The following is a conversation with Frank Wilczek,
a theoretical physicist at MIT who won the Nobel Prize
for the co discovery of asymptotic freedom
in the theory of strong interaction.
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As a side note, let me say a word about asymptotic freedom.
Protons and neutrons make up the nucleus of an atom.
Strong interaction is responsible
for the strong nuclear force that binds them.
But strong interaction also holds together the quarks
that make up the protons and neutrons.
Frank Wilczek, David Gross, and David Politzer
came up with a theory postulating
that when quarks come really close to one another,
the attraction abates and they behave like free particles.
This is called asymptotic freedom.
This happens at very, very high energies,
which is also where all the fun is.
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast,
and here is my conversation with Frank Wilczek.
What is the most beautiful idea in physics?
The most beautiful idea in physics
is that we can get a compact description of the world
that’s very precise and very full
at the level of the operating system of the world.
That’s an extraordinary gift.
And we get worried when we find discrepancies
between our description of the world
and what’s actually observed
at the level even of a part in a billion.
You actually have this quote from Einstein
that the most incomprehensible thing
about the universe is that it is comprehensible,
something like that.
Yes, so that’s the most beautiful surprise
that I think that really was to me the most profound result
of the scientific revolution of the 17th century
with the shining example of Newtonian physics
that you could aspire to completeness, precision,
and a concise description of the world,
of the operating system.
And it’s gotten better and better over the years
and that’s the continuing miracle.
Now, there are a lot of beautiful sub miracles too.
The form of the equations is governed
by high degrees of symmetry
and they have a very surprising kind
of mind expanding structure,
especially in quantum mechanics.
But if I had to say the single most beautiful revelation
is that, in fact, the world is comprehensible.
Would you say that’s a fact or a hope?
It’s a fact.
We can do, you can point to things like
the rise of gross national products per capita
around the world as a result of the scientific revolution.
You can see it all around you.
And recent developments with exponential production
of wealth, control of nature at a very profound level
where we do things like sense tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny
vibrations to tell that there are black holes
colliding far away or we test laws as I alluded to
whether it’s part in a billion and do things
in what appear on the surface
to be entirely different conceptual universes.
I mean, on the one hand, pencil and paper
are nowadays computers that calculate abstractions
and on the other hand, magnets and accelerators
and detectors that look at the behavior
of fundamental particles and these different universes
have to agree or else we get very upset
and that’s an amazing thing if you think about it.
And it’s telling us that we do understand a lot
about nature at a very profound level
and there are still things we don’t understand of course
but as we get better and better answers
and better and better ability to address difficult questions
we can ask more and more ambitious questions.
Well, I guess the hope part of that is because
we are surrounded by mystery.
So one way to say it, if you look at the growth GDP
over time that we figured out quite a lot
and we’re able to improve the quality of life
because of that and we’ve figured out some fundamental things
about this universe but we still don’t know
how much mystery there is and it’s also possible
that there’s some things that are in fact incomprehensible
to both our minds and the tools of science.
Like the sad thing is we may not know it
because in fact they are incomprehensible
and that’s the open question is how much
of the universe is comprehensible?
If we figured out everything what’s inside the black hole
and everything that happened at the moment of the Big Bang
does that still give us the key
to understanding the human mind
and the emergence of all the beautiful complexity
we see around us?
That’s not like when I see these objects
like I don’t know if you’ve seen them like cellular automata
all these kinds of objects where the from simple rules
emerges complexity, it makes you wonder maybe
it’s not reducible to simple beautiful equations
the whole thing only parts of it.
That’s the tension I was getting at with the hope.
Well, when we say the universe is comprehensible
we have to kind of draw careful distinctions
about or definitions about what we mean by that.
Both the universe and the kind of and the comprehensive.
Exactly, right so the so in certain areas
of understanding reality we’ve made extraordinary progress
I would say in understanding fundamental physical processes
and getting very precise equations that really work
and allow us to do the profound sculpting of matter
to make computers and iPhones and everything else
and they really work and they’re extraordinary productions
on the other but and that’s all based
on the laws of quantum mechanics
and they really work and they give us tremendous control
of nature on the other hand as we get better answers
we can also ask more ambitious questions
and there are certainly things that have been observed
even in what would be usually called the realm of physics
that aren’t understood for instance there seems to be
another source of mass in the universe
the so called dark matter that we don’t know what it is
and it’s a very interesting question what it is then
but also as you were alluding to there’s it’s one thing
to know the basic equations it’s another thing
to be able to solve them in important cases
so we run up against the limits of that
in things like chemistry where we’d like to be able
to design molecules and predict their behavior
from the equations we think the equations could do that
in principle but in practice it’s very challenging
to solve them in all but very simple cases
and then there’s the other thing which is that a lot
of what we’re interested in is historically conditioned
it’s not a matter of the fundamental equations
but about what has evolved or come out
of the early universe and formed into people and frogs
and societies and things and the laws of physics
the basic laws of physics only take you so far
in that it kind of provides a foundation
but doesn’t really that you need entirely different concepts
to deal with those kind of systems
and one thing I can say about that is that the laws
themselves point out their limitations
that they kind of their laws for dynamical evolution
so they tell you what happens if you have
a certain starting point but they don’t tell you
what the starting point should be at least yeah
and the other thing that emerges
from the equations themselves is the phenomena
of chaos and sensitivity to initial conditions
which tells us that you have that there are intrinsic
limitations on how well we can spell out the consequences
of the laws if we try to apply them.
It’s the old apple pie if you want to what is it
make an apple pie from scratch you have to build
the universe or something like that.
Well you’re much better off starting with apples
than starting with quarks let’s put it that way.
In your book A Beautiful Question you ask
does the world embody beautiful ideas?
So the book is centered around this very interesting
question it’s like Shakespeare you can like dig in
and read into all the different interpretations
of this question but at the high level what to use
the connection between beauty of the world
and physics of the world.
In a sense we now have a lot of insight into what
the laws are the form they take that allow us
to understand matter in great depth and control it
as we’ve discussed and it’s an extraordinary thing
how mathematically ideal those equations turn out to be.
In the early days of Greek philosophy Plato had this model
of atoms built out of the five perfectly symmetrical
platonic solids so there was somehow the idea
that mathematical symmetry should govern the world
and we’ve out Platoed Plato by far in modern physics
because we have symmetries that are much more extensive
much more powerful that turn out to be the ingredients
out of which we construct our theory of the world
and it works and so that’s certainly beautiful.
So the idea of symmetry which is a driving inspiration
in much of human art especially decorative art
like the Alhambra or wallpaper designs or things
you see around you everywhere also turns out to be
the dominant theme in modern fundamental physics
symmetry and its manifestations the laws turn out
to be very to have these tremendous amounts of symmetry
you can change the symbols and move them around
in different ways and they still have the same consequences.
So that’s beautiful that these concepts that humans
find appealing also turn out to be the concepts
that govern how the world actually works.
I don’t think that’s an accident.
I think humans were evolved to be able to interact
with the world in ways that are advantageous
and to learn from it and so we are naturally evolved
or designed to enjoy beauty and it’s a symmetry
and the world has it and that’s why we resonate with it.
Well it’s interesting that the ideas of symmetry
emerge at many levels of the hierarchy of the universe.
So you’re talking about particles but it also is
at the level of chemistry and biology
and the fact that our cognitive sort of our perception
system and whatever our cognition is also finds
it appealing or somehow our sense of what is beautiful
is grounded in this idea of symmetry
or the breaking of symmetry.
Symmetry is at the core of our conception of beauty
whether it’s the breaking or the non breaking
of the symmetry.
It makes you wonder why.
So I come from Russia and the question of Dostoevsky
he has said that beauty will save the world.
Maybe as a physicist you can tell me
what do you think he meant by that?
I don’t know if it saves the world
but it does turn out to be a tremendous source
of insight into the world.
When we investigate kind of the most fundamental
interactions, things that are hard to access
because they occur at very short distances
between very special kinds of particles
whose properties are only revealed at high energies.
We don’t have much to go on from everyday life
but so we have when we guess what the,
and the experiments are difficult to do
so you can’t really follow a very wholly empirical procedure
to sort of in the Baconian style figure out the laws
kind of step by step just by accumulating a lot of data
what we actually do is guess.
And the guesses are kind of aesthetic really.
What would be a nice description
that’s consistent with what we know
and then you try it out and see if it works
and by gosh it does in many profound cases.
So there’s that but there’s another source of symmetry
which I didn’t talk so much about in a beautiful question
but does relate to your comments
and I think very much relates to the source of symmetry
that we find in biology and in our heads, you know,
in our brain which is that, well it is discussed a bit
in a beautiful question and also in fundamentals
is that when you have, symmetry is also a very important
means of construction.
So when you have for instance simple viruses
that need to construct their coat, their protein coat,
the coats often take the form of platonic solids
and the reason is that the viruses are really dumb
and they only know how to do one thing
so they make a pentagon then they make another pentagon
and they make another pentagon
and they all glue together in the same way
and that makes a very symmetrical object sort of.
So the rules of development when you have simple rules
and they work again and again, you get symmetrical patterns.
That’s kind of, in fact it’s a recipe also
for generating fractals, like the kind of broccoli
that has all this internal structure
and I wish I had a picture to show
but maybe people remember it from the supermarket
and you say how did a vegetable get so intelligent
to make such a beautiful object
with all this fractal structure
and the secret is stupidity.
You just do the same thing over and over again
and in our brains also, you know, we came out,
we start from single cells and they reproduce
and each one does basically roughly the same thing.
The program evolves in time, of course,
different modules get turned on and off,
different regions of the genetic code
get turned on and off but basically,
a lot of the same things are going on
and they’re simple things
and so you produce the same patterns over and over again
and that’s a recipe for producing symmetry
because you’re getting the same thing in many, many places
and if you look at, for instance,
the beautiful drawings of Roman Icahal,
the great neuroanatomist who drew the structure
of different organs like the hippocampus,
you see it’s very regular and very intricate
and it’s symmetry in that sense
because it’s many repeated units
that you can take from one place to the other
and see that they look more or less the same.
But what you’re describing, this kind of beauty
that we’re talking about now is a very small sample
in terms of space time in a very big world
in a very short, brief moment in this long history.
