Interview: Being a Physics Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1978
Updated: Jan 14
What was the physics mecca in the late 70’s? It was the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, according to Jean-Pierre Sursock Ph.D.’78. In this interview, Jean-Pierre tells us about his Ph.D. in Theoretical (High Energy) Physics, the U.S. and French education systems and the role of nuclear energy (if any) in the transition to renewable energy.
What was the application process like to study at Berkeley?
When I applied to the graduate program at Berkeley I had already earned a doctorate in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Paris-Orsay and I had been working at General Electric (Nuclear Division) in San Jose (CA) for two years. But Theoretical Physics had always been my passion and UC Berkeley, the Mecca of Physics at the time, was too hard to resist. So I left GE and convinced the Graduate Department of Physics to accept me, even though I already held a doctorate, without retaking all the undergraduate courses; however,I still had to take all the written and oral exams before I was accepted. Everyone in the Department was extremely supportive, particularly my sponsor, Dr. H. Steiner. In 1978, I earned a Ph.D. in Theoretical (High Energy) Physics, under the guidance of Dr. Geoff Chew, whose amazing intellectual and human qualities have guided my thoughts and actions throughout my career. Life in Berkeley in the mid 70’s was very exciting, at least in the physics department. This was an era where new discoveries about elementary particles were made almost every week. New ideas were abundant, top physicists from all over the world were converging on the campus to present their discoveries or even their half-baked ideas.
Could you describe your experience at Berkeley?
We had more daily conferences, lectures or seminars than we could attend. So we, the students, were meeting in the coffee area, having sandwich lunches and rubbing shoulders with the most celebrated names in Physics on a routine basis…There was nowhere else I wanted to be than at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, located at the end of the windy road on top of the hill, where all the action was taking place and where the view on the San Francisco Bay was amazingly beautiful and inspiring.
How much did your studies at Berkeley shape your career?
I just mentioned how significant and formative these years were for my future career. Besides Geoff Chew, I had the honor to meet and attend lectures of giants of modern Physics such as Stanley Mandelstam and Gabriele Veneziano among many others. Although, for many personal reasons I did not pursue a career in Physics and returned instead to Nuclear Engineering, the interactions with these intellectuals giants, who were wonderful, humble human beings, shaped my approach to problem solving, my outlook on life and human behavior in general.
Could you present your career and professional projects?
I spent most of my career doing and managing large research projects in the realm of Nuclear Energy. Indeed many of these projects are so expensive or so complex to perform that international collaboration is a must. Pooling, both funding and expertise among many private and public entities from North America, Europe, Japan and many other parts of the world have become indispensable for the effective development of new technologies and for their actual implementation in nuclear power plants. My role, over time, have been to coordinate many of these large partnerships worldwide. It is a fascinating vintage point from which I have been able to see virtually all the global R&D in Nuclear energy and meet some of the most exceptional people in this field.
As a nuclear engineer, what is your view on the state of the nuclear industry today?
In my view, the main challenges of nuclear energy are (1) to regain public trust and to explain to the public clearly both the environmental risks and the benefits of nuclear energy, and (2) to become economically competitive with other sources of electric energy. In order to address the first challenge we need to establish a credible and balanced message and in order to address the second challenge we need a good dose of technical innovation and consistent implementation across the global nuclear fleet. In addition, the world is facing -- or will soon be facing -- an intense demand for electric energy, from electric transportation to blockchain technologies. The poorest countries in Africa and South East Asia will demand their fair share of energy supply, which they have been denied until now. I can’t see how the global electric energy requirements can be met without nuclear… it is just mathematically impossible. So the opportunity for nuclear is clear, provided we are perfectly transparent with the public and we are willing to embrace innovation to control costs.
How do higher education in the United States and France compare?
This is a vast subject. Both systems have their advantages and I am glad I was able to experience both equally. The French system gave me a taste for mathematical rigor and for scientific depth that is somewhat lacking in many courses in US engineering departments. Conversely, The US system teaches you to be a lot closer to the pragmatic resolution of problems. So when you exit the system you are much better armed to tackle the real industrial problems that you would be facing on the ground. The other major advantage of the US system is that, as a student, you get a lot more training (and opportunities) to communicate about your work. This, it turns out, is an essential skill and it is why in scientific conferences today all over the world, the US talks and papers receive a lot more attention than their French counterparts even through the quality is very comparable (and it is not only a matter of familiarity with the English language).