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Interview of Sheldon Glashow by Dorian Devins on 1998 April 13,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Telephone interview aired on WFMU and live on the internet. Popular-level discussion with brief comments on various contemporary topics in particle physics and cosmology, along with reminiscences of incidents in Glashow's youth and his work on quark theory.
Dr. Sheldon Glashow is the Higgins Professor of Physics at Harvard University. I should say he was formerly in another chair, but I had that wrong. He also is the author of Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist and a book called The Charm of Physics which was put out by the American Institute of Physics Masters of Modern Physics. In 1979 he was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his unification of the electromagnetic and the weak nuclear forces, of course that being the electroweak force, and that took us one step closer to a Grand Unified Theory, which I think he’s probably still working on, and we want to welcome him to the program. Hi, how are you?
How are things there at Harvard?
I hear things are still here.
And you’re in a more permanent chair than was once thought.
Well, yeah, that Mellon Chair of the Sciences was a wonderful honor, but it was a folding chair; it lasted only a few years.
[laughs] Well I know you’re affiliated in some ways with the Ignobel Prizes and the Annals of Improbable Research, and I see that they have special section on chair names now, so maybe the Mellon should be one of them.
Yeah. It’s a wonderful honor to win an Ignobel Prize. And I think the manufacturer of, the inventor of blue jello got such a prize.
Yeah, that’s a color not usually found in nature.
Nobody bought it.
Well, you’ve got to get something for your efforts. And your efforts of course, being somewhat of a loftier type, your discovery actually, yours was a predictive Nobel and was actually I think not proven by experiment until after you got pour prize; is that right?
That’s right. They invited us back, the three of us — oh, I shared it with two good friends, Steve Weinberg [?] and Abdul Salaam [?], who has recently died. But they invited us all three back, three years later, when Carlo Rubia [?] had discovered the particles that had been predicted by the theory.
And that was at CERN, right?
The discovery was at CERN, indeed.
Now is that normal, I mean for that to happen? That doesn’t occur often where you come back to see your predictions realized, so to speak.
Not terribly often, that’s true.
Now your work, actually you had started as a student back with Julian Schwinger [?] with one thing —
With Julian Schwinger at Harvard University, yes.
So that was sort of your thesis paper was it, that you started on? Or —?
Well, a sort of misbegotten version of things was my thesis, but then later on I went to Copenhagen — that’s a long story in itself, waiting for a Russian visa — and while waiting for the visa that never came I got things straight.
So what was missing out in that first version of it?
Well, there was lots of things missing from the second version too, but the question was — the original theory, let me put it simple — had a charged particle to mediate the weak force and the neutral particle was the photon, but it turned out you need two of these neutral particles. One of them is now called the Z naught [?], and it’s an algebraic thing. These things didn’t fit together unless they were a fourth weak intermediary, so to speak.
And even when you came up with this theory, it wasn’t automatically accepted, was it? I mean people were still sort of????
Oh good God, no. I mean it was certainly not accepted, and it didn’t make a great deal of sense either, until certain essential additions were provided by Salaam and by Weinberg. That was in 1967. But even then nobody took the theory seriously, until the experiments pointed the way towards its being correct.
And actually you had a couple papers out. One during your sort of first attempt that didn’t come through so well, I guess the infamous paper, as you’ve called it in your writings.
Oh, that was the paper where I got that it was very wrong. Yeah, yeah.
And then later when you had things right, it was still some time before it was accepted and uh —
Well, accepted and, as I say, improved. Because a lot of things had to happen to make the thing come together. It had to happen that Murray Gilmond [?] would invent quarks; it had to happen that Peter Higgs [?] would invent the Higgs Mechanism; it had to happen that a man named Goldstone had to invent the Goldstone Mechanism; and it had to happen that Steve Weinberg and Abdul Salaam showed how these funny particles could get their masses. So a lot of things had to happen both experimentally and theoretically before the whole thing could hang together.
One of the things that I had sort of thought of you before I’d even done much reading about you, I sort of had a sense that you had a pretty high regard for the experimentalists. A lot of theorists are sort of a little more, I don’t know, dubious of the experimentalists let’s say.
Well, science is an experimental thing, and it’s very much my feeling and the way I’ve been brought up to think that it is the job of the theoretical physicists who explain nature in the sense of explaining the results to experiments. And when the theorist is led astray, as Einstein was in his later years, he or she gets nowhere. And in fact after Einstein invented the general theory of relativity, which was a spectacular development in 1916, he spent the next 40 years of his life, the remaining 40, following a will o’ the wisp that did not exist.
You also seem to maintain a very healthy skepticism overall about—I mean, your work of course helped to put another block into the standard model there, or to create it in a sense, and yet you still sort of wait for somebody to come and knock it down.
Well, sure, that’s what all physicists want, because the standard model is a great thing, it explains — it’s right, I mean nobody has ever proven it wrong, but it leaves unanswered an enormous number of questions, and in fact it says quite honestly in so far as the theory can talk it says, “I can’t answer those questions. Find something better.” And so there are people who are, the string [?] theorists, the people who follow super string theory, who are working with a richer system that is trying to answer these questions.”