In your book, Fundamentals, 10 Keys to Reality,
I’d really recommend people read it.
You say that space and time are pretty big or very big.
How big are we talking about?
Can you tell a brief history of space and time?
It’s easy to tell a brief history, but the details get very
involved, of course, but one thing I’d like to say
is that if you take a broad enough view,
the history of the universe is simpler
than the history of Sweden, say,
because your standards are lower.
But just to make it quantitative,
I’ll just give a few highlights.
And it’s a little bit easier to talk about time,
so let’s start with that.
The Big Bang occurred, we think.
The universe was much hotter and denser and more uniform
about 13.8 billion years ago,
and that’s what we call the Big Bang.
And it’s been expanding and cooling,
the matter in it has been expanding and cooling ever since.
So in a real sense, the universe is 13.8 billion years old.
That’s a big number, kind of hard to think about.
A nice way to think about it, though,
is to map it onto one year.
So let’s say the universe just linearly mapped
the time intervals from 13.8 billion years onto one year.
So the Big Bang then is on January 1st at 12 a.m.
And you wait for quite a long time
before the dinosaurs emerge.
The dinosaurs emerge on Christmas, it turns out.
12 months, almost 12 months later.
Getting close to the end, yes.
Getting close to the end.
And the extinction event that let the mammals
and ultimately humans inherit the Earth
from the dinosaurs occurred on December 30th.
And all of human history is a small part of the last day.
And so, yes, so we’re occupying only,
and a human lifetime is a very, very infinitesimal part
of this interval of these gigantic cosmic reaches of time.
And in space, we can tell a very similar story.
In fact, it’s convenient to think that the size
of the universe is the distance that light can travel
in 13.8 billion years.
So it’s 13.8 billion light years.
That’s how far you can see out.
That’s how far signals can reach us.
And that is a big distance.
That is a big distance because compared to that, the Earth
is a fraction of a light second.
So again, it’s really, really big.
And so if we wanna think about the universe
as a whole in space and time,
we really need a different kind of imagination.
It’s not something you can grasp
in terms of psychological time in a useful way.
You have to think, you have to use exponential notation
and abstract concepts to really get any hold
on these vast times and spaces.
On the other hand, let me hasten to add
that that doesn’t make us small
or make the time that we have to us small.
Because again, looking at those pictures
of what our minds are and some of the components
of our minds, these beautiful drawings
of the cellular patterns inside the brain,
you see that there are many, many, many processing units.
And if you analyze how fast they operate,
I tried to estimate how many thoughts
a person can have in a lifetime.
That’s kind of a fuzzy question,
but I’m very proud that I was able
to define it pretty precisely.
And it turns out we have time for billions
of meaningful thoughts in a lifetime.
So it’s a lot.
We shouldn’t think of ourselves as terribly small
either in space or in time,
because although we’re small in those dimensions
compared to the universe, we’re large compared
to meaningful units of processing information
and being able to conceptualize and understand things.
Yeah, but 99% of those thoughts are probably food,
sex, or internet related.
Well, yeah, well, they’re not necessarily, that’s right.
Only like point one is Nobel Prize winning ideas.
That’s true, but there’s more to life
than winning Nobel Prizes.
How did you do that calculate?
Can you maybe break that apart a little bit,
just kind of for fun, sort of an intuition
of how we calculate the number of thoughts?
The number of thoughts, right.
It’s necessarily imprecise because a lot of things
are going on in different ways and what is a thought.
But there are several things that point
to more or less the same rate of being able
to have meaningful thoughts.
For instance, the one that I think is maybe
the most penetrating is how fast
we can process visual images.
How do we do that?
If you’ve ever watched old movies,
you can see that, well, any movie, in fact,
a motion picture is really not a motion picture.
It’s a series of snapshots that are playing
one after the other and it’s because our brains
also work that way.
We take snapshots of the world, integrate over a certain time
and then go on to the next one and then by post processing,
create the illusion of continuity and flow,
we can deal with that.
And if the flicker rate is too slow,
then you start to see that it’s a series of snapshots
and you can ask, what is the crossover?
When does it change from being something
that is matched to our processing speed versus too fast?
And it turns out about 40 per second.
And then if you take 40 per second as how well,
how fast we can process visual images,
you get to several billions of thoughts.
If you, similarly, if you ask what are some
of the fastest things that people can do?
Well, they can play video games,
they can play the piano very fast if they’re skilled at it.
And again, you get to similar units
or how fast can people talk?
You get to similar, you know,
within a couple of orders of magnitude,
you get more or less to the same idea.
So that’s how you can say that there’s billions
of meaningful, there’s room for billions
of meaningful thoughts.
I won’t argue for exactly two billion versus 1.8 billion.
It’s not that kind of question,
but I think any estimate that’s reasonable
will come out within, say, 100 billion and 100 million.
So it’s a lot.
It would be interesting to map out
for an individual human being the landscape of thoughts
that they’ve sort of traveled.
If you think of thoughts as a set of trajectories,
what that landscape looks like.
I mean, I’ve been recently really thinking
about this Richard Dawkins idea of memes
and just all this ideas and the evolution of ideas
inside of one particular human mind
and how they’re then changed and evolved
by interaction with other human beings.
It’s interesting to think about.
So if you think the number is billions,
you think there’s also social interaction.
So these aren’t like there’s interaction
in the same way you have interaction with particles.
There’s interaction between human thoughts
that perhaps that interaction in itself
is fundamental to the process of thinking.
Like without social interaction,
we would be like stuck, like walking in a circle.
We need the perturbation of other humans
to create change and evolution.
Once you bring in concepts of interactions
and correlations and relations,
then you have what’s called a combinatorial explosion
that the number of possibilities expands exponentially
technically with the number of things you’re considering.
And it can easily rapidly outstrip these billions
of thoughts that we’re talking about.
So we definitely cannot by brute force
master complex situations
or think of all the possibilities in a complex situations.
I mean, even something as relatively simple as chess
is still something that human beings
can’t comprehend completely.
Even the best players lose, still sometimes lose
and they consistently lose to computers these days.
And in computer science, there’s a concept of NP complete.
So large classes of problems when you scale them up
beyond a few individuals become intractable.
And so that in that sense, the world is inexhaustible.
And that makes it beautiful that we can make any laws
that generalize efficiently and well
can compress all of that combinatorial complexity
just like a simple rule.
That in itself is beautiful.
It’s a happy situation.
And I think that we can find general principles
of sort of of the operating system
that are comprehensible, simple, extremely powerful
and let us control things very well
and ask profound questions.
And on the other hand,
that the world is going to be inexhaustible.
That once we start asking about relationships
and how they evolve and social interactions
and we’ll never have a theory of everything
in any meaningful sense because that.
Of everything, everything, truly everything is.
Can I ask you about the Big Bang?
So we talked about the space and time are really big.
But then, and we humans give a lot of meaning
to the word space and time in our like daily lives.
But then can we talk about this moment of beginning
and how we’re supposed to think about it?
That at the moment of the Big Bang,
everything was what, like infinitely small
and then it just blew up?
We have to be careful here
because there’s a common misconception
that the Big Bang is like the explosion of a bomb
in empty space that fills up the surrounding place.
It is space.
It is, yeah.
As we understand it, it’s the fact,
it’s the fact or the hypothesis,
but well supported up to a point
that everywhere in the whole universe,
early in the history,
matter came together into a very hot, very dense,
if you run it backwards in time,
matter comes together into a very hot, very dense
and yet very homogeneous plasma
of all the different kinds of elementary particles
and quarks and anti quarks and gluons
and photons and electrons and anti electrons,
everything, all of that stuff.
Like really hot.
Really, really, really hot.
We’re talking about way, way hotter
than the surface of the sun.
Well, in fact, if you take the equations as they come,
the prediction is that the temperature
just goes to infinity,
but then the equations break down.
We don’t really, there are various,
the equations become infinity equals infinity,
so they don’t feel that it’s called a singularity.
We don’t really know.
This is running the equations backwards,
so you can’t really get a sensible idea
of what happened before the Big Bang.
So we need different equations
to address the very earliest moments.
But so things were hotter and denser.
We don’t really know why things started out that way.
We have a lot of evidence that they did start out that way.
But since most of the,
we don’t get to visit there and do controlled experiments.
Most of the record is very, very processed
and we have to use very subtle techniques
and powerful instruments to get information
that has survived.
Get closer and closer to the Big Bang.
Get closer and closer to the beginning of things.
And what’s revealed there is that, as I said,
there undoubtedly was a period
when everything in the universe
that we have been able to look at and understand,
and that’s consistent with everything,
is in a condition where it was much, much hotter
and much, much denser,
but still obeying the laws of physics
as we know them today.
And then you start with that.
So all the matter is in equilibrium.
And then with small quantum fluctuations
and run it forward,
and then it produces, at least in broad strokes,
the universe we see around us today.
Do you think we’ll ever be able to,
with the tools of physics, with the way science is,
with the way the human mind is,
we’ll ever be able to get to the moment of the Big Bang
in our understanding or even the moment before the Big Bang?
Can we understand what happened before the Big Bang?
I’m optimistic both that we’ll be able to measure more,
so observe more,
and that we’ll be able to figure out more.
So they’re very, very tangible prospects
for observing the extremely early universe,
so even much earlier than we can observe now
through looking at gravitational waves.
Gravitational waves, since they interact so weakly
with ordinary matter,
sort of send a minimally processed signal from the Big Bang.
It’s a very weak signal
because it’s traveled a long way
and diffused over long spaces,
but people are gearing up to try to detect
gravitational waves that could have come
from the early universe.
Yeah, LIGO’s an incredible engineering project.
It’s the most sensitive, precise devices on Earth.
The fact that humans can build something like that
is truly awe inspiring from an engineering perspective.
Right, but these gravitational waves from the early universe
will probably be of a much longer wavelength
than LIGO is capable of sensing,
so there’s a beautiful project
that’s contemplated to put lasers
in different locations in the solar system.
We really, really separate it
by solar system scale differences,
like artificial planets or moons in different places
and see the tiny motions of those
relative to one another
as a signal of radiation from the Big Bang.
We can also maybe indirectly see the imprint
of gravitational waves from the early universe
on the photons, the microwave background radiation.
That is our present way of seeing into the earliest universe,
but those photons interact much more strongly with matter.
