Preposterous Universe

Friday, March 04, 2005
Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader

Checking in from the auditorium of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics here in Santa Barbara (not to be confused with the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at Chicago, or the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford -- Fred Kavli gets around). The KITP, where I did my second postdoc, is a utopian space overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where theoretical physicists from around the world come together to drink coffee and discuss the universe under the steely but benevolent gaze of director David Gross.

For these few days, however, the KITP has been taken over by humanists, for the conference on Science, Theatre, Audience, Reader: Theoretical Physics in Drama and Narrative. Many of the participants are humanities professors of some form or another, but there are a number of hybrid types who are either physicists who write actual fiction, or writers who specialize in scientific themes, including Alan Lightman, Penny Penniston, Sidney Perkowitz, Janna Levin, Lauren Gunderson, and Jeremy Lawrence. And a few of us science types who have so far stuck to non-fiction.

One of the nice things about the conference is that there is little feeling of turning-the-crank, trudging through the rituals of a typical professional meeting. Bringing together writers and scientists and English professors in this kind of setting is pretty much new to everyone, and we're all seeing how it goes. Despite the unavoidable presence of some less-than-gripping talks, I find the overall atmosphere quite exhilarating, since there is a tangible feeling of common intellectual pursuit. Although theoretical physics is a wildly impractical endeavor, compelling largely for the pure thrill of discovering how the universe works (at least on the fundamental-physics side of things), physicists don't typically think of themselves as intellectuals in a broader sense. (Over-generalizing here, but okay.) It is much more common for them to be fairly focused on the technical aspects of their particular field of expertise, than to have wide-ranging interests in all sorts of scholarly activities.

This is despite the fact that there are certainly strong role models for theoretical physicists with broader academic interests, from Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg on down. The much more compelling counter-role-model is Richard Feynman, who was a brilliant physicist and charismatic figure, but resolutely non-intellectual. By which I mean not that he was obscurantist or non-rational (which would be crazy), but that he didn't have wide-ranging intellectual interests outside of science, and indeed would cheerfully denigrate other fields without making any real effort to appreciate them. His acolytes will undoubtedly squawk with indignation, but it's just what Feynman himself always said -- he was a pretty narrow guy. And he's the one who young physicists tend to hero-worship.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't think there's any real sense in which having broad interests would make someone a better physicist. Some of the best physicists out there are extremely narrow technicians. But it might make them better human beings, and there's something to be said for that.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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