Interview with a Physicist: Doc Al

This is a new Interview category for Insights. While I line up some great new interviews I’ll be migrating some previous mentor interviews.

Doc Al is a physics mentor for Physics Forums

Can you give us a brief bio?

Okay. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi. Oh wait… that wasn’t me…

I was always interested in science, even as a kid. I remember once putting up a fuss because my parents took me out of class to go the circus—but it was science day and I wanted to go to school. My “epiphany” came much later, in about 8th grade or so. Some kind math teacher (not mine) saw I was bored out of my mind doing long division, took pity on me and gave me Isaac Asimov’s book “The Realm of Algebra”. Ah, so that’s what math is all about! In high school, I was tossed out of freshman algebra after two weeks and put into math 11 (advanced algebra, or something like that). I recall teaching myself calculus over one summer (sure, I was a dork). That’s when I learned an important lesson: Classes are easier if you go in already knowing the subject!

Somehow early on I became convinced that physics was the thing for me. I found the book “The Einstein Theory of Relativity” by Lillian R. Lieber (a charming book) in the library and worked my way through it. This stuff was cool! So in 9th grade I began hanging out in the physics lab, driving the poor teacher nuts. (Back then, physics was a senior year class.) But he was very supportive and put up with me for 3 years. I was a real pain in the butt, so having taken all the science and math that the school had to offer, I was “encouraged” to graduate early, which I did.

I ended up going to a small college in New York City, which at the time had a great physics department. (Of course I only appreciated this once I got into grad school.) I remember the first day of physics 101, where the very professorial professor (think of John Houseman in The Paper Chase) asked for a show of hands of everyone who had taken physics in high school. Every hand shot up of course. He looked around the room, nodded, puffed on his pipe, and then said “Welcome to your first course in physics.” He was right.

I went to grad school at NYU, also in NYC, with big dreams of doing something with relativity. (I won a fellowship two years in a row, which gave me lots of free time to study… and goof off in the city that never sleeps.) Alas, I was seduced by the physics chairman into joining his atomic and molecular beams lab and becoming an experimentalist. I figured that experimental physics required both theory and practical knowledge, so why not? I worked on several experiments, including the one that became my doctoral thesis. Good times.

Eventually I was recruited by a large telecom lab, where I somehow remain to this day, despite downsizing and layoffs. I don’t do physics anymore, except for fun.

Tell us about your martial arts training and how you got interested in it.

I’ve been interested in the martial arts my whole life. I recall when I was in about 1st grade, having read about the “karate chop” in some Hardy Boys book, I was determined to see if it worked. Somehow I convinced some kid in the lunch room to let me smack him on the back of the head and see if I could knock him out. Needless to say food and trays went flying and we both got into trouble. (No, I didn’t knock him out.)

I started training seriously when I was an undergrad, many moons ago. I’ve trained in various martials arts, some traditional and some not, including Tae Kwon Do, various styles of jiu-jitsu, grappling, kick boxing, stick fighting, and self-defense. But the “art” that I have devoted myself to for the last many decades is derived from WWII-era military combatives. I’ve been privileged to have trained with some of the best close combat masters in the world, and I have several black belts and teaching certificates. The folks I train with now are incredibly talented and I am honored to be associated with them. My current challenge is combining the subtle body mechanics of the “internal” martial arts with the more “external” combative skills.

Of course, I’m a beaten down old man now, paying for the sins of my youth. I’m still training, just not as hard.

You say you are a “scientific naturalist”. What does that mean to you?

That’s a term I use to summarize my philosophical outlook. I believe that this world is the only one there is and that the only way to understand this world and to solve its problems is through the application of science and reason–a rational empiricism, if you will. I have little sympathy for religious or “supernatural” ideas. As a consequence, I am a secular humanist when it comes to moral values and of course an atheist.

What were some of your biggest challenges in completing your PhD in physics?

I was given the choice of getting my thesis out of an existing set up (which I had worked on), or creating a new one. Of course, not being in any hurry (I was enjoying life in NYC), I chose the latter. We had to knock down walls and start from scratch. So that was one challenge that probably added a few years to my tenure.

And the curse of the experimentalist is that once you have the thing running, you keep it running and take all the data you can. So I spent many nights in that lab!

Another challenge was keeping my eye on the ball. NYC can be very distracting for a young single guy. ‘Nuff said!

Which physicists were most important to you while growing up and through your studies?

Like many before me, I was an Einstein and relativity fan. And I am a huge fan of Feynman, mainly for his down to earth attitude and his teaching style. He came to my lab some years back and gave a hilarious lecture about computer “science”. The man was a genius.

Another who greatly inspired me to think more clearly, especially about quantum mechanics, which can get pretty obscure at times, was John Bell. When I first learned of his theorems, I was obsessed with them. I even co-sponsored a Bell symposium some years back and got to meet some cool people in the field.

If you could live in a Sci-Fi world (SW, ST, Aliens… etc) which would it be and why?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Star Trek and Spock. But my real fantasy world is not suitable for publication at PF! ;)

Do you have a favorite thread at PF?

Not really. I will say that I am very impressed with my colleagues here, especially my fellow Mentors, Advisors, and Homework Helpers. We have a world class team and I am honored to be among them. PF has grown better and better over the years and I see no end in sight.

One of the things I did to make extra cash while in grad school was to tutor, which I loved. And one of the many things about PF that I enjoy is that I get to “tutor” a bit. I especially like tricking students into figuring things out for themselves.

Is there a recent development in science/tech that excites you?

I’m a simple fellow. What excites me personally is figuring out something, some aspect of physics that I once struggled with but is now clear. Part of the fun of PF is sharing that enthusiasm.

Thanks for participating Doc Al!

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