They’re much more strongly processed,
so they don’t give us directly such an unprocessed view
of the early universe, of the very early universe,
but if gravitational waves leave some imprint on that
as they move through, we could detect that too,
and people are trying, as we speak,
working very hard towards that goal.
It’s so exciting to think about a sensor
the size of the solar system.
That would be a fantastic,
I mean, that would be a pinnacle artifact
of human endeavor to me.
It would be such an inspiring thing
that just we want to know,
and we go to these extraordinary lengths
of making gigantic things that are also very sophisticated
because what you’re trying to do,
you have to understand how they move.
You have to understand the properties of light
that are being used, the interference between light,
and you have to be able to make the light with lasers
and understand the quantum theory
and get the timing exactly right.
It’s an extraordinary endeavor
involving all kinds of knowledge
from the very small to the very large,
and all in the service of curiosity
and built on a grand scale, so.
Yeah, it would make me proud to be a human if we did that.
I love that you’re inspired both by the power of theory
and the power of experiment.
So both, I think, are exceptionally impressive
that the human mind can come up with theories
that give us a peek into how the universe works,
but also construct tools that are way bigger
than the evolutionary origins we came from.
Right, and by the way,
the fact that we can design such things and they work
is an extraordinary demonstration
that we really do understand a lot.
And then in some ways.
And it’s our ability to answer questions
that also leads us to be able
to address more ambitious questions.
So you mentioned at the Big Bang in the early days,
things are pretty homogeneous.
But here we are, sitting on Earth,
two hairless apes, you could say, with microphones.
In talking about the brief history of things,
you said it’s much harder to describe Sweden
than it is the universe.
So there’s a lot of complexity.
There was a lot of interesting details here.
So how does this complexity come to be, do you think?
It seems like there’s these pockets.
We don’t know how rare of like where hairless apes emerge.
And then that came from the initial soup
that was homogeneous.
Was that an accident?
Well, we understand in broad outlines
how it could happen.
We certainly don’t understand why it happened exactly
in the way it did.
Or there are certainly open questions
about the origins of life
and how inevitable the emergence of intelligence was
and how that happened.
But in the very broadest terms,
the universe early on was quite homogeneous,
but not completely homogeneous.
There were part in 10,000 fluctuations in density
within this primordial plasma.
And as time goes on, there’s an instability
which causes those density contrasts to increase.
There’s a gravitational instability
where it’s denser, the gravitational attractions
And so that brings in more matter
and it gets even denser and so on and so on.
So there’s a natural tendency of matter to clump
because of gravitational interactions.
And then the equation is complicated.
We have lots of things clumping together.
Then we know what the laws are,
but we have to a certain extent wave our hands
about what happens.
But basic understanding of chemistry
says that if things and the physics of radiation
tells us that as things start to clump together,
they can radiate, give off some energy.
So they don’t just, they slow down.
As a result, they lose energy.
They can collaborate together, cool down,
form things like stars, form things like planets.
And so in broad terms, there’s no mystery.
There’s, that’s what the scenario,
that’s what the equations tell you should happen.
But because it’s a process involving
many, many fundamental individual units,
the application of the laws that govern individual units
to these things is very delicate,
computationally very difficult.
And more profoundly, the equations have
this probability of chaos or sensitivity
to initial conditions, which tells you tiny differences
in the initial state can lead to enormous differences
in the subsequent behavior.
So physics, fundamental physics at some point says,
okay, chemists, biologists, this is your problem.
And then again, in broad terms,
we know how it’s conceivable that the humans
and things like that, how complex structure can emerge.
It’s a matter of having the right kind of temperature
and the right kind of stuff.
So you need to be able to make chemical bonds
that are reasonably stable
and be able to make complex structures.
And we’re very fortunate that carbon has this ability
to make backbones and elaborate branchings and things.
So you can get complex things that we call biochemistry.
And yet the bonds can be broken a little bit
with the help of energetic injections from the sun.
So you have to have both the possibility of changing,
but also the useful degree of stability.
And we know at that very, very broad level, physics
can tell you that it’s conceivable.
If you want to know what really happened,
what really can happen, then you have to work a bit,
go to chemistry.
If you want to know what actually happened,
then you really have to consult the fossil record
And so these ways of addressing the issue
are complimentary in a sense.
They use different kinds of concepts,
they use different languages
and they address different kinds of questions,
but they’re not inconsistent, they’re just complimentary.
It’s kind of interesting to think about those early fluctuations
as our earliest ancestors.
Yes, that’s right.
So it’s amazing to think that this is the modern answer
to the, or the modern version of what the Hindu philosophers
had, that art thou.
If you ask what, okay, those little quantum fluctuations
in the early universe are the seeds out of which complexity,
including plausibly humans, really evolve.
You don’t need anything else.
That brings up the question of asking for a friend here
if there’s other pockets of complexity,
commonly called as alien intelligent civilizations out there.
Well, we don’t know for sure,
but I have a strong suspicion that the answer is yes
because the one case we do have at hand to study
here on Earth, we sort of know what the conditions were
that were helpful to life,
the right kind of temperature, the right kind of star
that keeps, maintains that temperature for a long time,
the liquid environment of water.
And once those conditions emerged on Earth,
which was roughly four and a half billion years ago,
it wasn’t very long before what we call life
started to leave relics.
So we can find forms of life, primitive forms of life
that are almost as old as the Earth itself
in the sense that once the Earth was turned
from a very hot boiling thing
and cooled off into a solid mass with water,
life emerged very, very quickly.
So it seems that these general conditions for life
are enough to make it happen relatively quickly.
Now, the other lesson I think that one can draw
from this one example, it’s dangerous to draw lessons
from one example, but that’s all we’ve got,
and that the emergence of intelligent life
is a different issue altogether.
That took a long time and seems to have been
pretty contingent for a long time.
Well, for most of the history of life,
it was single celled things.
Even multicellular life only rose
about 600 million years ago, so much after.
And then intelligence is kind of a luxury.
Many more kinds of creatures have big stomachs
than big brains.
In fact, most have no brains at all in any reasonable sense.
And the dinosaurs ruled for a long, long time
and some of them were pretty smart,
but they were at best bird brains
because birds came from the dinosaurs.
And it could have stayed that way.
And then the emergence of humans was very contingent
and kind of a very, very recent development
on evolutionary timescales.
And you can argue about the level of human intelligence,
but I think that’s what we’re talking about.
It’s very impressive and can ask these kinds of questions
and discuss them intelligently.
So I guess my, so this is a long winded answer
or justification of my feeling
is that the conditions for life in some form
are probably satisfied many, many places
around the universe and even within our galaxy.
I’m not so sure about the emergence of intelligent life
or the emergence of technological civilizations.
That seems much more contingent and special.
And we might, it’s conceivable to me
that we’re the only example in the galaxy.
Although, yeah, I don’t know one way or the other.
I have different opinions on different days of the week.
But one of the things that worries me
in the spirit of being humble,
that our particular kind of intelligence
is not very special.
So there’s all kinds of different intelligences.
And even more broadly,
there could be many different kinds of life.
So the basic definition, and I just had,
I think somebody that you know, Sarah Walker,
I just had a very long conversation with her
about even just the very basic question
of trying to define what is life from a physics perspective.
Even that question within itself,
I think one of the most fundamental questions
in science and physics and everything
is just trying to get a hold,
trying to get some universal laws
around the ideas of what is life
because that kind of unlocks a bunch of things
around life, intelligence, consciousness,
all those kinds of things.
I agree with you in a sense,
but I think that’s a dangerous question
because the answer can’t be any more precise
than the question.
And the question, what is life,
kind of assumes that we have a definition of life
and that it’s a natural phenomena
that can be distinguished.
But really there are edge cases like viruses
and some people would like to say
that electrons have consciousness.
So you can’t, if you really have fuzzy concepts,
it’s very hard to reach precise kinds of scientific answers.
But I think there’s a very fruitful question
that’s adjacent to it,
which has been pursued in different forms
for quite a while
and is now becoming very sophisticated
in reaching in new directions.
And that is, what are the states of matter
that are possible?
So in high school or grade school,
you learn about solids, liquids and gases,
but that really just scratches the surface
of different ways that are distinguishable,
that matter can form into macroscopically different,
meaningful patterns that we call phases.
And then there are precise definitions
of what we mean by phases of matter
and that have been worked out fruitful over the decades.
And we’re discovering new states of matter all the time
and kind of having to work at what we mean by matter.
We’re discovering the capabilities of matter
to organize in interesting ways.
And some of them, like liquid crystals,
are important ingredients of life.
Our cell membranes are liquid crystals,
and that’s very important to the way they work.
Recently, there’s been a development
in where we’re talking about states of matter
that are not static, but that have dynamics,
that have characteristic patterns,
not only in space, but in time.
These are called time crystals,
and that’s been a development
that’s just in the last decade or so.
It’s just really, really flourishing.
And so is there a state of matter
or a group of states of matter that corresponds to life?
Maybe, but the answer can’t be any more definite
than the question.
I mean, I gotta push back on the,
those are just words.
I mean, I disagree with you.
The question points to a direction.
The answer might be able to be more precise
than the question, because just as you’re saying,
there is a, we could be discovering
certain characteristics and patterns
that are associated with a certain type of matter,
and that we can then be able to post facto say,
this is, let’s assign the word life to this kind of matter.
I agree with that completely, that’s what that’s,
but that’s, so it’s not a disagreement.
It’s very frequent in physics that, or in science,
that words that are in common use
get refined and reprocessed into scientific terms
that’s happened for things like force and energy.
And so we, in a way, we find out
what the useful definition is, or symmetry, for instance.
And the common usage may be quite different
from the scientific usage,
but the scientific usage is special
and takes on a life of its own,
and we find out what the useful version of it is,
the fruitful version of it is.
So I do think, so in that spirit,
I think if we can identify states of matter
or linked states of matter that can carry on processes
of self reproduction and development
and information processing,
we might be tempted to classify those things as life.
Well, can I ask you about the craziest one,
which is the one we know maybe least about,
which is consciousness.
Is it possible that there are certain kinds of matter
would be able to classify as conscious,
meaning like, so there’s the panpsychists, right,
who are the philosophers who kind of try to imply
that all matter has some degree of consciousness,
and you can almost construct like a physics of consciousness.
