Take Five with Carl Haber '80, GSAS'85

Carl Haber ’80, GSAS’85 is an experimental physicist and a senior scientist in the physics division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California. His career has focused on the development of instrumentation and methods for detecting and measuring particles created at high energy colliders, including Fermilab in the United States and at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. He currently leads the American project to upgrade the ATLAS experiment’s silicon strip tracking system for the High Luminosity Large Hadron Collider. Since 2002 he and his colleagues have also been involved in aspects of preservation science, applying methods of precision optical metrology and data analysis to early recorded sound restoration. Haber is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and a fellow of the American Physical Society and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Carl Haber

Carl Haber '80, GSAS'85

Berkeley Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

It is an interesting time to be considering this question. My son recently graduated from high school and will start college this fall, in his case to study music at USC. Not surprisingly, I have been reflecting on the differences or similarities between his circumstances now and mine in 1976. He and his peers seem to me so much more accomplished at 17 or 18 than I recall being at that age. The bars to an education at schools like Columbia seem to be so much higher now than in my time. Honestly, I don’t think the boy I was in 1976 would get into Columbia in 2017. I was a good student and somewhat artistic, but why they admitted me, I am still not sure.

What was I like? I grew up in Queens and I had a very strong connection to New York City. I was very happy to be staying in New York for college. To me, New York was the greatest place on Earth. I was very comfortable throughout Manhattan and I had friends all over the place. I could not imagine living anywhere else. I was thrilled by the arts scene, the museums, the restaurants, the clubs and the streets. It was one of those ideal times when New York was still “quaint” yet gritty.

I was pretty ignorant of the big picture, but I made some good choices based on my sense of what was intrinsically interesting, without worrying too much as to whether those choices were practical or not. So I must have been sensible, but I don’t know why. I was definitely lucky.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived on the fourth floor of Carman Hall. That was a pretty depressing building with all the cinderblock walls and institutional ambience. I remember that it was hard to get posters or anything to stick to the walls; they’d just peel right off. There were a lot of athletes in that dorm and they tried to act very tough if you rode the elevator from the lobby to any floor they thought was too low. I had never heard anyone complain about floor choice in an elevator before, but this happened all the time. I thought it was ridiculous. There was a common area on the floor with a TV where students would congregate. Earlier that year everyone had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it had a transformative effect on the Class of 1980. People were constantly repeating key lines from that film in a mock British accent, like “Bring me a shrubbery” or “What makes you think she’s a witch? Well, she turned me into a newt! ... A newt? ... I got better.” Here we were, all taking CC and sitting up late at night discussing Machiavelli, Locke, Hume and Marx, on the origins of social order, and someone would say …

“The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.”

To which another would reply,

“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

What class do you most remember and why?

My section of CC was taught by an advanced graduate student in philosophy, Theodore Talbot ’72, GSAS’78. He was writing his dissertation on quantum mechanics and leaned heavily on texts relating to the history and philosophy of science. We read Galileo, Newton, Popper and Kuhn. Though I entered Columbia planning to study bio-engineering, I was becoming increasingly interested in physics and this additional exposure to the history and philosophy of science, through CC, strongly influenced me. I started a dialogue with Mr. Talbot and would visit him during office hours to discuss his research. This led to a strong desire to understand quantum mechanics thoroughly, by direct study. Mr. Talbot recommended some of the primary sources, such as Heisenberg’s The Physical Principles of Quantum Theory, which I read. But I realized that I would really have to immerse myself in physics and mathematics to get where I needed to be. I then transferred from the Engineering School to the College with the express goal to study physics. I am sure that CC played a major role in this evolution, which led to my entire career.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Beginning the summer after freshman year I was hired as a lab assistant to groups doing low-temperature physics research in the basement of Pupin Hall. I was issued a key and had pretty much unfettered access there. While some of the rooms had active experimental activities, there were other rooms just full of stuff in storage. In one room were the remnants of the original Columbia University cyclotron, which was used on January 25, 1939, by John Dunning and Enrico Fermi to first measure the energy release in nuclear fission — for this reason Pupin Hall is a National Historic Landmark. What remained of the cyclotron was the magnet yoke, essentially a large arch and some part of the big circular magnet pole faces. By 1977 this entire assembly was just stuffed with boxes and old equipment from later experiments. There was a box labeled MASER, a precursor to the LASER, invented by Charles H. Townes, who had also worked at Columbia, jammed inside the cyclotron. I was just so struck how all this significant history was now nothing but surplus. I had grown up in the 1960s and recalled having nightmares as a child about atomic bombs outside my window. Here I was, a year out of high school, working daily in a room next to the device that convinced Fermi and Dunning that enough energy would be released in fission to destroy cities — and did — and it was now a forgotten junk pile.

What, if anything, would you do over about your College experience?

Foreign language was a low point of my educational experience. I started French in the fourth grade, continued through high school and then kept it up at Columbia. I had no aptitude whatsoever and even less interest. In my last semester of French I earned a D. Finally, the dean decided I could take a class on French literature in translation, in lieu of more French language study. I wish I had dropped French from the start and picked a different language, which I could have approached as more of an intellectual challenge — for example Latin, Ancient Greek, Russian or Chinese. I think that would have been a better use of my time and would have opened up new directions for me. I think my interest in foreign languages would have been stronger as a matter of study or scholarship, rather than as a conversational skill, which remained elusive. The lesson is, don’t take a class because you think it will be easy; go for something interesting.