University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

General News

Stuart D. Bale

Stuart D. Bale
Stuart D. Bale

B. A. Physics and Mathematics, 1989; Ph. D. Physics, 1994. Bale is a Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Bale's area of research is experimental astrophysics.

Tell us about your personal life.
I am married, and we have a son. We live in San Francisco. I am very oversubscribed and my days are messy, but it’s mostly a fulfilling life. My wife Isabelle works in the wine business in the Napa valley. Our boy Hugo attends a preschool at the university. The Bay Area is a charming place to live, however, I do miss the sunshine and the
winters in Minnesota.

Tell us about your professional life.
I am a Professor of Physics and Director of the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) at the University of California, Berkeley. My research interests are experimental space physics and plasma astrophysics. I am making measurements of the fundamental plasma physics processes that are important to astrophysics, i.e. collisionless shocks, plasma turbulence, magnetic reconnection, plasma radio emission, etc. We make measurements in situ with satellite-borne instruments. After my Ph.D., I went to Queen Mary and Westfield College (QMW) in London for a postdoctoral appointment.
My intention was to work on data from ESA’s ‘Cluster’ four spacecraft mission with the QMW guys; however, the Cluster launch failed and the satellites went into the ocean. So I continued my collaboration with my Minnesota colleagues (Paul Kellogg and Keith Goetz) working on measurements from the NASA Wind satellite.

In 1997, I moved to Berkeley, first as an Assistant Research Physicist and then joining the physics faculty in 2004. In 2008, I took over as Director of SSL. Berkeley is a great place to work. It is an exhilarating intellectual environment and my interactions with colleagues are enjoyable. I have continued my collaborations with my Minnesota colleagues. We built an instrument for the NASA STEREO mission and were recently selected by NASA to build an experiment together for the Solar Probe Plus mission.

Tell us your favorite memory from your time in the School of Physics and Astronomy.
I have two memories that stand out: As an undergraduate in the Methods of Experimental Physics course (taught by Mike Shupe and Bill Zimmerman), my lab partner Jason Hinze (B.S., Physics, 1992) and I built a little one-shot nitrogen laser and we actually made it function. The laser was hand built from a piece of PC board, a little plastic box with a half-silvered mirror, and an enormous rackmounted
high voltage power supply. We set up a (~10 kV) discharge across some copper strips in the box of nitrogen and it lased! It had a time constant of about one second which caused computer monitors to flicker across the lab. I think we made a measurement of the beam width too.

The second memory is of our scientific expedition to South Africa in 1994 to view the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact with Jupiter. Paul Kellogg thought the comet fragments might generate decametric/decimetric (~10-100 MHz) radio emission as they plowed through the Jovian magnetosphere. Paul, Keith Goetz, Steve Monson and I set up shop for about six weeks at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory. We built up a set of huge, steerable log periodic antennas and moved them by hand each night, tracking Jupiter as it passed over. We have lots of funny stories to tell about this trip: walking on hot coals during a 'braai' on the 4th of July; monkeys throwing rocks at our car as we drove into the valley; and shopping at the local ‘muti’ shops. Our equipment worked fine, we could see the Io-modulated emission and solar radio bursts, but no primary signatures of Shoemaker-Levy 9. A negative result is still a result.

Tell us about your favorite professor(s) and favorite courses
My favorite professors were Serge Rudaz, Bob Lysak, Ben Bayman, and Bill Zimmerman. These guys were models of clarity and insight and the best teachers that I have had. Bob Lysak’s graduate plasma physics course still forms the backbone of my knowledge of plasma physics. Serge’s course on relativistic quantum mechanics was elegant and inspiring. I left the third quarter of the quantum field theory sequence with an incomplete – a big scattering matrix calculation that was too forbidding to finish at the time. When it was time to graduate, I tapped on Serge’s door, showed him my stack of calculations, and asked him for leniency. He asked me about my post-Ph.D. plans, I told him (a postdoc position working on space data), and he said "You’re not going to do quantum field theory
professionally." I said "No." He asked "You’re not ever going to tell anyone that I taught you how to do quantum field theory?" "No," I said. So he gave me a passing grade. Thanks Serge.

What advice do you have for current students and recent alumni.

A career in science and teaching is richly rewarding and worth every second that you spend pursuing it. It is important to make a rapid transition from solving 'known' problems to developing your own taste. My advice to a young scientist would be to find a topic that was formerly 'hot,' but has gone cool for lack of new measurements or
techniques, then really scratch your head and figure out how to take the next step. Avoid the bandwagon.