Only a handful of physicists have reached the halls of Congress. Bill Foster, a particle physicist and businessman just elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives from Illinois's newly drawn 11th district, wants this situation to change. The Harvard graduate knows he is one of few in any technical field to hold national office. Foster plans to use his time in the public spotlight to serve as an advocate for bringing more of his peers to Washington.
Although Foster left a career in the laboratory to pursue politics, science is never far from his mind. He says he is continually thinking of new ways to inject the rigor of science into the often messy give and take that is the essence of politics.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Why did you decide to leave science and run for U.S. Congress?
I often say that I inherited the family's recessive gene for adult-onset political activism. My father was actually a chemist. He got a degree in chemistry from Stanford. He came back from the war unhappy that his work was being used to kill people.
When he came back from the war he decided he wanted to spend part of his life in service to his fellow man. He actually wrote a lot of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act. Reading his papers after he passed away a few years ago was one of the things that triggered my thinking.
There's a fundamental question that everyone has to answer: What fraction of your life do you spend in service to your fellow man? It's not something that science helps you answer at all. It's one of these questions like, Who are you gong to marry? Science doesn't really help you with the question.
For me, the idea of not spending a significant fraction of my life in service to my fellow man did not feel right. And one of the highest-leverage ways to do that is to get elected to an office in the United States.
How will you utilize your scientific background to achieve your political goals?
It's very valuable when you're formulating policy to attach even a rough number to what's under discussion. That's an instinct that engineers and scientists have. In terms of getting the policy right, often you'll find that one of these arguments is quantitatively 10 or 100 times more important than all the others.
What did you study as a physicist?
It's high-energy particle physics, including working on the experiments that discovered the top quark.
There's a series of heavier and heavier quarks, and the pattern stops at the top quark. The top quark has an anomalous large mass, so many accelerators were built with the idea that they would be the one to discover the top quark.
And it was only the technology developed at FermiLab that would allow an accelerator to be built so that you'd have enough "oomph" to discover the top quark. Just having the accelerator isn't enough. You need detectors with the capability to handle the debris coming from the proton collisions.
The top quark was heavier than anyone really expected it to be. It was the last member of the last family of fundamental particles. If it had been missing, it would have been a bigger mystery. It closed the chapter, allowing scientists to think about what the ultimate structure of matter is. It was the last quark in the standard model of high-energy particle physics and so it was the last step along that path.