Another transplant from Berkeley, CA, James is currently a Professor of Physics at Macalester, and lives in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood with wife Lisa. Together they have daughters Madelyne, an aspiring actress, writer, and director in LA, as well as Sophie, who is currently a sophomore at BU, and son Joe in high school at Central, where he plays sports and trombone, while rocking with his band on bass guitar.
The family has been a member of Mount Zion since James and Lisa arrived in 1994, and their children have been part of our religious school growing up. We met recently in James’ office, just down the hall from his optics lab, where this photo was taken.
So tell me a bit about where you were born, raised, family, that sort of thing.
OK, I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, and growing up I had one brother, Stephen, who has since passed away. My mom worked while I was growing up – she was a curator of photography at the Oakland Museum. She managed their collection of California and west coast photographers, like Ansel Adams.
And my father (I. Michael Heyman) was a law professor at Boalt Hall, in UC Berkeley. He had a very distinguished career. After getting his law degree, he worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, and after that he came to Berkeley as a law professor. From there he became an administrator at Berkeley, and eventually became Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.
And then after that, he was Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Wow! Your father? Who knew?
Yeah! Who knew?
(Actually, it appears that a lot of people knew. Further information can be found at here).
And then he retired and returned to Berkeley, but he passed away in 2011.
Did you know any or all of your grandparents?
I knew them all, they were all born in the US and they all lived in New York City, where my parents both grew up. My parents met while they were teenagers, and both went to college – my mom went to Smith College and my dad went to Dartmouth – and they married their senior year.
My father’s father sold insurance for a while, and my maternal grandparents name was Thau, and they owned a lamp factory in New Jersey. It was called the Mutual Sunset Lamp factory.
The online archives of the Chicago Tribune include an article dated Jan. 13, 1935, which describes a Merchandise Mart event and includes the passage: “The December (1934) business of the Mutual-Sunset Lamp company, one of the country’s largest lamp concerns, was better than for all of 1928 or 1929, said S. Thau, President.” (great-grandfather Sigmund Thau).
Do you happen to still have a Mutual Sunset lamp?
I don’t anymore, but I did use to have one.
What did you want to be growing up?
I think science and physics were always appealing to me. A friend of the family was a physicist at Berkeley, so it didn’t seem like that unusual a thing to do.
What were your Jewish connections as a kid?
We were reasonably active. I grew up at temple Beth El, which was actually Conservative at one point, but remember this was Berkeley, so even though it may have been Conservative, it was more Reform than Mount Zion is now.
Can you describe your family today?
Lisa and I met the summer before our senior years, while we were living in Boston. I was going to Williams College and she went to Smith College, where my mother had gone. We dated through our senior year, and she ended up going to grad school in Berkeley, as did I. She got her teaching credentials and Master’s degree in education, and taught until the kids were born. She has been active in volunteer work ever since. Right now she is raising money for Central High School – which is having its 150th anniversary next year!
What do you do for fun? Do you have any hobbies?
Besides working you mean? Hmmm. (long pause) I like outdoor activities. I like to kayak, and I own a couple different styles. And hiking, cross country skiing.
And I read a lot. I just finished a book called A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. He actually teaches here at Macalester, though I don’t know him personally. But it just won the Man Booker prize, so I guess I’m plugging his book now. It is a neat book.
Can you describe your academic path from PhD to Macalester?
After my undergrad degree in physics and philosophy, I got my PhD in physics at Berkeley, but my focus is on applied physics, or materials physics. My PhD dissertation was on Beryllium Double Acceptors in Silicon. I’m not sure if I have a copy here for you to look at. It is related to silicon as a semiconductor. Very academic work I guess.
Then there were a couple stepping stones. I had a short visit to work with a group in Sweden, then I did my post doc at UC Santa Barbara on somewhat related work, though using different systems and techniques.
Then it was a very quick step to here. I started in the fall of ’94, and have been here ever since. I have been Chair of the Physics Department, but we rotate, so I’m not now.
Do you focus on nanotechnology? I see you have a whole shelf of books on that.
My research is a little related, but the reason I have all these books is because I’m teaching a class on nanotechnology this semester.
For my own research, I have a particular kind of technique for measuring electrical conductivity that I am expert at, though it’s not very common. Normally you measure conductivity by attaching wires to something, but in my case I do it with light. It’s a noncontact measurement, using an optical probe rather than wires. And because we use light, we can use very short pulses, to achieve ‘time resolved’ measurements. We can excite the system and see how the conductivity evolves over the next few trillionths of a second, and across very small distances.
The example I sometimes use is to imagine a sheet of aluminum foil. If you were to attach wires at both ends, it would be very conductive between the wires. And you can tell, it is also very shiny. But then if you were to cut it up into little strips, and lay them side by side, you can’t measure the conductivity across it by attaching wires anymore. But it is still shiny. So we can use those optical characteristics to still measure conductivity.
Have you traveled much over the years?
Most of my travel has been to Europe, though growing up I remember also going to Australia and New Zealand as a 12 year old. My dad had some work related to that. And I have worked for a while in Sweden, and my first sabbatical was spent in Vienna with my family.
And as a teen I did a lot of backpacking in California, in the Sierra. There is a trail from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite that we would backpack.
How far was that?
About 200 miles.
Hiking it … but not all in one day! We would camp along the way, it’s a little bit like the Boundary Waters is today, where you would get a permit, and there were lots of places where you could pitch your tent. So I would do that with my friends.
Do you still stay in touch with any friends from growing up?
I still do have a few close friends from back then. There is David Tull, a guy I met in kindergarten, and still keep in touch with. He’s a musician in LA. And Paul Kimball is a music teacher in Stockton, and Linus Lancaster is a teacher, also in in California.
Interestingly, they all had a common feature – all of their fathers had been ministers. I don’t know how that happened.
Final question, when and if you retire, do you have the great American novel inside you, waiting to be written?
No, when I retire I’ll just want to read that great American novel!