Don Page wins prestigious U of A research award

Physics theoretician Don Page has received the $5,000 J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research

Suzette Chan - 6 February 2012

Physics theoretician Don Page has received the $5,000 J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, the most prestigious University of Alberta research award.

"I certainly do my research for the joy it gives in figuring out things that might apply to the universe, rather than for seeking any prizes," Page said, "but it is deeply gratifying that the University of Alberta has chosen to recognize my research in this way."

Page is a leading researcher in the areas of black hole physics, cosmology and quantum theory, with no less than four concepts, in a range of physics research areas, bearing his name: the Page approximation in black hole physics, the Page metric in quantum gravity, the Page charge in supergravity and the Hawking-Page transition in black hole thermodynamics.

Page's association with Stephen Hawking began when he was a graduate student at Caltech with Kip Thorne. Discussions between the three of them led to a PhD thesis that was supervised by Thorne and Hawking, and characterized by examiner Richard Feynman as giving "the color of a black hole."

The body of research work Page has built over the years elicited support for his nomination for the J. Gordin Kaplan Award from five of the world's leading physicists - James Hartle, Roger Penrose, Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind and Edward Witten. He has also been interviewed by various populist science magazines, appeared in the documentary A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris's film about Stephen Hawking), and was featured in Susskind's book, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. In the book, Susskind writes of Page: "He is an outstanding physicist and a profound thinker. […] His work has had a deep impact not only on my own thinking about black holes, but the entire field."

This recognition of Page's research accomplishments may have seemed unlikely for someone who grew up in such a remote community in Alaska that he had to complete high school by correspondence, but Page has always pursued the path that would satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

Page says, "I have a mixture of the satisfaction in being able to solve various puzzles that arise in physics and of the joy of realizing what I hope are new insights about the universe."

Don Page's nomination for the J. Gordin Kaplan Award was made by the Department of Physics and supported by the Faculty of Science.

Q & A with Don Page

Don Page has a reputation of being generous with his time - with his students, colleagues, family, church and those in need. (He is heavily involved in the Haiti Children's Benefit Foundation as one of the founding members and current president. The organization recently changed its name to the Community Health International Learning and Development [CHILD] and is expanding its humanitarian efforts with various projects in India, for which it has recently raised over $20,000.)

Page was also generous enough to answer some questions about his life and his career. Here is our conversation.

I was fascinated with the details that you grew up in a remote community in Alaska and that you completed high school by correspondence. Was your location a factor in doing high school by correspondence, or was there another reason?

Yes, location was definitely the main factor in doing high school by correspondence, as there were no high schools in the villages where my parents taught elementary school.

Even the elementary school in the small village (about 150 people then) of Manokotak, Alaska, where I did most of my high school by correspondence, was only started in 1959 when we moved there, with previous education in that village having been provided by someone without a college education, so my parents were the first college-trained teachers in Manokotak. Years later after Alaska got lots of oil money, I think it became law for there to be local high-school education provided for all children in the villages, but when I was there, the Eskimo children who graduated from elementary school had to go to a government boarding high school over a thousand miles away - it would have been impractical for these children who came from homes, where only the father might know a bit of English for a commercial fishing job, to do high school by correspondence - it was hard enough for me, even with both my parents' being teachers.

How did you come to choose Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking as PhD supervisors - or vice versa?

When I went to Caltech in 1971 after being an undergraduate at a small Christian liberal arts college in Missouri (William Jewell College, which, although it did not have many advanced mathematics or physics courses available, did provide a good education, with the Head of the Physics Department, Wallace Hilton, later winning the Oersted Medal as the top physics teacher, and with another student named Don, Donald Marolf, also going into quantum gravity and now being a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara), at first I was interested in doing high energy physics, but I found the course on that rather confusing to me, and I felt I understood much better the general relativity course taught by Kip Thorne. Therefore, after my first year and after I had done reasonably well on the written candidacy, I approached Kip Thorne and was accepted by him to be his graduate student.