Now I had read somewhere that you weren’t really big on string theory.
Well, the point is, it’s been 10 or 20 years and they haven’t answered any of the questions yet, so it takes, uh, and I lose my patience.
Yeah. Do you think part of that is also that it just seems nearly impossible to prove experimentally? That it’s just beyond what we have now to work with?
Well, partly it’s that, but there are a lot of mysteries, down to earth mysteries, which have to be answered, like why are there six quarks, and why is the cosmological constant so small, and all kinds of wonderful questions that the string theorists may very well answer one day. I look forward to that time. But the point is the time is not now.
Right. Dr. Sheldon Glashow is our guest on “The Green Room.” Now of course when we talk about the standard model, previous to that there was a competing idea, or even I guess a completely different idea — I wouldn’t say competing — but what was called “nuclear democracy” or I guess “bootstrap model” it’s been called?
Jeffrey Chu [?] and some maximal analyticity [?]. Yeah, there was a thing like that, but it didn’t have the ambition or the power to — It was sort of fading away already in the mid ‘70s.
And what was the difference between that and the standard model basically?
Well no, no, that was another attitude. You see, there’s a thing called quantum field theory, which is the tool that standard model uses very much, and these people off in California. Led by Jeffrey Chu, an extraordinary brilliant man, thought that there was another direction, another kind of argumentation which wasn’t really quantum field theory but which was an appeal to internal self-consistency. And it was hoped that this could lead to an understanding of the different particles that existed. But it was an awfully good idea, and there is of course a certain amount of truth to it, but it wasn’t ambitious enough. It didn’t address the strong interactions or the weak interactions. It only addressed the strong interactions, not the weak and electromagnetic.
So it was just too limited to go beyond its —
It was too limited, and the contrast really was a contrast between this self-consistent mathematical approach of Jeffrey Chu and the idea of quarks that had been invented by Murray Gilmond. And in so far as there was a dichotomy, it was Murray Gilmond that won with quarks.
Now actually quarks, Murray Gilmond predicted quarks, and they were I guess discovered experimentally around at the same time as charm, right?
Well, no, I mean a little bit the — Yeah, in the late six — Well, it’s a complicated story. Murray invented quarks because mathematically they seemed to be a good idea, but they were such bizarre things that he didn’t really seem to believe in them as real particles. He thought of them as a mathematical artifice. And then in 1968, which was say five years after he suggested them, it turned out that they really were particle-like things. You could see them. You could see them inside the proton and the neutron. And so another Nobel Prize went to a group of three experimental physicists for more or less for actually seeing the quarks.
And originally there were thought to be just three kinds of quarks, right?
Yeah. Murray’s original theory had three kinds of quarks. Then I was so bold as to suggest what turned out to be very good reasons for why there had to be a fourth kind of quark, which I called charm, and then we were all surprised because there were not just four, there was six. And it seems that that’s the number. There are not more than six; there are just six.
And how can you ascertain that? I mean, how do you know that there are just six?
Well, that’s an interesting question. First of all we haven’t seen any others, but that’s not much of an argument, because it took a long song and dance and lots of effort to see number six, but, and the point is that every pair of quarks is associated with a neutrino, or at least has been up ‘til now. And what you can do, what CERN has done, is to count the number of neutrinos, and found that there is exactly three of them. To enormous precision. I mean, 3.001 or so. So that means there are just, there aren’t four, it can’t possibly be four. Each neutrino comes with two quarks, and so six quarks makes perfect sense. It’s a way of counting quarks.
Now obviously there have been a lot of problems with funding for the accelerators. They had one project that closed down.
The superconducting supercollider was a marvelous device that would really have pushed the envelope very far, but this country decided that it couldn’t afford it. So we’re out of that business.
So I guess a lot of people have sort of moved over to CERN and other facilities at this point.
CERN is working on a less ambitious machine that may or may not have the ability to find the source of things the superconducting supercollider was designed to find. But yes, we’ve moved over and we’ve made serious financial commitments to work at CERN, and we’re assisting with the construction of this machine, which should be available in 2005, roughly speaking.
So I guess you could see one upside to that bad situation of not getting funding there is that it’s sort of making a more globalized community of physicists working on these projects.
Well, it would have been anyway, and had things gone better it would have had existed ten years ago or so. I mean the delays had been going on for a rather long time. It’s sort of a sad business. But yes, it will be done internationally, and many of the exciting things in physics today, like the search, the study of solar neutrinos, are being done mostly in Japan right now and will soon be done in Canada. In both instances it involves serious American collaboration with other countries.
Right. The SNO [?] facility is to open pretty soon, right?
SNO will open very soon. Super Kamioka Conde [?] opened a year ago, and it’s done some spectacular work.
So it seems that the neutrino hunt is the big area right now in terms of getting a big science funded and having a lot of people working and things.
Well, that’s one thing, and another thing is the Fermilab accelerator, which is the world’s largest accelerator, and from which we still expect there to be some interesting surprises, which will come soon. It’s just, the next run will come in its time, and there might be some really interesting data there. So Fermilab is very important too, the neutrino thing is very important, and the next generation of what are called B-factories [?], making B-quarks [?].
