We were sitting at my dining room table over a bottle of tequila during a recent visit from my parents. My father, Richard Epstein (or “Poppy” in my world) doesn’t usually drink more than an occasional beer, but he held his own, and answered what seemed like endless questions I had that night about his expansive career. “In order to discover things, you have to just plow ahead,” he told me. “Because you don’t know you’re going to discover something. You have to give yourself the freedom to go down dead ends, and not be afraid of wasting your time.”
Poppy is my definition of a trailblazer. Through a lifetime of scientific research and inventions, he has gone down unexplored paths and solved unanswered questions. Trailblazing and scientific discovery go well together in this way, and Poppy’s approach to both has impacted the way I navigate my own life.
For a long time, I’ve recognized how easy it is to connect the dots when I’m looking back at them. Life paths can look planned, successful and linear since that’s the story that tends to get told. But in reality, the most fulfilling journeys, and the ones that have the greatest impact, are far from linear. In fact, true trailblazers tend to share a common theme: not knowing where they were going at all, and finding fulfillment in that. Blazing a new trail is inherently an act of curiosity, bravery, and optimism while wandering into the unknown.
Poppy is one of the most inspiring trailblazers I know, but it wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about how much of my own life philosophy has been inspired by his example. His career has produced breakthrough theoretical astrophysics research and applied physics inventions. He’s authored 184 technical papers, holds 6 US patents, and his research has been cited over 10,000 times. And he often had no idea where he was going or how he would get there.
This is not to say that he was bumbling around. Every discovery he made, and those he paved the way for, involved intentionally diving into the unknown, getting lost along the way (oftentimes literally), and ending up in places as vast as the universe he was examining.
I’ve learned a lot from wandering into my own unknowns. And yet I’m not sure I would have taken many of the bigger, riskier leaps if I hadn’t observed my father approaching his career in this way. His tendency to trust the process and move forward with curiosity gives me confidence to do the same.
And it’s not only about trusting the process–it’s also about enjoying it. Finding humor, satisfaction and growth in the journey. There are very few things that are worthwhile if they function solely as a means to an end (laundry and paying bills being notable examples). Wandering into the wilderness without a path cleared in front of us can be scary, but it can also be incredibly exciting.
As I’ve gotten older and become a parent myself, the depth of the influence my father’s approach to life has slowly become more apparent to me. The more I realized about this impact, the more I wanted to understand it. Sure, I’d seen a few of his publications and books–like the incredibly academic book on gamma ray bursts that my maternal grandmother casually kept on her coffee table for years. I’d heard him humbly explain his work to anyone that asked, but I’d never truly researched my father. So, in addition to tequila-fueled Q&As with him, I reached out to a few of his past collaborators as well.
“Richard has a rational optimism that gives us confidence that it will work out,” one of his close colleagues, Mansoor Sheik-Bahae, shared with me. “I’ve had a number of collaborations in my career, but the one with Richard has been one of the most fruitful–not just in terms of the outcomes, but because of the fun we’ve had.”
I can still picture Poppy sitting over the kitchen table late at night, sneaking frozen chocolate chips (the only sugary food in the house) and scribbling in his yellow pads of paper. Those scribbled calculations weren’t just a means to an end–his mental meanderings were an adventure in and of themselves.
WHEN THE JOURNEY GOES AS PLANNED
There are times in our lives when we set a goal, make a plan and it works out. One of Poppy’s earlier research areas, which started while doing his postdoctoral research at the University of Texas, Austin, was around cosmologic element production. He was looking at how the universe was formed and the elements that were produced as a result of its formation.
Deuterium is a Hydrogen isotope that makes up 0.02% of earth’s oceans. Until Poppy’s research in this area, there were theories that Deuterium might have been produced in Supernovae (basically, star explosions.) He proved that the amount of Deuterium seen in the universe could only have been produced as a consequence of the Big Bang. It took four years of dedicated research to make this discovery.
He validated this theory by showing that there is no way Deuterium could have been formed without making other elements in more abundance than they currently exist in the universe without it having come into being during the Big Bang. In a paper that he co-authored in Nature in 1976, The Origin of Deuterium, he shares his conclusions that Deuterium is of pregalactic origin, meaning it existed before any galaxy was formed. This research was a big deal in astrophysics circles.