Do you, again, we’re in such early days of this,
but nevertheless, it seems useful to talk about it.
Is there some sense from a physics perspective
to make sense of consciousness?
Is there some hope?
Well, again, consciousness is a very imprecise word
and loaded with connotations that I think we should,
we don’t wanna start a scientific analysis with that,
I don’t think.
It’s often been important in science
to start with simple cases and work up.
Consciousness, I think what most people think of
when you talk about consciousness is,
okay, what am I doing in the world?
This is my experience.
I have a rich inner life and experience,
and where is that in the equations?
And I think that’s a great question,
a great, great question,
and actually, I think I’m gearing up to spend part of,
I mean, to try to address that in coming years.
One version of asking that question,
just as you said now,
is what is the simplest formulation of that to study?
I think I’m much more comfortable
with the idea of studying self awareness
as opposed to consciousness,
because that sort of gets rid of the mystical aura of the thing.
And self awareness is in simple,
you know, I think contiguous at least
with ideas about feedback.
So if you have a system that looks at its own state
and responds to it, that’s a kind of self awareness.
And more sophisticated versions
could be like in information processing things,
computers that look into their own internal state
and do something about it.
And I think that could also be done in neural nets.
This is called recurrent neural nets,
which are hard to understand and kind of a frontier.
So I think understanding those
and gradually building up a kind of profound ability
to conceptualize different levels of self awareness.
What do you have to not know?
And what do you have to know?
And when do you know that you don’t know it?
Or when do you, what do you think you know
that you don’t really know?
And these, I think clarifying those issues,
when we clarify those issues
and get a rich theory around self awareness,
I think that will illuminate the questions
about consciousness in a way that, you know,
scratching your chin and talking about qualia
and blah, blah, blah, blah is never gonna do.
Well, I also have a different approach to the whole thing.
So there’s, from a robotics perspective,
you can engineer things that exhibit qualities
of consciousness without understanding how things work.
And from that perspective, you, it’s like a back door,
like enter through the psychology door.
Precisely, I think we’re on the same wavelength here.
I think that, and let me just add one comment,
which is I think we should try to understand consciousness
as we experience it as, in evolutionary terms,
and ask ourselves, why, why does it happen?
This thing seems useful.
Why is it useful?
I think we’ve got a conscious eyewatch here.
Thank you, Siri.
I’ll get back to you later.
The, and I think what we’re gonna,
I’m morally certain that what’s gonna emerge
from analyzing recurrent neural nets
and robotic design and advanced computer design
is that having this kind of looking at the internal state
in a structured way that doesn’t look at everything,
this guy’s has, it’s encapsulated,
looks at highly processed information,
is very selective and makes choices
without knowing how they’re made.
There’s, there’ll also be an unconscious.
I think that that is gonna be,
turn out to be really essential
to doing efficient information processing.
And that’s why it evolved,
because it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s helpful in,
because brains come at a high cost.
So there has to be, there has to be a good why.
And there’s a reason, yeah.
They’re rare in evolution and big brains
are rare in evolution and they, they come at a big cost.
You mean, if you, you, they, they,
they have high metabolic demands.
They require, you know, very active lifestyle,
warm bloodedness and take, take away from the ability
to support metabolism of digestion.
And so, so it’s, it’s, it comes at a high cost.
It has to, it has to pay back.
Yeah, I think it has a lot of value in social interaction.
So I actually am spending the rest of the day today
and with our friends that are,
our legged friends in robotic form at Boston Dynamics.
And I think, so my probably biggest passion
is human robot interaction.
And it seems that consciousness from the perspective
of the robot is very useful to improve
the human robot interaction experience.
The first, the display of consciousness,
but then to me, there’s a gray area
between the display of consciousness and consciousness itself.
If you think of consciousness
from an evolutionary perspective,
it seems like a useful tool in human communication, so.
Yes, it’s certainly, well,
whatever consciousness is will turn out to be.
I think addressing it through its use
and working up from simple cases
and also working up from engineering experience
in trying to do efficient computation,
including efficient management of social interactions
is going to really shed light on these questions.
As I said, in a way that sort of musing abstractly
about consciousness never would.
So as I mentioned, I talked to Sarah Walker
and first of all, she says, hi, spoke very highly of you.
One of her concerns about physics and physicists and humans
is that we may not fully understand the system
that we’re inside of.
Meaning like, there may be limits
to the kind of physics we do
in trying to understand the system of which we’re part of.
So like, the observer is also the observed.
In that sense, it seems like
our tools of understanding the world,
I mean, this is mostly centered around the questions
of what is life, trying to understand the patterns
that are characteristic of life and intelligence,
all those kinds of things.
We’re not using the right tools because we’re in the system.
Is there something that resonates with you there?
Well, yes, we have limitations, of course,
in the amount of information we can process.
On the other hand, we can get help from our Silicon friends
and we can get help from all kinds of instruments
that make up for our perceptual deficits.
And we can use, at a conceptual level,
we can use different kinds of concepts
to address different kinds of questions.
So I’m not sure exactly what problem she’s talking about.
It’s a problem akin to an organism living in a 2D plane
trying to understand a three dimensional world.
Well, we can do that.
I mean, in fact, for practical purposes,
most of our experience is two dimensional.
It’s hard to move vertically.
And yet we’ve produced conceptually
a three dimensional symmetry
and in fact, four dimensional space time.
So by thinking in appropriate ways and using instruments
and getting consistent accounts and rich accounts,
we find out what concepts are necessary.
And I don’t see any end in sight of the process
or any showstoppers because, let me give you an example.
I mean, for instance, QCD,
our theory of the strong interaction,
has nice equations, which I helped to discover.
So it’s our theory of the strong interaction,
the interaction that is responsible for nuclear physics.
So it’s the interaction that governs
how quarks and gluons interact with each other
and make protons and neutrons
and all the strong, the related particles
and many things in physics.
It’s one of the four basic forces of nature
as we presently understand it.
And so we have beautiful equations,
which we can test in very special circumstances
using at high energies, at accelerators.
So we’re certain that these equations are correct.
Prizes are given for it and so on.
And people try to knock it down and they can’t.
Yeah, but the situations in which we can calculate
the consequences of these equations are very limited.
So for instance, no one has been able to demonstrate
that this theory, which is built on quarks and gluons,
which no one, which you don’t observe,
actually produces protons and neutrons
and the things you do observe.
This is called the problem of confinement.
So no one’s been able to prove that analytically
in a way that a human can understand.
On the other hand, we can take these equations
to a computer, to gigantic computers and compute.
And by God, you get the world from it.
So these equations in a way that we don’t understand
in terms of human concepts, we can’t do the calculations,
but our machines can do them.
So with the help of what I like to call our silicon friends
and their descendants in the future,
we can understand in a different way
that allows us to understand more.
But I don’t think we’ll ever, no human is ever going
to be able to solve those equations in the same way.
So, but I think that’s, you know,
when we find limitations to our natural abilities,
we can try to find workarounds.
And sometimes that’s appropriate concepts.
Sometimes it’s appropriate instruments.
Sometimes it’s a combination of the two.
But I think it’s premature to get defeatist about it.
I don’t see any logical contradiction
or paradox or limitation
that will bring this process to a halt.
Well, I think the idea is to continue thinking
outside the box in different directions,
meaning just like how the math allows us
to think in multiple dimensions
outside of our perception system, sort of thinking,
you know, coming up with new tools
of mathematics or computation or all those kinds of things
to take different perspectives on our universe.
Well, I’m all for that.
You know, and I kind of have even elevated into a principle
which is of complementarity following Bohr
that you need different ways of thinking
even about the same things
in order to do justice to their reality
and answer different kinds of questions about them.
I mean, we’ve several times alluded to the fact
that human beings are hard to understand
and the concepts that you use to understand human beings
if you wanna prescribe drugs for them
or see what’s gonna happen if they move very fast
or are exposed to radiation.
And so that requires one kind of thinking
that’s very physical based on the fact
that the materials that were made out of.
On the other hand, if you want to understand
how a person’s going to behave
in a different kind of situation,
you need entirely different concepts from psychology
and there’s nothing wrong with that.
You can have very different ways
of addressing the same material
that are useful for different purposes, right?
Can you describe this idea
which is fascinating of complementarity a little bit?
Sort of first of all, what state is the principle?
What is it?
And second of all, what are good examples
starting from quantum mechanics?
You used to mention psychology.
Let’s talk about this more.
It’s like in your new book
one of the most fascinating ideas actually.
I think it’s a wonderful, yeah.
To me it’s, well, it’s the culminating chapter of the book
and I think since the whole book is about the big lessons
or big takeaways from profound understanding
of the physical world that we’ve achieved,
including that it’s mysterious in some ways,
this was the final overarching lesson, complementarity.
Lesson, complementarity and it’s a approach.
So unlike some of these other things
which are just facts about the world,
like the world is both big and small
and different sizes and is big but we’re not small,
things we talked about earlier
and the fact that the universe is comprehensible
and how complexity could emerge from simplicity
and so those things are in the broad sense
facts about the world.
Complementarity is more an attitude towards the world
than encouraged by the facts about the world.
And it’s the concept or the approach
or the realization that it can be appropriate
and useful and inevitable and unavoidable
to use very different descriptions of the same object
or the same system or the same situation
to answer different kinds of questions
that may be very different
and even mutually uninterpretable,
But both correct somehow.
But both correct and sources of different kinds of insight
which is so weird.
But it seems to work in so many cases.
It works in many cases and I think it’s a deep fact
about the world and how we should approach it.
It’s most rigorous form where it’s actually a theorem
if quantum mechanics is correct,
occurs in quantum mechanics
where the primary description of the world
is in terms of wave functions.
But let’s not talk about the world.
Let’s just talk about a particle, an electron.
The primary description of that electron
is its wave function.
And the wave function can be used to predict
where it’s gonna be.
If you observe, it’ll be in different places
with different probabilities or how fast it’s moving.
And it’ll also be moving in different ways
with different probabilities.
That’s what quantum mechanics says.
And you can predict either set of probabilities
if you know what’s gonna happen
if I make an observation of the position or the velocity.
So the wave function gives you ways of doing both of those.
But to do it, to get those predictions,
you have to process the wave function in different ways.