Oh. Well now where are they? What are these?
These are machines. There are two identical machines, one built in Japan and one in California. I know the world only needs one, but unfortunately there are two. And this is, a lot of the American research effort has been focused on this American machine at Stanford called “Babar” [?].
Is this over by SLAC?
It’s over by SLAC, and the mate to it is in Chakuba [?] in Japan, over by the presently existing machine in Japan.
We recently had on the program Martin Pearl [?] from SLAC, who I think discovered his tau lepton around the time you discovered the charm.
He discovered the tau lepton. It’s a spectacular discovery that he and his colleagues made, and he was rewarded for that, and well rewarded, because it was a totally unexpected — that was the first indication that there would be more than four quarks. Because it was the first element of the so-called third family of quarks and leptons. It was terribly exciting.
And that’s around the time you found your charmed quark, right?
Well, I didn’t find it. It was in ‘75, and the evidence for the charmed quark that I had been advocating since 1964 came out in April of 1976.
That must be a great feeling, though, to get the evidence after trying to tell everyone about it for so long.
Yeah, it was very nice when it finally worked the way it had to.
And you didn’t have to eat your hat.
No, I didn’t. But you know, it’s sort of like I knew that 7 times 6 is 42, and everyone else was saying that 7 times 6 was 44, so they all, they came to the right number.
Well you actually did have a challenge of sorts in which you said you would eat your hat if it wasn’t found.
Oh, sure. I would eat a lot more than my hat. I would eat my shoes and socks too, but — because I knew I was right. I will say it’s an awfully nice feeling to know you’re right and be surrounding by all these apparently brilliant people who don’t agree with you.
And I guess another group of people did have to eat little candy hats in the end.
They were handed out these little candy hats which, well that’s not really much of a punishment.
No, not too bad. At least they were hats anyway, right? Now you obviously, having this respect for experimental physics, didn’t go into it. Is there any reason that you, I mean —?
Well yeah, I’m not so good at doing experimental things. My wife knows that from my behavior in the kitchen. And when I was at Cornell I had some experiments to do in the laboratory which involved very delicate little glass tubes, upon which I dropped bricks by accident, and I was soon asked to take a passing grade and don’t show up in the laboratory. No, I’m not good with experimental things. You know, there’s a thing called Pauli [?] Effect. There are two Pauli Effects, but one of them is that when Wolfgang Pauli was in the room, no experiment would work. And I was a little bit like that, a lesser Pauli Effect.
But you started out actually I think, I read somewhere that you had a chemistry set or something as a child and —?
Oh, sure. I used to do, well first I did biology and I had this microscope and I’d look at water from the Hudson River, classify all the intestinal worms that I could find in — there was lots of worms. And, you know, among the floating condoms there would be worms. And then I got bored with that, so I switched to chemistry and followed various recipes for making things blow up in interesting ways, you know, making colorful explosives and smelly, uh, oh there was a wonderful thing, tetra selenium tetra nitride as a ring [?] compound. It’s very difficult to synthesize, but I did succeed. It’s only stable under benzene, and when the benzene evaporates there’s an explosion, the chemical is unstable, there is a puff of smoke and a flash of light and the stink of rotting horseradish. Marvelous party favor.
Well, that’s definitely something you get a lot of results out of, so I guess that’s what you’re looking for.
But you know, it’s boring. It’s like cooking, except cooking you end up with something that tastes good.
Yeah, that’s true, but it doesn’t explode as well usually, unless you are using a pressure cooker I guess.
Yeah, but if it tastes, if it explodes off the taste buds, that’s much better.
Dr. Sheldon Glashow is our guest on “The Green Room.” Now you are a Bronx science man too, I should mention.
Bronx High School of Science. I’m a Science-ite, as they say. As opposed to a humanoid, I suppose.
Or a sociopath? Is that right?
Sociopath, yes. Those are those people who study psychology.
This is how you classify the students out at Harvard, or —?
Well, you can classify all of humanity that way, I suppose, but certainly the students at Harvard.
Well, there are a lot of sociopaths in New York, too, of varying types.
Not just the ones studying sociology and social sciences. Now, you did grow up in New York basically, but you ended up going out to California for some time, and I read about your travails there. You weren’t really big on California, or —?
Well I, you know, in Russia, or in the Soviet Union, when someone was bad they’d send them out to Siberia. And sort of the same thing happens in America. If you’re bad, they send you to California. And I spent seven years in exile out there, some in Los Angeles and some in San Francisco. They are very different places, and there were sort of no rules at all. In L.A., they have abandoned all moral precepts. But in San Francisco, it’s even worse, because they have all the wrong moral precepts. Funny, funny places. Real funny.
L.A. doesn’t seem like a real science town to me somehow.
I just went there for awhile and I had a nice time bicycling around Venice Beach, and then we went to this new museum, the new Getty Museum, and that is a monument to folly. It’s the most incredible thing. First of all you can’t get there, and secondly if you get there you can’t park there, and even if you get there and park there, there’s no way to get to the museum because the trolleys are too full, and then you get to this museum which is made of enormous pieces of granite, and you discover there’s no art in the museum. It’s very, very strange.
