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Wolfgang Rindler

Recorded Aug. 13, 2009 10:30 a.m.

Multipurpose Building, Office of Communications, UT Dallas

Host: Brandon V. Webb, Communications Manager

Wolfgang Rindler

Question: Greetings and welcome to A Conversation with… I’m Brandon Webb. Our conversation today is with physics professor Wolfgang Rindler, who focuses on theoretical relativistic cosmology and general relativity. Dr. Rindler’s tenure here in space research actually pre-dates UT Dallas. Originally the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest and founded by TI founders Erik Jonsson, Cecil Green and Eugene McDermott, the organization became the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies in 1967. Two years later in 1969, the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies joined the University of Texas System becoming UT Dallas.  Dr. Rindler was born in Vienna. He obtained both his undergraduate and master’s degree at Liverpool University and earned his doctoral degree from Imperial College in London. He became an American citizen at the age of 85, just recently. Isn’t that right, Dr. Rindler?

Rindler: Correct.

Question: Thank you so much for being here.

Rindler: You’re most welcome.

Question: You study theoretical relativistic cosmology here at UT Dallas, and for the average listener, and especially for me, what does that mean?

Rindler: In a way, cosmology is the study of the universe on the largest possible scale, and one part of studying cosmology is to try and figure out how the universe is actually moving. The universe is, although for many thousands of year people thought it was a completely static thing, within the twentieth century people realized that the universe was in fact expanding, moving. Then the question is dynamically: how can you understand the motion of the entire universe? Relativistic cosmology is the application of Einstein’s general relativity theory to the motion of the entire universe. That’s what’s been occupying me part of the time for the last 50 years or so.

Question: What is it about teaching that appeals to you?

Rindler: I enjoy imparting knowledge to students. I enjoy the phenomenon of suddenly a student understanding something they didn’t understand before. It’s a very rewarding past time, and it helps writing my textbooks also because I test out in class what works and what doesn’t work. The explanations that work best eventually go into textbooks. So teaching is something that I really enjoy every much.  As a matter of fact, it’s a funny thing, I usually teach at night, and I call my wife before I go and teach for some unimportant reason. When I come back from class, I call her again just to say that I’ll be home in such and such a time. She always say, “My god, you sound different. You sounded tired before you taught and now you sound energized.” It does some good things for me, and I love it.

Question: We’re visiting with Dr. Wolfgang Rindler. You came to Cornell in 1956, and then to an early predecessor of UT Dallas, the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies. When did you come here? What attracted you to a few sparse buildings in a cotton field? Who recruited you?

Rindler: In 1963, I imagine, Ivor Robinson, who was by then already the head of the mathematical group at what became SCAS eventually and was a friend of mine from earlier years. He said, “Wolfgang, how much do you earn at Cornell?” I said, about 1962-63, “About $8,000 dollars a year.” He said, “How would you like to make $16,000 a year?” I said, “Very much.” That sounded like a very nice offer. He said, “Come and join us. We are just beginning a new group at the Graduate Center…we’re forming a new relativity group at the Graduate Center, and we’ll be connected with the relativity group at Austin.” So that seemed an offer I couldn’t refuse. The people were nice. Ivor Robinson was already a very well-known relativist. It was a pleasure to think to be able to work with him and his group. The salary was nice, and the idea of a kind of a Princeton in Dallas was nice.

So, in every way, it seemed a nice offer. I very happily accepted it. That was a wonderful place, SCAS. It was founded by the founders of Texas Instruments: Cecil Green, Eugene McDermott and Erik Jonsson. They pumped, I seemed to remember a figure of something like $5 million into it as just to prime the pump, as they said. Then idea was that we would get grants from the government, in a way, become self-supporting, which for awhile worked very well and we did get a lot of grants, but then the politics changed considerably. Then, towards the 1970s, the enthusiasm that Kennedy had generated originally for science sort of fizzled out. The government no longer was that keen to support pure science, and essentially our funds ran out. We had to make some…well, in fact, we made a gift of ourselves to the University of Texas System, who took us over and used us as the nucleus of UTD. Which was fine, in fact, I’ve been very happy at UTD also. Those 7 years at SCAS were really wonderful years. SCAS was a very, very special institution.

