Interview by David Morrison

John Baez

February 6, 2003

A while back a high-school student named David Morrison had to interview someone for an assignment, so he sent me these questions, and I figure if I post my replies it can save other students some work. There may even be people out there who are curious about me.

  1. What first attracted you to physics?

    My uncle Albert Baez showed me lasers, holographs and lots of physics experiments when I was a kid. Though mainly famous for being the father of the folk singer Joan Baez, he is a physicist who started out in optics, helped invent the first X-ray telescope, and then turned to science education, focusing on the problems of physics education in developing countries. So he was really good at explaining physics, and he always had some interesting gizmos to show me.

  2. What was the most difficult thing about your education?

    Learning things from books always came easily; the hard part was becoming less shy and learning to make friends with people. It was also extremely hard to figure out the meaning of life! This is a puzzle that can't be solved using reason alone. Unfortunately, I can't give away the answer.

  3. What is most enjoyable about your career/the research you're doing?

    Nobody bosses me around; I can do research on whatever I want, and I can roam the world talking to people about my interests. I work hard, but mostly doing things I enjoy. I love to teach.

  4. What is least enjoyable about your career/the research you're doing?

    I dislike it when I have to grade over a hundred final exams, which typically happens when I teach first-year calculus. I think of this as the small price I have to pay for an otherwise idyllic lifestyle.

  5. What character traits do you think are necessary for a good physicist?

    A passion for figuring things out, cleverness and flexibility, persistence in the face of difficulties, and finally the ability to enjoy questions even when the answers don't become clear.

  6. Is most of your time spent teaching, or do you get to do a lot of research?

    On average I teach two courses per quarter, for a total of 6 hours a week actual teaching. However, the amount of time spent preparing for these courses is about twice as much. Also, I have 5 grad students right now, and I need to spend at least a couple of hours a week per student. This still leaves a lot of time for research - and I don't have to teach during summer vacation.

© 2007 John Baez