One of the best things about being a full-time staff writer (as opposed to lowly blogger) for Scientific American back in the 1990s was that I got to hang out with all these smart, curious people who knew a lot about a lot of things. That’s also one of the best things about my job at Stevens Institute of Technology, where I’ve taught since 2005. The people I know best are my colleagues in the College of Arts & Letters, who include philosophers, historians, anthropologists, psychologists, social scientists, artists and musicians. But I’ve also gotten to know engineers and hard scientists. One is Chris Search, a physicist who specializes in quantum optics. I like bringing him into my science-writing seminar because my students love hearing him riff, with great enthusiasm and candor, about physics and other science-related topics. I thought readers of this blog might enjoy hearing Search’s views too. Below are his answers to my questions. – John Horgan
Horgan: Why physics?
Search: I was always curious about how things work. When I was young, physics seemed to offer answers to all of the mysteries of the universe. It felt authoritative and unequivocal in its explanations of nature and the origin of the universe. In that sense it was the perfect religion for my teenage self as I went through an atheist phase, which admittedly was probably provoked by all the popular physics books that I was devouring at that age such as A Brief History of Time. Those books were always so dogmatic like the Catholic Sunday school I went to as a kid.
Horgan: Nice comparison. Any regrets about choosing physics?
Search: No. Over the years my view of physics has evolved significantly. I no longer believe that physics offers all of the answers. It can’t explain why the universe exists or why we are even here. It does though paint a very beautiful and intricate picture of the how the universe works. I actually feel sorry for people that do not understand the laws of physics in their full mathematical glory because they are missing out on something that is truly divine.
The beautiful interlocking connectedness of the laws of physics indicates to me how finely tuned and remarkable the universe is, which for me proves that the universe is more than random chance. Ironically, it was by studying physics that I stopped being an atheist because physics is so perfect and harmonious that it had to come from something. After years of reflecting, I simply could not accept that the universe is random chance as the anthropic principle implies.
I should also add that physics has amazing predictive powers that continue to fascinate me. All of the equations fit so perfectly together that it boggles my mind that I can start from a few simple equations and derive how a new device will function. No other area of human pursuit has the same level of precision and predictive power as physics.
Not only that but physics can and does explain so much of the world we live in. I feel like we are living in a post-scientific age with quackery running rampant because people are so ignorant of science. This ranges from climate deniers who don’t understand basic thermodynamics to much of the new age stuff I see for sale all over the very affluent (and ironically well educated) town that I live in, which is nothing more than marketing to earn a buck. I feel if people just understood more science and in particular physics they wouldn’t be so easily duped. For this reason, I’m also very grateful for having studied physics since it makes it easier to discern fact from fiction in life, and hopefully I can do that for others.
Horgan: Now I wish I’d taken more than one lousy semester of physics! What are your current interests?
Search: Over the last few years I’ve moved more and more away from basic physics and towards applied physics. I’ve been working on various types of optical sensors including gyroscopes. I’ve even started a new degree program in optical engineering, which probably means I’ve lost my credentials as a true physicist.
Horgan: You’re too modest. Does your work have any relevance for quantum computing? Speaking of which, do you think we’re going to have commercial quantum computers any time soon?
Search: I certainly hope that I have nothing to do with quantum computing. It is nothing personal against the subject, but I just view it as the research topic du jour. Physics doesn’t change, but what is popular in physics does change, and old physics gets rebranded as new physics. (What we call qubits are nothing more than the two level systems such as spin-1/2 and two level atoms physicists have studied since the dawn of quantum physics.) I’m very skeptical of doing what is trendy and popular because then you are just playing follow the leader. Everyone jumps into the field all doing more or less the same stuff because that is where the funding is and that is the easiest way to publish papers. In my opinion, this trendiness leads to a massive amount of invested effort but with very few significant results because what everyone is doing is so similar and overlapping. I suppose it is a form of the law of diminishing returns. The big breakthroughs that fundamentally change our understanding come from the people who follow their own path even when everyone else is running in the other direction. Unfortunately, physics like other academic fields usually doesn’t give much support to those who don’t want to play follow the leader.
I think in the future there will be certain very specific applications for simple quantum computers that we may be able to build. However, I don’t think there is any chance that ordinary computers are ever going to be supplanted by quantum ones.
