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Campus & Community

‘Physics was paradise’

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Melissa Franklin’s experimental zeal

Melissa Franklin, an experimental particle physicist, has had a career of firsts, some scientific, some social. She was part of teams that discovered two elementary particles: the top quark at Fermilab and the Higgs boson at CERN. In 1992, she became the first woman to earn tenure in Harvard’s Physics Department.

Chess and sports helped to shape Franklin’s youth in Toronto, along with constant reading. At 16, she enrolled at the University of Toronto and spent her post-freshman-year summer as an intern at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. For graduate and postdoctoral work she was at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley; in 1989, she became an assistant professor at Harvard.

Franklin, 57, is the Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics, and has been chair of her department since 2010.

Can you tell me about growing up in Toronto?

My parents weren’t scientists and actually didn’t go to college. They worked in the entertainment business. My mother was a television producer and worked in publishing as well, and my father was a journalist. There wasn’t a huge emphasis on going to college, so that’s why it didn’t seem a strange thing for me to quit high school at the age of 13, after ninth grade, and start a free school. I went to a big inner-city high school, a public high school, for ninth grade. But other than playing a lot of sports, I didn’t learn very much. It wasn’t a very good atmosphere for me, for learning.

What sports did you play?

I was on the swim team, the basketball team, the hockey team, the gymnastics team. In fact, when I left that high school I was sad only because when you make a free school in the basement of the YMHA [Young Men’s Hebrew Association] there are no teams. The whole idea of the free school was that you learn from people in the community. So when we wanted to learn about Chinese poetry, we went down to the university three or four blocks away and found a professor who would teach us how to read Chinese. Or, when we wanted to learn about urban planning, we went and asked Jane Jacobs to teach a class.

How many students were at the free school? How many adults were involved?

There were 100 students the first year and the Board of Education gave us four adults. We learned in different ways, by moving around the city all the time. If we were learning Chinese at the University of Toronto, we would just go over there.

We watched an enormous number of films, read an enormous number of books. It was really a great place. And that’s where I took my first physics class.

Did it stand out as something you would dedicate your life to?

Physics is interesting, but it didn’t all of a sudden grab me because introductory physics doesn’t automatically grab people. At that time, I was still interested in being a writer or a philosopher.

I also understand you made a film nominated for an Academy Award?

In my second year at the school, some filmmakers got money to get high school students to make a movie. It was supposed to be nine commercials for life. We [realized] a film needed to play in a movie theater to be eligible for an award, so we played it with a Truffaut film; it was a short before it. So that’s a great highlight of my life.

What was your segment about?

It was a chess game. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time playing chess. It was the best part of elementary school. The principal of the school taught us how to play chess and used to play chess with me. Anyhow, we went down there. We didn’t win the Academy Award, which was probably the correct decision, but it was fun.

Could you talk about the progression over the next few years, how you became more interested in physics?

After having spent two years at the free school, learning different things in different ways, I decided to move to England. I lived with some friends of my family for a month and then shared an apartment in South Kensington with a Canadian TV correspondent who was almost never there. Since I was still only 15 I needed to be enrolled in a school, so I enrolled in the Lycée Français de Londres. I didn’t go to class as often as they would have liked, so the headmaster called me in and told me I had to have a goal. He had spoken to my teachers and they thought I should do English literature. Really, just to piss them off, I did physics.

Did you choose physics because it was the opposite of literature or was there some interest left over from that first physics class?

I read things I find on bookshelves and I had read a few of the more popular books by the men who created quantum mechanics. So it was an intellectual interest, but I think it also was just the anti-authority part of me. It was hard because it was a two-year program and I was getting into it at Christmastime of the second year.

How did you manage that? You must have had a lot of catching up to do.

I didn’t manage it very well. I had a great teacher, but I was pretty terrible. A week before the A level exams, which the whole country takes, they give you a mock exam. And I got 4 percent. At that point, I realized I had to study. It was spring and it was very beautiful out and somehow I got into a mode of studying that was completely intense. So for 10 days, I just studied. I did pass, but I also got really excited about physics. Then I decided I wanted to go to the University of Toronto and study physics. It was a little hard getting into the university, so I had to use the skills I had obtained at the free school to be able to convince people. I went down 34 days in a row and spoke with different people trying to convince them that I was exactly the student they wanted, that I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and eventually they let me in.

At this point, you’re 16?

I am 16. The funny thing is, I don’t really know how I finally got in. I suspect it was someone in the Physics Department.

Describe the process of catching up. You must have spent some time doing that.

