Does the Universe Speak in Numbers? Graham Farmelo interview
Great interview with Graham Farmelo, author of the Universe Speakers in Numbers, reviewed here.
What is your background briefly?
A PhD in theoretical physics, then lecturer in physics at the Open University, followed by executive roles at the Science Museum London, before finally pursusing my métier – writing books – in 2003.
Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?
Yes, especially as I’ve been moonlighting as a journalist and writer since I was a 23-year-old graduate student, when I responded to an advert in ‘New Scientist’ for all-comers to submit news articles.
What do you mean by the phrase ‘The universe speaks in numbers’?
The idea the universe speaks to us through observations and results of experiments is pretty familiary – they give us clues about how the universe ticks. I believe it’s also true that we get crucial information about the universe through patterns in the observations, which we express in terms of mathematics.
Why is maths is so useful to physicists?
Einstein said a few years before he died that the ‘miracle’ of the universe is its underlying order, which can be described through laws. They can be expressed using mathematics, which the great mathematician described as being ‘patterns of ideas’. Perhaps no less miraculous is that these patterns that describe the universe are so often the ones that interest leading research mathematicians whose work has nothing to do with real world. As I point out in my book, in the past few centuries, the interests of physicists working on the fundamental laws of nature repeatedly intersect with the interests of pure mathematicians. Nobody really understands why.
Did Einstein believe that advanced maths is useful to physicists?
Yes, very much so. When he was a young physicist, he was confident that only basic mathematics was necessary to understand the inner workings of the universe, but he changed his mind in 1912, when he found that he need advanced mathematics to develop his new theory of gravity. He believed that mathematics was key to the success of that research programme, and so become increasingly focused on mathematical approaches to developing new theories, from the mid-1920s.
What is the current situation for physicists and mathematics?
We’re now living through a period in which Nature is giving us very few juicy new clues from experiments at particle accelerators. So many theoreticians who were expecting to spend most of their time analysing data are now trying to developing their most promising theories. The good news is that theories are based on relativity and quantum mechanics, neither of which has ever been contradicted by experiment. The jamming-together of these two foundational theories has led to a wealth of new ideas and to dozens of overlaps with state-of-the-art pure mathematics.
What about ideas like string theory?
As Newton taught us, every proposed fundamental laws of nature must be repeatedly tested by comparing its predictions with the most accurate data. But at the moment, with exciting new data thin on the ground, we have to be patient, and develop our theories in preparation for rigorous tests, which I’m sure will come sooner or later.
Are we’re entering a post-empirical age in physics?
Physicists and astronomers must always focus on getting empirical backing for their theories, and that there is a danger that some theoreticians getting too enamoured of mathematics. But the world’s smartest theoreticians know this perfectly well: they are working on the most promising theories, grounded in quantum mechanics and relativity. It’s worth noting that the critics largely comprise people who are not successful researchers, and that they have yet to come up with ideas that the leaders take seriously. Believe me, if other options arose, the leading physicists would drop everything and investigate them .
With particle accelerators and big astronomy projects now costing a fortune, do you think that fundamental physics will become too expensive?
Possibly. But the for the moment, I think governments would to well to continue to spend the 3% of the international science research budget on trying to shed light on the fundmental laws of physics – ‘the supreme task of the physicist’, as Einstein said.
What does a future successful roadmap look like for collaborations between mathematicians and physicists? Where will it all lead?
There is no royal road to success in mathematics and physics. if there were, everyone would follow it. However, history demonstrates that pure mathematics and fundamental physics have a habit of repeatedly intersecting, which is why so many leading physicists and mathematicians are talking to each other, and sometimes collaborating. The aim for physicists is simply to discover theories – or, possibly, a single theory – that give the widest-possible predictive account of nature in terms of the fewest principles. For mathematicians, the goals are to broaden their rigorous understanding of the patterns of thought that they find interesting. Perhaps, as the theoretician Paul Dirac speculated in 1939, physics and mathematics will unify?
Will it still be possible for the gifted loner to make new discoveries?
I suppose so, but I tend to be skeptical of the notion that detached loners often make the greatest discoveries. I subscribe to the view that science and mathematics are advanced by communities, though it is idle to deny that occasionally truly singular talents emerge – Newton, Gauss, Einstein et al – that have a disproportionate impact on others.
Any tips for aspiring physics writers?
First, write about physics that you love and that fascinate you. Second, write about it for people who are smart and curious but not experts – it often helps to have in mind a friend who represents this target audience.
How can people find out more about you & your work?
Best place to start is my website grahamfarmelo.com.
— Graham Farmelo (@grahamfarmelo) May 2, 2019
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