Rooting theoretical physics in pop culture
By James Dacey
There are three breeds of academic who can inspire popular audiences. There are the academic luminaries whose brilliant insights have undoubtedly shaped their discipline - their mere existence is enough to inspire. There are those at or near the top of their chosen fields who take the time to “dumb down” their work for popular audiences - let’s call these the public engagers. Then there is a third kind - perhaps a dying breed in the 21st century - the academic intellectuals, who seem to exist on a different plane, up above the boundaries of traditional subject boundaries.
Having laid the foundations of their own fields, these academic intellectuals have a consciousness that enables them to look around and see how their work slots in with other pillars of academia. What’s more, they’ve also a strong grasp of how academia can appear to an “outsider”. Add to this, a great sense of humour and you may find an academic who has an audience hanging on every word.
Last night in his public lecture “Darwin and the Cosmic Landscape”, Leonard Susskind proved that he is firmly an academic of this third kind. As my colleague Matin Durrani described in the previous blog post, he was speaking as part of the University of Bristol’s centenary celebrations and the city’s Festival of Ideas. The central tenet of Susskind’s talk was that string theorists should look to Darwin because he “set the standard for what an explanation should be like”.
With his long white beard, “Noo Yawk” accent and hyper awareness of the “big questions” in physics, I saw Susskind as the perfect fusion of Charles Darwin and Woody Allen.
So often - and I have been guilty of this myself - physicists dismiss biology as “imprecise” or “stamp collecting”, but Susskind managed to illuminate the metascience of physics and biology to show they are both part of the same noble inquiry.
And hearing Susskind got me thinking about a frustrating fact of modern physics. That is: as physics becomes increasingly split into sub disciplines, the questions become increasingly broad, like “how can we unify gravity and quantum mechanics?” or “does life exist on other planets?” Given this, how can we possibly expect physicists to get a handle on the bigger pictures, let alone on “contemporary physics”?
So if we accept the difficulty facing physicists then intellectual academics like Susskind should be hailed and celebrated. Last night Susskind managed to firmly ground string theory and multi-verses in popular culture, illustrating his points with references to Bill Clinton’s adultery and Rube Goldberg the American cartoonist. In fact, it all reminded me of a particular favourite Woody Allen quote:
“What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”