That’s kind of how they make movies too.
And they make movies there too. That’s the big industry, isn’t it. (???) the airplanes.
But the movies are also that same sort of, you get there and there’s sort of nothing. But then I guess that’s just a matter of taste. Now you write a lot about radio astronomy in —
Oh, I do?!
Well, you have, in your past, in (???).
I didn’t know I wrote a lot about radio — What did I say?
I saw that it comes up here a lot. It turns up in a lot of the essays you wrote, and you wrote one about radio astronomy I believe. And —
Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t know much about radio astronomy. I just for the first time in my life last week went to Puerto Rico to see the Aracebo [?] telescope, which is the world’s largest radio telescope.
Well, did you work down there or were you just visiting or —?
Oh, there was a conference, so I went down to attend the conference and to get a little tan, because it was getting sort of dark here in Boston. And it was a fantastic instrument, it’s beautiful. But I’m not, I don’t know much about radio astronomy at all.
Well I guess it comes up in your history of physics type things that you have written here, because I definitely noticed it popping up here and there, or maybe just because I’ve been hearing more about it recently too, but in the history you talk about it and of course about Arno Pensius [?] and The Big Bang Theory. Yeah, (???) Pensius and Wilson made this great discovery completely serendipitously. It was a remarkable discovery. Yeah. And people, all the people out at Princeton who had been actually looking for that are people who didn’t get their due in fact as far as predictive science.
Yeah, it should have been — I mean Robert Dickie [?] is the guy I would have thought would go out and find this thing, but he didn’t, and well, to the victor do certainly belong the spoils, and these guys found it. Anyway, finding it was the first step in beginning to understand how this universe works. And we spoke of a standard model a moment ago, standard model of particle physics, which works awfully well, but there is also a standard model of the birth and evolution of the universe which is certainly right in broad feature, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as the standard model of particle physics. That is to say, that field is tremendously exciting right now. They are trying to understand what’s going on in the universe.
Well, cosmology seems to be one of the areas for particle physicists to go in a sense.
Yes, in fact that’s a very acute observation. What’s happened is particle experimenters have, since we have no machines in this country, Congress decided to scratch the thing, have moved off and used their skills, their considerable skills in astronomy, and have kind of revolutionized astronomy. Some recent work that’s been reported in the Times and elsewhere about how the universe is expanding ever more rapidly as you go further away. It’s very surprising if true, and very wonderful. But it took these particle physicists.
Yeah. And it just seems like an amalgam of work from people from all the areas too. I mean there are the I guess the astronomers, the particle physicists, and —
Yeah. It’s a collaboration between real astronomy types and real particle types.
And I have I guess the Kobie [?] and all these other instruments now working on these problems.
Well, Kobie has done a shtick. It’s out of combat at the moment, but the next generation though has various names, but the Super Kobie type machines, one of which the U.S. will launch, another of which the Europeans will launch, will really answer these questions within the next few years. It’s getting very exciting. You see, the Kobie thing was technology of what, 25 years ago or something like that. Today, for much less money, people will launch something that is thousands of times more sensitive.
What do you think of the inflationary theory of the universe?
Well, that smells very right. I mean, in essence. Again, that’s part of the standard. I was talking about a standard model of cosmology, and that’s an essential Goofs [?] or more modified versions of the Goofs inflationary hypothesis are almost certainly right. You can’t do it without Goof or without inflation.
Right. It seemed like it was a hot idea, and then everybody was trying to debunk it, and now it seems to be becoming more and more accepted.
Well, nobody was trying to debunk it. People were showing that it led to trouble, that it had to be modified, and there was the new inflationary universe and the new improved inflationary universe —
But it doesn’t matter. The basic idea had to be right, and almost certainly is right in some form. And there is a lot going on right now. We don’t know the topology of the universe, we don’t know about the cosmological concept, we don’t know if it’s flat or not flat, and all of those questions which are ultimately experimental questions are going to be answered.
The dark matter. Right.
Right, right. The dark matter question.
Is the universe finite is another very important, very interesting question. Does it go on and on forever, or is it finite? The dark matter question, as you say, 90 percent or some fraction like that of the matter in the universe is not on our list of, uh, not on our menu. Something, it’s a chefs specialty. We don’t know what it is.
I read somewhere that you’re working on anti-matter.
Yeah, no. That was — I’m not doing it anymore, but for a couple years me and my colleagues from CERN and from Boston University, Alfro Darucula [?] and Andy Cone [?] were asking the following question. The question is, “We all know that locally things are made of matter. The whole Earth is matter, there is no anti-matter around; the Sun is made of matter; the Moon is made of matter; Venus is made of matter; the whole Solar System, the whole Galaxy is made of matter. And by God, we know that for millions of light years out from us, it’s all matter. Otherwise we would see clear signals of anti-matter/matter annihilation. So most people conventionally assume that this asymmetry of the universe, the fact it has matter but no antimatter, was extended throughout the universe. And that’s perfectly plausible. But we asked the question of whether the universe after all could be symmetric between matter and anti-matter. Could there be huge islands of matter surrounded by seas of anti-matter or vice versa; could it be a kind of patchwork universe with regions of matter and regions of anti-matter. With big regions, bigger than a million light years or a few million light years. And well, we answered the question. The answer is no, it can’t. If it were, it would lead to effects which have been looked for and haven’t been found, and so we’re stuck with 100 percent matter universe.
