University of California at Berkeley

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305

Sather Gate on the UC Berkeley campus.

This is relevant to Prof. Laughlin's professional history.

The undergraduate university experience is not, strictly speaking, part of a person's professional history, but for most people it probably ought to be because it so powerfully influences their career choices. This was certainly the case with Prof. Laughlin.

Berkeley was, of course, not just any state university in the late 1960s but a notorious center of extreme leftist politics. This was the height of the Vietnam period, when entitlement attitudes were in vogue in most universities around the world (including Stanford), so in that sense nothing was unusual. However, Berkeley was a particularly severe case. Law and order broke down routinely over the smallest things - for example, whether Eldridge Cleaver, "Minister of Information" of the Black Panther Party (and a felon) should lecture. There was incessant talk among the students about going on strike for this or that outrage by the authorities, even though the only people hurt by such a strike would be themselves. There was widespread and passionate solidarity for unionizing farm workers, food service workers and residents of People's Park, a small patch of University land occupied by squatters. Tear gas and pepper fog attacks by police were commonplace. On one occasion, Governor Ronald Reagan (and his lieutenant Ed Meese) called in the National Guard to quell unrest. And, when President Nixon invaded Cambodia, such pandemonium ensued that the University had to order all students home for two weeks to cool off.

Unfortunately, during this turbulent and fascinating time Prof. Laughlin was a hopeless and incorrigible nerd. He was interested in computers, chemistry, physics and other technical things to the exclusion of all else, and scarcely had time to eat, much less don a headband and join the crowd. It is a shameful fact that he did not, even once, make the short trip across the Bay to San Francisco to hear Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, even though every one of his roommates did. He did hear B. B. King once, but that's only because the venue, the Berkeley Greek Theater, was right outside his dorm window. His idea of fun was to do mathematics in the chemistry library late into the night and then, when he couldn't focus any more, stumble over to La Val's pizza parlor and continue doing mathematics there on napkins.

Physics was particularly excellent at Berkeley in those days, notwithstanding the creeping obsolescence of Ernest Lawrence's cyclotron legacy and the stiff competition in theorizing from other universities. For example, while Prof. Laughlin was an undergraduate, he took a graduate course from Prof. Geoffrey Chew on the S-matrix theory of the strong interactions, an approach to the problem that reasoned circularly, led nowhere and had to be abandoned in the end. Ironically, the theory that eventually displaced it, and which eventually led to a Nobel Prize, was created in large measure by Chew's own student, David Gross.

A nearly equal irony is that the part of physics Prof. Laughlin most disliked was materials. Indeed he had abandoned his studies at Berkeley in electrical engineering and transferred to physics precisely because he was so exasperated over wasting time on concrete, steel, rocks and other such mundane things. But over the course of time he turned his career back toward materials - albeit spiced with physics intellectualism - and eventually did work on semiconductors that won him the Nobel Prize.

Given the nature of this turnaround, the milieu from which it emerged and the strange mix of skills it engendered, one can reasonably ask whether reckless attitudes inculcated by those Berkeley years might have had something to do with winning the Prize. There is no way to tell, of course.