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Listen or download interview (mp3, 24 minutes, 22MB)
Physicist Laura Greene says she was born loving science. Nevertheless, she spent her Ohio childhood as a folk singer, playing guitar and singing at parties and in coffee shops. It wasn’t until college that she gave up the prospect of a professional music career and gave in to her intense curiosity about how the world works. When she did, she met with resistance in every science or engineering program she approached—none wanted women in their classrooms. Only the physics department welcomed her, and she threw herself into the field. She gravitated to materials physics, and especially to the study of superconductors—materials, usually metals, that at low temperatures can conduct electricity without any loss. Gifted with zero resistance, superconductors have found uses in MRI machines, as band pass filters in cell phone towers and in high-speed magnetic trains. Some superconductors, like mercury, occur in nature. But in the 1980s, Greene joined a small community of scientists bent on building new, higher-temperature superconductors in the lab. Her work revealed bizarre properties of these mysterious materials and created new techniques for studying how they work. Her goal is to develop reliable and low-cost superconductors for use in power grids and other practical applications. Greene is the Swanlund Professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006.
Greene remembers her vibrant, diverse neighborhood in 1960s Cleveland as a “suburb of New York City” with a rich musical scene. A passion for folk music draws her into that scene, and Greene spends most of her high school years playing gigs. But she nurses an even stronger passion for physics and astronomy, and just before entering Ohio State University decides she’d rather be a scientist than a musician. Despite numerous encounters with sexism and her mother’s fears that a female physicist would wind up without a job or a husband, Greene immerses herself in science and finds her niche in “materials” or condensed matter physics. She describes her work, which focuses on building and studying new superconductors in the lab. Ranging from lumps that resemble coal to ceramic-like “black flowerpots,” these strange materials fascinate Greene and defy explanation. She relates her efforts to understand how they behave, and her struggles to balance that quest with raising a large family and, more recently, battling breast cancer. It is all possible, she says, with a healthy sense of humor and a willingness to bet on the future.
Last Updated: 03-03-2010
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.