Eminent theoretical physicist Robert Rosner became president of the American Physical Society (APS) this year, adding to a legacy of leadership that has spanned his more than four-decade-long career. At the APS, Rosner, the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, will tackle immense challenges—from opening access to science and boosting collaboration among the scientific community to working to change the culture to welcome more Black and female scientists into the field. It’s these types of momentous challenges that allow Rosner’s passions and drive to flourish.
A Lifelong Learner
Robert Rosner was born in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in southern Germany. His father, a chemical engineer, incited in his son a deep love of math and science at an early age. Rosner remembers having a subscription to Kosmos—a company that published a science magazine and sold science kits to do at-home experiments.
When he was twelve, Rosner moved to New York City. There, he quickly discovered that his German math and science coursework put him far ahead of his American classmates. He skipped eighth grade and decided to attend a public high school geared towards math and science, Stuyvesant High School.
“It was heaven, up to a point…it was hugely competitive,” Rosner says.
When it came time to go to college, Rosner turned down the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because it had a similar competitive vibe. Instead, he opted for a smaller university down the road—Brandeis. He was fortunate to find there a small but elite physics program that included distinguished European physicists who had emigrated to the United States in the 1940s and 50s, and wanted to live in the Boston area. This ended up being a huge benefit for Brandeis University, and for Rosner.
“It shaped my whole career.”
Among the lessons he learned at Brandeis, Rosner discovered he was not meant for the laboratory.
“I was a danger in the lab,” Rosner told the APS in a recent interview. He described a time when he was wiring a heavy electronics chassis and it fell on him, branding his cheek with the soldering gun he was holding. “I was a klutz.”
Rosner became a theoretical physicist. He went to Harvard to get his Ph.D. and stayed on as a postdoctoral fellow and faculty member, turning into an astrophysicist in the process. He had many good and some bad experiences at Harvard, but the best part about his 18-years there, he says, was meeting his now wife (who moved from having been an undergrad at Harvard to MIT as a grad student, postdoc and then faculty member).
When the couple—separately—received faculty offers from the University of Chicago, they decided to make the big move. But not without much convincing from friends. Such friends included Rosner’s former Harvard apartment mate, future University President Robert Zimmer, who was then a math professor at the University. The decision to leave ended up being the right one, Rosner says.
“The Physical Sciences Division departments and Institute I’m in at the University of Chicago are really wonderful. It’s incredibly collegial,” Rosner says. “I’ve had a great time here. I’m really lucky. I could do all the stuff that I wanted to do, that I thought was fun, and they were paying me for it! I still can’t believe they’re paying me to have a great time, working on things I’m deeply interested in.”
From Learner to Leader
Rosner spent the next thirty-six years—up to today—teaching and researching a variety of topics, with his specialty being in the physics of the sun and the stars. During those years, he became chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and his leadership grew from there.
In 2002, Rosner’s old friend Robert Zimmer—now the Vice President for Research—asked him to take on a new challenge at the Argonne National Laboratory as chief scientist. Subsequently Rosner became the Lab’s Director (in 2005), and (together with then-Provost Tom Rosenbaum) led the University’s effort to re-compete for management of the Lab. This involved developing a strategic plan and showing why it was in the Department of Energy’s best interest for the University to continue managing Argonne.
At that point, Rosner says that the intellectual connections between the University and the Lab were pretty minimal. Rosner set out to improve the connections, bringing some of the Lab’s leading scientists into the University as tenured professors. Along the way, the University did win the contract for the Lab in 2006.
After four years running the Lab, now-President Zimmer approached Rosner again. Was there a way of encouraging research activities at the University that play off the substantial expertise in energy sciences and technology at Argonne? That discussion led to a pilot program at the University, led by Booth School of Business Professor Robert Topel, who proceeded to start an internally-funded mini-grants program to encourage faculty to study energy topics. Meanwhile, Rosner stepped down as Lab Director, and upon returning to the University spent a year sabbatical at Stanford, learning from their approaches to joining physical sciences, technology and social science in matters of public policy.
