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Catching Up With . . . Steve Boughn

Far Out, Really Far Out

by Brooke C. Stoddard '69

Steve Boughn grew up in Wheatland, Wyoming, a ranching and farming community about half way between Cheyenne and Casper. Steve’s father was a welder and machinist, the 1950’s equivalent of the village blacksmith, and his mother worked in a bank. He went to the local high school, which he considered good, with interested and helpful teachers, but he never thought much about the East Coast or knew anything about prep schools or advanced placement courses. "I think I was lucky growing up in a small community,” he recollects. "I wanted to do well in school, not only for my parents but also because otherwise I would have been a disappointment to the banker next door and the grocer down the street. Wheatland was really a kind of village; everyone knew everyone else.”

Steve was inspired by Lillian Lieber’s The Einstein Theory of Relativity, an early work on the subject that he read as a high school freshman. "I was really taken with it and believe that this book set me on my scientific path,” he says. In his junior year a teacher showed him brochures for National Science Foundation physics summer camps – this being the post-Sputnik era, there was a big push to catch up with the Soviet Union. He applied to several and was admitted to a program for the following summer at Cornell (photo, right). "That opened my eyes to the East Coast and the Ivy League,” he says. "Looking back I can see the camp had an amazing collection of budding talent. Some of the students became very successful scientists: the chair of astrophysics at Harvard, the director of a center at the Harvard medical school, a professor at MIT, etc. One of that summer’s instructors went on to win a Nobel Prize in physics.”

So he applied to Ivy League schools and in the fall of 1965, never having visited Princeton, he arrived with our only other Classmate from Wyoming, Larry Masson.

Steve signed up for Physics 103. It was taught by Val Logsden Fitch. Afraid he might flunk out, Steve studied hard and, although seeing other freshmen fall away from the course, did well. Spring semester (Physics 104) was taught by Marvin Goldberger, later president of CalTech, who told listeners of his first lecture that their first semester professor, Fitch, had recently made a discovery that one day would win him the Nobel Prize – he did in 1979 for the discovery of CP Violation, which the author of this piece will not here attempt to explain. Anyway, Steve says that from this time on he was hooked on physics.

The Princeton Physics Department, as usual, was broad and deep. John Wheeler, Bob Dicke (pronounced Dickie) and Jim Peebles (current Albert Einstein Professor Emeritus of Science at Princeton) were internationally known for their theoretical work in general relativity and cosmology, but Steve chose to work with experimentalists Dave Wilkinson and Bruce Partridge. Only the year before we arrived at Princeton, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – radiation left over from the Big Bang -- was discovered. Dicke and Peebles had predicted the CMB and Wilkinson was building a radiometer to try to detect it. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Labs had recently identified a nuisance background signal with a satellite communications antenna when they learned of Dicke’s and Peebles’ prediction and made the connection. Penzias and Wilson later won the Nobel Prize for discovering the CMB – Steve believes that Dicke and Peebles might justly have been included in the award.

The CMB was emitted when the universe was a mere 400,000 years old (compared to its present age of 13.8 billon years) and so, in effect, provides us with a snapshot of the infant universe. It reveals that the universe at this age was astonishingly uniform compared to our current universe, which is mainly empty but dotted with occasional lumps of matter in the form of galaxies, stars, planets, and, yes, people. Steve’s senior thesis made use of one of Wilkinson’s microwave telescopes in an effort to detect the slight irregularities in the smooth primordial universe that, because of gravity, would later develop into the lumps of matter listed above. He also was looking to see if the CMB appeared the same in one direction as in a direction at right angles to the first, which would indicate an asymmetrical universe. Steve made his observations near the FitzRandolph Observatory at the edge of what is now Parking Lot 21, just east of the football stadium. To within 1/3 of 1% he could not detect any lumpishness. In fact, it was another 20 years before anyone did, an observation that garnered a Noble Prize for a Berkeley physicist. (Steve believes that Wilkinson deserved this prize. Hmmm..., there seems to be a pattern here.)

Steve’s own universe was developing. His fifth-grade sweetheart Susan von Forell – actually they had known each other in Wheatland from the time before their memories but had not become an item until age 10 – and Steve married in February of his junior year and lived together in town with daughter Shannon. Steve applied to several graduate programs and selected Stanford, in part because Stanford would endeavor to help him obtain an occupational deferment; he and Susan moved to California.

Palo Alto was a fun place to be in the 1970s and Steve settled into his graduate work. Leaving the elusive lumps of CMB behind, he attempted an even more difficult discovery: gravitational waves (photo, left: five friends from the Gravity Group). Although there is now good supporting evidence that gravity waves exist (gathered by Haverford College graduate Joe Taylor who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work and later became Princeton’s Dean of the Faculty), no one has yet directly detected this elusive form of radiation, least of all Steve the PhD candidate and post-doc. (When Steve later began teaching at Princeton and Haverford he often told students that Taylor would one day win a Nobel for his gravity wave work, and Taylor did in 1993).