Stephen Hawking came to Caltech as a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar 1974-75. I had been interested in black hole emission (which I had discovered for rotating black holes, but just a few hours after convincing Richard Feynman that this idea was probably right, I found out that Yakov Zel'dovich and Alexander Starobinsky had earlier already predicted this). I did not realize that I was at the right place and the right time to make an even greater discovery, that of emission from nonrotating black holes, but I was incompetent to do that, and after hearing indirectly through me of the Zel'dovich-Starobinsky discovery, Stephen Hawking liked their idea but did not like their derivation and so set himself the task of deriving it correctly. Hawking found, to his surprise, that not only rotating but also nonrotating black holes create and emit particles, the famous Hawking emission.

Having failed to derive this first, I was gearing up to make numerical calculations of the emission rates when Hawking came to Caltech. He and I wrote a paper on gamma rays from primordial black holes, and I also on my own did the numerical calculations of the rates from nonrotating black holes (still my second-most cited paper, after a paper I later wrote with Hawking on what has been called the Hawking-Page transition) and from rotating black holes. Kip Thorne suggested that I list Hawking as a joint PhD supervisor with him, so I have always done that, and Stephen Hawking has had me listed on his website as one of his PhD students, as it shows on the Wikipedia article about him. [Hawking later hired Page to work with him as a postdoc at Cambridge from 1976 to 1979.]

In what field did you earn an M.A. from Cambridge after your PhD in physics? Why did you pursue it?

I was eating dinner in Darwin College, Cambridge, where I had won a fellowship to get dining rights for seven free meals a week, and someone told me that as a Fellow I had the right to receive a Cambridge MA if I paid a five-pound fee and also rented an academic gown that cost me a bit over seven pounds. (It might have been cheaper to buy a bottle of wine that was supposed to be the fine if one were not properly dressed.) So I went through the ceremony and knelt before someone in the Senate House, who muttered some words over me, and perhaps tapped me on the head, so that I became a Cambridge MA, or MA (Cantab).

What attracted to you to the University of Alberta? (Page joined the university's Department of Physics in 1990.)

When Werner Israel (probably the greatest theoretical gravitational physicist in the history of Canada, for those who did not know him when he was here as a faculty member 1958-1996), whom I had met at Caltech when he and Stephen Hawking were both Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholars 1974-75, and whom I had seen several times in Cambridge when I was a postdoctoral researcher there with Hawking 1976-79, discovered that in 1986 I had married an Edmontonian (my wife Cathy, who completed her MD at the University of Alberta in 1983), he made efforts to bring me to Edmonton. Being established in the U.S. system at the Pennsylvania State University, where I had taken up an assistant professorship in 1979, I was initially hesitant to move, but I accepted a position here at the University of Alberta and have been very glad that I had this opportunity.

What does receiving the J. Gordin Kaplan award mean to you?

I certainly do my research for the joy it gives in figuring out things that might apply to the universe, rather than for seeking any prizes, but it is deeply gratifying that the University of Alberta has chosen to recognize my research in this way. It is humbling to read over the list of previous recipients and realize how great so many of them are. I feel especially honoured to receive this particular award, since the first person in the Physics Department to win it is my hero, Werner Israel.

What keeps you interested in the workings of the universe?

I have a mixture of the satisfaction in being able to solve various puzzles that arise in physics and of the joy of realizing what I hope are new insights about the universe. It has been exciting to see physics progress from the days in which it was thought that the (as yet unknown) complete dynamical laws (e.g., the mathematical equations for how things change with time) would be a theory of everything, to seminal (but also not yet complete) work by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking emphasizing how we also need the boundary conditions to specify which solution of the dynamical equations describes our universe (e.g., its quantum state). I am happy to be a part of what I think is the further realization (not completely accepted yet) that for a complete theory of the universe, not only do we need the dynamical laws and the quantum state, but we also need new rules for obtaining the probabilities of observations from the quantum state. Even if we do learn the dynamic laws (superstring/M theory?) and the quantum state (the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary wavefunction?), I think we still will have a long way to go to learn what the rules are for obtaining the probabilities of observations, I suspect far past my lifetime. So physics still has enormous opportunities ahead and will continue to provide challenges for many decades into the future.