You process it one way for position
and in a different way for momentum.
And those ways are mathematically incompatible.
It’s like you have a stone
and you can sculpt it into a Venus de Milo
or you can sculpt it into David, but you can’t do both.
And that’s an example of complementarity.
To answer different kinds of questions,
you have to analyze the system in different ways
that are mutually incompatible,
but both valid to answer different kinds of questions.
So in that case, it’s a theorem,
but I think it’s a much more widespread phenomena
that applies to many cases
where we can’t prove it as a theorem,
but it’s a piece of wisdom, if you like,
and appears to be a very important insight.
And if you ignore it,
you can get very confused and misguided.
Do you think this is a useful hack
for ideas that we don’t fully understand?
Or is this somehow a fundamental property
of all or many ideas,
that you can take multiple perspectives
and they’re both true?
Well, I think it’s both.
So it’s both the answer to all questions.
Yes, that’s right.
It’s not either or, it’s both.
It’s paralyzing to think that we live in a world
that’s fundamentally surrounded by complementary ideas.
Because we somehow want to attach ourselves
to absolute truths,
and absolute truths certainly don’t like the idea
Yes, Einstein was very uncomfortable with complementarity.
And in a broad sense,
the famous Bohr Einstein debates
revolved around this question
of whether the complementarity
that is a foundational feature of quantum mechanics,
as we have it,
is a permanent feature of the universe
and our description of nature.
And so far, quantum mechanics wins.
And it’s gone from triumph to triumph.
Whether complementarity is rock bottom,
I guess, you can never be sure.
I mean, but it looks awfully good
and it’s been very successful.
And certainly, complementarity has been extremely useful
and fruitful in that domain,
including some of Einstein’s attempts to challenge it
with the famous Einstein Podolsky Rosen experiment
turned out to be confirmations
that have been useful in themselves.
But so thinking about these things was fruitful,
but not in the way that Einstein hoped.
Yeah, so as I said, in the case of quantum mechanics
and this dilemma or dichotomy
between processing the wave function in different ways,
it’s a theorem.
They’re mutually incompatible
and the physical correlate of that
is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle
you can’t have position and momentum determined at once.
But in other cases, like one that I like to think about
or like to point out as an example
is free will and determinism.
It’s much less of a theorem
and more a kind of way of thinking about things
that I think is reassuring
and avoids a lot of unnecessary quarreling and confusion.
The quarreling I’m okay with
and the confusion I’m okay with,
I mean, people debate about difficult ideas,
but the question is whether it could be
almost a fundamental truth.
I think it is a fundamental truth.
That free will is both an illusion and not.
Yes, I think that’s correct.
There’s a reason why people say quantum mechanics is weird
and complementarity is a big part of that.
To say that our actual whole world is weird,
the whole hierarchy of the universe is weird
in this kind of particular way,
and it’s quite profound, but it’s also humbling
because it’s like we’re never going to be on sturdy ground
in the way that humans like to be.
It’s like you have to embrace that this whole thing
is like unsteady mess.
It’s one of many lessons in humility
that we run into in profound understanding of the world.
The Copernican revolution was one,
that the earth is not the center of the universe.
Darwinian evolution is another,
that humans are not the pinnacle of God’s creation and the apparent result
of deep understanding of physical reality,
that mind emerges from matter and there’s no call
on special life forces or souls.
These are all lessons in humility,
and I actually find complementarity a liberating concept.
It’s, okay, you know, we…
Yeah, it is in a way.
That is what I remember.
There’s a story about Dr. Johnson,
and he’s talking with Boswell,
and Boswell was, they were discussing a sermon
that they’d both heard,
and the sort of culmination of the sermon was the speaker saying,
I accept the universe.
And Dr. Johnson said, well, damn well better.
And there’s a certain joy in accepting the universe
because it’s mind expanding.
And to me, complementarity also suggests tolerance,
suggests opportunities for understanding things
in different ways that add to rather than detract
So I think it’s an opportunity for mind expansion
and demanding that there’s only one way
to think about things can be very limiting.
On the free will one, that’s a trippy one, though.
To think like I am the decider of my own actions
and at the same time I’m not is tricky to think about,
but there does seem to be some kind of profound truth in that.
I get, well, I think it is tied up.
It will turn out to be tied up when we understand things better
with these issues of self awareness and where we get,
what we perceive as making choices,
what does that really mean and what’s going on under the hood.
But I’m speculating about a future understanding
that’s not in place at present.
Your sense there will always be,
like as you dig into the self awareness thing,
there’ll always be some places
where complementarity is gonna show up.
Oh, definitely, yeah.
I mean, there will be, how should I say?
There’ll be kind of a God’s eye view
which sees everything that’s going on
in the computer or the brain.
And then there’s the brain’s own view
or the central processor or whatever it is,
what we call the self, the consciousness,
that’s only aware of a very small part of it.
And those are very different.
Those are, so the God’s eye view can be deterministic
while the self view sees free will.
I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s gonna work out actually.
But as it stands, free will is a concept
that we definitely, at least I feel I definitely experience,
I can choose to do one thing then another.
And other people I think are sufficiently similar to me
that I trust that they feel the same way.
And it’s an essential concept in psychology
and law and so forth.
But at the same time, I think that mind emerges from matter
and that there’s an alternative description of matter
that’s up to subtleties about quantum mechanics,
which I don’t think are relevant here,
really is deterministic.
Let me ask you about some particles.
First the absurd question,
almost like a question that like Plato would ask.
What is the smallest thing in the universe?
As far as we know, the fundamental particles
out of which we build our most successful description
of nature are points.
They don’t have any internal structure.
So that’s as small as can be.
So what does that mean operationally?
That means that they obey equations that describe entities
that are singular concentrations of energy,
momentum, angular momentum,
the things that particles have,
but localized at individual points.
Now that mathematical structure
is only revealed partially in the world
because to process the wave function
in a way that accesses information about the precise
position of things, you have to apply a lot of energy
and that’s an idealization
and you can apply infinite amount of energy
to determine a precise position.
But at the mathematical level,
we build the world out of particles that are points.
So do they actually exist and what are we talking about?
Oh, they exist.
So let me ask sort of do quarks exist?
Yes, do electrons exist?
Yes, do photons exist?
But what does it mean for them to exist?
Okay, so well, the hard answer to that,
the precise answer is that we construct the world
out of equations that contain entities
that are reproducible,
that exist in vast numbers throughout the universe,
that have definite properties of mass,
spin and a few others that we call electrons
and what an electron is is defined by the equations
that it satisfies theoretically
and we find that there are many, many exemplars
of that entity in the physical world.
So in the case of electrons,
we can isolate them and study them
and individual ones in great detail
and we can check that they all actually are identical
and that’s why chemistry works and yes.
So in that case, it’s very tangible.
Similarly with photons,
you can study them individually, the units of light
and nowadays, it’s very practical
to study individual photons
and determine their spin and their other basic properties
and check out the equations in great detail.
For quarks and gluons,
which are the other two main ingredients
of our model of matter that’s so successful,
it’s a little more complicated
because the quarks and gluons that appear in our equations
don’t appear directly as particles you can isolate
and study individually.
They always occur within what are called bound states
or structures like protons.
A proton, roughly speaking, is composed of three quarks
and a lot of gluons but we can detect them
in a remarkably direct way actually nowadays,
whereas at relatively low energies,
the behavior of quarks is complicated.
At high energies, they can propagate through space
relatively freely for a while and we can see their tracks.
So ultimately, they get recaptured into protons
and other mesons and funny things
but for a short time, they propagate freely
and while that happens, we can take snapshots
and see their manifestations.
Actually, this kind of thing is exactly
what I got the Nobel Prize for,
predicting that this would work.
And similarly for gluons,
although you can’t isolate them as individual particles
and study them in the same way that we study electrons,
say, you can use them theoretically as entities
out of which you build tangible things
that we actually do observe
but also you can, at accelerators at high energy,
you can liberate them for brief periods of time
and study and get convincing evidence
that they leave tracks and you can get convincing evidence
that they were there and have the properties
that we wanted them to have.
Can we talk about asymptotic freedom,
this very idea that you won the Nobel Prize for?
So it describes a very weird effect to me,
the weird in the following way.
So the way I think of most forces or interactions,
the closer you are, the stronger the effect,
the stronger the force, right?
With quarks, the close they are,
the less so the strong interaction.
And in fact, they’re basically act like free particles
when they’re very close.
That’s right, yes.
But this requires a huge amount of energy.
Like can you describe me why, how does this even work?
How weird it is?
A proper description must bring in quantum mechanics
and relativity and it’s,
so a proper description and equations,
so a proper description really is probably more
than we have time for and require quite a bit of patience
on your part, but.
How does relativity come into play?
Wait, wait a minute.
Relativity is important because when we talk about
trying to think about short distances,
we have to think about very large momenta
and very large momenta are connected
to very large energy in relativity.
And so the connection between how things behave
at short distances and how things behave at high energy
really is connected through relativity
in sort of a slightly backhanded way.
Quantum mechanics indicates that short,
to get to analyze short distances,
you need to bring in probes that carry a lot of momentum.
This again is related to uncertainty
because it’s the fact that you have to bring in
a lot of momentum that interferes with the possibility
of determining position and momentum at the same time.
If you want to determine position,
you have to use instruments that bring in a lot of momentum.
And because of that, those same instruments
can’t also measure momentum
because they’re disturbing the momentum that,
and then the momentum brings in energy and yeah.
So that there’s also the effect that asymptotic freedom
comes from the possibility of spontaneously making
quarks and gluons for short amounts of time
that fluctuate into existence and out of existence.
And the fact that that can be done
with a very little amount of energy
and uncertainty and energy translates
into uncertainty and time.
So if you do that for a short time, you can do that.
Well, it’s all comes in a package.
So I told you it would take a while to really explain,
but the results can be understood.
I mean, we can state the results pretty simply, I think.
So in everyday life, we do encounter some forces
that increase with distance
and kind of turn off at short distances.
That’s the way rubber bands work, if you think about it,
or if you pull them hard, they resist,
but they get flabby if the rubber band is not pulled.
And so there are, that can happen in the physical world,
but what’s really difficult is to see
how that could be a fundamental force
that’s consistent with everything else we know.
