Joel R. Primack

Watch an interview with Joel R. Primack. 

Present Position

Joel R. Primack

Distinguished Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of California Santa Cruz

Chapter Affiliation

University of California-Santa Cruz, Former President


The world needs reality-based thinking.  As all of us scientists know, science works!  I experienced this most profoundly in April 1992, when NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer satellite team announced that they had observed temperature differences in different directions in the heat radiation from the Big Bang – and their results were just what the Cold Dark Matter theory developed by my group in 1984 had predicted.  Cold Dark Matter has become the basis for the modern theory of the Universe, and the huge simulations we run on NASA’s biggest supercomputer predict the distribution of galaxies with remarkable accuracy.

As people everywhere grapple with profoundly challenging global issues, science is both essential to guide us toward optimal solutions, and increasingly under attack.  Such politicization of science is a threat not only to science but also to our country and to humanity.  My highest priority as President of Sigma Xi would be to make the benefits of scientific research more widely appreciated, in order give the general public a better understanding of science and improve decisions regarding both policy and funding.  I did this in the American Physical Society (APS) by helping to start the Forum on Physics and Society and the APS program of studies on public issues of science and technology; in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by helping to start the AAAS Program on Science and Human Rights; and in both APS and AAAS by starting the Congressional Science and Technology Fellowship program, which launched the AAAS fellowship programs that now help to place about 250 scientists and engineers in legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government each year.  All these programs are still ongoing. In addition to advancing the public interest, these programs have broadened career opportunities for scientists.  Sigma Xi can also develop new ways for scientists to interact with government at local and state levels, such as the California Science & Technology Policy Fellows program. We should also promote membership by improving the benefits to members, including career mentoring and science communication training through both national and chapter-centered activities. 

We need to improve the way we communicate the results of scientific research, including 
how we use social media to disseminate findings and engage with the public on their ramifications.  Excellent science reporting can help, but the fruits and benefits of scientific research need to be explained by articulate scientists from a variety of backgrounds, since everyone pays more attention to people with whom they can identify.  Sigma Xi could encourage this by recognizing exemplary efforts by junior as well as senior scientists.  The public must also understand better the different levels of scientific certainty in different areas, so that they do not mistrust conclusions that are supported by strong evidence, such as human-caused global climate change, because of changing advice in uncertain areas like dietary guidelines – or because of efforts by a small number of scientists to raise unwarranted doubt on issues like cigarette smoking, sugar, acid rain, and ozone.  Our challenge is to broaden the impact of Sigma Xi’s already excellent efforts, including AMERICAN SCIENTIST and the daily Sigma Xi SmartBriefs.  One way to do this might be to organize debates on important controversial public topics where scientific and engineering expertise is relevant, for example a debate on how high the priority and funding should be to send people to Mars, say between Elon Musk (head of SpaceX) and John Holdren (President Obama’s science advisor).  Or a debate on what the rules regarding human genetic modification should be: preventing birth defects vs. enhancement.  If the debates are well done they could attract a great deal of public attention, including through broadcast and social media.  If we scientists can raise the general level of scientific literacy by improving our messaging, the benefits to the world at large could be tremendous.  
Sigma Xi Activities: I was inducted into Sigma Xi 50 years ago as a senior at Princeton.  As president of the Sigma Xi chapter at UCSC I organized many public lectures.

Bio Sketch: After studying Physics at Princeton (AB 1966) and at Stanford (PhD 1970), I was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows (1970-73).  I have been on the UCSC Physics faculty since 1973, and I have taught at every level from introductory and honors undergraduate courses through advanced graduate courses on quantum field theory and cosmology.  My early research was on elementary particle physics, helping to create what is now called the “Standard Model.”  Since the late 1970s I have worked mainly on the physics of the universe.  I am one of the main authors of the Cold Dark Matter theory, which is the basis of the now-standard theory of the formation and evolution of structure in the universe, from the cosmic background radiation to galaxies.  I have also become a leader in using supercomputers to model the large-scale structure of the universe and the evolution of galaxies and comparing the results to observations.  Many of my former PhD students and postdocs are now leaders in cosmology and astrophysics.  I was made a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) in 1988 “for pioneering contributions to gauge theory and cosmology.”  I am an author of more than 200 refereed articles in scientific journals, which have more than 22,000 citations; my h-index is 70.  I am coauthor of a book on science and public policy: Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (1974), and two popular books on modern cosmology and its implications for how we think about global problems: The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (2006), and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (2011), both of which are now available in foreign editions.  I’m also author of many articles in magazines including IEEE Spectrum, Scientific American, Science, and  Sky & Telescope.  I have provided visualizations and advice for planetarium shows about cosmology, and I have explained and visualized the modern theory of the universe in TV documentaries.  I have given numerous invited lectures at universities, international conferences, and advanced schools.  I have held eighteen visiting research appointments, co-organized dozens of international conferences, and hosted a major international conference on galaxies at UCSC each summer since 2003.  I created and directed the University of California systemwide High-Performance AstroComputing Center (UC-HiPACC) 2010-2015, which included an annual international advanced summer school and other activities that have helped the University of California act as a unified astronomical research organization rather than as competing campuses.

I have helped start many institutions related to science and technology policy, and in 1995 I was made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) “for pioneering efforts in the establishment of the AAAS Congressional Science Fellows Program [in 1969-73] and for dedication to expanding the use of science in policymaking throughout government.”  In 1973 I proposed the name of the APS Forum on Physics and Society and helped to create it, and I served as its chairman in 2005-06.  In 1973-74 I also led the effort to organize the first APS studies on public policy issues, beginning with the study on nuclear reactor safety for which I coauthored the proposal and led the fund raising.  I worked with Senator Ted Kennedy in 1976-78 to create the NSF Science for Citizens Program.  As a charter member of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, I initiated and organized the AAAS Science and Human Rights program, which has subsequently rescued scientists and non-scientists in many countries.  In 1987-89 I led the Federation of American Scientists Space Nuclear Power Arms Control project, which helped to end the USSR’s orbiting nuclear reactor program.  As a member of the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), I led an influential APS study on the destructive effects that President George W. Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration might have on science.  I was chair of the AAAS committee on Science, Ethics, and Religion 2000-2002, and of the APS Sakharov Prize committee 2009.  Most recently, in 2016 I received the APS Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, which is for outstanding accomplishments in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society.  

Joel R. Primack's CV.
Joel R. Primack's Biography.