Share this:
09/27/1995 07:00:00

Caltech Planetary Scientist Receives National Medal of Science

PASADENA—Peter M. Goldreich, the Lee A. DuBridge Professor of Astrophysics and Planetary Physics at Caltech, will receive the 1995 National Medal of Science from President Clinton at a White House ceremony on October 18.

In a statement released today, the White House announced the eight names of this year's winners of the National Medal of Science, which is awarded periodically in special recognition of outstanding scientific contributions. Goldreich is the nineteenth member of the Caltech faculty to be honored with this award.

In a citation that will accompany the medal, Goldreich is lauded for "his profound and lasting contributions to planetary sciences and astrophysics, providing fundamental theoretical insights for understanding the rotation of planets, the dynamics of planetary rings, pulsars, astrophysical masers, the spiral arms of galaxies, and the oscillations of the sun."

Goldreich describes himself as a general-purpose theoretician in astrophysics. He typically spends about five years working on a particular problem, writes a few papers about his findings, then moves on to another topic. It is this purposeful rambling among many fields that has enabled him to contribute to a wide variety of problems ranging from why Saturn's rings have sharp edges to how distant stars emit microwave radiation in a coherent form, like a laser.

Even while he is working in one area, Goldreich hears about other intriguing ideas. "I always have another set of problems I'd like to solve besides the ones I'm working on," he explains. "I like to work on problems with well-supported observational data and no theoretical explanation of any significance, so that no one has a good idea of what's going on, and I am the first one to explore it in depth." Goldreich says he has worked on about a half dozen of these problems where the research fell into place and his explanations turned out to be at least partially right.

But for each respectable result, he examines two or three problems that lead nowhere. "Sometimes I'll learn about something and think about it, but it goes no place. When that happens you need a good sense of when you've gone as far as you can with a problem, when it's time to quit and move on to something else." Goldreich often feels he's missing some crucial element, some essential insight that would enable him to solve a problem.

"I can sit in my chair for months quite happily trying to get that one little insight," he says. Though he is an astronomer, he rarely makes observations. "I've been to big telescopes, guided them a few times, and been involved in a few observing projects," Goldreich says, but he's never done data collection or analysis firsthand. Instead, he does most of his work in a dark brown recliner in his office, where he examines the observational results of others and tries to make sense of them, making notes as he works on scraps of paper that come to hand. These papers often disappear, but fortunately Goldreich has an excellent memory, and often works with people who are more systematic than he. These months-long sitting spells are broken up nicely by the other facets of his life: teaching, meetings, and his lifelong interest in sports.

Though both his parents enjoyed intellectual pursuits, Goldreich was more interested in sports than in science when he was in high school, a passion he maintains today. He played baseball at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, and both baseball and soccer in college. It was only as an undergraduate at Cornell University that he developed a strong interest in physics, and to some degree in mathematics, which led him to earn a BS in engineering in 1960.

Goldreich recalls spending "a lot more time than required" thinking about physics problems as an undergraduate, and he stayed highly motivated through graduate school, also at Cornell. He lived for three years with Thomas Gold and his family, who was then on the physics faculty at Cornell and who later became his advisor. Gold had very good physical intuition and an excellent knack for raising interesting questions, and he and Goldreich would often have long discussions about these problems. Within a year and a half, Goldreich had worked out solutions to three of these puzzles, which was sufficient for his doctorate. He wrote them up as a thesis, and finished his PhD in theoretical physics in less than two-and-a-half years.

Interestingly, Goldreich's sporting pursuits have roughly paralleled his intellectual wanderings, shifting focus every five years or so. In graduate school he took up competitive judo, and over the years he has also competed in wrestling, running, and racquet sports. He now plays a lot of tennis and squash, and is a member of the faculty group that plays the Caltech undergraduate team each year.

Goldreich's constant curiosity about new fields, which has led him to investigate so many different problems, also influences his teaching assignments. He finds teaching Caltech students to be very intellectually stimulating, and he often chooses to teach courses about which he knows little. "I like to teach new material just for the pleasure of learning," he explains.

He is now working on the phenomenon of turbulence in magnetized fluids, and hopes next to have the pleasure of studying cosmology, which he sees as the current frontier in astronomy. Like most frontiers, this one is crowded with explorers, so it's tough to find a distinctive problem. But he thinks he has a pretty good one picked out to work on, and is excited to get to work on it.

After all, says Goldreich, "When you're ambitious and you do science, you're always behind schedule. The only thing that arrives ahead of time is death."

Contact: Jay Aller or Michael Fluharty Caltech Media Relations National Science Foundation (818) 395-3631 (703) 306-1070

Written by John Avery