He set out to research something big–as big as the big bang–and he came to a result that was both validated and impactful. It’s easy to see something as clear-cut as that as a win (and it is!) but that’s far from the only version of success.
When I look back at the simplest wins in my career, they’re far from being the milestones I’m most proud of. I have a feeling that’s something I got from Poppy too: he talks much more excitedly about the things that haven’t worked out (yet) than the easy answers.
WHEN YOU HIT A DEAD END
At the other end of the success spectrum are things that don’t work out as planned at all. Ironically, though, many of the things we experience in life that feel like failures or missteps end up being some of our most formative experiences.
While doing his postdoctoral research at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, Poppy dove into Radio Galaxies—bright, compact regions at the center of galaxies that emit radio waves. He collaborated closely with Margaret Geller during this period, exploring the interactions between radio sources and ambient gasses.
At the time of their research, the super-light velocities of compact radio sources were a mystery. Components of these radio sources appeared to move across the sky with velocities relative to one another that exceed the speed of light. Poppy connected this phenomenon to the way a compact source moves through the surrounding gas, leaving a cavity behind it. As the cavity expands, regions of the cavity can become bright at radio wavelengths. The position of these bright regions can appear to move rapidly across the sky relative to the compact radio source.
All of that research was later debunked. “But we don’t care, do we?” he asked me, laughing hard at the absurdity of not caring about the result of years of research. “It was too bad, but more interesting than heart breaking.” That ability to find lessons and humor in failure made the whole experience of getting lost in his research an enjoyable one.
“It was fun working with Richard because he is so imaginative and insightful,” Margaret mused. “He had complete and versatile command of all of the physics in the problem. We enjoyed chatting about the difficulty of making a model that works and about the way nature manages to produce so many amazing, puzzling phenomena. Richard approached it all with a wry wit.”
Margaret enjoyed getting lost with Poppy in more areas than their research. She told me the story of driving around in his “ancient boat of a car” and wondering why there were suddenly no other cars around. It turned out that while they were talking, he had driven down a walkway to a Harvard dormitory. “He had a marvelous sense of humor,” she reminisced. “I can still hear his laugh and see the sparkle in his eyes.”
Many of us have had the absurd joy of getting literally lost with Poppy. On a second date with my mother, he ended up driving back and forth over the Charles River six times trying to pick a friend up at the airport, laughing harder with each U-turn. And decades later, my husband Shane would also find himself in a car with Poppy somewhere they weren’t supposed to be: stuck in the solstice parade in Seattle amidst hundreds of naked bicyclists. Poppy laughed and proceeded to take his shirt off to fit in!
With humor being a key ingredient to Poppy’s trailblazing, it’s worth noting that his sense of humor is as unstructured as his explorations. He’s not one to crack up at a formulaic joke, but he can get me laugh-crying with him over the absurdity of a situation. And with so many scientific discoveries yielding absurd results along the way, this sense of humor has no doubt helped stabilize him through the ups and downs of trailblazing.
WHEN THE ROAD IS LONG AND WINDY
Life is rarely black or white though, and the reality is that most of our experiences fall into the middle of the spectrum of possible outcomes. They are not a resounding success, not an abject failure, just slow-moving progress. This anticlimactic progress of everyday life doesn’t always make it into the highlight reels. But these moments add up to the connections and perspectives that make us who we are.
Throughout his career Poppy did extensive research on Neutron Stars – an area of study that he began during his PhD at Stanford and then picked up again decades later at Los Alamos National Lab (LANL). Neutron stars are the collapsed core of large stars, with extremely high gravitational pull. Poppy collaborated closely with Bennet Link on this research, seeking to understand whether the inside of neutron stars are a superfluid, which would mean they are made of neutrons and protons, and have no viscosity.
To investigate that, he studied how fast the neutron stars spin and the radiation they emit from spinning. He observed volatility in the spin rate, the cause of which he interpreted to be stick-slip behavior resulting from the core of the star spinning faster than the outside. While this explanation proved likely, Bennet recalls the many dead ends they ended up in together. One of his favorite quotes from Poppy is: “That doesn’t even make enough sense to be wrong!”