When I went in, I clearly didn’t have as good a background as I could have to study physics. But when people saw, they really helped a lot. I had a professor who just said, “OK, every afternoon between 2 and 4, you’re going to come to my room, to my office, and solve these problems.” And he just was a huge help. I had another professor who hired me in the summer to work at Fermilab. That was the point at which I realized physics was paradise. Not only could you learn all these things in books, but you could actually build things, huge experiments.

What was the summer project?

The charm quark had just been discovered. We were doing an experiment with a photon beam in which we made charm quarks to study. We were also seeing what happens when you shoot a photon beam at a proton target.

‘I just have this philosophy that you should work on things when they’re interesting, but there’s no reason you have to be a physicist, or anything, your whole life.’

Did you ever consider going into theory instead of experimentation?

No. I don’t like sitting and theorists sit. Experimentalists can do many different things. That summer, I built things and glued things, drove forklifts, and drilled into concrete. Coming from a literary family, nobody drilled concrete. Experimentalists get to do a lot of different things. They get to write programs, they get to solve problems, they get to build electronics, they get to fix things. Not getting to fix things would be terrible. So it is unlikely I would be satisfied being a theorist.

From Toronto you went to Stanford for graduate school and Berkeley for a postdoctoral fellowship. Were there other women in the physics courses you were taking?

In Toronto, there were very few women in my classes. I can’t remember if there were any. In my fourth year, I took some graduate courses and it was a pretty odd experience. When there’s just one woman, it doesn’t even compute that there’s any. From your perspective, you aren’t actually anybody because you are the one looking out. I do think, though, that the reason people helped me so much is probably because they wanted to see me succeed.

Did you feel the same about your doctoral work and your fellowship? Were people helpful?

Yes, people are helpful pretty much up until the point where you get to the same level as them. People have always been helpful.

What kind of resistance did you run into?

I think people were very wary of women in physics. It took either someone who was oblivious or someone who was wild to get through. If you were well-adjusted, it would be hard to imagine you saying all that stuff was fine. I’m not sure which one I was, but either oblivious or wild.

How difficult was it? Did you feel there were times you were kept back or personally discriminated against?

I was young; it was a long time ago. In those days, sexual harassment wasn’t a concept and people did some pretty strange things. The thing about being a woman in physics is that there were a lot of guys in physics class who would love to work with you and would love it if you fell in love with them. Then you find out it’s not just the students.

So people were coming on to you all the time — students and faculty?

Not all the time. I don’t want to set myself up as someone who’s so magnetically attractive that people couldn’t keep away. I’m just saying that it’s always complicated. You’re working together many, many long hours, through the night. I remember a professor at Fermilab who wouldn’t agree to be on any owl shift — the overnight shift — with women because he felt that he couldn’t … control himself in the wee hours. It was just such a hilarious thing for someone to say. If I said that to my students today …

There was a lot of that going on, so hopefully it’s not going on now.

Here’s the thing: You never know for sure whether you’re being discriminated against or if people just don’t like you. But it just so happened that it was a whole bunch of women they didn’t like. You can never really tell scientifically — except once, at the University of Toronto. I wanted to go back and they didn’t want me, though they offered me a job eventually. People on the search committee told me things that had been said about the fact that I might use my position to do feminist activism, which made me think I probably should start doing feminist activism.

Were you known for doing activism? Or were you just a woman trying to get a job in physics and they looked at that as activism?

I don’t know why they thought I was going to do activism. It probably wasn’t a good idea to try to go back there. It was a department of 80 people without any women.

So you would have been the first one there as well?

Yes, though Harvard had assistant professors who were women when I came in. It was pretty great, actually.

You were in the Society of Fellows first. Tell me about that.

The Society of Fellows is wonderful. You come in with a group. At that point it was eight people a year for a three-year fellowship, so there were 24 fellows. They’re all in different fields and the only requirement is that you eat dinner together once a week. Normally, when you come into the university, you meet people in your department but you don’t actually have a lot of chances to meet people outside. But this is a situation where you get to meet the whole university.

What were you working on?

I was working at Fermilab, so I was flying back and forth a lot. I missed a lot of dinners. It was still ’87. I was working on the [collider] detector and taking data; it was the beginning of the experiment that would eventually find the top quark.

How did you get on that experiment?

When I finished graduate school at Stanford, I had to decide what to do. I thought maybe I would work in industry. At each stage of my life, I think I’m not going to go on. Every morning when I wake up, I’d say to myself, “God, that was really fun. Maybe this is a good time to stop.”

What was it that caused you at these different junctures to think: “Now I have to get a real job?”