Is this in any way analogous or related to work being done on Black Hole, research on Black Hole?
No, it’s not related to the Black Hole stuff. It stands on its own as a — Well, actually it’s sort of confirmed what everybody, all cosmologists believed. They all made this assumption, and the assumption is plausible, and more than that, it’s right.
I guess a lot of the Black Hole research is coming out of California in fact.
Well, it depends on what you mean by Black Hole Research. There’s a lot of — that’s not, if you mean theoretical work, no, it comes from Harvard. We have a man named Juan Maldacina [?] who has done some of the most spectacular work on applying string theory Black Holes and understanding Black Hole physics. And Andy Stromicher [?] who is in the same discipline. Black Holes, from a theoretical point of view, seem to be to a large extent a Harvard specialty.
Mmm. I guess I was just thinking of Kip Thorne [?] and that crowd out there.
Oh yeah. Kip Thorne and that crowd out there approached things from a different direction, and they are much into the, yeah, there’s this whole bunch out at Caltech that are much in that game.
So you’re not any longer working on the anti-matter, but what are you concentrating on nowadays?
Oh, right now. When I was a kid I collaborated with Sidney Coleman [?] a great deal in my first few years as a physicist, and he’s a colleague of mine at Harvard, and we started collaborating again on a sort of modest subject. What we are doing is looking at tests of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, Simple Theory.
And asking whether there are ways of testing it better than have been done before.
And how do you go about testing it? I mean, how do you go about finding better ways?
Well, we did. We actually performed a test sort of that is about 24 times better than anything that was ever done before. It turns out that we didn’t have to do anything to do this test because people who looked at cosmic rays didn’t know it but by seeing the sorts of things they saw, which is to say high-energy cosmic rays, they put a limit on possible departures from special theory. So by indecision, by not, without even realizing it, cosmic ray physicists have got a very strong test of special relativity. And what we are now arguing is that if certain recent data are true then cosmic ray physicists may have produced evidence that there are departures from the special theory of relativity. Which would be sort of interesting.
Do you think this happens a lot in science, where someone working within one discipline, kind of tightly held discipline, is making discoveries that could have an impact in another area very strongly if —?
Well, it happened in many — Cosmic ray physics has been tremendously fruitful. Those are the guys that discovered pions, which used to be thought of as the glue that holds protons and neutrons together. They found, the anti-, uh, cosmic ray people found anti-matter for the first time, and that’s something that has to do with all of physics, not just cosmic rays. So everything touches everything else.
But do these particular, like these cosmic ray physicists, realize the impact of what they’re doing in other areas do you think, or the implications let’s say?
Well, you mean now or then?
When they, back then when Anderson discovered the positron he was stupefied, because this, although this had been a prediction of Durak [?]. None of the experimenters took this seriously, and he was quite amazed to find that this crazy prediction of this man was true.
It’s amazing when you look at the history of science in general, but physics in particular, how much has been able to be pieced together in these, you know, people finding things and not realizing it or you know Peter Piper [?].
A lot of stuff so, so totally by accident. I mean, the story of the discovery of radioactivity is wonderful, because these, there was a family, a French family that who for generations had been studying luminescence. This is when light shines on something and then if you take something into a dark room it glows for a while, cold light, and the x-rays had been discovered, and then Becquerel [?], the third generation of Becquerel, An [?] Becquerel thought that maybe if x-rays make things shine, make them phosphorescent, then maybe there is x-rays in the sun and so that if they would shield a piece of mineral, phosphorescent mineral, luminescent mineral from the sun and put it in the sun; these x-rays would get through and make the thing shine. And that’s the kind of experiment that was done. It was a completely wrong experiment, but in the process, because it happened to be that this particular luminous material was a salt of uranium, just by accident the guy discovered radioactivity. He overthrew his three generations of work by his own family, but he was smart enough to realize that he had discovered crazy and something new which he called uratic [?] rays, which today we1call radioactivity.
That’s a great story.
It’s a wonderful — So it happens again and again.
Yeah. Well luckily he was able to overthrow the three generations of work there too and not —
He was smart enough to just cast it all away and say, “Hey, this is much more important than all this stuff we’ve been doing.”
I guess there are stories where people don’t do that too, but those are not the ones that advance science.
Yeah, there’s cold fusion, there’s the French story about n-rays, which is a long story about something which doesn’t exist.
All kinds of wonderful, wonderful directions.
Yeah. Dr. Sheldon Glashow is our guest on “The Green Room,” from Harvard University. The more I read about particle physics — not that I know much about it, but I used to think it was a real reductionist type of science, but it seems actually quite the opposite when you look at it, because it’s all trying to build this one force out of all these others. And in a way that kind of makes sense that a lot of particle physicists would gravitate let’s say to, a pun, towards cosmology. It’s sort of interesting to see that happen.
