Feb 192012

(First in a series of interviews speculating on life 100 years from now.)

A faint trail of beeps from the sky in the mid-20th century saved Anthony Leggett from a career in classical philosophy. Those beeps led him instead to a Nobel Prize in physics in the first decade of the 21st century, awarded to him for work that can help revolutionize energy use by the start of the 22nd century.

Anthony Leggett

Anthony Leggett

Rescued from a life mired in academic classics to instead work on enhancing the future, Leggett caught a lucky break when Sputnik sailed overhead.

It’s hard to imagine Leggett mired in anything. Driven by a desire to understand how the universe works, clearly, but never stuck in a mire. The personable, self-deprecating physicist laughed repeatedly during an interview as he talked about the turns his early career took and the challenges of his current research. When speculating on what advances we may see 100 years from now, Leggett draws as much inspiration from the animated film “Wall•E” as he does from his own work in super conductivity. In fact, the two are related.

Leggett wasn’t exposed to much science of any sort in high school (or college as it’s called in the British school system), despite his father being a physics and math teacher at his school. Rather, he studied the classics, meaning Latin and Greek languages and literature.

He continued with the classics when he went to Oxford, spending the first five trimesters studying classical Greek language, and the remainder of his time studying ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy. “I think I was too unimaginative to contemplate anything other than a university career.”

It may have not been a lack of imagination, however, but the momentum of traditional British education that was driving Leggett to a career in classical philosophy. The study of classics was the pinnacle of higher education at the time. The university hierarchy looked down on science as an inferior course of study. They had to look up when Sputnik orbited overhead. Continue reading »