I never actually thought I would have a real job. I just have this philosophy that you should work on things when they’re interesting, but there’s no reason you have to be a physicist, or anything, your whole life. Then I thought, if I’m going to stay in physics, let me work with somebody I really like. So there was a professor, a senior researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Lab who was working on the experiment, and he said, “We’re going to make this detector, do you want to work on it?”

And who was this?

Bill Carithers. But everybody said, “No, don’t take that job.”


Because I was about to work on an experiment that wouldn’t have data before I had to look for a job. At the time, I was involved with somebody at Stanford, so I wanted to stay in the area. I went to Berkeley and built the detector. It was fun to build. Then we had to install it at Fermilab and, luckily, I fell out of love at just the right time. Then I was an assistant professor at Illinois for a year. I really liked it there, but then I got this opportunity to go to the Society of Fellows, which is a weird thing to do when you’re already a professor. But I just thought, “Oh, I’ll just come for a year.”

Did you stay for the full three?

Two. I had accepted a job at the University of Toronto and it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a good fit. So Harvard offered me an assistant professor’s job and said, “Do you want to stay here for a little while?”

At that time there were other women assistant professors?

There was Kay Kinoshita and Marjorie Shapiro. Marjorie is now a professor at Berkeley and Kay is a professor at Cincinnati. We were all in experimental particle physics. When I did get tenure here, I started to go to senior faculty meetings. And I remember one of the very kind professors after one of the meetings said, “I don’t think you should talk so much — let them get used to it slowly.”

What did he mean?

He meant that I should talk less.

Clearly, but were you talking incessantly? What was wrong with the way you were talking?

I don’t know. I guess you go from having no women in there to one who’s talking too much.

Did you feel you were breaking new ground at the time you got tenure?

I’ve never been drunk in my life, but I got very drunk. While I was up for tenure, I oscillated between thinking they would be crazy not to give me tenure and they would be crazy to give me tenure. I mean, the thing is, there have been people in this building who are mind-bogglingly brilliant — I mean really — and it seemed odd to be part of that. I don’t think I saw myself as a pioneer. I think maybe I was not so self-aware. Which can be good or bad.

Learning by doing is a particularly effective type of education, says Franklin, shown at her Cambridge home.

Harvard University

Can you talk a bit about the top quark experiment and “big physics,” in which you work with hundreds of people?

To begin with, when I was at Berkeley, we built part of the detector. Then we took it there [to Fermilab] and commissioned it. Then we took some data and got involved with analyzing the data. Then we had to fix the detector, and then analyze more data. We had some serious things that came up that we had to solve, a lot of writing programs to massage the data. All of those things I got involved with. I’ve been involved in every level of the experiment. That’s what I really like, when you can build something, you can write the code, you can analyze the data, and by doing that you gain a very intimate knowledge of the whole detector and experiment.

Is there a typical day at the experiment?

That’s what I like about it, there’s no typical day. For instance, I remember spending one whole summer, or spring — I don’t actually know which because I didn’t get to see outside — you’d get to work and there was a window high above where we were working, a thin strip of windows where you can sort of see what’s happening outside.

I loved that feeling of going to work at 8 o’clock in the morning and coming up from the pit and not knowing exactly what time it was and also not knowing whether it was light or dark. So there’s a way you can get completely absorbed in what you’re doing and it’s a wonderful feeling and yet it never seemed to last too long or that you have to do the same thing over and over again. [Particle physics] is not for people who get bored easily but for people who like to move around and do a lot of different things and also learn a lot. You know, the great thing about being an experimentalist is you’re constantly learning how to do something. So, for me it was great. And the other great feeling is that you’re making a contribution to science and it’s not just about you. In fact … it’s almost anonymous.

Was the day you confirmed the top quark a day that stands out in your memory?

When you have these big collaborations, there’s all kinds of funny stuff going on. Politics. Everybody really wanted to do everything right. Everyone had the right motivation, but not everyone trusted everyone else. Which is weird, because to build such a big experiment like that, with 20 different university groups from different countries, you have to trust each other. So it was fun. It was good, but none of these things are eureka moments. It’s all statistics. I have histograms filled with possible top quark events and the histograms get bigger and bigger and you think, “Oh, is it big enough now to call it a particle?”

So the slow emerging of the top quark rather than the discovery of it?

Yeah, that’s the exciting part of it. If it’s just “boom,” it would be a drag. You spend 15 years building the thing and boom, in one minute it’s over? It would be terrible.

How long did the whole thing take?

