In Search of Refinement

The Gentleman Laureate (Sir Anthony Leggett)

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The Nobel Prize has always vaguely irritated me. The idea that one’s entire research career might somehow be neatly defined by what a bunch of Swedes happen to find noteworthy has long struck me as arbitrary at best and, in my darker moments, a sad commentary on our need for self-affirmation.

Richard Feynman typically summed it up best when asked if his work on quantum electrodynamics fully merited being awarded the Prize: “I don’t know anything about the Nobel Prize and what’s worth what … I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick of the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal.” 

On the other hand, it’s clear that these sorts of major prizes and awards have their uses. Life without the annual Nobel announcements, for example, would mean that the mainstream media would pay even less attention than usual to scientific discoveries, literary accomplishments, or the enlightened few who are advancing the cause of global peace.

The Nobel Prize does one other very useful thing too: it provides a sort of academic bulletproofing for those who might wish to indulge in more general musings on the future of their field, speculations which are invariably great fun for the rest of us who might be unwilling or unable to follow technical arguments in detail.

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Along with two others (Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginsburg), Tony Leggett won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2003 for “pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids” and is universally appreciated as that very rare bird indeed: an unequivocally brilliant and unreservedly decent person. In a world filled to the brim with tedious academic posturing and self-proclaimed geniuses, Leggett has earned the reputation of, as a friend of mine once neatly put it, the one Nobel Laureate that people would most enthusiastically invite over to dinner.

He is also, in his own quiet and unpretentious way, one of physics’ most penetrating and thoughtful popularizers. In 1987, one year earlier than Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and more than a decade before Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, Tony penned The Problems of Physics, an insightful and punchy itemization of the physics landscape according to four basic categories: the very small (particle physics), the very large (cosmology), the very complex (condensed matter physics), and the very unclear (foundations of quantum theory).

The book is a delightfully written summary that is surprisingly relevant today, notwithstanding all of our modern advances. Likely for these reasons, Oxford University Press elected to re-issue it in 2006.

The last category of The Problems of Physics is a particularly intriguing one. Back in 1987, discussions of foundational aspects of quantum mechanics were regarded by the vast majority of working physicists as roughly on par with astrology or alchemy in terms of respectability. Tony, however, 16 years before his bulletproofing Nobel was awarded, clearly felt no hesitation to boldly stroll into the quantum labyrinth.

Indeed he has spent a significant percentage of his professional scientific life quietly probing the foundations of quantum mechanics, determined to find where the theory will break down. On the surface, this might not sound terribly surprising. After all, quantum mechanics has long been recognized as a framework fraught with a bevy of conceptual and logical difficulties that has tormented some of the best scientific minds the world has ever known, including luminaries such as Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger who did so much to develop the theory in the first place.

But precisely for this reason, modern physics has distanced itself from efforts to penetrate the mystery that is quantum theory, summarily branding all of that business as “intractable philosophy”, while anxiously moving on to attacking problems it might actually solve (such as superfluidity). After all, however it might trouble us conceptually, it can’t be denied that quantum mechanics works like a charm.

Once again Richard Feynman, set the tone: “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

Tony Leggett, however, in his ever so polite, understated way stubbornly refused to give in:

“What really worries me is Schrödinger’s cat. The formulas of quantum mechanics haven’t changed a whit as we go from the description it gives of the photon to the description it gives of the cat. If we refuse to make a particular interpretation at the microscopic level, then we have no business reintroducing that interpretation at the macroscopic level.

“The evidence for this statement is there at the microscopic level in the form of interference patterns, but everyone agrees that, at the level of the cat, it has gone away. But does the fact that the evidence against a particular interpretation of the formalism has gone away by the time we get to the cat mean that we can freely reintroduce that interpretation? I say, ‘no’. If you decide that a particular interpretation of a general formalism is not valid at the micro level then it can’t be at the macro level.”

What separates Leggett from many of the others concerned about the foundations of quantum theory, and incidentally unites him with Feynman, is his insistence on the importance of experiment to probe our theoretical constructs:

“Perhaps I’m just ultraconservative, but my attitude has always been that physics is an experimental subject; you don’t want to push your theoretical speculations too far beyond what we can currently access experimentally. I suppose that’s why I’ve always stayed within the confines of condensed matter physics, or things somewhat related to condensed matter physics, because I like the fact that, if I have an idea, there is some hope that my experimental colleagues will be able to test it during my lifetime.”