I tell you one thing that I should perhaps tell you, which was my introduction, my very introduction to SCAS in 1963, that was the year that Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I think many of us who came to SCAS in 1963 lived through that shock. What happened was that I arrived in Dallas in September 1963, and I think in November, there was Kennedy’s visit to Dallas was planned. Kennedy was aware of the Southwest Center, and in fact, he was going to give a speech here in Dallas about the future of science, but amongst other things, he was going to spend quite a lot of time within his speech on our Center.

So, because that was known in advance, the entire faculty of the Center – we called it the Center then, it was the Center for Graduate Studies – the entire faculty of the Center and their wives were invited to the -  there was a huge building in Downtown that held something like 2000 people – a luncheon was arranged. There were hundreds of tables, and Kennedy was supposed to talk there at 12:30 and address that huge audience of notables from Dallas. Amongst all these notables, there was the entire faculty from the Center, and he was going to talk about the Center. People were there at 12 o’clock, then it became 12:30 when he should have been there. He still wasn’t there, and there were some rumors in the hall that things would be delayed. Somebody came to the podium and said that people should start eating, there would be a delay in Kennedy’s appearance. Meanwhile, a waiter came to our table -  see in those days people didn’t have cell phones, so once you were sitting at lunch you had no connection with the outside. The waiters coming from the kitchen, they had heard the radio in the kitchen. The waiter came to our table, and he said, “Kennedy! Bang, bang, bang! Kennedy! Bang, bang, bang!” So, “My God,” we thought, “What on earth had happened?” That was the first indication we had that something terrible had happened. People sort of kept on eating, and there were rumors going through the hall.

Very finally, somebody came to the podium and said not to worry, there had been an accident and we’ll be told more details later. It was ridiculous that people kept on eating, and Kennedy was already dead, but we didn’t know that. Somebody came to the podium and told us what had happened. That was a terrible shock, and people all over the place started crying. I think that place was not unique. I think people all over the country probably cried. For us, it was a terrible shock because the enthusiasm for science, in those days, somehow had radiated away from Kennedy. We realized already at that point that the loss of Kennedy would really be, in the end, bad for science. I mean, at the moment, the human tragedy of it all just seemed overwhelming. In those days, Dallas was an incredibly reactionary place. We say, “Of course, it had to happen in Dallas.” It could have happened anywhere, and it was a crazy man who had killed Kennedy. It could have happened in any city as well. Very few of us, in the end, I think most people agreed that it wasn’t the fault of Dallas. It was just an accident. It happened in Dallas. Most of us, in the end, found Dallas a very nice place to live, and a very good place to live. It eventually became, even politically and academically, a more open place. It was, in a way, a sad introduction, which happened about 6 weeks or 8 weeks after most of us had arrived at the Center.

Question: In the ensuing, 46 or 47 years, as you’ve seen the student population grow to beyond 15,000 and include lower division undergraduates freshmen and sophomore all the way up through graduate students, what are you struck by most as you walk through campus today some nearly 50 years later?

Rindler: At first, we had very few students. It seemed a bit eerie to walk on campus. It didn’t seem like a real university because we had so few students. We had no undergraduates to start with. It was like a ghost town to start with. Gradually, from year to year it became more like a real university. Nowadays, when you go any time of day you, and you see all these students milling around and it’s a very nice development to see that.  And I like the feeling. I like to see happy groups of students all over the campus. It’s very pleasant. What has happened is that also the caliber of our students has definitely increased. At first, I suppose, it suppose it takes a brave student to come to a new university that has no tradition, and they don’t know what a degree from that university will be worth. By now, I think, our university has a good name, and we get better and better students. We attract better and better students. I think that’s certainly a development that I have noticed.

Question: Will you continue to teach?

Rindler: Well, as long as they’ll have me, yes. I enjoy teaching, and I draw a lot of energy from my teaching and pleasure and inspiration in every way. So, I’ll teach as long as they’ll have me teach. As you say, I’ll be happy to talk again in 10 years.

Brandon: Well, it truly has been a pleasure, Dr. Rindler. Thank you for stopping by.

Rindler: Well, thank you.

Question: This has been A Conversation With…  Dr. Wolfgang Rindler, brought to you by The University of Texas at Dallas and the Office of Communications. To find out more about the university or any of our special guests, visit us on the web at  UT Dallas: Creating the Future since 1969.

Until the next Conversation with…, I’m Brandon Webb.  Be well.