Ultimately, his Neutron Stars research kind of faded away. “We made good progress, it was fun and satisfying, but we never really nailed it,” he told me. This didn’t deter him though. “I know I can get things right that no one else has thought of. It gives me the confidence that, even if I’m not sure I’m right, I could be right.” That’s the kind of optimism and curiosity that leads to blazing new trails.
And in fact, it’s not just our value judgment of an experience that can change over time. The perceived outcome can change as well. We are all familiar with the idea that something may feel like a failure in the moment but turn out to lead to much bigger and better opportunities. Something that feels like a failure might even, at some later date, reveal that it was not a failure after all.
My parents moved to Copenhagen shortly after getting married, so that Poppy could continue his research at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA). One of his research areas was Cosmic rays–high energy particles, made of protons and heavier nuclei, that race through space near the speed of light. At the time, people didn’t understand how these heavier elements, such as iron and silicon, got into cosmic rays. His research revealed the correct explanation: dust particles made of these elements that form in the winds of stars get accelerated in shock waves produced by supernovae. When they get to high velocities, they break up and inject the heavy elements into the cosmic rays.
We now know that Poppy’s explanation was correct. But it was 30 years before his research was verified. Three decades after his findings, satellite experiments found that the composition of cosmic rays matched the dust composition that Poppy calculated. And for those 30 years, the scientific community rejected the research. “For years they were saying I was wrong about this, but then they made better observations and found that my theory was correct,” Poppy told me.
Of course he was happy to see his work validated 30 years later. But it wasn’t that end result that drove him. In order to enjoy the experience of answering questions that haven’t been answered yet, you can’t be focused on the end result. You have to focus on the journey to get there.
I guess it’s appropriate, then, that my exploration into my father’s career, and the ways in which his approach has influenced my own, has been more of a journey than destination. The more I dig in, the more I see parallels to the “no one right path” mantra I’ve been reciting for so long reflected in his scientific curiosity.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT ALONE ON THE TRAIL
It makes sense that my own trail is a function of so many others, including Poppy’s. Trailblazing isn’t an act of individualism. When we serve as a first and go where others haven’t gone before, we’re not just doing it for ourselves–we’re paving the way for all of those coming up behind us. That means that “success” isn’t always something reserved for the trailblazer. Sometimes we get to start down a path that others will take up and continue, and that’s a win in and of itself.
While in Copenhagen, Poppy worked on proving that the cores of exploding stars can produce convection. He explained this phenomenon to me as being like trying to push a beach ball underwater. When the elements within a star are mixed up, as can happen in a supernova, the energy in the star is lowered and it becomes convectionally unstable. The convection is a result of the metaphorical beach ball popping back up. “I was the first one to realize that neutrinos could act like a light fluid that wants to pop up,” he told me with a bit of pride. “People use that all the time now.”
I love that areas of his research became trail markers for the researchers coming up behind him. That’s one of the powerful things about blazing new trails–the areas you uncover are there for others to explore further.
From what I understand of my father, he’s always been this way. Stories of his childhood share the same humble, curious confidence that I’ve observed in him. But not all trailblazers have to be born that way. I’ve experienced plenty of anxiety and doubt on my journey into blazing new trails. Every time I push through it and am met with either success or, more often, survivable failure, I build up confidence to push further.
So when you don’t know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there, how do you know what direction to go? A framework that I’ve found helpful–no doubt inspired by the way I’ve seen Poppy navigate his work–is to think about what I’m passionate or curious about, what I’m good at, and where I’m needed.
This triangulation of curiosity, skills, and opportunity led Poppy from theoretical to applied astrophysics. After a colleague mentioned to him that, in order to take pictures from satellites, there was a need for coolers that go down to cryogenic temperatures (where gasses liquify) without producing vibrations, he spent about a year thinking about the problem. He allowed himself to brainstorm all kinds of wild ideas, explaining to me that “I’m very kind to myself when I have stupid ideas.”
He learned that some physicists had already come up with a system to cool gasses using lasers, but it hadn’t yet been done efficiently. Based on this, Poppy and his colleagues came up with a laser cooling system that worked for satellite imaging. At the beginning, they were able to cool solids by 3/10 of a degree centigrade, and they ultimately progressed to cooling solids to 200 degrees below room temperature. The article describing this research in Nature Journal was his most cited to date.
