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Sci Tech    H4'ed 7/19/10

Fundamental Physics may be Our Best Hope

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Earlier this month in Paris, France; there was a gathering of scientists and others, who were convened to present and discuss ideas about the frontiers of Physics, and questions about what is truly fundamental to our understanding of the universe. It was my pleasure and privilege to be among those who attended and presented ideas on the progress of what is arguably the most fundamental of all the sciences. The 11th international symposium on the Frontiers of Fundamental Physics brought some of the brightest minds in Cosmology, Particle Physics, Quantum Mechanics, and other fields together so that we could explore some of the common ground of our respective disciplines. The event featured both esteemed theorists like Gerard 't Hooft and Paul Steinhardt, and respected experimentalists like CERN's John Ellis, and Anton Zeilinger who is renowned for experiments proving quantum non-locality and entanglement. But I think the most important feature of this conference was that it encouraged interaction between people from different areas of specialization, and resulted in a blurring of the boundaries which exist between disciplines in Science. The event even welcomed people like myself, and invited others like philosopher John Butterfield from Cambridge, who described himself as a peacemaker among his colleagues.

Gerard 't Hooft speaks on Quantum Gravity

Some people ask if there can be a benefit to mankind, from pursuits so far removed from the common experience and the everyday world. But if we want to have alternative and cleaner energy sources, ever more powerful computers, or simply a faster way to get goods, people, and information, from point A to point B advances in fundamental Physics are where some of those benefits will come from. Of course; there is another side to this story, because Science puts more tools in the hands of those whose goals are not peaceful, as well. My friend Pete Seeger commented in his autobiography/song book "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" that his father's one source of unhappiness in life was that the scientists had put such horrifying destructive means into the hands of the war-makers of the world, that he feared it would be the doom of us all. My experience with the men and women of Science is that they are far more mindful of the human issues, and of the potential for their work to be abused, than most of the people who would be critical of scientific research on that basis. In my opinion, the main thing that keeps them moving forward is their conviction that more or better knowledge will lead us out of problems we create along the way.

Anton Zeilinger explains extracting bits from Qubits

Part of the story, I am sure, is that the motivation of many scientists is simply to learn, or to discover things nobody has ever learned before. They are seeking knowledge for its own sake, or have a kind of romance with knowledge. Ultimately; this does lead to the solutions to problems, answers for important questions, and often to a lot of additional information which we didn't even know was there, before we looked. And now we are going places it wasn't even possible to look before, like temperatures far colder than those found anywhere in nature. But there are other frontiers, as well, and those who are exploring them have exciting tales to tell. As Shakespeare said "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy." But the fact that these things are found at the frontiers of fundamental Physics does not make them unreal or insubstantial. And one of those notions or discoveries may turn out to be our best hope for solving the energy crisis, or for engineering the next generation of super-computers. So while it is nearly impossible to assure that a particular line of research will lead to the answers we seek to help us grapple with the challenges of our current age it is absolutely certain that we will only make those advances and discoveries if the research continues.

This is why I feel strongly that we need to continue to explore the frontiers of Physics and other sciences. And it is also why I feel that we need to be open to questions about the fundamentals, which often involves discussing philosophical issues. We need to acquire and promote understanding, rather than being concerned only with better results, more accurate predictions, and improved precision. John Ellis told the story of Margaret Thatcher's visit to CERN (which is now home of the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider), a number of years ago. When asked by Mrs. Thatcher what he does there, Ellis replied that he does a lot of calculations and makes a bunch of predictions, then hopes that the experiments will find something else. Mrs. Thatcher asked in response if it might be better for them to actually find what they were looking for, and Ellis replied "No. Then we would not discover anything interesting." Of course; this highlights the need for innovative thinking and human involvement in experiments. And both of these things may be at risk. One FFP11 presenter focused on the fact that many scientifically interesting events likely go unnoticed, these days, because so much of the data collection and sorting is done automatically by computers. Of course; part of the reason for this is that we program the computers to look for events that resemble what we are expecting to find.

One of the featured presenters at last year's FFP conference, Nobel laureate Doug Osheroff, suggested in his talk that we should not be deterred by finding something other than what we expect, and that we should welcome such events as opportunities to learn something new or exciting. Furthermore; he said that we must actively seek new knowledge in areas of the scientific landscape that are not already well-explored, if we hope to make advancements in the sciences. Anton Zeilinger similarly emphasized the need for scientists to play with possibilities in the range of what is unknown and unpredictable, saying that he once told his employers "If you want us to be productive in our work, don't expect us to be productive." There was laughter in the room, with his comment, as most of the scientists convened know all too well that one can neither predict nor rush the process of scientific discovery, and that this fact is one of the wonders of Science. We knew exactly what Zeilinger meant, but I expect that most employers don't want to hear something like that. The dynamics of making exciting and worthwhile discoveries does not fit the mold of steady progress toward a goal, but is instead more playing a game of chance, or perhaps like raising a child.

One must work very hard in Science, to nurture the possibility to develop or discover something worthy of note, or having lasting value. But putting in the effort is no guarantee that your work will see its fruition, or be recognized for its value once the answers come. Just as someone in Music can write beautiful songs, have inspired performances, and record a great album without commercial success or critical acclaim scientists can write inspired papers and have exciting discoveries in their laboratory, but still have little or no recognition for what they have done. This is part of the importance of events like the one I just attended, which bring together people from different fields and having different levels of scholarship or accomplishment within those fields. And being an expert in one discipline does not translate into a broad basis of knowledge that spans various fields of endeavor. A professor from Mexico whom I befriended at this conference lamented to me, on the closing day, about the number of silly or elementary questions some of the esteemed speakers had to suffer. My reply was that this is likely because of the fact that people are pushed to specialize early in their education to get a degree, or in order to get into a particular line of research, and have little interest in broadening their horizons on their own.

But my talk at this event was directed at countering this very trend. In the closing panel discussion, at last year's conference in Perth, Gerard 't Hooft commented that if some of the advances we are looking for are ever to come, it will only be through a level of cooperation and collaboration much greater than what we have seen in the past, and involving not only people from different areas of Physics, but also mathematicians, programmers, engineers and technologists and even philosophers. And I took his words to heart. You see; those who know clearly understand how fragmented the sciences have become, and how much we need to have a dialog between people from different backgrounds, in order to see continued progress. There is too much for any one person to learn in school, even within a single discipline, and there are too many barriers to the free exchange of knowledge between disciplines. Isolated collections of vertically arranged information or knowledge, called Silos in Information Technologies, are the rule not an exception in Physics. And the situation will only get worse, without the efforts of people like myself who engage in "silo busting,' or without events like the FFP conference series to draw people from different disciplines together, and get them talking.

I am convinced that it is only the ongoing efforts of people who organize such events, or who foster other kinds of interactions that encourage us to grapple cooperatively with foundational issues and fundamental concepts that underlie our knowledge, which can bring about change that opens people's minds to the possibilities which will liberate mankind from the struggles that face us. And I am also convinced that most people exploring the frontiers of Science are thoughtful and caring individuals, who have a genuine interest in fostering advancements that will help all people to be more knowledgeable, and to lead better lives. I think that many of these individuals know that truly fundamental knowledge has the greatest potential for creating beneficial advancements, and fostering technologies that can help everyone. And they are concerned that what we learn will be applied in ways that help others. Buckminster Fuller dealt with those concerns by inventing things that couldn't be built yet, hoping that people in the future could cure some of the social ills of his day. I imagine some of the people at FFP11 feel that they are likewise safe exploring things technologists will not be able to put to work for decades. But when those beneficial technologies come, it will likely be from advances in fundamental Physics.

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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