No, but I've got lots of thank you letters! It was the first time I'd been exposed to that, where you felt that if you did something wrong, the world could blow up. It clearly was not really true, but there was a sense of the awesome.
At that time there was a remote chance of nuclear war because it required that one of us would do something absolutely loony, knowing it would be suicidal. Today, [with] additional countries or terrorists getting nuclear weapons, the chances of one being used are, I believe, higher, but the consequences are much lower. One nuclear weapon is terrible; it's not as terrible as 10,000. We peaked out between us at about 50,000 [during the Cold War].
Do people conflate domestic and weaponized nuclear power?
Graham Allison and I wrote a paper in the early '80s called "The Utility Director's Dilemma." I remember saying, "This is the most depressing thing I've ever written." You start with the mushroom cloud. You have radiation -- invisible, insidious, eternal. There's cancer. Genetic effects. You take these things in combination, people think, I don't have to know the probability, I don't want this in my neighborhood! Can nuclear reactors blow up like nuclear weapons? No, but there's still some of that in people's minds. They do conflate them.
You once said that a can of worms can be used for catching fish--
Did I say that? That's pretty good!
Your other recent work was on the National Research Council's report on climate change; is it the kind of can of worms you meant?
In climate change, remember you're trying to look 50 years ahead. We have these climate models [but] there's uncertainty. How many people are going to be on Earth? What kind of energy are they going to use? How much greenhouse gas will they put into the atmosphere? What technological breakthroughs might reduce it? This is a risk-management problem. [Some] say, well, we should invest very heavily in research and development for technological breakthroughs rather than tax carbon and spend money now. Others say, that's really risky if you don't come up with a solution. We reaffirmed that climate change is likely primarily due to human activity, that the risks are cause for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and prepare to adapt to it. We believe it is more dangerous to do nothing than to do some things now, but you should revisit [it] all the time.
What do you make of what's happening to the University of California?
We had this great public university, but you didn't have to insert the word "public." [It was] able to compete with the best of the privates. We're losing that. We may already have lost it, in large measure. Students now pay more in tuition fees than the state provides. The resource gap is too great.
It's not as if all the fine professors suddenly will leave for private universities, [but] when you're trying to recruit new people, they're going to have this in mind. Graduate students will consider going where they can get a better financial package.
What can you do about this? You could have more state funding; a friend of mine said that's called faith-based funding. You could have less cuts. You could have a greater degree of what's called privatization. You might [accept] more out-of-state students -- there's a $22,000 premium for out-of-state students. You could have higher fees and higher aid. No one of these things would do it. It isn't as if there's nothing you could do, but they're all politically difficult.
[The education master plan] has served this state extraordinarily well -- the education level of the citizenry, the ability to maintain fine research universities, to have the kinds of jobs and economic growth California has had. If we want to maintain that excellence, it's going to cost more.
I'm not badmouthing the University of California, but all of the signs for the future are in the wrong direction if it's to continue to compete with the best of the privates. It will still be a leading public university, but that shouldn't be good enough for us.
You've sure waded into deep waters in your career.
I've chosen to work on problems that I think are really important, recognizing that I can't completely solve them. I started out doing mostly mathematics, where you could solve the problem. I miss that. You could say: "Here's the answer! It's 17!" Whereas the best I can hope for is [that] I can make it better. And that's what I've been doing for decades now.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.