And that’s what asymptotic freedom is.
It says that there’s a very particular kind
of fundamental force that involves special particles
called gluons with very special properties
that enables that kind of behavior.
So there were experiment, at the time we did our work,
there were experimental indications
that quarks and gluons did have this kind of property,
but there were no equations
that were capable of capturing it.
And we found the equations and showed how they work
and showed how they, that they were basically unique.
And this led to a complete theory
of how the strong interaction works,
which is the quantum chromodynamics we mentioned earlier.
And so that’s the phenomenon that quarks and gluons
interact very, very weakly when they’re close together.
That’s connected through relativity
with the fact that they also interact very, very weakly
at high energies.
So if you have, so at high energies,
the simplicity of the fundamental interaction gets revealed.
At the time we did our work,
the clues were very subtle,
but nowadays at what are now high energy accelerators,
it’s all obvious.
So we would have had a much,
well, somebody would have had a much easier time
20 years later, looking at the data,
you can sort of see the quarks and gluons.
As I mentioned, they leave these short tracks
that would have been much, much easier,
but from fundamental, from indirect clues,
we were able to piece together enough
to make that behavior a prediction
rather than a post diction, right?
So it becomes obvious at high energies.
It becomes very obvious.
When we first did this work,
it was frontiers of high energy physics
and at big international conferences,
there would always be sessions on testing QCD
and whether this proposed description
of the strong interaction was in fact correct and so forth.
And it was very exciting.
But nowadays the same kind of work,
but much more precise with calculations
to more accuracy and experiments
that are much more precise
and comparisons that are very precise.
Now it’s called calculating backgrounds
because people take this for granted
and wanna see deviations from the theory,
which would be the new discoveries.
Yeah, the cutting edge becomes a foundation
and the foundation becomes boring.
Is there some, for basic explanation purposes,
is there something to be said about strong interactions
in the context of the strong nuclear force
for the attraction between protons and neutrons
versus the interaction between quarks within protons?
Well, quarks and gluons have the same relation
basically to nuclear physics
as electrons and photons have
to atomic and molecular physics.
So atoms and photons are the dynamic entities
that really come into play in chemistry and atomic physics.
Of course, you have to have the atomic nuclei,
but those are small and relatively inert,
really the dynamical part.
And for most purposes of chemistry,
you just say that you have this tiny little nucleus,
which QCD gives you.
Don’t worry about it.
It just, it’s there.
The real action is the electrons moving around
and exchanging and things like that.
Okay, but we want it to understand the nucleus too.
And so atoms are sort of quantum mechanical clouds
of electrons held together by electrical forces,
which is photons.
And then this radiation,
which is another aspect of photons.
That’s where all the fun happens
is the electrons and the photons.
Yeah, that’s right.
And the nucleus are kind of the,
well, they give the positive charge
and most of the mass of matter,
but they don’t, since they’re so heavy,
they don’t move very much in chemistry.
And I’m oversimplifying drastically.
They’re not contributing much to the interaction in chemistry.
For most purposes in chemistry,
you can just idealize them as concentrations
of positive mass and charge that are,
you don’t have to look inside,
but people are curious what’s inside.
And that was a big thing on the agenda
of 20th century physics starting in the 19,
well, starting with the 20th century
and unfolding throughout of trying to understand
what forces held the atomic nucleus together,
what it was and so.
Anyway, the story that emerges from QCD
is that very similar to the way that,
well, broadly similar to the way
that clouds of electrons held together
by electrical forces give you atoms
and ultimately molecules.
Protons and neutrons are like atoms
made now out of quarks, quark clouds held together
by gluons, which are like the photons
that give the electric forces,
but this is giving a different force, the strong force.
And the residual forces between protons and neutrons
that are leftover from the basic binding
are like the residual forces between atoms
that give molecules, but in the case of protons and neutrons,
it gives you atomic nuclei.
So again, for definitional purposes,
QCD, quantum chromodynamics,
is basically the physics of strong interaction.
Yeah, we understand, we now would understand,
I think most physicists would say
it’s the theory of quarks and gluons
and how they interact.
But it’s a very precise, and I think it’s fair to say,
very beautiful theory based on mathematical symmetry
of a high order, and another thing that’s beautiful
about it is that it’s kind of
in the same family as electrodynamics.
The conceptual structure of the equations are very similar.
They’re based on having particles that respond to charge
in a very symmetric way.
In the case of electrodynamics,
it’s photons that respond to electric charge.
In the case of quantum chromodynamics,
there are three kinds of charge that we call colors,
but they’re nothing like colors.
They really are like different kinds of charge.
But they rhyme with the same kind of,
like it’s similar kind of dynamics.
Similar kind of dynamics.
I’d like to say that QCD is like QED on steroids.
And instead of one photon, you have eight gluons.
Instead of one charge, you have three color charges.
But there’s a strong family resemblance between them.
But the context in which QCD does this thing
is it’s much higher energies.
Like that’s where it comes to life.
Well, it’s a stronger force,
so that to access how it works and kind of pry things apart,
you have to inject more energy.
And so that gives us, in some sense,
a hint of how things were in the earlier universe.
Yeah, well, in that regard,
asymptotic freedom is a tremendous blessing
because it means things get simpler at high energy.
The universe was born free.
That’s very good, yes.
Universe was born.
So in atomic physics,
a similar thing happens in the theory of stars.
Stars are hot enough that the interactions
between electrons and photons, they’re liberated.
They don’t form atoms anymore.
They make a plasma,
which in some ways is simpler to understand.
You don’t have complicated chemistry.
And in the early universe, according to QCD,
similarly atomic nuclei dissolved
and take the constituent quarks and gluons,
which are moving around very fast
and interacting in relatively simple ways.
And so this opened up the early universe
to scientific calculation.
Can I ask you about some other weird particles
that make up our universe?
What are axions?
And what is the strong CP problem?
Okay, so let me start with what the strong CP problem is.
First of all, well, C is charge conjugation,
which is the transformation,
the notional transformation, if you like,
that changes all particles into their antiparticles.
And the concept of C symmetry,
charge conjugation symmetry, is that if you do that,
you find the same laws that would work.
So the laws are symmetric if the behavior
that particles exhibit is the same
as the behavior you get with all their antiparticles.
And then P is parity,
which is also called spatial inversion.
It’s basically looking at a mirror universe
and saying that the laws that are obeyed
in a mirror universe, when you look,
that the mirror images obey the same laws
as the sources of their images.
There’s no way of telling left from right, for instance,
that the laws don’t distinguish between left and right.
Now, in the mid 20th century,
people discovered that both of those are not quite true.
Really, the equation that the mirror universe,
the universe that you see in a mirror
is not gonna obey the same laws
as the universe that we actually interpret.
You would be able to tell
if you did the right kind of experiments,
which was the mirror and which was the real thing.
That’s the parity and they show
that the parity doesn’t necessarily hold.
It doesn’t quite hold.
Examining what the exceptions are turned out to be,
to lead to all kinds of insight
about the nature of fundamental interactions,
especially properties of neutrinos
and the weak interaction, it’s a long story.
But it’s a very, it’s a.
So you just define the C and the P,
the conjugation, the charge conjugation.
Now that I’ve done that, I wanna.
What’s the problem?
Shove them off.
Because it’s easier to talk about T,
which is time reversal symmetry.
We have very good reasons to think CPT
is an accurate symmetry of nature.
It’s on the same level as relativity
and quantum mechanics, basically.
So that better be true.
Or else we.
So it’s symmetric when you.
When you do.
When you do conjugation parity and time.
And time and space reversal.
If you do all three,
then you get the same physical consequences.
Now, so, but that means that CP is equivalent to T.
But what’s observed in the world
is that T is not quite an accurate symmetry of nature,
So most phenomena of, at the fundamental level.
So interactions among elementary particles
and the basic gravitational interaction.
If you ran them backwards in time,
you’d get the same laws.
So if, again, going back.
This time we don’t talk about a mirror,
but we talk about a movie.
If you take a movie and then run it backwards,
that’s the time reversal.
It’s good to think about a mirror in time.
Yeah, it’s like a mirror in time.
If you run the movie backwards,
it would look very strange
if you were looking at complicated objects
and a Charlie Chaplin movie or whatever.
It would look very strange if you ran it backwards in time.
But at the level of basic interactions,
if you were able to look at the atoms
and the quarks involved, they would obey the same laws.
They do a very good approximation, but not exactly.
So this is not exactly, that means you could tell.
You could tell, but you’d have to do very, very
subtle experiments with at high energy accelerators
to take a movie that looked different
when you ran it backwards.
This was a discovery by two great physicists
named Jim Cronin and Val Fitch in the mid 1960s.
Previous to that, over all the centuries
of development of physics with all its precise laws,
they did seem to have this gratuitous property
that they look the same if you run the equations backwards.
It’s kind of an embarrassing property actually
because life isn’t like that.
So empirical reality does not have this imagery
in any obvious way.
And yet the laws did.
It’s almost like the laws of physics
are missing something fundamental about life
if it holds that property, right?
Well, that’s the embarrassing nature of it.
Yeah, it’s embarrassing.
Well, people worked hard at what’s,
this is a problem that’s thought to belong
to the foundations of statistical mechanics
or the foundations of thermodynamics
to understand how behavior,
which is grossly not symmetric
with respect to reversing the direction of time
in large objects, how that can emerge from equations
which are symmetric with respect to changing
the direction of time to a very good approximation.
And that’s still an interesting endeavor.
And actually it’s an exciting frontier of physics now
to sort of explore the boundary
between when that’s true and when it’s not true.
When you get to smaller objects
and exceptions like time crystals.
I definitely have to ask you about time crystals
in a second here.
But so the CP problem and T,
so there’s all of these.
We’re in danger of infinite regress,
but we have to convert soon.
Can’t possibly be turtles all the way down.
We’re gonna get to the bottom turtle.
So it became,
so it got to be a real,
I mean, it’s a really puzzling thing
why the laws should have this very odd property
that we don’t need.
And in fact, it’s kind of an embarrassment
in addressing empirical reality.
But it seemed to be almost,
it seemed to be exactly true for a long time.
And then almost true.
And in way, almost true is even,
is more disturbing than exactly true
because exactly true,
it could have been just a fundamental feature of the world.
