How Doug Osheroff Changed My Life

Yesterday, I got to meet Doug Osheroff, Nobel Prize winner in Physics. At the reception before his lecture at Georgia Tech, I got to shake his hand and say “I’m glad to meet you. In 1981, you changed my life.”

You have to admit, it is a good way to hook someone into a conversation!

In 1981, Osheroff was the wunderkind of Bell Labs. He had just won one of the first MacArthur “genius awards,” and was widely reputed to be in line for the Nobel. (Which he didn’t win until 1996. The wheels grind slowly sometimes.)

And although we worked in the same building for a few months, we never met until yesterday.

In 1981, I was co-oping at Bell Labs in Atlanta, and trying to line up my assignment for the summer. Based on advice from several mentors (remember, I thought I was going to be a physicist!), I applied to Osheroff’s lab for a summer position in Murray Hill, New Jersey. And he turned me down.

(For good reasons. All my experience was in optics and waveguides, and he was working with Helium-3 and Bose-Einstein condensates. Other than being a good lab monkey, I wasn’t bringing anything special to the table.)

I wound up getting a different assignment, with a different scientist, and I hated it. I was good at the work. (Well, except for that time that I turned the wrong valve on the vacuum pump and sprayed lubrication oil into the vacuum chamber. Bob: I never admitted it, but that was me.) And the work was interesting. But it was incredibly solitary.

I’m not an extrovert (Myers-Briggs INTJ), but I spent entire days that summer when the only words I spoke were with the women working in the cafeteria line. That’s when I realized I didn’t want to be a physicist. I went ahead and got the degree, but knew I wanted to move out of the lab into the real world. If I’d been hanging out with a future Nobelist and the brain trust (and budget!) he’d assembled at that point, I probably never would have left the field, and I’d have continued on to get my Ph.D. in physics.

Which would have been a mistake. I think would have been a middling-to-good physicist, but probably not a great one. Instead, I wound up doing a lot of things: in the last thirty years, I’ve been paid to be a laser designer, laser designer, field engineer, product manager, corporate trainer, marketing exec, salesman, general manager, entrepreneur, author, venture capitalist, board member, investment banker, consultant, angel investor, public speaker, adjunct university faculty, commercial landlord, and now academic bureaucrat and economic developer. And I’ve met innumerable great people along the way, and have (I think) changed a few other lives for the better. I doubt I would have made as many connections — or had as much impact — extending the decimal places in a laboratory measurement.

Garth Brooks got it right: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Thanks, everybody. And, thanks, Doug, for turning me down.


  1. Great post, Stephen! Thanks for sharing. Hopefully, Bob won’t hunt you down and scold you for wrecking the vacuum chamber 🙂

    You’ve inspired me now. Last year I had started a similar post, though with a different angle. I’m gonna dust that draft off and see if I can finish it.