In 2010, Poppy “retired” from LANL and moved the laser cooling project to his own company, Thermodynamic Films, in collaboration with Sheik-Bahae at University of New Mexico. This collaboration resulted in years of successful laser cooling research and experimentation, a deep friendship, and many opportunities to wander into the unknown.
“Richard enters into territories that are totally new to him, outside of his comfort zone, and ends up making impactful contributions,” Mansoor shared. “He started as a theoretical astrophysicist and ended up a pioneer in optical refrigeration. He doesn’t care that he lacks prior knowledge, because he’s confident that he can still add something in the end. That’s what I admire him for–that sense of fearlessness.”
Poppy’s fearless exploration of new areas isn’t limited to his professional life either. He started snowboarding at age 45, summited Mount Rainier at age 63, started ice skating at age 68 (and went viral for it when I shared his recent performance), and let me take him on a flying trapeze for his 70th birthday. The guy loves a good adventure!
WHEN THE END OF THE JOURNEY APPROACHES
Trailblazing is about the experiences we have and the results as we navigate them, and it’s also about the legacy we leave behind. The way that our journeys carry on beyond us, and the opportunity we have to change things for the better–whether that be the way astrophysicists understand the origins of the universe or the way someone sees possibilities for themselves in the path you have taken–can be profound.
Poppy has been diagnosed with a series of cancers in recent years, the latest being stage four prostate cancer. The news of this latest and most scary cancer was what sent me down this path, researching my father’s scientific journey. As this journey has unfolded, it has revealed to me a true depth of understanding of all the ways in which he’s been so much more than a loving, supportive father. His adventurous approach to life has directly influenced my own. That probably seems obvious, but until grappling with his mortality, it hadn’t fully hit me.
Poppy is still doing well at the time of this writing, but the diagnoses juxtaposed with his continuing accomplishments and explorations has big implications for how we reconcile blazing new trails with our inevitable trail-end. Even though we all know we’ll die someday, the time and cause are usually a mystery. That absence of detail helps us focus on our present work and future aspirations. So what changes when we do have a stronger sense of the end?
In 2014, Poppy had an adventurous idea about an area largely new to him: wind energy. He hypothesized and then built a method for harnessing energy from the wind without any moving parts. His aptly-named Solid-state Wind Energy Transformer (SWET) started by “daydreaming about electrons,” as he described the process “and coming up with paradoxes in [his] mind.” He then came up with a version of the idea and refined it over time, “each iteration slightly less stupid than the previous,” he joked.
SWET releases negative ions into the air, and then when the wind blows them away from the emitter, the voltage differential produces electrical power. After publishing his findings in Applied Physics Letters, he got a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
He started by building a 20 foot structure on the roof of my parents’ adobe house in Santa Fe. After a few years of tinkering, and a major windstorm that eventually knocked the structure down, he built an even larger prototype on a vacant farm in Nambe, NM. This latest version, which I saw on a recent visit, consists of 35 foot high utility poles spaced 100 ft apart, 120 wires strung in a triangular formation, and a tent full of circuits that he constructed.
Despite initial success and a popular youtube video someone made about the project, he’s still not sure it’s going to work. And that doesn’t bother him. “Usually when things don’t work I understand why. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t work, so maybe it does,” he explained lightly. Levity and patience are key ingredients to finding peace – and ultimately success – in the act of wandering into new spaces.
None of us know when our own journeys will end, and what state our explorations will be in at that time. In Poppy’s case, he has a diagnosis that likely gives some clues to the how, if not the when, he will have to leave his latest research where it is, for others to pick up. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking steps forward, sitting in the patience of not knowing the outcomes and staying curious about what’s next.
The simplicity and peacefulness through which Poppy wanders into uncharted territories is endlessly inspiring to me. “I’m always looking forward, not looking back. I’d like to be remembered for the things I’m going to do next year.”
When we got his diagnosis, we realized that this will probably be the thing that ultimately kills him. He faced his crying daughter and his own mortality and, smiling kindly, simply told me, “I love you and you love me. And that’s just perfect.”
internal images courtesy of author