Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A child in God's nursery

I think Ed Witten is generally reckoned to be the greatest mathematical physicist of his generation. His only rival in that regard is Roger Penrose, who's about a generation older. In a recent interview, Witten said:

Horgan: Are you religious? Do you think science and religion are compatible? 
Witten: I consider scientific explanations to be more interesting and illuminating. 

From that somewhat evasive answer I take it that he's either an atheist or an agnostic. 

Tonight I was skimming a lengthy interview he gave:

Several things stood out:

i) I'm impressed by his personal modesty and professional generosity in crediting colleagues. 

ii) I'm impressed at how much technical information he can rattle off. He has a tremendous memory for arcane detail.

iii) He clearly senses that time is running out. He doesn't have many productive years ahead of him. Indeed, he's entering the twilight of his career. He has to make choices.

iv) Many of his papers are too scientific for mathematicians and too mathematical for scientists! 

v) Assuming that this interview is representative of the current state of physics, I'm struck by the enormous emphasis on mathematics in contrast to empirical evidence. The degree to which Witten is looking for answers in the realm of math rather than experimental evidence or scientific discoveries. 

Now perhaps that's somewhat misleading. Perhaps that reflects the particular questions he was asked, as well as the specialization of the questioners. 

But even so, it's clear that he does look to math for pointers in physics. Not just a question of mathematically formulating empirical input, but seeking guidance from pure math to chart new directions in physics. Not just looking for answers, but finding the right questions. 

One of the dangers is that math is infinite. Rather than finding its bearings, the human mind can easily lose track in the illimitable reaches of math. There is no center. 

vi) One problem may be that physics has been running low on major new discoveries to replenish its database. Astronomy and particle physics are nearing the limits of what's detectable. It's too far or too small to acquire new information. 

vii) Despite being one of the world's smartest men, physics is hard work–even for him. It's an intellectual struggle. The subject matter is much bigger than he is. He can only focus on solving particular problems. And that's an effort. It's hard to see ahead. There's much he finds nearly impervious to reason.

That's highly ironic for an atheist or agnostic. For he's like a human engineer who's trying to figure out alien technology. It's so far in advance of our technology. 

Witten is a great mind, who's groping to understand something made by a far greater mind. He's constantly made to feel his own limitations. That he's maxing out. Laboring on the margins of comprehension. He's a child in God's nursery. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Steve. :-) I really appreciated these insightful thoughts about Witten!

    Although I believe Witten has won just about every major award in physics and math (e.g. Fields Medal), the Nobel Prize has thus far eluded him. Perhaps it's because the Nobel Committee tends to prefer empirical evidence (and arguably rightly so) whereas Witten's best or at least best known work seems to be heavily theory-laden with little proof of concept (so to speak).

    In addition, if we consider Witten's genius:

    On the one hand, a mind like Witten's is in and of itself a marvel. To observe him at work may be akin to admiring the Duomo di Milano's architecture and interior design. Only a genius of geniuses could've created such a thing of beauty. Or how could naturalistic neo-Darwinian evolution ever have given us such a mind?

    On the other hand, if he's an atheist or agnostic, then it's as if the Duomo was occupied by a secular government which cared little about its upkeep or maintenance, and let it fall into disrepair. Its magnificent spires could've ascended towards the stars, but instead they're beaten, weathered, on the edge of ruin.