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Matin Durrani: June 2010 Archives

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Robert Laughlin believes mankind faces two big hurdles

By Matin Durrani in Lindau, Germany

I mentioned in my previous blog from the 60th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that after my interview with Carlo Rubbia, he headed off to a session on particle physics. In fact, the session was called “What will CERN teach us about the dark energy and dark matter of the universe” and was chaired my former colleague Matthew Chalmers, who was features editor of Physics World until 2007.

Keeping Rubbia and his fellow Nobel laureates on the panel in shape can not have been easy for Matthew, who also had heavyweights David Gross, John Mather, Gerard ‘t Hooft, George Smoot and Martinus Veltman to contend with, plus a live link to the CERN control room that conked out a couple of times.

I’m not quite sure what the conclusion of the debate was – if there was one – although most amusing was Veltman’s comment that “all this stuff about dark matter is total bullshit”. George Smoot also seems to have shaved off his trademark beard – try a Google search.

One Nobel prize-winning physicist who was not at the debate was Robert Laughlin (pictured), who shared the 1988 prize for his work on quantum fluids with fractional charges. Obviously he’s not a particle physicist and so one would not have expected him to attend, but he’s certainly ruffled a few feathers in the past with this views on fundamental physics.

Laughlin believes, for example, that while the reductionist approach to physics – so beloved of all particle physicists – works up to a point, it only goes so far. He reckons that nature is instead regulated by “powerful and general principles of organization” such as symmetry breaking and that these cannot be deduced mathematically from first principles, being “emergent” in nature.

Laughlin presented those views on emergence in a great (but sadly little known) book he published in 2005, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, in which showed how you cannot really understand nature by reducing it to a set of ever-smaller component particles that interact with each other according to certain laws. Just think about high-temperature superconductivity of the working of the brain.

But sitting out on the sun-drenched terrace at the conference venue on the shores of Lake Constance, while Veltman and pals were arguing inside over whether CERN would spot dark matter and supersymmetry, Laughlin revealed that he’s just finishing a new book on a very different topic to his last – what we will do when coal runs out.

Tentatively called When Coal is Gone, it presents Laughlin’s view that mankind faces two big hurdles. The first is what we will do when there is no more oil, which could be in 60 years’ time. (Answer: start turning coal into fuel for cars or planes, even though this will consume more energy than it generates.) The second is what we will do when there is no more coal. (Answer: start extracting carbon from the air or oceans.)

Apologies if that’s a grotesque and gross simplification of what are probably much more clearly thought-out and nuanced arguments but that, I think, is the gist of his book.

As far as Laughlin is concerned, nothing can really beat the energy density of carbon-based fuels and that, because we have all got so used to them, there’s no way anyone would choose to do without them in future. After all, plot national GDP against energy consumption and you have pretty much a straight line, albeit with a few outliers. (Energy, in other words, is essential to economic growth and unless we all start eating carrots from our garden and stop travelling anywhere and give up buying big new televisions, the global demand for energy will just keep on rising.)

There’s a lot more he had to say which I’ll have to turn into a more coherent article at some point. We need, for example, to separate out our thinking on energy and climate change. Nuclear power will still play a role in the future, while the need for energy will dictate the future of the global geopolitical system.

But Laughlin is great company, is well read, and has one stream of thought after another. Indeed, here’s one question he posed that got me thinking: if the Earth’s core is so hot, why are the oceans so cold?

Don’t stop me now

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The good life at Bad Schachen

By Matin Durrani in Lindau, Germany

I was tipped off before arriving here in southern Germany for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting – motto “educate, inspire, connect” – that if you’re a member of the press and want to meet any Nobel laureates, you basically have to fix things up in advance, despite the presence of a helpful press office.

Many of the laureates are a law unto themselves and so just turning up and trying to track them down for a quiet half hour with them is not easy – particularly when there are almost 700 students swarming around the “Inselhalle”, where most of the events are taking place.

It was just as well I’d been given that advice because it meant that I was able to spend a decent hour interviewing the Nobel prize-winning Italian particle physicist Carlo Rubbia.

Unlike the students here, he wasn’t cooped up in one of the cheap-and-cheerful hotels or guest houses in Lindau itself, but had been put up – along with all the other laureates – at the suitably grand four-star Hotel Bad Schachen further up along the shores of Lake Constance, where a suite can set you back €389 a night.

Rubbia, who was CERN boss from 1989 to 1993, is now 76 but shows no signs of slowing down. He’s heavily involved in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, which recently opened its ICARUS detector that is designed to study neutrinos fired from the CERN lab in Geneva.

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Carlo Rubbia

Sitting in the hotel lobby with a glass of mineral water, Rubbia also outlined his passion for the idea of using beams of neutrons to turn long-lived radioactive waste into shorter-lived waste – so-called nuclear transmutation – and potentially even generating electricity in the process. And he has ideas about using thorium as a nuclear fuel as well.

Like most – I’d guess all – Nobel laureates, science has never been just a job for Rubbia, but his hobby and his life. Indeed, he joked that he couldn’t imagine whiling away his hours on the golf course in retirement.

Still, being wined, dined and generally feted by the organizers of the Nobel laureates meeting has got to be one of the benefits of a hugely successful career in science.

And then Rubbia was off to a round-table discussion about particle physics, of which more later. As for me, I’ll have to listen again to my recording of the interview and hopefully fashion it into a coherent article. But not right now, as I’m desperate to get out of the sweltering press tent – Lindau is in the midst of a heatwave – and cool off.

By Matin Durrani, Lindau, Germany

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The harbour at Lindau

“Youth is wasted on the young” was one of the wisest sayings of the playwright Oscar Wilde.

I’m not sure it’s true though for the 675 students and postdocs who are holed up here on the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany for the 60th Meeting of Nobel Laureates.

The young researchers, who include 198 physicists, have all been hand-picked from among 20,000 applicants to take part in this year’s shindig, which has “interdisciplinarity” as its theme.

It’s obvious that these young scientists are well aware of the value of hooking up with 59 different Nobel laureates such as Carlo Rubbia, George Smoot, Gerard ‘t Hooft, and Robert Laughlin, who are on hand giving talks, taking part in discussions, and holding court outside the main lecture hall.

The organizers claim this is the “most international Lindau meeting ever”, coming from a total of 68 different nations.

If you like, it’s the physics equivalent of a summer rock festival where hordes of students clamour to hear the best minds in their field. Either that or it’s just the world’s biggest freebie.

I’ll be blogging over the next day or two to report more on what’s going on – so stay tuned.