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.
It was the sort of thing that leaves a deep impression. So years later, when I began thinking about people to talk to for Ideas Roadshow, David was never far down the list, despite the fact that I’d never met him and just about the only things I knew about him were that he was a co- discoverer of asymptotic freedom, had worked under the legendary Sidney Coleman, and had penned a uniquely incisive Nobel lecture.
When the time came to take a closer look, however, I was astounded to discover that his current line of research was focused around something called ‘Banjo physics’. A euphemism, perhaps? No. The lion’s share of David’s scientific efforts these days, it seemed, were focused on what, exactly, accounts for the banjo’s unique twang.
Well, this was interesting. And a few more moments of googling revealed that, contrary to my first impression (no banjo aficionado, I, it must be admitted), there seemed to be a surprising amount of captivating science to learn about here.
Immediately, and not for the first time, I was reminded of one of the many legendary quotes by the celebrated Richard Feynman: Everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.
The comparisons didn’t end there. Feynman would routinely tackle a wide variety of scientific problems, spurred on by his insatiable, child-like quest to simply “figure things out”, flagrantly indifferent to (indeed, at times, often actively hostile to) whether his colleagues considered the topic sufficiently “fundamental” enough. He was also, famously, a music lover, and a long-time faculty member at the California Institute of Technology. And along the way, he too, of course, had picked up a Nobel Prize (in 1965) for his seminal contributions to particle physics.
Of course David is not Feynman – nobody is. But for me, at least, talking to this excitable New York-born, Nobel Laureate in his Pasadena office a few doors down from where his erstwhile colleague revolutionized our understanding in so many colorful and unique ways, the spirit of Feynman was always with us.
No surprise, then, that we began our conversation with David enthusiastically relaying to me some heartfelt reminiscences of what life was like working with Feynman. It was a joyous celebration of everything I loved about physics and the human spirit.
And then we turned to the banjo, where there was no shortage of intriguing and unexpected revelations to be had, from how an open-backed banjo is like an ocarina, to the different effects of string-stretching, to the peculiarities of coupled, damped oscillators and how sometimes vibrations don’t die away as expected, to how properly understanding sound naturally involves taking into consideration how our brains work.
And through it all David’s unrelenting, unfiltered, curiosity shone brightly through. Over and over again, whether he spoke about banjo twang or the question of information loss in black holes, he’d declare, I want to know what is really happening there. What’s really going on?
At one point, when discussing some of his work in condensed-matter physics, he explicitly detailed his approach:
“There were questions there that I thought we should be able to answer. It wasn’t hugely speculative. There was a way to carve out some very straightforward, Politzer-like, question that would have an answer; and some of it I was able to answer. That made me feel good.”
It wasn’t Feynman. But it was deeply Feynman-like: the inspiring sound of another deeply passionate physicist unpretentiously marching to the sound of his own drum. Or in this case: his own banjo.
For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with David Politzer, click here. The IR eBook The Physics of Banjos containing the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with David and a range of additional resources is available on Amazon, while the podcast of our one-hour video with David is now freely available on iTunes.
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