1 July 2011

Q&A with Albert Migliori

MagLab physicist Albert Migliori talks about how he got interested in science, what a typical work day is like, and how his research at Los Alamos National Laboratory has evolved over the decades.

By  AMY MAST, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Albert Migliori is a condensed matter physicist. Condensed matter physicists work to learn more about the properties of solid materials and many electronic materials. Simply put, it's the study of stuff — what it's made of, what it can do, how it can be manipulated. This field of research produced the transistor, which has led to all the integrated circuits in televisions, telephones and cars. It's led to magnetic materials that make high-efficiency motors and generators that in turn make possible hybrid and all-electric cars, high-efficiency wind turbines, and much much more.


Condensed matter physicists often work light years away from applying their knowledge of "stuff" to the inventions and innovations mentioned above, but without the measurements they make, those innovations would be difficult or impossible. The majority of scientists at the Magnet Lab's three campuses are physicists.

Q.  Why does this kind of work appeal to you?

The whole aspect of physics is that it's really the only discipline in which you get the truth about how the world actually functions. I'd hate not to know that. I guess saying that could start a lot of fights, but it's true. Physics has built a collection of irreducible laws that are inviolate and tested by everything we know to do. They tell you how the world functions at the most fundamental levels.

Q.  How'd you get interested in science?

I'm from the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Our dinner table was an ironing board for a little while. My father was a wholesale grocer, and my mother wrote advertising copy for one of the big ad agencies. So my father was starting out a new business, and we had nothing. One consequence of that is that we fixed everything. Even when I was six years old, I can remember my father sitting down with me and rewiring the lamps, and I think that that started things off.

Living in that part of New York at that time, which was the '50s , there were war and electronic surplus stores downtown on Chamber Street and Canal Street. That was the time when transistors were first becoming available. You couldn't even buy a transistor radio when I was in grade school — they didn't exist. But then, all of a sudden you could go down to the surplus store and you could buy a bucket of transistors that somebody made that had the caps removed, and you could just make things out of them. They didn't last very long, and they had light sensitivity, but there was all this junk you could buy for nothing down there to play with. Another consequence of that, growing up in New York, is that those science magnet high schools were just stunning. The one I went to was just spectacular.

Q.  Why did you decide to work at Los Alamos?

I had spent some time in the Army between graduate school and Los Alamos. I was in Georgia training second lieutenants to run battlefield communications. In May of '73 I had orders to ship to Vietnam, but the war ended and they told us to go home.

I knew much about Livermore National Lab, and I interviewed both there and at Los Alamos. I wanted to come to Los Alamos, because I'd read all these books about New Mexico. I didn't know anything then and I was fearless about my career.

I had a full-time permanent staff offer at Livermore, but during the interview process they never took me out of the public area. The whole lab was nuclearweapon secure, so I couldn't figure out what it was they wanted me to do there. At the end of the day, the personnel director said, "What do you think?" and I said, "Don't bother offering me a job. I don't know what I'm going to do here, so I don't want to work here." They couldn't believe it, and I turned it down before I got an offer from Los Alamos. I had not thought that through. But I took a postdoc position at LANL because I thought it was more exciting, and I was right.

Q.  If you're in science, working at Los Alamos is a pretty storied thing. What's a regular day like?

When I began here, I would be in the laboratory trying to put together an experiment, execute the measurements, and analyze the results dusk to dawn. As I progressed through the years, I've built up a pretty good sense of taste for physics problems.

This is a basic research place, and a typical day changes over the years. I make measurements, rather than attempt to interpret them in some detail. As the years passed, I found myself working as part of an organizing team that attacked various science and measurement problems. One of the things that's been a theme throughout my career is developing techniques to measure things that are really hard to measure. The reason I'm a fellow at Los Alamos National Lab is because I developed a technique called resonant ultrasound spectroscopy (see sidebar).


When many objects are struck, they ring, exactly like a bell, producing tones that Resonant Ultrasound Spectroscopy can use to determine important mechanical properties of materials, and to detect flaws in manufactured components, a boon for both the research community and industrial safety standards.

It's been very enjoyable acting as a mentor for younger scientists, and I've grown more in the role of helping younger people think extremely clearly about what it is they wanted to do and helping to identify really good physics problems.

Q.  How do you react when someone thinks your idea is dumb?

Sometimes, people don't like things because they don't understand them. We've had that a little bit with trying to spool up energy research at Los Alamos. I spend a lot of time trying to make sure that the thinking is clear — mine and others.

Q.  How has basic research changed in the 37 years you've been at Los Alamos?

The absolute biggest change has to do with personal computers. Sometimes I joke that PCs don't help you do things faster. They just make things possible that weren't possible before. One of the things that's changed is the ability to analyze accurately large amounts of data. The technique that I'm known for took an old IBM eight hours to do the computations to extract the numbers we wanted from the measurements. Now, it takes three-tenths of a second on my laptop. The other aspect with computers is that they let you make mistakes really fast. I think the personal computer as a data acquisition and analysis tool is the biggest single change.

Q.  What else has changed?

Well, the people certainly haven't. Every single year for the past 37 years, there's been a panic over where funding will come from for next year. After a while, you don't worry about it anymore. There is more formality about safety than there was back in those days, but that's all in the right direction. I think people were a little crazy 30 years ago and they're not so much anymore. People might claim it's risk averse, but it's not. I think people are just as willing to take risks in science, but not safety.

Q.  What would you have done with your life if you couldn't have been a physicist?

If I couldn't be a physicist, I'd do … physics. I'd do whatever I could to be as close to that as possible. I'd probably turn to electrical engineering and turn that into a physics career.

This story was originally published in Issue 7 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.