That sabbatical led to a far clearer vision on how to proceed.
“If we are to start an energy institute, we should do what other energy institutes do not do,” says Rosner, noting that other institutes tend to be either run by engineers and physicists or run by economists. “Let’s see whether we can have it run by a physicist and an economist.”
Jointly with Topel, Rosner proposed an energy institute, to be initially funded by the University, and embedded in the academic structure of the University. The idea was supported by the University administration and led to the creation of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC). After getting EPIC off the ground, the two decided to step back from running it, and helped to recruit the present-day director, Michael Greenstone.
Policy and the ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ of Science
Starting when Rosner worked at Argonne, he developed an interest in energy issues and even ventured into energy policy. He found it important to lay out the scientific facts so policymakers could make more informed decisions.
This work began somewhat naturally, given his background, in nuclear energy. Rosner learned the technical constraints of the industry. He studied how nuclear reactors worked and how the industry functioned. He began to also study small modular nuclear reactors and whether they could be a viable alternative. And, he began to learn what’s involved in dealing with nuclear waste, and with decommissioning reactors from a technical perspective. His earlier computational physics background merged with these interests in starting a new DoE-funded Center for Exascale Simulations of Advanced Reactors (CESAR) jointly with Argonne.
His interests and expertise also led to consulting for Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and joining the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (which is physically located at the Harris School of Public Policy, but is administratively separate from the University). In other words, he’s recently become very much engaged in science and technology issues that have significant public policy impacts.
While Rosner has enjoyed engaging with these issues, he says working with industry and policymakers is “challenging.” When asked why he continues to do it, Rosner simply says “because [these issues are] important.”
“I think scientists often come up with uncomfortable truths that politically are not particularly palatable…[but] it’s important to get it straight on the science,” says Rosner, noting that unfortunately policy all too often strays far from what the science says to do.
“The closer one is to policy implementation, where the rubber hits the road, the more you tend to be influenced by the politics surrounding that issue,” he says. “This can lead you , from the science point of view, to do things that aren’t the smartest thing to do.”
This is where Rosner has the most concern for our energy future.
“The science roadmap is relatively straightforward,” says Rosner. That roadmap points to the need to find and use less exotic and less expensive materials, innovate new manufacturing technologies, focus on efficiency and reliability, all in the service to build an effective energy system that does not depend on fossil fuels. The United States has a long history of successfully engaging basic science in the service of developing new technologies, and we certainly know how to continue doing that.
“The policy roadmap that aims to implement the technical roadmap is much more challenging,” he says, with so many competing interests that it can become impossible to land on sensible solutions.
One example he gives is the electric grid.
“In order to have a sensible framework for electrifying everything—from transport to manufacturing to heating/cooling buildings—we need a grid that’s capable of actually distributing the electric power effectively. Our current grid is not capable of doing it. We have a broken system.”
Rosner says at minimum the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) needs to have the authority to regulate the grid the way it does the gas pipeline system. But what stands in the way is a highly disaggregated regulatory structure, based on fifty independent state regulatory bodies and the most remarkably diverse electricity market, with the United States easily leading the world in the number of domestic independent utilities in the world by at least an order of magnitude.
“So our electricity market is challenging to change. That’s not a physics problem. It’s a political problem,” says Rosner, noting that we are not alone in dealing with such problems, and that other nations have also found it challenging to adjust their grids in response to moving away from fossil fuel-based energy systems.
There are many reasons why these problems exist. But one unfortunate contributing factor in the United States, Rosner says, is a broad loss of respect for expertise—and, in particular, for scientists. Gaining back that respect is one of his missions as president of the APS.
When he was first elected president, he told UChicago News “As representatives of the physics community, I believe the APS must respond vigorously—advocating for science at all levels, from the federal government to the media and the general public.”
As he has so many times in his life, Rosner is ready to take up the challenge.