Well, we saw evidence for it in ’94 and discovered it in ’95 so it’s probably on the scale of 365 days. Same with the Higgs, really.

So how does working on the top quark experiment compare with working on the Higgs? You came in later with the Higgs?

For me, building the [top quark] experiment from the bottom was the best experience I had. Also, Fermilab is cool.

As a physical place, you mean?

As a physical place. The prairie is very beautiful and it’s kind of wild. A lot of people there have their expertise; some people just know how to use a crane to pick up something really heavy. I love that stuff. And I think the boundaries between who’s allowed to use the crane and who’s not allowed to use the crane are less clear than they are at CERN.

What was your role with ATLAS, the CERN experiment that found the Higgs boson?

Just working on the muon detector, part of which we built here. Just trying to understand it, how it was working, making sure it was working well. There were a couple of little mysteries that had to be solved.

What advice do you have for young women interested in coming into physics today? How much have things changed since you were in their position?

Well, they’re a lot different. The young women I see are much better educated than I was and much smarter and more sensible.

Sensible in what way?

Better adjusted as human beings. And not just the women. When I went into particle physics, first day you got there, the older graduate students would say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, you’d be crazy to do it and here’s why.” They would say that and then we’d just look at them and say, “What’s wrong with you? This is the only thing I’m going to do. I’m not going to do anything else. There’s no question I’m going to do another kind of physics. These are the only questions I’m interested in.” So you have to be a bit crazy. I never thought I was making a life choice, a bigger choice. I just followed what I was really interested in at that moment. I thought that was a great idea and that’s not what well-adjusted people do. They think about their career, think about their future. I’m very impressed with the young women I see today. They’re so smart. And there’s a bunch of crazy ones, too, crazy smart.

Are all the doors open now for a young woman going into physics? Do you advise a woman any differently than you would a male student?

I do. Actually, my advice might be old-fashioned. I try to tell all the students to take all the classes that teach you how to do something: how to design electronics, how to program, a machine shop course. And especially the women. Because the biggest problem I think women in physics have is a lack of confidence. If you’ve taken the course and you know how to do it, you’ve solved that problem so easily.

I remember when I got to graduate school everybody else knew how to do electronics. I wished I had taken a course. I thought they were so smart. And then later, when I taught the course here, I thought, “Oh, that’s it. You just had to have taken that course. They weren’t any smarter at all.” So I think having the tools is really important. I also tell students to work in a lab because the lab gives you family, gives you a place. Your lab, it’s such an important place. The funny thing is, I work in a shared lab wherever I am, here, at Fermilab, or CERN — it’s all shared. And yet you still feel like it’s your own lab.

Here, they tore down our lab building to build the Northwest Science Building and they said they were going to give us some space there, but they didn’t. I had this feeling of sadness that I no longer had a lab. We build something for five years, use it for 10 years, build something: It’s off and on. I remember feeling that if you don’t have a place where you can go with your tools, a place you can mess around, even in the off years when you weren’t building a big project, it’s just completely debilitating. I went around giving a talk called “A lab of one’s own,” a nod of the head to Virginia Woolf, and I realized how incredibly important [it is] — and you see all of the professors here have a home in their lab and so do the students; it’s hugely important.

Has lab space been found, or is that still an outstanding issue?

A little bit. I was just amazed at how emotional it is, the bond with your lab. They didn’t really — well they said the Northwest Building was just for things that involved biology. So I said I’m going to do biology, I’m going to do biophysics. They said how many lab benches do you need? So I got a little space.

What are you working on now?

We just discovered the Higgs and now we’re going to check that it is the Standard Model Higgs, the no-frills model of particle. We have to take a lot more data. We have to see whether this particle couples to other particles the way we predicted, what the mass is, what the spin is. So the first thing we’re doing is upgrading the muon detector. So, even if you didn’t get to build one the first time, you get to build one the second time. If we can get it together, we can do it by 2018. We’re building some electronics, testing some new chambers, new particle detectors. That’s the fun part.

Also, the other stuff we’re doing is measuring — looking at data we took last year, measuring the Higgs’ mass.

How about some big issues for physics?

Well there’s a bunch of big questions. One is if we don’t find supersymmetry or anything else, will anyone give us money to build a bigger accelerator?

It doesn’t sound like any big accelerator is going to be in the U.S. It sounds like Europe or China. As for questions, we have six quarks and they all have different masses. Nobody knows why. We have a bunch of symmetries that are not quite symmetric and some that are not symmetric at all. Why is that? And I guess a huge [question] is dark matter. What is it?

Interview was edited for clarity and length.