Well you see that’s where the — I was amazed to go to some philosophy conference the other year, and where they were discovering the philosophy of quantum field theory, and the title of the, it was “The Foundations of Quantum Field Theory.” My talk was called, “Does Quantum Field Theory Need Foundations?” But the subject I addressed was the kinds of questions that exist in science, and like one of the questions in chemistry. The questions, there are all kinds of questions. It’s a very exciting discipline. But the point is the basic rules are known completely. They’re set in stone, they’ll never change. Nonetheless there are interesting questions, but the questions are phrased in terms of a language of a theoretical framework which cannot possibly change.
We know the rules. And so I’ve introduced the phrase metaquestion, the word metaquestion, for a question where you don’t know the rules. And it used to be, there used to be lots of metaquestions floating around, but most of them have been answered, and the only domains in which there are these types of questions that ask what are the fundamental rules rather than asking how do you use these rules to explain this complicated phenomenon. The only domains are the domains of the very small and the domains of the very large, particle physics and cosmology. So that’s where all these metaquestions lie. These two disciplines have a lot in common. They are the disciplines where it is very expensive to do experiments—you have to launch a satellite or create a Hubble Space Telescope or build an accelerator or invent a laboratory, put a laboratory thousands of feet under the ground. So the devices of cosmology or particle physics are terribly expensive. Whereas in chemistry in general that’s not necessarily at that expensive, or in biology. The things are not, the experiments are not so complicated.
Well, there is also a lot of crossover now, of course chemistry and biology, and even physics and biology to some degree, but — Yeah, yeah, but those are all out of the domain of metaquestions, because there with where we know where the rules are. It’s like we know the rules of chess, but we’re not chess masters. But out there we don’t know what the rules are. They’re playing some funny games, the universe, the stars, the galaxies, the particles, which we don’t fully understand. And it’s terribly exciting to work in a domain where the questions are — you can attack the very foundation of the discipline. We don’t know the rules.
It’s dealing much more in abstractions too than say atmospheric[?] —
It’s also dealing in things that are irrelevant, because when a congressman comes and says, “Is this stuff going to do anything?” and the answer is, “No, it won’t.” It’s like grand opera.
Well, congress — Well, there’s also, I mean just in general for basic research there is always a fight going on to have Congress realize that it’s an important thing, even in other domains I know, so —
Well, a lot of the stuff that scientists do is very directly important, like it has to do with curing multiple sclerosis or understanding the origins of breast cancer. This is down to earth and practical and important. But understanding galaxies, that’s not going to help us in terms of health and welfare. Accept in terms of understanding things for their own sake.
Mental. Mental health.
Mental health, sure.
In some odd, ironic way it almost ties you a little closer to the philosophers I guess. What was that conference like that you went to?
Oh, it was at Boston University. It was a very fine conference. They invited all kinds of heavyweight theoretical physicists, giving very heavyweight talks. So I slept through it.
Did they have any deconstructionists there?
Oh, no, no, the Sandra Hardings and such and the ultra-feminists and, no, no, the cultural relativist, no, no, no, no, we don’t invite them any more than they invite us.
Okay. So cosmology is not the while male domain or anything.
Oh no. As a matter of fact cosmology is a domain where some of the greatest work, recent work has been done by women. I don’t quite understand why that is, but women are attracted to cosmology.
Hmm. That’s odd. That is odd. Well, I was certainly being facetious there. I don’t think of any science being a white male domain, but I know some of the factions do.
Well it’s certainly true that most of science was invented or developed or invented over the past hundred years by dead [?] white European Christian men.
Yeah. But it doesn’t mean the rules are set by them.
The laws of physics are not —
I don’t think they set the rules.
No. Something bigger than they. Now you teach a very popular course up there at Harvard. Is that —?
Well no, it’s not all that popular.
Sometimes I have only a dozen students. I had 40 students in it last year. They didn’t like it. The year before I had 13 students, and they liked it very much. So I stopped teaching it for the while. It’s kind of frustrating. These kids come to Harvard, they are very smart, all of them, and some of them want to be scientists. They don’t have to take this course or any course like it, but if you want to major in Slavics or History or Philosophy or you name it, or English, Psychology, you have to take one course in Physical Sciences, and this is one of say a dozen possibilities, my course, for the kids to take. But basically they don’t want to take it. They don’t know this physical science, and a lot of them don’t want to know this physical science. They’re proudly ignorant, and even at Harvard, and it’s painful. This subset of the students, the ones that really don’t want, don’t care, they feel that they’re being put upon to have to devote 1/32nd of their college education to science and they’re upset by it, and they really don’t want to learn anything, and they’re pretty much incapable of learning anything about it. It’s funny, strange, weird, scary.
Yeah. Do you think part of it is intimidation, that they are just afraid they won’t understand or —?
I think part of it is they didn’t get any math. There’s no such thing as plane geometry in high school anymore. If you’ve gotten somebody who didn’t take plane geometry, then they are never going to learn any science. Plane geometry is sort of the key course where you learn about proving things and abstraction. They don’t have it, a lot of them.