Horgan: Good to know! I’ve been pretty critical of theoretical physics. Have I been unfair?
Search: No. Theoretical particle physics is definitely a dead subject. Other areas of theoretical physics have made great strides in applications but at the same time there hasn’t been any fundamentally new development in our understanding of physics for decades.
One thing that I find very disturbing about physics is that the same textbooks are being used now in graduate programs that I used when I was a graduate student in the 1990’s. These are also the same textbooks that my professors often used when they were students in many cases before I was even born. (One of the best examples is Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics, which has been in use in nearly all graduate programs since the 1960’s.) If a field is making fundamental breakthroughs, wouldn’t you expect the textbooks to become outdated and have to be replaced with completely new books?
A pretty ironic example of the stagnation in physics is that the third course in an introductory college physics sequence (after mechanics and electromagnetism) is often called “Modern Physics.” This course usually covers quantum theory, which we like to think of as “modern”. However quantum theory was developed at the same time the TV series Downton Abbey takes place, which makes it clear how not modern quantum theory is now. Even the standard model of particle physics is older than me, and I’m middle aged.
Horgan: Quantum mechanics and Downton Abbey! Sounds like a cool new Netflix series! So what’s your take on string theory and the whole quest for a unified theory?
Search: It is a waste of time. Unless it is testable, which it most likely will never be, then it is no longer even science. I think those people doing string theory forget they are actually doing science, or perhaps they should be sent back to middle school to be reminded of the scientific process. What distinguishes science from other modes of inquiry about the world we live in (e.g. religion and philosophy) is that new theories have to be tested experimentally. If they are not confirmed by experimental results, we discard them.
I think the entire string theory community should take a deep breath and figure out what next to do with their lives. Someday in the distant future when technology has advanced enough or we have nearly infinite energy resources then we may be able to directly test string theory or other unified theories, at which point theoretical work on unified theories may become relevant again.
Search: Like string theory, this is not science. How do you test the existence of other universes? The universe is everything out there that we can observe. Another universe would therefore be separate from our own and not interact with it in any manner. If we could detect other universes, that would imply that they are observable by us but that leads to a contradiction since our universe is everything that is observable by us.
The anthropic principle is something I discuss in my freshmen E&M class actually. However, I think it is a total cop-out for physicists to use the anthropic principle to explain why the laws of physics are the way they are. The anthropic principle implies the existence of other universes where the laws of physics are different. But the existence of these other universes is untestable. It also implies that our existence is mere random luck.
At the end of the day, the existence of multiverses and the anthropic principle are really religious viewpoints wrapped up in scientific jargon. They have no more legitimacy than believing that God created the universe.
Horgan: Sabine Hossenfelder, who spoke at Stevens in 2018, claims in her book Lost in Math that the obsession with “beauty” has “led physics astray.” What’s your view?
Search: Who decides what is beautiful and what is not? Beauty is highly subjective and based on our social conditioning and cultural upbringing. It is not universal by any means. Even among human societies there is a great deal of variation of what or who is considered beautiful. Western aesthetics of beauty are so dominant everywhere (magazine covers, advertisements, movies and TV shows, social media, etc…) that we may be oblivious to the fact that not everyone thinks the same things are beautiful.
I am very skeptical of any physical “laws” derived on the basis of their beauty. Perhaps alien cultures would consider asymmetry and disorder beautiful in which case they would strongly disagree with the aesthetic approaches of string theorists.
Horgan: Speaking of beauty, how objective is physics? Might physics look different if more non-western, non-male, non-white physicists were involved?
Search: Physics has without a doubt been a profession of white men in the past. Diversity is still very lacking in physics today. I was reflecting with a friend recently that both as an undergraduate and in graduate school, none of my physics professors were either Black or Latino. They were almost all white and to a lesser extent Asian. There were also only two female professors that I had in my entire education as a physicist. Things don’t seem to have changed that much since I was a student--just look at the Physics Department at Stevens. (As a rather stark example of the lack of diversity, in 2013 only 1.7% of Bachelors Degrees in Physics went to women of color according to the American Institute of Physics.)
This question of how physics would look if it were more diverse is therefore hard to answer. One can only speculate. My belief is that different cultural traditions and less homogeneity of thought (i.e. group think) would have led to more diverse avenues of research within physics and would have enriched the philosophical interpretations by drawing on more non-Western philosophies and systems of belief. Such diversity of research directions and interpretations could only have enriched physics and led to developments that we can only imagine. Perhaps we would have by now a working theory of quantum gravity?