Steve stayed on at Stanford for a few more years searching for gravity waves but then accepted an assistant professorship in the Princeton Physics Department. He and Susan and daughter Shannon moved back to Princeton in 1979 (Boughn family photo, right). They bought a home in Lawrenceville and Susan began teaching nursing and women’s studies at Trenton State, now the College of New Jersey – where she continues to be a tenured professor. Steve again took up looking for fluctuations in the CMB but also used optical and infrared telescopes to search for the Dark Matter in galaxies (theorized in the 1970s but still undetected in 2014). In the process he did some of science’s first and best measurements of what is called diffuse light in intergalactic space.

The Princeton assistant professorship eventually led to becoming the John Farnum Professor of Astronomy at Haverford, a college to which Steve could commute from his Lawrenceville home in an hour, so his and Susan’s residence did not change.

Steve taught at Haverford from the late 1980s and is moving into emeritus status this summer. He loved teaching there and was very impressed with the quality of the students and the departments. He developed courses that discussed physics as it affects current cosmological theory and in the process stretched quite a number of minds. The variety of talent, says Steve, and the ability to meet with world experts and discuss various topics – not necessarily ones of science -- was liberating in a way that immersed in a Princeton department with 50 physics professors could never be.   (Photo, left: Cover of "Science," October, 1990.  Steve's explanagion:  Our image of the "largest galaxy in the observable universe" - or so declared the Guinness Book of World Records at the time.  Most of the objects in the picture are individual galaxies that are located inside the super giant galaxy in the middle of the image.  For comparison, the thin galaxy on the left hand side of the image is an edge-on spiral the same size as our Milky Way galaxy but is located four times nearer than the super giant.)

In 1996-’97, Steve was on sabbatical from Haverford and again working at Princeton as well as at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He was drawn back into the CMB and the possibility of Dark Energy. Again, his measurements could not detect Dark Energy, what some others might call anti-gravity. But the work led seven years later to what Steve considers his most significant contribution to modern cosmology. New data from satellites led Steve and a Princeton post-doc to compare images of the CMB with both x-ray and radio frequency surveys. This fresh examination resulted in the detection of the integrated Sachs-Wolfe Effect, a direct consequence of an accelerated expansion of the universe and, indirectly, of the existence of Dark Energy. "Dark Energy seems to account for 70% of the mass of the universe,” he says, "with Dark Matter making up 26%, and errant hydrogen and helium another 4% -- stars likely make up less than 1%, so we on Earth really are the tiniest of blips,” he says. "Dark Matter and Dark Energy are very, very bizarre and have still eluded direct detection. Maybe in the next 20 to 30 years, we’ll figure it out, but right now these are the most intriguing challenges in cosmology and two of the most pressing questions in all of science.”

Steve lacks the confidence that many physicists hold today that we are on the verge of achieving an accurate mathematical theory of the cosmos, i.e., all of reality. "I am shocked at how self-assured people are in mathematical models, which in my view will probably be discarded in the not too distant future. Just because we invent a mathematical formula that describes nature as we currently understand it does not make that formula a "law of nature.” It’s really a product of the human mind; that’s all. Some people say we are close to finding a ‘theory of everything’ [many proponents believing gravity will eventually fall under quantum theory as have the three other forces of the universe]. I don’t necessarily think so. String theory is in vogue now but it’s not out of the question that in 20 or 30 years we’ll be off in a completely different direction.”

Steve had rubbed shoulders or shaken hands with many of the great and famous scientists in his field. He attended talks by Richard Feynman, discussed gravity waves (briefly) with Steven Hawking, met Carl Sagan a couple of times and used to see Neil deGrasse Tyson around at Princeton quite a bit. As a graduate student, he even showed Werner Heisenberg around his lab.

Per the intriguing challenges of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, Steve believes we may have significant breakthroughs concerning Dark Matter in the next couple of decades. "Either we’ll find a particle or, for lack of detection after years of looking, come up with a different theory. On the other hand, I believe that Dark Energy is going to be more difficult to figure out.”

Per commercial energy from fusion, in which Princeton has been deeply involved, he says, "It seems always to be 20 years in the future. It’s been that way for a long time, so obviously it’s a tough nut to crack.”

To Classmates interested in current cosmology, Steve still recommends The First Three Minutes by Nobel Prize-winner and Princeton PhD Steven Weinberg. "Some updating is needed,” admits Steve, "but the book is still a good read.”

Steve’s approaching emeritus status will offer time for pure thinking. "I’m getting back more to theory, even to philosophy,” he says.” I’m having fun thinking about the foundations of quantum physics and the foundations of gravity. I really have nothing to lose.” He publishes about one paper a year. A recent project and paper took him to the Max Plank Institute in Dresden, Germany, where he gave the opening talk at a conference on "quantum gravity.” Steve’s talk made the proposition that gravity is not a quantum phenomenon and that likely no test within our present technology could determine if gravity is quantum or not. He must have touched a nerve because listeners frequently interrupted his talk and continued to challenge him the rest of the week.

It’s likely to be an active retirement.

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