About Problems and Nobel Prizes

I had the opportunity to attend three lecture-presentations by Frank Wilczek recently, and if ever you are near such an opportunity, go for it. He has enough of a website and media presence that it is sort of besides the point to hyperlink to any of it; and yes, of course, he is on Wikipedia. However besides his discussion of Majorana fermions and supersymmetry (SUSY), what struck me were the side remarks about problems, and our ability to solve them. Certainly our understanding of matter at a fundamental level has come a long ways and all the easy problems have been solved. What remains are problems that are rather complex, and that may or may not be amiable to solutions or scrutiny. The art in our continued exploration of the fundamental nature of matter is then in finding questions or problems for which we can reasonably hope to find solutions with the available tools. Indeed, in my view there is no scarcity of complex problems that challenge us with questions for which we can provide no answers.

On one of these lectures I sat next to Johannes Geiss, quite a figure in physics himself (Albert Einstein medal, but no Nobel), and with whom I occasionally have some very pleasant philosophical chats that most recently included comparing notes on our colleagues who have received Nobel Prizes. I often do not think of these things, but in our conversations we have discovered that we know, not surprisingly, a lot of the same people. However the challenge in these conversations always arises when he asks me what exactly it is that I do. The question is how does one physicist explain to another physicist that the work involves educating lawyers in the nature of nature, so that science and law work together towards what we all hope is our wellbeing. This efforts on my side are well rewarded, neither of us is competing against the other for some faculty position, grant money or other career qualification, so these are open and unguarded conversations. He has retired long ago, but like all those passionate for their work, he continues in close contact with the work community in his field, and I well, I am on the transdisciplinarity track, and that track has not been laid down yet, so I am inventing this as I go along.

Everybody is all excited about the LHC at CERN now running, and after all, what the physicists are looking for is that all too illusory Higgs that might explain where mass is coming from. It is very humbling as a physicist to admit that we do not know what causes mass, but the truth of the matter is that we do not know. Particle physics (a misnomer of sorts), or high energy physics (a better name, but still not quite), or the search for the grand unified theory (GUT; a more descriptive name to the adventure) has come a long way, and we have learned quite a few things, not all of the new knowledge makes us comfortable.

When faced to explaining how the the nature of nature’s law and men’s law are related to a physicist, I often concede that the physicist has the easier task than the lawyer. But I could be wrong, it could be that humans are just as tricky as the Higgs and that we are all on a wild goose chase. What do I mean?

Recall that the Higgs has been postulated, it has never been observed. The Higgs is a child of theory.

How could it be that men’s law’s are a more complex problem than nature’s laws? Aren’t men’s laws man made, thus invented, and not given by fundamental processes?

A recent editorial appearing in Nature Physics (1) did however get me so upset that I ranted to a couple of colleagues about not only what is exposed in the text, but what it points to. Let me elaborate, and let me elaborate because this is indicative of the kinds of problems that lawyers and policy makers have to deal with.

It is not only science that is going through an authority crisis, most authorities are going to such a crisis, and the name of the crisis is lack of trust, mistrust, if you will. Science is one of those authorities, that also like any sort of normative is under attack. While the Financial Times is on the pulse of the financial community’ struggles with itself, Nature is usually on the pulse of what is going on in science . Also what is to be observed in this article is the influence of mass media – it is still called that, and it will remain that in spite of all the new fangled web platforms that tend to end up in “shared bias” walled communities – on the public debate and governments themselves. As the (opinion) food chain goes, the politicians by whatever motivation has them in office usually sway in the winds of public opinion. Public opinion itself is a tricky business, and is dominated by two factors: ignorance and short sighted mass media. In turn, most mass media is controlled by purely commercial interest groups without a concept or an understanding, much less a commitment, to act responsibly towards society. In very strong words, the mass media, more often than not is pure ideological pornography; however not always, so there is hope.

It is harsh to look at it that way, but that is the nature of the beast which the lawyer, policy maker and those called on to govern have to deal with. From my perspective, the world of the LHC seems simple. It is a magnificent feat of engineering, or what Frank Wilczek called our version of the Pyramids. I am finding my forays back into the world of fundamental physics to be pure zen. Nature is as it is, it has no thoughts, it just happens. It could also be that we, in all our human arrogance, may never unlock the secrets of nature’s processes, but I would like to think that in learning about these processes, we might learn about ourselves and come to the view that while we live in a non-deterministic world, the possibility that we will totally destroy ourselves is there. The thought should bring sobriety to all. However there is this problem of trust, or mistrust, and what it is that is power in human affairs. I am left thinking that there are a whole lot of problems that I am not going to solve, but I will look for those that I can contribute towards the solutions.

Well, when in my early days as a graduate student in Los Angeles, I confessed to my diary that what I am interested is “what makes man tic, and matter tac” I laid down my agenda. In my next life, I might want to study the aesthetics of vowels, it would make it all so much simpler!

(1) Nature Physics 5, 851 (2009); doi:10.1038/nphys1464

Update: Should have mentioned this before, but I assume you all know that Frank Wilczek’s wife Betsy Devine is beyond words! (that means that I a fan)