James Trefil celebrates 50 years of service


Robinson Professor James Trefil is the third George Mason University faculty member to reach the milestone of 50 years of service, but his story is a bit different. Trefil taught at the University of Virginia before joining Mason’s then brand-new Robinson Professor Program in 1987.

A theoretical physicist and huge proponent of science literacy, Trefil has written extensively about science for a lay audience, including more than 50 books. With his colleague, Robinson Professor of Earth Science Robert Hazen, he created and taught the popular PROV 301 Great Ideas in Science, a class for nonscience majors that introduces ideas that have shaped science, from the building of Stonehenge to the Big Bang.

A Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association of the Advancement of Science, and the World Economic Forum, he has received numerous awards including the Andrew Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics for “outstanding and sustained contributions in presenting a broad range of topics in physics to millions of nonscientists around the world,” and the inaugural AAAS Science Book Editor’s Award.

We sat down to talk to him via Zoom about his life, work, and role in Mason’s history.

James Trefil in his office in 2001. Photo by Creative Services

On becoming a scientist

I had a really good chemistry teacher in high school named Willard Meuhl. He was the first person who told me, “Hey, kid, you're good at this.” I came from a blue-collar neighborhood, and it wasn't clear to me until he told me that I could actually do it. I grew up in Chicago, where they have a lot of good museums, which were free at the time. I would go down to the Field Museum or the Adler Planetarium on a weekend and just hang out. I found this world of beauty and order that was very appealing to me. And I got the idea that I could be part of that. Also reading science fiction. I still go back and read Isaac Asimov stories.

On choosing physics as a discipline

When I went to University of Illinois, I was going to major in chemistry because of my high school teacher. But in the chemistry class, I kept asking questions like ‘Why do electrons go in those orbits and not some other orbits?’ And the instructor would always say, ‘Well, you got to go to physics to get an answer for that.’ The short answer is physics is where you ask the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.

Theoretical physics is where you try to find the answers to what the experiments are finding. I worked with a couple of experimental groups early on in my career at the German Electron Synchrotron Laboratory in Hamburg. It was very corporate. Everybody had their assigned tasks, and you do what you're doing and you report it to your boss. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to think my own thoughts and do things on my own, and a theorist doesn't need anything more than pencil and paper, or these days a laptop.

On becoming a Robinson Professor

I got this letter from Steve Diner who was vice provost at the time. It was sort of the standard ‘We have this position open…do you know anybody who'd be interested.’ I looked at it and said, ‘Hell, yes—me!’

Clarence Robinson had given George Johnson this money to move the university forward. And George decided that what he saw as the biggest problem in academe was senior faculty didn't talk to undergraduates. He started looking for people who were established in a field, but who thought across disciplinary lines, and had a history of teaching undergraduates.

Coming to Mason back then—we're talking about the 1970s and 80s—it reminded me of these towns in Western movies with unpaved streets. I remember they brought the new faculty together for a reception at what was then the Patriot Center. We were looking out toward what would become the Center for the Arts. At that time, it was just a swamp, and they had a drawing of what it was going to be like in the future with all these buildings. But I remember looking at that drawing and thinking “in your dreams.” But it happened. Watching this university grow has been an amazing experience.

James Trefil and Honors College Dean Zofia Burr (far right) meet with Honors College students in 2010. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

In those days, we were kind of a kitchen cabinet [for George Johnson]. I remember one meeting where George came in and said, “We're going to get rid of the geology department.” [Hazen] and I started arguing with him. We suggested turning it into the planetary science and earth science department. And George listened to us. In fact, that was the start of a major program here that spawned several departments.

On teaching undergraduates

I love it. They have their whole lives in front of them and are so full of enthusiasm. It's just fun being around them.

On science literacy

I wanted to teach what I called a scientific literacy course. The idea is very simple. To live in the United States in 21st century, you really should know a little bit about science. You don't have to be a scientist, you don't have to do calculus, but you should be able to read the newspaper. Then if somebody is talking about whether the use of stem cells is moral, you should know what a stem cell is. The course doesn't have a lot of math in it, but it has these great ideas. Bob and I taught it for many years. The first time I offered it I limited the enrollment to 10, because I didn't know if I could actually do it. But it went well. Bob and I are now working on the ninth edition of a textbook that came out of this course, “The Sciences: An Integrated Approach.” It's used in a couple of hundred universities around the country.

On partnering with Bob Hazen and other ‘Robinsons’

There were three scientists in the Robinson program—myself, Bob Hazen, and the late Harold Morowitz, and any possible permutation of collaboration between the three of us that you can imagine happened at one time or another. We wrote books together. We wrote articles and opinion pieces. We designed courses together. In fact, it was a Christmas party at my house when Harold asked a very simple question: What minerals were here when the earth was formed? Bob started to think about the idea of minerals accumulating over time and evolving, which is a major new breakthrough in that field for which he has been recognized. But it started with just a simple question.

Also three of us Robinsons were at Oxford at the same time. I was there as a Marshall Scholar, John Paden was there as a Rhodes Scholar, and Paul D’Andrea was there studying literature. John was captain of the basketball team, and I was a second-string power forward. So we actually played basketball on the same team a hundred years ago. Then we wind up with offices next to each other at Mason.

On establishing a College of Science

I think probably the most important thing that I did for Mason was chair the committee that founded the College of Science. I was asked to chair because I was the only scientist they could find who didn't have a stake in how things turned out—I didn’t need more space or another faculty slot. It gave me kind of a different standing with the committee that was very useful. In the end, I wrote the proposal that the Board of Visitors approved, and we now have a College of Science. We were just getting into being a major research university. And if you want to attract big money from one of these agencies, you got to convince them that you're ready. The College of Science has helped us do that.

On writing books

One of my favorite books is one I wrote very early on in my career called “Meditations at 10,000 Feet.” I used to spend my summers in Montana and go hiking in the mountains. In that book, I talked about different kinds of things that happened on my hikes and then how they led to lessons about the way the universe works. I also took a lot of photographs, which are in the book. My most favorite book is the one I just wrote with [Mason professor] Mike Summers, “Imagined Life: A Speculative Scientific Journey among the Exoplanets in Search of Intelligent Aliens, Ice Creatures, and Supergravity Animals.” We were trying to figure out what kinds of living things could exist in the universe. That that was a lot of fun.

On the future of the Robinson program

We were brought here to put the university on the map, and we, and a lot of other Mason faculty, have done that. We are on the map now, and we're an R1 research university, and we're up there in the rankings. So now the question is what can we offer the students that they might not get otherwise? I think bringing in people who have succeeded in some other part of life, but don't have necessarily have the kind of academic credentials that would get them into a regular department is a good way to go. [Robinson Professor] Steve Pearlstein is a perfect example of that. He’s a guy with a Pulitzer Prize who has accomplished a lot in life. Somebody like that has a lot to offer students.