Three decades later, the physics world has caught up to Professor Leggett. The rise of quantum information theory, quantum computing and quantum cryptography has breathed new life into the business of probing the limits of quantum theory.

“When I first started thinking seriously about this, way back around 1980, I quite seriously hoped that when you got to the level of the so-called ‘flux qubit’ – where the two states you’re talking about are different in the behavior of something like, say, ten billion electrons – by that time something else might have happened. Right now, it looks as if quantum mechanics is working fine at that level.”

When I pushed him to speculate on what physicists will believe 50 years from now, he responded: “In 50 years, I think there will have been a major revolution in cosmology, and I think there’s a small but non-zero chance that we will have pushed quantum mechanics in the direction of the macroscopic world to the point where it will fail and break down.”

Not much cause for enthusiasm, then, for quantum philosophers anxious to see some revolutionary developments. But what if we take a still longer view? Will quantum mechanics definitely break down at some point? I pressed him.

“Yes”, he responded, firmly and unhesitatingly.

He may seem like a kindly English grandfather, but the scientific will that drives Sir Anthony Leggett is as hard as steel.

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For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Tony, click here. The IR eBook The Problems of Physics containing the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Tony and a range of additional resources is available on Amazon.

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Dancing To His Own Tune (David Politzer)

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Image: Chris McKenna

It took a bit of time to get David Politzer to agree to sit down and talk with me. A co-recipient of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics, he was all too familiar with people approaching him out of the sheer excitement at being able to tell their friends that they had spent some time chatting with a Nobel Laureate.

That wasn’t my problem. By a curious twist of fate, over the years I had found myself spending enough time in the company of Nobel Laureates to know that it could often be a highly overrated experience. Indeed, other than a few notable exceptions (such as the almost overwhelmingly genial Tony Leggett), knowing that someone had a Nobel Prize invariably made me look searchingly towards the nearest exit.

Still, it was David’s Nobel that first brought him to my attention, as it were. Years ago an astute colleague urged me to read The Dilemma of Attribution, David’s clever, thoughtful, and humble Nobel lecture that detailed the communal nature of frontline scientific inquiry: using his own “Nobel-winning” work on asymptotic freedom to explicitly demonstrate how science builds shining edifices of our understanding by rigorously compiling insights by different researchers, one upon the other. (more…)

Equations of State (David Armitage)

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Why study history?

It’s a deceptively penetrating question, and asking it runs a serious risk of being subjected to a barrage of knee-jerk homilies, from the importance of a general cultural understanding to a basic appreciation of different ways of doing things. More often than not, however, you will hear talk of the importance of applying lessons from history to better navigate present challenges, typically invoking George Santanya’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For David Armitage, Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, the reality is rather murkier: it’s not so much that studying history will enable us to avoid committing the same mistakes as our predecessors, but that considerable effort needs to be made to get a clear sense of what these predecessors thought they were doing in the first place.

“How are we to put ideas and other cultural forms into the past in such a way that they become comprehensible in past terms, but then can also be rendered comprehensible in the present?

“Whether it’s a Shakespeare play, an epic poem by John Milton, a work of political thought by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke, or performances of 16th-century music – we can’t hear with 16th-century ears, but we can approximate to 16th-century performance practices in singing: how does one bridge that gap to recover some kind of authenticity, to understand how the original creators, or in the case of music, performers, understood what they were doing?” (more…)

The Next Big Thing? (Elyn Saks)

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People like to talk about transformative social change, but almost everyone gets it wrong. When I was a teenager, for example, there was much talk about the pressing challenges of finding meaningful ways to fill the bourgeoning amount of free time that our rapidly improving technology would inevitably bring. These days, such talk produces the same sort of whistful smile as the flying cars that futurologists confidently told us that we’d be piloting, Jetson-like, to our personal helipods.

Meanwhile, gay marriage is now largely accepted throughout most Western countries, and recreational marijuana use is legal in no less than 8 American states. Maybe somebody saw that coming, but nobody I know did (myself most definitely included).