And at some level you just have to take it as it is.
And if it’s a beautiful, easily articulatable regularity,
you could say that, okay,
that’s fine as a fundamental law of nature.
But to say that it’s approximately true,
but not exactly, that’s weird.
So, and then, so there was great progress
in the late part of the 20th century
in getting to an understanding
of fundamental interactions in general
that shed light on this issue.
It turns out that the basic principles of relativity
and quantum mechanics,
plus the kind of high degree of symmetry that we found,
the so called gauge symmetry
that characterizes the fundamental interactions,
when you put all that together,
it’s a very, very constraining framework.
And it has some indirect consequences
because the possible interactions are so constrained.
And one of the indirect consequences
is that the possibilities for violating the symmetry
between forwards and backwards in time are very limited.
They’re basically only two.
And one of them occurs and leads to a very rich theory
that explains the Cronin Fish experiment
and a lot of things that have been done subsequently
has been used to make all kinds of successful predictions.
So that’s turned out to be a very rich interaction.
It’s esoteric and the effects only show up at accelerators
and are small and so on,
but they might’ve been very important in the early universe
and lead to them be connected to the asymmetry
between matter and antimatter in the present universe.
And so, but that’s another digression.
The point is that that was fine.
That was a triumph to say
that there was one possible kind of interaction
that would violate time reversal symmetry.
And sure enough, there it is.
But the other kind doesn’t occur.
So we still got a problem.
Why doesn’t it occur?
So we’re close to really finally understanding
this profound gratuitous feature of the world
that is almost but not quite symmetric
under reversing the direction of time, but not quite there.
And to understand that last bit
is a challenging frontier of physics today.
And we have a promising proposal for how it works,
which is a kind of theory of evolution.
So there’s this possible interaction,
which we call a coupling,
and there’s a numerical quantity
that tells us how strong that is.
And traditionally in physics,
we think of these kinds of numerical quantities
as constants of nature that you just have to put them in.
From experiment, they have a certain value and that’s it.
And who am I to question what God doing?
They’re just constant.
Well, they seem to be just constants.
I’m just wondering.
But in this case,
it’s been fruitful to think and work out a theory
where that strength of interaction
is actually not a constant.
It’s a fun, it’s a field.
It’s a, fields are the fundamental ingredients
of modern physics.
Like there’s an electron field,
there’s a photon field,
which is also called the electromagnetic field.
And so all of these particles
are manifestations of different fields.
And there could be a field,
something that depends on space and time.
So a dynamical entity instead of just a constant here.
And if you do things in a nice way,
that’s very symmetric,
very much suggested aesthetically by the theory.
But the theory we do have,
then you find that you get a field
which as it evolves from the early universe,
settles down to a value
that’s just right to make the laws
very nearly exact, invariant or symmetric
with respect to reversal of time.
It might appear as a constant,
but it’s actually a field that evolved over time.
It evolved over time, okay.
But when you examine this proposal in detail,
you find that it hasn’t quite settled down to exactly zero.
There it’s still,
the field is still moving around a little bit.
And because the motion is so,
the motion is so difficult.
The material is so rigid.
And this material,
the field that fills all space is so rigid.
Even small amounts of motion can involve lots of energy.
And that energy takes the form of particles,
fields that are in motion
are always associated with particles.
And those are the axioms.
And if you calculate how much energy
is in these residual oscillations,
this axiom gas that fills all the universe,
if this fundamental theory is correct,
you get just the right amount
to make the dark matter that astronomers want.
And it has just the right properties.
So I’d love to believe that.
So that might be a thing that unlocks,
might be the key to understanding dark matter.
Yeah, I’d like to think so.
And many, many physicists are coming around
to this point of view,
which I’ve been a voice in the wilderness.
I was a voice in the wilderness for a long time,
but now it’s become very popular, maybe even dominant.
So almost like,
so this axion particle slash field
would be the thing that explains dark matter.
It explains, yeah,
would solve this fundamental question of finally,
of why the laws are almost, but not quite exactly the same
if you run them backwards in time.
And then seemingly in a totally different
it would also provide,
give us an understanding of the dark matter.
That’s not what it was designed for.
And the theory wasn’t proposed with that in mind,
but when you work out the equations, that’s what you get.
That’s always a good sign.
I think I vaguely read somewhere
that there may be early experimental validation of axion.
Is that, am I reading the wrong?
Well, there’ve been quite a few false alarms
and I think there are some of them still,
people desperately wanna find this thing.
And, but I don’t think any of them are convincing
at this point,
but there are very ambitious experiments
and kind of new,
you have to design new kinds of antennas
that are capable of detecting these predicted particles.
And it’s very difficult.
They interact very, very weakly.
If it were easy, it would have been done already.
But I think there’s good hope
that we can get down to the required sensitivity
and actually test whether these ideas are right
in coming years or maybe decades.
And then understand one of the big mysteries,
like literally big in terms of its fraction
of the universe is dark matter.
Let me ask you about, you mentioned a few times,
What are they?
These things are, it’s a very beautiful idea
when we start to treat space and time
as similar frameworks.
Right, that’s what motivated it.
First of all, what are crystals?
And what are time crystals?
Okay, so crystals are orderly arrangements
of atoms in space.
And many materials,
if you cool them down gently, will form crystals.
And so we say that that’s a state of matter
that forms spontaneously.
And an important feature of that state of matter
is that the end result, the crystal,
has less symmetry than the equations
that give rise to the crystal.
So the equations, the basic equations of physics
are the same if you move a little bit.
So you can move, they’re homogeneous,
but crystals aren’t.
The atoms are in particular place,
so they have less symmetry.
And time crystals are the same thing in time, basically.
But of course, so it’s not positions of atoms,
but it’s orderly behavior that certain states of matter
will arrange themselves into spontaneously
if you treat them gently
and let them do what they want to do.
But repeat in that same way indefinitely.
That’s the crystalline form.
You can also have time liquids,
or you can have all kinds of other states of matter.
You can also have space time crystals
where the pattern only repeats if with each step of time,
you also move at a certain direction in space.
So yeah, basically it’s states of matter
that displace structure in time spontaneously.
So here’s the difference.
When it happens in time,
it sure looks a lot like it’s motion,
and if it repeats indefinitely,
it sure looks a lot like perpetual motion.
Like looks like free lunch.
And I was told that there’s no such thing as free lunch.
Does this violate laws of thermodynamics?
No, but it requires a critical examination
of the laws of thermodynamics.
I mean, let me say on background
that the laws of thermodynamics
are not fundamental laws of physics.
There are things we prove
under certain circumstances emerge
from the fundamental laws of physics.
They’re not, we don’t posit them separately.
They’re meant to be deduced,
and they can be deduced under limited circumstances,
but not necessarily universally.
And we’re finding some of the subtleties
and sort of accept edge cases
where they don’t apply in a straightforward way.
And this is one.
So time crystals do obey,
do have this structure in time,
but it’s not a free lunch
because although in a sense, things are moving,
they’re already doing what they want to do.
They’re in the,
so if you want to extract energy from it,
you’re gonna be foiled
because there’s no spare energy there.
So you can add energy to it and kind of disturb it,
but you can’t extract energy from this motion
because it’s gonna, it wants to do,
that’s the lowest energy configuration that there is,
so you can’t get further energy out of it.
So in theory, I guess perpetual motion,
you would be able to extract energy from it
if such a thing was to be created,
you can then milk it for energy.
Well, what’s usually meant
in the literature of perpetual motion
is a kind of macroscopic motion
that you could extract energy from
and somehow it would crank back up.
That’s not the case here.
If you want to extract energy,
this motion is not something you can extract energy from.
If you intervene in the behavior,
you can change it, but only by injecting energy,
not by taking away energy.
You mentioned that a theory of everything
may be quite difficult to come by.
A theory of everything broadly defined
meaning like truly a theory of everything,
but let’s look at a more narrow theory of everything,
which is the way it’s used often in physics
is a theory that unifies our current laws of physics,
general relativity, quantum field theory.
Do you have thoughts on this dream
of a theory of everything in physics?
How close are we?
Is there any promising ideas out there in your view?
Well, it would be nice to have.
It would be aesthetically pleasing.
Will it be useful?
No, probably not.
Well, I shouldn’t, it’s dangerous to say that,
but probably not.
I think we, certainly not in the foreseeable future.
Maybe to understand black holes.
Yeah, but that’s, yes, maybe to understand black holes,
but that’s not useful.
That’s my book.
And well, not only, I mean,
to understand it’s worse,
it’s not useful in the sense
that we’re not gonna be basing any technology anytime soon
on black holes, but it’s more severe than that,
I would say it’s that the kinds of questions
about black holes that we can’t answer
within the framework of existing theory
are ones that are not going to be susceptible
to astronomical observation in the foreseeable future.
They’re questions about very, very small black holes
when quantum effects come into play
so that black holes are,
not black holes, they’re emitting this discovery
of Hawking called Hawking radiation,
which for astronomical black holes is a tiny, tiny effect
that no one has ever observed, it’s a prediction
that’s never been checked.
So like supermassive black holes, that doesn’t apply?
No, no, the predicted rate of radiation
from those black holes is so tiny
that it’s absolutely unobservable
and is overwhelmed by all kinds of other effects.
So it’s not practical in the sense of technology,
it’s not even practical in the sense
of application to astronomy, our existing theory
of general relativity and quantum theory
and our theory of the different fundamental forces
is perfectly adequate to all problems of technology,
of technology, for sure, and almost all problems
of astrophysics and cosmology that appear
except with the notable exception
of the extremely early universe, if you want to ask,
what happened before the Big Bang
or what happened right at the Big Bang,
which would be a great thing to understand, of course.
Yes. We don’t, but.
But what about the engineering question?
So if we look at space travel,
so I think you’ve spoken with him, Eric Weinstein.
Oh, yeah. Really, you know,
he says things like we want to get off this planet.
His intuition is almost motivated
for the engineering project of space exploration
in order for us to crack this problem
of becoming a multi planetary species,
we have to solve the physics problem.
His intuition is like, if we figure out this,
what he calls the source code, which is like,
like a theory of everything might give us clues
on how to start hacking the fabric of reality,
like getting shortcuts, right?
