles that he did.”

Muller spent a summer studying astrophysics, a hot field at the time, and at its end proposed a project in which he and a team would measure the microwave background radiation from the Big Bang and look for a variation in different directions. Alvarez was less than enthusiastic. “He thought it was a waste of time,” says Muller. “I persisted anyway.”

As with much in science, it was an uphill climb. “When I began, I had no experience with microwave apparatus, except what I had learned as a teaching assistant for the introductory Physics 4 labs. I had no credentials to begin this project. Alvarez eventually gave at least a partial blessing and funding came through from LBL’s physics division, and, in a highly irregular move, since no “real experts” were interested in that aspect of the Big Bang at that time, Muller became the project’s principal investigator — as a postdoc.

Muller’s group found, in the mid-’70s, what came to be called a “great cosine in the sky,” showing that earth and the Milky Way are zipping through space at approximately one million m.p.h., away from that Big Bang. Their measurements were taken not from a mountaintop or a balloon, but from a modified U-2, the infamous “spy plane.”

“The project was actually a great success,” says Muller. “It was the first measurement of the cosmic microwave variability that had ever been done. It earned me several national awards and suddenly earned me, ten years after my Ph.D., a position on the Berkeley faculty. That of course was a very big moment in my life.”

When he began the cosmic microwave project, Muller knew he would need help, so he asked a talented physics postdoc who also worked on the Alvarez balloon experiment if he’d be interested in working on this new one although Muller was not yet a faculty member. Muller was shocked to receive a yes, but glad the postdoc “recognized this was something that was really going someplace.” And it did.

Muller, in his “Luie Alvarez mode,” didn’t want to stay on the same train, and, seeing that “there was someone who was perfectly capable of doing everything himself,” he stepped away.

That someone was MIT-educated Berkeley postdoc George Smoot, who is now a UC physics professor and LBNL astrophysicist, and in 2006 became Berkeley’s newest Nobel Laureate. Smoot extended the reach of cosmic microwave measurement from high-altitude plane to COBE, the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite.

He partnered with NASA’s John Mather (who earned his 1974 Ph.D. at Berkeley, and ultimately shared the Nobel with Smoot). Their cosmic microwave background data for NASA proved that the universe was indeed expanding, and rapidly, from the Big Bang. (Stephen Hawking called it “the scientific discovery of the century, if not all time.”)

Muller tells people, “everything of value I learned in physics, I learned from Luis Alvarez. You learn all the academic stuff as an undergraduate, you learn a lot more as a graduate student, but not the know-how. How do you pick a research project that’s really going to be important, how do you exclude all the ones that are going nowhere? How do you stop a project that’s not going anywhere and do something new? How do you change your research field?” The answer to this last question came from Alvarez’s life, and then from hard-won experience in Muller’s own.

“Alvarez,” says Muller, “won the Nobel Prize for the work he did in particle physics, on the bubble chamber. Then he started doing astrophysics. Then he moved into what killed the dinosaurs. And then he was X-raying the pyramids. Wonderful things. He invented a new kind of optics, the first stabilized binoculars that really worked. And this was my model: staying fresh is what life is all about.”

An Astral Serial Killer?

Alvarez and Muller — Luie and Rich to each other — came up with a utilitarian working relationship that lasted decades.

“He would have an idea,” relates Muller, “and he’d usually spend a couple of days working it out, writing things up, and then he would show it to me. And he’d ask me to prove it wrong. Often I could, and he loved it, because proving him wrong saved him so much effort.”

Also, Alvarez found pleasure in proving other theorists wrong. “There was nothing Luie enjoyed more,” Muller says. Occasionally, these debates had a payoff for Muller, too, such as one day in 1983, “Luie came to me and said, ‘Here’s a paper that’s complete nonsense. They say great catastrophes occur on earth every 26 million years, like clockwork. I’m wiring back to the authors; here’s my letter to them, pointing out their mistakes. Check it over.’ And he came back an hour later, and I said, ‘Luie, I think you’re wrong, you’re not taking into account the possibility that the sun might have a companion star, a deadly one for earth.’ And that discussion led to my Nemesis theory.”

Muller’s Nemesis theory posits an as-yet-undetected red dwarf star that orbits our sun one to one-and-a-half light years away on a track that periodically diverts comets from the Oort cloud into the central solar system, causing mass extinctions that show up like disturbing rhythms in this planet’s geological record.

“Once he had heard my thoughts, Alvarez had a reaction of absolute delight — that I’d shown him wrong and come up with a way to work around it. And he thought my Nemesis theory was one of the greatest things I’d ever done. It may be proven correct someday, and then I’ll be the guy who showed that the sun has a companion star, and I’ll be famous for that. That will last forever. If it turns out to be right.” All that (including his 1988 book Nemesis), Muller says, “came about specifically because I was Alvarez’s man for looking at what he did and trying to find the flaws.”

Supersensitive Dating

Alvarez put together a new project to look for quarks, and Muller worked with him on it for about a year. At that point, “I realized that our new instrumental technique could also be used to make supersensitive radiocarbon dating.” Alvarez checked his preliminary calculations, agreed it could be done, and congratulated Muller.

As he looks back, Muller says, “In some ways, this may have been my greatest achievement.”

Muller was the sole author on the seminal paper in what became known as accelerator mass spectrometry, or AMS. Within a few years an international conference was held on AMS, and last fall the 11th such meeting took place Rome. Muller had, in effect, created an entire field. A thousand times more sensitive than its “decay-counting” predecessors, AMS is widely used in archaeology, geology, and cosmogeochemisty as well as environmental, biomedical, and nuclear safeguards research.