When it comes to mental illness, on the other hand, the record is much more mixed. As neuroscience strides ahead at stunning speed and psychologists rush to embrace the likes of fMRI and other real-time imaging tools, it’s difficult to say whether or not, when all is said and done, we live in a more or less tolerant society than when I was in high school. (more…)

A Work In Progress (Carol Dweck)

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Image by Brittany.lee2

Blame it on my physics background. When I first arranged to sit down with world- renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, I was pretty skeptical of the prospect of any genuine insights coming out of the experience. After all, I generally make a habit of avoiding the self-help section of a bookstore with a disdainful smirk, and Carol’s 2006 bestselling work, Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential seemed to me as good a poster boy of the pop psychology genre as one might find. Still, I told myself, as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, she was a highly respected academic with a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment. Of course, I couldn’t help immediately reflexively adding, that was in psychology. Which is all to say that, awards, publications and an endowed chair at Stanford notwithstanding, expectations were still emphatically low. (more…)

Redefining Ourselves (Quentin Skinner)

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Sometimes it’s good to take a little distance.

As we begin the week that formally ushers in an era in American politics that few saw coming and many regard as little short of catastrophic, we turn to the eminent intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London for some much-needed perspective.

Not, as it happens, to try to understand how we got here, for Quentin will be the first to tell you that he is not that sort of historian.

“I’m very interested in the history of moral and political philosophy, but I’m not interested in the history because it’s what we talk about now.

“I believe that the sensibility of the historian is to try to study the past on its own terms, insofar as we can manage.  If we do that, then what we find is that in our modern culture there are many paths not taken.

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win?” (more…)

Gesturing Towards Diversity (Carol Padden)

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Last week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, acknowledgement of the deep similarities between humans and other animals across a wide range of domains, from the intellectual to the ethical.

Language, however, seems to be different. While it’s clear that other animals have developed numerous ways to effectively communicate with each other, it’s equally clear that the gulf between animal and human communication is overwhelmingly vast. In other words, however much we narrow the gap between humans and our fellow creatures, to speak of a chimpanzee or dolphin Shakespeare seems to stretch credulity to the point of absurdity. Little wonder, then, that throughout the ages many have regarded language as the single most defining characteristic of being human.

But what, you might ask, is language anyway? This might seem an obvious question, but a few moments of reflection demonstrate that it’s hardly so simple. While most languages exist in written form, not all do (or did). And while language obviously allows us to communicate basic information to each other (The food is over there), by limiting any definition to such a rudimentary level we are running a serious risk of blurring the very distinction that gives language its unique evocative power. (more…)

Reasons For Optimism (Frans de Waal)

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Young Chimps by Tambako The Jaguar

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about our fellow humans these days, but starting a new year is as good a reason as any to embrace a little bit of optimism.

An obvious way to proceed is by appreciating the progress recently made that, due to its gradual pace, has been largely imperceptible. A noted example involves Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist and writer.

Frans has been urging us to focus our attention on the animal kingdom for years now, through such books as Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, The Bonobo and the Atheist and, most recently, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

These books, I must confess, hardly produce unequivocally positive sentiments, filled as they are with untold examples of our collective sense of grandiosity and hubris as we continue to dogmatically maintain our own superiority – emotionally, intellectually and ethically – to the other nonhuman life that surrounds us, often in the face of much concrete evidence to the contrary. (more…)

What Memories Are Made Of (Elizabeth Loftus)

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Elizabeth Loftus in conversation with Howard Burton

The holiday season, for better or worse, is a time of year richly associated with memories: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but nearly always formative.  Or so we all believe.

We usher in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, the Robert Burns poem that begins Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind and continues for a further five verses or so that most of us have, rather ironically, either resoundingly forgotten or never bothered to learn.

In short, memory is the vital human ingredient for reflection, taking stock, and – hopefully – making progress.

But what if memory itself is far more tenuous, very far from the reliably objective record of the past that we all believe? What if, instead, they are foggy, unreliable accounts that can be fairly easily manipulated? (more…)

Telling It Like It Is (Paul Steinhardt)

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Paul Steinhardt in conversation with Howard Burton

One of the greatest challenges for teachers of science and mathematics, it is often declared, is finding ways of attracting young people to their vitally important subjects.

All too often this results in skeptical students being bombarded with an uninspiring mix of obvious propaganda (Science is fun!), appeals to self-interest (Mathematics is the key to unlocking doors to a successful career!), and a bit of social guilt thrown in for good measure (A background in science is essential for grappling with the next generation of societal issues!).

Unsurprisingly, such tactics don’t tend to work very well. The very nature of fun is that it is inherently self-evident: trying to convince people that something is fun is very much like trying to convince them that their healthy vegetables are also great-tasting. (more…)