It might. I can’t say that, you know,
I can’t say that it won’t,
but I can say that in the 1970s and early 1980s,
we achieved huge steps in understanding matter.
QCD, much better understanding of the weak interaction,
much better understanding of quantum mechanics in general.
And it’s had minimal impact on technology.
On rocket design, on propulsion.
On rocket design, on anything, any technology whatsoever.
And now we’re talking about much more esoteric things.
And since I don’t know what they are,
I can’t say for sure that they won’t affect technology,
but I’m very, very skeptical
that they would affect technology.
Because, you know, to access them,
you need very exotic circumstances
to make new kinds of particles with high energy.
You need accelerators that are very expensive
and you don’t produce many of them, and so forth.
You know, it’s just, it’s a pipe dream, I think.
Yeah, about space exploration.
I’m not sure exactly what he has in mind,
but to me, it’s more a problem of,
I don’t know, something between biology and…
And information processing.
Processing, what you mean, how should I…
I think human bodies are not well adapted to space.
Even Mars, which is the closest thing
to a kind of human environment
that we’re gonna find anywhere close by.
Very, very difficult to maintain humans on Mars.
And it’s gonna be very expensive and very unstable.
But I think, however, if we take a broader view
of what it means to bring human civilization
outside of the Earth, if we’re satisfied
with sending mines out there that we can converse with
and actuators that we can manipulate
and sensors that we can get feedback from,
I think that’s where it’s at.
And I think that’s so much more realistic.
And I think that’s the long term future
of space exploration.
It’s not hauling human bodies all over the place.
That’s just silly.
It’s possible that human bodies…
So like you said, it’s a biology problem.
What’s possible is that we extend human life span
in some way, we have to look at a bigger picture.
It could be just like you’re saying,
by sending robots with actuators
and kind of extending our limbs.
But it could also be extending some aspect of our minds,
some information, all those kinds of things.
And it could be cyborgs, it could be, it could be…
No, we’re talking, not getting the fun.
It could be, you know, it could be human brains
or cells that realize something
like human brain architecture
within artificial environments,
you know, shells, if you like,
that are more adapted to the conditions of space.
And that, yeah, so that’s entirely man machine hybrids,
as well as sort of remote outposts
that we can communicate with.
I think those will happen.
Yeah, to me, there’s some sense in which,
as opposed to understanding the physics
of the fundamental fabric of the universe,
I think getting to the physics of life,
the physics of intelligence,
the physics of consciousness will,
the physics of information that brings,
from which life emerges,
that will allow us to do space exploration.
Yeah, well, I think physics in the larger sense
has a lot to contribute here.
Not the physics of finding fundamental new laws
in the sense of another quark or axions even.
But physics in the sense of,
physics has a lot of experience
in analyzing complex situations
and analyzing new states of matter
and devising new kinds of instruments
that do clever things.
Physics in that sense has enormous amounts
to contribute to this kind of endeavor.
But I don’t think that looking
for a so called theory of everything
has much to do with it at all.
What advice would you give to a young person today
with a bit of fire in their eyes,
high school student, college student,
thinking about what to do with their life,
maybe advice about career or bigger advice
about life in general?
Well, first read fundamentals
because there I’ve tried to give some coherent deep advice.
That’s fundamentals, 10 keys to reality by Frank Kulczyk.
So that’s a good place to start.
If you wanna learn what I can tell you.
Is there an audio book?
I read that ebook.
Yes, there is an audio book.
There’s an audio book, that’s awesome.
I think it’s, I can give three pieces of wise advice
that I think are generally applicable.
One is to cast a wide net,
to really look around and see what looks promising,
what catches your imagination and promising.
Yeah, and those, you have to balance those two things.
You could have things that catch your imagination,
but don’t look promising in the sense
that the questions aren’t ripe or,
and things that you,
and part of what makes things attractive is that,
whether you thought you liked them or not,
is if you can see that there’s ferment
and new ideas coming up that become,
that’s attractive in itself.
So when I started out, I thought I was,
and when I was an undergraduate,
I intended to study philosophy
or questions of how mind emerges from matter.
But I thought that that wasn’t really right.
Timing isn’t right yet.
The right, the timing wasn’t right
for the kind of mathematical thinking
and conceptualization that I really enjoy and am good at.
But, so that’s one thing, cast a wide net, look around.
And that’s a pretty easy thing to do today
because of the internet.
You can look at all kinds of things.
You have to be careful though
because there’s a lot of crap also.
But you can sort of tell the difference
if you do a little digging.
So don’t settle on just,
what your thesis advisor tells you to do
or what your teacher tells you to do.
Look for yourself and get a sense of what seems promising,
not what seemed promising 10 years ago or, so that’s one.
Another thing is to, is kind of complimentary to that.
Well, they’re all complimentary.
Complimentary to that is to read history
and read the masters,
the history of ideas and masters of ideas.
I’d benefited enormously from, as early in my career,
from reading in physics, Einstein in the original
and Feynman’s lectures as they were coming out and Darwin.
You know, these, you can learn what it, and Galileo,
you can learn what it is to wrestle with difficult ideas
and how great minds did that.
You can learn a lot about style,
how to write your ideas up and express them in clear ways.
And also just a couple of that with,
I also enjoy reading biographies.
And biographies, yes, similarly, right, yeah.
So it gives you the context of the human being
that created those ideas.
Right, and brings it down to earth in the sense that,
you know, it was really human beings who did this.
It’s not, and they made mistakes.
And yeah, I also got inspiration from Bertrand Russell
who was a big hero and H.G. Wells and yeah.
So read the masters, make contact with great minds.
And when you are sort of narrowing down on a subject,
learn about the history of the subject
because that really puts in context
what you’re trying to do and also gives a sense of community
and grandeur to the whole enterprise.
And then the third piece of advice
is complimentary to both those,
which is sort of to get the basics under control
as soon as possible.
So if you wanna do theoretical work in science,
you know, you have to learn calculus,
multivariable calculus, complex variables, group theory.
Nowadays, you have to be highly computer literate
if you want to do experimental work.
You also have to be computer literate
and you have to learn about electronics
and optics and instruments.
So get that under control as soon as possible
because it’s like learning a language to produce great works
and express yourself fluently and with confidence.
It should be your native language.
These things should be like your native language.
So you’re not wondering what is the derivative?
This is just part of your, it’s in your bones,
so to speak, and the sooner that you can do that,
then the better.
So all those things can be done in parallel and should be.
You’ve accomplished some incredible things in your life,
but the sad thing about this thing we have is it ends.
Do you think about your mortality?
Are you afraid of death?
Well, afraid is the wrong word.
I mean, I wish it weren’t going to happen
and I’d like to, but.
Do you think about it?
I, you know, occasionally I think about,
well, I think about it very operationally
in the sense that there’s always a trade off
between exploration and exploitation.
This is a classic subject in computer science,
actually in machine learning that when you’re
in an unusual circumstance, you want to explore
to see what the landscape is and what, and gather data.
But then at some point you want to use that,
make, decide, make choices and say,
this is what I’m going to do and exploit the knowledge
And the longer the period of exploitation you anticipate,
the more exploration you should do in new directions.
And so for me, I’ve had to sort of adjust the balance
of exploration and exploitation and.
That’s it, you’ve explored quite a lot.
Yeah, well, I haven’t shut off the exploitation at all.
I’m still hoping for. The exploration.
The exploration, right.
I’m still hoping for 10 or 15 years
of top flight performance.
But the, several years ago now when I was 50 years old,
I was at the Institute for Advanced Study
and my office was right under Freeman Dyson’s office
and we were kind of friendly.
And, you know, he found out it was my 50th birthday
and said, congratulations.
And you should feel liberated because no one expects much
of a 50 year old theoretical physicist.
And he, and he obviously had felt liberated
by reaching a certain age.
And yeah, there is something to that.
I feel, you know, I feel I don’t have to catch,
I don’t have to keep in touch
with the latest hypertechnical developments
in particle physics or string theory or something.
I, because I’m not gonna, I’m really not gonna
be exploiting that.
But I, but where I am exploring in these directions
of machine learning and things like that.
And, but then, but I’m also concentrating
within physics on exploiting directions
that I’ve already established
and the laws that we already have
and doing things like,
I’m very actively involved in trying to design,
helping people, experimentalists and engineers even
to design antennas that are capable of detecting axions.
So there, and that’s, there we’re deep
in the exploitation stage.
It’s not a matter of finding the new laws,
but of really, you know, using the laws we have
to kind of finish the story off.
So it’s complicated, but I’m, you know,
I’m very happy with my life right now
and I’m enjoying it and I don’t wanna cloud that
by thinking too much that it’s gonna come to an end.
You know, it’s a gift I didn’t earn.
Is there a good thing to say about
why this gift that you’ve gotten
and didn’t deserve is so damn enjoyable?
So like, what’s the meaning of this thing, of life?
To me, interacting with people I love, my family,
and I have a very wide circle of friends now
and I’m trying to produce some institutions
that will survive me as well as my work
and it’s just, it’s, how should I say?
It’s a positive feedback loop when you do something
and people appreciate it and then you wanna do more
and you get rewarded and it’s just, how should I say?
This is another gift that I didn’t earn
and don’t understand, but I have a dopamine system
and yeah, I’m happy to use it.
It seems to get energized by the creative process,
by the process of exploration.
Very much so.
And all of that started from the little fluctuations
shortly after the Big Bang.
Frank, well, whatever those initial conditions
and fluctuations did that created you, I’m glad they did.
This is, thank you for all the work you’ve done,
for the many people you’ve inspired,
for the many, of the billion, most of your ideas
were pretty useless of the several billions,
as it is for all humans, but you had quite a few
truly special ideas and thank you for bringing those
to the world and thank you for wasting your valuable time
with me today, it’s truly an honor.
It’s been a joy and I hope people enjoy it
and I think the kind of mind expansion that I’ve enjoyed
by interacting with physical reality at this deep level,
I think can be conveyed to and enjoyed by many, many people
and that’s one of my missions in life, to share it.
Thanks for listening to this conversation
with Frank Wilczek and thank you to The Information,
NatSuite, ExpressVPN, Blinkist and 8sleep.
Check them out in the description to support this podcast
and now let me leave you with some words
from Albert Einstein, nothing happens until something moves.
Thanks for listening and hope to see you next time.