Is that true though, that it’s not in the curriculum anymore for students in —?
Well in general, no. In the town of Brookline for example, which has allegedly a very good school system, they teach kind of blended stuff. I had three kids go through the system when they were asked to make an equilateral triangle, which is something you do with compasses. Each of them came to me and said, “Pop, you got three rulers? I have to make an equilateral triangle.” That’s not the right way, okay? They didn’t learn it. They didn’t learn it right. They don’t teach it right. Bad.
Do you work on that, the educational standard?
No. I did. I’m sort of affiliated with it, and I promised to read over the California standards when they are finally done, but it’s very hard because there are many constituencies and everybody is arguing for something different, and it’s very hard. No one’s in charge.
Yeah. It’s a lot of infighting there.
A lot of infighting, yeah.
I know your Dr. Hirschbach [?] up there is involved with education.
He’s been deeply involved, yes, he has, and he’s dragged me in from time to time. Well, sometimes it’s things like going to science fairs, and then that’s wonderful because you see all these kids. I went to Louisville [?] last year and saw the creme de la creme of American kids. They’re wonderful. Those are tremendous. It’s a joy to talk with them, and we were on interactive television with a bunch of different schools. It all worked very nicely. And then I found the world’s best men’s store. But that’s another story.
[laughs] Pick up some suits?
Well you yourself are a Westinghouse, uh, were you a winner there or you were a finalist?
I was one of the Top 40 Finalists, and I got a hundred dollar scholarship.
Wow. And it was a nice thing to do, and a wonderful weekend in Washington. It’s not Westinghouse anymore; it’s now Intel.
Just this year, right, the changeover?
Just switched to Intel, and Intel is a good company, and I hope they, I don’t know how — it doesn’t sort of ring off the tongue right, Westinghouse Science Talent Search, but maybe it’s just 40 years of thinking about it as that. Why not Intel?
I’ve always thought of it as Westinghouse, so, but actually for I guess a few days there it must have been, its fate was unsure, because I know Westinghouse —
Oh, there was no problem. Everybody was bidding for it. Many different people were bidding for it, and I think the choice of Intel was a good one. I’m sure they’ll do a good job. In fact they were post-sponsors [?] of the Science Fair in Louisville that I went to, and they did a hell of a good job there, so I expect them to continue supporting this very important endeavor.
There used to be science fairs all over the place, and that just doesn’t happen anymore (???).
Is that right? I don’t know. I used to judge them in Sacramento and in all kinds of crazy places. So far as I know they still do exist.
Yeah. You just don’t hear about them around here I guess maybe.
I participated in the New York ones when I was a kid making some kind of junk, but it was a good experience.
Well, maybe the PR machine should get on that. That would be something to get science fairs a little more in the limelight (???).
Well, we do have the Science Olympiad, Physics Olympiad and Math Olympiad, where we compete with people throughout the world, and we do very well.
And where does that take place?
In different places, in different countries — in Poland, in America, in you name it. We have a team of physics people that we train each year and they go out and compete in one country or another. It travels around just the same way the Olympics travel around. And we’ve done creditably, very creditably.
So, I mean these types of things are good to get the public more used to and less threatened by science (???), and even events like the Ignobels, which we mentioned before, you’re affiliated with them. But it still seems there’s such a disparity and people can tell you the latest news about who’s on I guess Melrose Place or whatever, but they can’t —
Well, actually there’s a lot of Americans that are very interested in science. You can see that from the success of Stephen Hawkings’ [?] book, for example, and of other books. People want to know about what’s going on with what’s in the universe, what are particles like, what are the basic rules of nature. It’s a lot of curiosity out there. But a lot of people are frustrated, because they don’t know quite how to resolve this curiosity—which books to read, what lectures to go to, how to do it. Science museums are more popular than they’ve ever been.
Yeah, those are great actually. Those are sort of a good middle ground, because the way, what you’re talking about is people who I think see these books, but they might be slightly over their heads. Or, I mean there are a lot of books I wouldn’t understand.
Well, Steve Hawkings’ book is quite a bit over most people’s heads, including mine.
Yeah. But I mean even, you know, given the problem you mentioned with people not even having geometry and their very limited amount of science education, it could be baffling trying to get beyond a certain point.
Yeah. But they can inspire their kids to go a little bit more than they do, and in a couple generations we’ll all be scientifically literature.
Is this a true story that your father fell into a vat of molten lead?
Yes, he did. He was a laborer before he became a successful businessman.
And that sort of got you interested in physics, is that right?
No, no, that was before I was born. I mean, it was sort of, he liked to tell the story because he wasn’t injured at all by this experience. Point is, and that he realized that there is a layer of air that insulates you for a short time, so if you get out of the lead fast and if it doesn’t stick to you, which it doesn’t, you’re okay, you can pass through such an experience with no ill effect.
And that story maybe did get you interested somewhat in physics?
Yes, also I was a kid during the Second World War, and my brothers would explain to me how bombers dropped bombs, and that sort of stuff was interesting to me too. Then there was science fiction, which I got addicted to very early.
Yeah, I think a lot of people’s entry into science is science fiction actually.
