In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Sean M. Carroll, Research Professor of Physics at Caltech, External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and founder of preposterousuniverse.com and the Mindscape podcast. Carroll recounts his childhood in suburban Pennsylvania and how he became interested in theoretical physics as a ten-year-old. He explains the factors that led to his undergraduate education at Villanova, and his graduate work at Harvard, where he specialized in astronomy under the direction of George Field. Carroll explains how his wide-ranging interests informed his thesis research, and he describes his postgraduate work at MIT and UC Santa Barbara. He describes the fundamental importance of the discovery of the accelerating universe, and the circumstances of his hire at the University of Chicago. Carroll provides his perspective on why he did not achieve tenure there, and why his subsequent position at Caltech offered him the pleasure of collaborating with top-flight faculty members and graduate students, while allowing the flexibility to pursue his wide-ranging interests as a public intellectual involved in debates on philosophy, religion, and politics; as a writer of popular science books; and as an innovator in the realm of creating science content online. Carroll conveys the various push and pull factors that keep him busy in both the worlds of academic theoretical physics and public discourse. At the end of the interview, Carroll shares that he will move on from Caltech in two years and that he is open to working on new challenges both as a physicist and as a public intellectual.
Andrew Strominger, Gwill E. York Professor of Physics at Harvard, with affiliations at the Black Hole Initiative and the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature at Harvard, is interviewed by David Zierler. He recounts his childhood in Saint Louis, Madison, and then Boston, as his father, the prominent biochemist Jack Strominger, moved academic positions. Strominger discusses his undergraduate education at Harvard, where he started at age fifteen, and he describes his experience living on a commune in New Hampshire and hitchhiking to classes at Harvard during the week. He describes what he thinks string theory is, and is not, capable of describing as a representation of physics reality and the significance of the Calabi-Yau paper. He explains why the fact that the universe exist must be proof that there is some theory that can allow for gravity to be incorporated in the Standard Model, and he addresses criticisms that string theory deals in realms that are not scientifically testable. Strominger describes his graduate research at MIT where he began his work on quantum gravity, which he continued as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study and then at UC Santa Barbara, where he spent twelve years on the faculty. He discusses his long-term collaboration with Stephen Hawking, and he muses on the likelihood, in his view, that there are other universes even if there is no scientific way to confirm or disprove their existence. At the end of the interview, Strominger reflects on the unique importance of the concept of belief in science.