Horgan: I’d love to think so. Should physics research, if supported by tax dollars or student tuition, have some practical potential?
Search: Yes. There are simply so many problems facing not just the US but the entire planet these days ranging from climate change to massive wealth and income inequality in this country. It is unconscionable for tenured academic researchers to earn very generous salaries from their faculty positions and research grants and not be using their abilities to help solve some of these problems. Many are doing just that but one has to wonder how string theorists are contributing to society when even most of the physics community doesn’t understand what they are doing.
Horgan: If you were Physics Czar, would you pull the plug on any projects? Increase funding for any?
Search: I wouldn’t want to comment on specific projects here since I’m not sufficiently familiar with the details and directions of science funding. I do think that this country spends an obscene amount of money on defense, and the Department of Defense has always been one of the biggest funders of science. I often comment in my freshmen physics class that war is good for physics. That is ironic since most college faculty politically lean very decidedly to the left but nevertheless increased military spending usually benefits us professors.
Horgan: Ironic indeed. You grew up Catholic. Are you religious in any way now?
Search: Yes. I do believe that something created the universe and the universe has some purpose. That creator I suppose I would call God but it doesn’t really matter what you call it.
The anthropic principle just seems absurd to me, and I wish science and particularly physics was more accepting of religion and faith. They answer completely different questions. Science can explain how things work in the universe and can make predictions about how they will function in the future, but it can’t answer at a fundamental level why the universe is the way it is or how it came to be. Those are the domains of religion and faith. Also, people have felt since as far back as we know a deep connection to something greater than and beyond the universe that we perceive. This transcends culture and society and is present in all religions and forms of spirituality. Physics though discounts the idea that there exists something beyond what we can model with our equations or capture in our experimental data. That though does not mean it is any less real than quantum mechanics or Maxwell’s equations.
I am nevertheless very skeptical of organized religion, which has often been nothing more than a system for a small elite to consolidate power and influence over the masses. I think that one’s faith and connection with God or the universe is deeply individualistic and everyone must follow their own spiritual path. Religious texts and theologians can serve as guides and advisors on one’s path but nothing more. We should all listen to God directly and not to a priest standing at an altar.
Horgan: Well said. What’s your utopia?
Search: My utopia is a fairer society than the one we live in, where everyone has the same opportunities for success and a good life regardless of wealth, gender, or race. This is by far my biggest worry these days.
The American dream is pretty much dead. We do not live in a meritocracy where one gets ahead simply by hard work and talent, rather we live in what someone I read called an inherited meritocracy. The family you are born into is more decisive these days than how hard you work as far as the level of economic attainment you achieve. The color of your skin and the wealth of your family is more important than anything else because these things determine if you can get a high quality K-12 education and can afford to go to an elite university, which opens most of the doors and opportunities that help secure one’s career and economic future. Also, coming from an economically secure family gives young people more options and opportunities because of the economic support they can count on such as the freedom to graduate from college without massive amounts of student debt.
We need to change these things before the oppressive level of inequality in this country destroys it. The problem has many facets ranging from the heartless winner-take-all capitalism that we practice in this country, the very scant and frayed social safety net that has not kept up with the changing economy, the horrific costs of a college education, to government policies such as funding for schools being tied to local property taxes. Even those factors ignore the systemic racism and gender discrimination in our society and economic system, which gives white men like myself so many more advantages and privileges than everyone else.
See also Q&As with Scott Aaronson, David Albert, David Chalmers, Noam Chomsky, David Deutsch, George Ellis, Marcelo Gleiser, Robin Hanson, Nick Herbert, Jim Holt, Sabine Hossenfelder, Sheila Jasanoff, Stuart Kauffman, Christof Koch, Garrett Lisi, Christian List, Tim Maudlin, James McClellan, Priyamvada Natarajan, Naomi Oreskes, Martin Rees, Carlo Rovelli, Rupert Sheldrake, Peter Shor, Lee Smolin, Sheldon Solomon, Amia Srinivasan, Paul Steinhardt, Philip Tetlock, Tyler Volk, Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten, Peter Woit, Stephen Wolfram and Eliezer Yudkowsky.