Yeah. It was really quite good in those days, and there was a certain naivete and interest in science, in science fiction, that is absent today but was wonderful then.
Yeah. I don’t really read science fiction, but a lot of what I, I guess the television programs and all, they seem to be sort of playing on real science stuff, which confuses some people I think, and certainly things like cloning now which are real but were science fiction make things a little more complicated.
Yeah. But you know there’s also Star Trek, and that’s got a lot of people interested in science, and one of my colleagues, Lawrence Kraus [?], has written a wonderful book, two books, on the physics of Star Trek, and he sort of explains why phasers don’t exist and warp speed is impossible to attain and all of these other things, uses Star Trek as a device to explain physics, and has done a good job.
That’s great. Didn’t he also do a book on dark matter or something?
Yes, he did a book on dark matter too, you’re right about that.
He’s a good writer. He’s now the chairman of physics at the Case [?] Western Reserve.
Wow. I should look at those books actually.
Yeah. Physics of Star Wars is one of them.
We’re actually getting kind of toward the end of the time here. I wanted to make sure to get — We got to your current work, which was you’re testing the special relatively and —
Well, yeah, I’m getting people, I’m seeing what the effects would be of departures from (???). Yeah, right, sort of.
No, I’m not teaching right now. I’m on leave of absence, so I’ve been toodling around to Paris for awhile and to California and to Puerto Rico and —
California. Well, I’ve got, yeah, why not, I have a son who lives there.
Oh, okay. That’s a good reason.
I know. I like going for a short time. Bicycling around the beach is just beautiful in the Santa Monica area. Loved it.
Yeah, well. It’s I guess a nice place visit, right?
It’s a nice place to visit, and it’s full of people who are mistakenly living there.
[laughs] And what about New York?
Oh, New York’s wonderful. I’m a New Yorker. I have nothing bad to say about New York City.
Yeah. Well you’ll have to come by the studio sometime when you’re in the New York area.
Sure. I’d love to do that. I’m in New York quite often.
Okay. Well, we’re down to the last couple minutes, but I wanted to make sure to thank you sufficiently. Sheldon Glashow, who’s been our guest this hour, author of several books including The Charm of Physics, and of course Interactions: A Journey through the Mind of a Particle Physicist.
And there’s a third one. There’s something called From Alchemy to Quarks, which will teach you everything you have to know, you want to know about physics.
And aren’t you working on something else now? Did I (???)
1001 Mechanical Delights, which are crazy, kooky problems for kids who are interested in mechanics.
Ah. When does that come out?
Oh, I have to finish it first. I decided the title would be 1001 Problems, and I didn’t realize how big a number 1001 is! So I’m up to 500.
Yeah. And you who have written on infinity didn’t realize that, huh?
Yeah, no, it’s big, it’s just big. It’s a lot of problems.
Well, I enjoyed the books that I read, and I know that there’s stuff about radio astronomy in here, so —
Well, maybe in some previous incarnation I was a radio astronomer.
Maybe that’s true. You know they’re putting up a statue to Jansky [?].
Yeah, he was the American who first discovered radio signals coming from space.
Yeah. And he almost got delegated into the blue jello inventors’ realm I think. He didn’t get his due for quite some time.
Yeah. I don’t know that story.
But anyway they are giving him a statue coming up soon.
Who is the “they”?
I think, well I know some of the Bell Labs people are involved.
Ah, that figures.
And it’s going up to Homedale [?] or so.
So that’s coming up soon. Anyway, I want to thank Sheldon Glashow once again for coming on the program. It was a great pleasure having you on.
It was a pleasure to be here. I hope we have some people out there who are interested in science, and I hope they are a bit more interested now.
Yeah, I hope so. Well I mean we definitely have some science fans out there I know, and physics fans, and I certainly understand why you would be in that field, because whenever I read about particle physics or cosmology t certainly is amazing.
It’s an awful lot of fun.
Yeah. I get very drawn into this stuff when I read it.
Even if you can’t see these bloody little quarks, they’re still fun to play with.
Yeah. Good food for thought.
Well, do come on the program again, and best of luck to you up there at Harvard. Enjoy your travels too.
Thanks a lot.
Okay, thank you.
Bye. And you’re listening to WFMUE Storange [?] WXHD Mount Hope. I want to thank both my guests for tonight, Sheldon Glashow and Gertrude Elyon [?]. And coming up next week will be Murray Gilmonde [?] to talk about quarks and the 8-fold way and various other things. A glut of information. The Santa Fe Institute. We’ll also hear from Roy Porter, who is a historian of science and has done a book on, it’s a medical history of humanity, and the week after that we’ll be hearing from Benwa Mandelbrott [?], the mathematician and the father of fractiles, and also Carl Zimmer [?], senior writer for Discover magazine who has a new book out on macro evolution, here to talk about that, and that broadcast will come like from the Museum of Television and Radio. I do want to thank the folks at the Museum of Television and Radio, Chris Katnese [?], Mindy Hateman [?], Liz Jennings, the fantastic job in engineering, for their facilities and help, and of course both the guests. Stay tuned to WFMU. Rex will be next.