Road to prosperous life brings Arthur Bienenstock full circle

Arthur Bienenstock

Arthur Bienenstock

By age 14, Arthur Bienenstock had mapped a short road to a long life. "I joined the Zionist movement. I knew I wanted to live on a kibbutz in Israel," said Stanford's vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy at the Nov. 9 "What Matters to Me and Why" talk. The lecture series lets Stanford community members share how their values shape their lives.

A communal life amid hard workers committed to peace and justice seemed ideal. He fell in love with Zionism and moved among a heady community of intellectuals, discussing volume after volume of classic literature.

His secular family raised him on similar values. His father, an electronics teacher in Harlem, spent hours after school helping students build projects. Describing over family dinners the troubles faced by his minority students, he drew his son toward a commitment to social justice.

Zionism wove Bienenstock's household values into a cohesive movement.

On a communal farm in upstate New York, "I spent one afternoon picking tomatoes and that was the last time I ever farmed," Bienenstock recalled. He fixed toilets and tractors instead. Kibbutzim need engineers, he reasoned. He would be useful.

He chose the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn for an engineering degree so he could join a New York chapter of the movement. A single physics class prompted a switch to the science. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in physics at the institute. He divided his time on the New York City subway between critiquing literature and deriving equations, but at meetings Bienenstock found himself opposed to Zionism's rising political indoctrination. His ardor waned. Believing himself "a minority of one," he left the movement at 17 and spent a year as a lost soul.

Not a simple path"This is the hardest of any talks I've given in decades," he conceded to the audience of 70 at the Memorial Church side chapel.

Bienenstock said he spent many early mornings preparing for the informal lecture by lying in bed and reflecting on his life while his wife, Roslyn, slept, her arm curled around him. One day it struck. "What mattered most was that her arm was there—and all that that symbolized."

He distills the essence of a prosperous life into a triad of feats: to love and be loved, to have meaningful work and to truly enjoy living. The easiest was the second. Physics brought him "an enormous amount of pleasure," but the path that led to his professorships in materials science and engineering, in applied physics and at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) "was not simple."

He met Roslyn at the New York City Ballet. He was 18 and she 17. "I was struck by her beauty, her intelligence and the fun things we did together," recalled Bienenstock. They married three years later.

Marriage took some adjustment. Conflict was inevitable, he said. "She came from a matriarchy—a strong matriarchy. And I came from a strong patriarchy."

The couple moved to Boston for her schooling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He completed his doctoral degree at Harvard in 1962. During this time Bienenstock didn't take his physics studies seriously enough to consider a career in the field, but his wife's heavy involvement with the folk music scene "had a very big effect on my career in a weird way." He decided to learn to play guitar. The best guitarist he knew worked in Harvard's X-ray lab. Copious hours in the lab, typically strumming a six-string, led to research jobs at Harvard that culminated in becoming an assistant professor in engineering and applied physics.

"For the first time in my life, the answer wasn't in a textbook," he said. Far from the schooling he breezed through, questions without known answers often inspired him to work until dawn.

"I made a name in X-rays as a result of that guitar training," he said.

In a curious interaction between electrical wiring and plumbing, Bienenstock's research X-ray machine turned off when the toilet flushed. He avoided the annoyance by working at night. He started his shifts by locking the bathroom from the inside and crawling out the window to prevent nighttime workers from unwittingly hindering his work.

His X-ray research led to his first job at Stanford: He started in 1967 as an associate professor in the departments of Materials Science and Applied Physics. In 1978 he accepted the position of director of SSRL, a high-energy particle accelerator that uses magnets to control beams of particles. The detailed X-rays it yields have been applied toward better drug design and have improved ways to look at impurities in silicon chips and at toxins in dirt. Bienenstock served as director of SSRL until 1997 and associate director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center from 1992 to 1997.

Bringing social justice to his communitiesIn the 1960s, Arthur and Roslyn's newborn daughter, Amy, brandished the opposite demeanor of their cheerful child Eric. Five months later she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. At a time when children with the disease died at an average age of 11, Amy lived to be 19 years old, "a joy until the last few months," he said. The family—including Adam, an adopted son five years Amy's junior—still fervently supports medical research from "seeing what those eight [extra] years meant to her."

Bienenstock was appointed chair of the Academic Council's Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid in 1969. The following year, he said, black students on campus demanded that the university president increase minority enrollment. In remembering the dinner table conversations with his father, Bienenstock said, "I saw how good our minority students were and made the decision that Stanford should go for the best." Bienenstock asked to handle the case by citing that his office was responsible for setting admissions policy. Later, when a babysitter prodded him to change the university's low student ratio of women to men, he read in the founding documents that Mrs. Stanford had imposed a limit of 500 women at the university. His campaign to drop that clause sailed through meetings of the Faculty Senate and the university trustees, he said.

Serving as a senior science adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001 was "the most interesting and demanding job I ever had in my life," Bienenstock said. During his term in Washington, he brokered the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, helped protect human subjects in scientific research and promoted hiring women and minorities in the sciences.

He recounted a science budget meeting, his first after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The National Institutes of Health budget was raised far higher than those of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Bienenstock, sensing a superior's reticence to vocalize opposition, burst out with "You can't do that!" and gave a spur-of-the-moment argument for identical raises. Eyes twinkling, Bienenstock recalled President Clinton announcing equal raises for all three organizations with a discussion of the importance of "interdependencies of sciences." The move fueled many advances in physical and social sciences, Bienenstock said. He wishes to keep promoting funding for the physical sciences as well as openness in research during this security-conscious era when he serves in the top four leadership positions—vice president, president-elect, president and immediate past president—of the American Physical Society over the next four years.

Bienenstock spoke glowingly of Stanford's intellectual community. Coming from Harvard, he was amazed to see "the pleasure that the faculty took in each other." Having faculty live on campus fosters unusual connections: He met a geology professor "over a lawnmower—his lawnmower" and decided to collaborate on a research project.

In 1983, when the federal government decided to examine SSRL's potential as a weapons lab, the English Department invited Bienenstock over for tea. Faculty members spent an hour and a half discussing his values in a kinship that would never form at Harvard, he said. SSRL stayed weapons-free.

Bienenstock fills the third element of a prosperous life—"to truly enjoy living"—with a host of delights: skiing, watching Shakespearean comedy, going to the ballet, swimming, even "driving a beautifully handling car over a mountain pass." Today Bienenstock thrives, sharing ideas and tools alike on the Farm. He says he doesn't "believe in a vain God—any God that created the universe does not need our praise" but he offers that "one way of respecting God's works is to truly understand this world." Always, he says, while working toward social justice and environmental responsibility.

He seems to have found his kibbutz after all.

The next "What Matters to Me and Why" talk will feature Jonathan Berger, associate professor of music, at noon Wednesday, Dec. 7, in the Memorial Church side chapel.

Krista Zala is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.