He could have remained in the field and become the Grand Old Man of accelerator mass spectrometry, but once again he wanted to move on.

Lots of Supernovas

“So I did something totally different,” Muller says. This time it was the supernova search. Another wide-ranging scientist, Stirling Colgate, long associated with the weapons labs at Livermore and Los Alamos, had come up with a way of automating the search for supernovas, but had been unable to make it work. Colgate shared his approach with Muller, who felt that with tweaking and “the skill of people here in Berkeley working on it, it might be a relatively straightforward project.” So he enlisted several others, including his graduate student Saul Perlmutter, and “after several years, we were discovering supernovas with our automated telescope.” They discovered 20. Perlmutter continued the project while Muller, characteristically, branched out in yet another direction. Perlmutter, who received his Ph.D. here in 1986, is now a Berkeley physics professor and heads LBNL’s Supernova Cosmology Project. Perlmutter and his team in 2007 shared the Gruber Cosmology Prize with an Australian scientist for discovering through their supernovae measurements that the expansion of the universe has not slowed, as most people thought, but is actually accelerating.

Making Even Presidents Understand

Muller engages his students with a show-n-tell.
Muller engages his students with a show-n-tell.

Nemesis sparked Muller’s interest in climate, and he’s become an expert on the last million years or so. This basic approach to life on earth spilled over into his teaching, especially when he took on the course for liberal arts students, known to generations as Physics 10, nicknamed for some of its existence as “Physics for Poets.”

Muller completely recast the course content for current, real-world relevance, renamed it “Physics for Future Presidents,” then wrote a textbook with the same title and, more recently, a popular non-textbook version.

“Just as we expect a president to know the difference between Shiite and Sunni,” Muller says,” the President has to know the difference between a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb. If the President doesn’t understand this, it’s hard to know what to do about North Korea or what’s going on in Iran.

Textbook for C10 and LnS C70V at Cal: Physics for Future Presidents
Textbook for C10 and LnS C70V at Cal: Physics for Future Presidents

He teaches physics without heavy number-crunching, in the context of terrorist attacks, solar power, space travel, and global warming, and assumes everyone in the class will be a leader someday. From an initial 50, course enrollment has grown every semester, and is now 500 students plus a waitlist. One of his students told CBS radio listeners, “It’s not just for future presidents. Anybody who votes should know these things.”

More and more people clearly want to: his course is now available online through the campus and Google Video, and tens of thousands view each lecture, in (so far) 49 states and 80 countries. Muller has received email from students in Colombia, Slovakia, Poland, Mali, Tibet, and a naval officer stationed in Bahrain. He beams. “Learning is one of the great joys in life.” Muller is proud to have played a big role in moving the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory into astrophysics and cosmology.

“These days,” he says, “the physics division of LBNL has one of the best astrophysics programs in the world. When I first came there, and when Alvarez wanted to do an astrophysics project, he was told by the director, ‘No, this is not proper for the Laboratory.’ He wound up doing it at the Space Sciences Lab.” With help from Alvarez, Muller put his “cosmo-microwave background thing” together at LBL, and “that was really one of the first astrophysics projects at the Lab. Now, astrophysics is major, and it’s important that they’re involved in it.”

Besides administrative culture, another endemic hazard for field-shifters like Alvarez and Muller is funding, or its absence.

“Some of the great discoveries here really had a hard time getting support,” Muller says. He gives as an example the pioneering work that Luis Alvarez and his son Walter did on the comet that caused the great extinction 65 million years ago. “They could never get support for that, from anyone. It turned out to be one of the great discoveries of the 20th century, and affected many people in many realms of physics, but because it didn’t fit the normal funding categories of the National Science Foundation or Department of Energy, they had a very hard time getting support. And Alvarez already had the Nobel Prize! But he wasn’t an expert in that field.” Muller notes that while a Nobel Prize has dramatically changed the lives of many of its recipients, Muller says “Alvarez was very careful not to let it take over his. He wanted to continue to be productive. And if he hadn’t, we still would not know what killed the dinosaurs.”

So what has made the difference for innovative zig-zaggers like Muller and Alvarez? “The best funding I have, by far,” Muller says, “is private funding. Funding from individual donors, small foundations. Government funding can be a long, difficult, and frustrating, and in many cases ultimately unsuccessful road. Private funding has been invaluable. It’s been what has allowed me to move into a new field where I don’t have credentials.

Primarily, I’ve used it to fund graduate students, so I could tell them ‘Yes, you can work with me on this project.’ Graduate students are the huge leverage. You’re getting someone who’s highly motivated, interested in learning. This is where you can get the explosion, where the person can give you far, far more than you invest.”

Discomfort? Learn to like it.

Muller clearly wouldn’t alter his own past to follow a straighter line. But he does indicate that the roses have thorns.

“If you’re going to change fields,” he says, “you have to be ready for a lot of discomfort. It’s suddenly like you’re a graduate student again. You don’t know things, people look at you as if you’re ignorant, you have to do your homework very hard to catch up. The experts in the field regard you as an outsider who doesn’t even know the fundamentals.”

To Muller, that’s just part of the price of adventure. “Adventure doesn’t mean excitement, it doesn’t mean fun. I think the key characteristic of adventure is discomfort. Adventure is when you feel queasy, you feel sick to your stomach, you feel lost — even stark terror — but certainly uncomfortable. Think back to the adventures you’ve had in your life; many of them were ones you were uncomfortable with at the time. But you can look back and you realize that this was a seminal change in your life. That’s the feeling when you’re entering a new field, creating a new field. You feel lost.”

And then, usually with some hard work and a bit of luck, you find your way.


by Dick Cortén (Originally published in The Graduate magazine,  Spring 2009)

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