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.

Around the time the Soviet satellite did reach orbit, Leggett began thinking there was “something wrong about philosophy.” Though he planned to go on to graduate studies in philosophy, “the more I thought about it, the more I felt I didn’t want to do it…. I thought about it quite hard and came to the conclusion that what I didn’t like about philosophy as it’s practiced at Oxford was what counted as good or bad work depends so critically … on the opinion of your colleagues. In other words, there didn’t seem to be any kind of objective touchstone to tell whether what you were doing was good or bad work.”

Though he finished his classics degree, Leggett wanted to pursue something that promised a clearer judgment on the quality of his efforts. He toyed briefly with mathematics, but that path threatened conclusions too harsh for its practitioners. “By the very nature of the subject, if you’re wrong, it means you’re stupid.” Leggett didn’t mind being wrong. He just didn’t want to be labeled stupid when he was. “I wanted to be able to make some non-trivial conjecture about the way the world works.”

There was an immediate reaction of despair from the journalists and military, asking ‘How did the Russians get ahead of us?’ They came up with an answer: ‘Because we have the brightest young minds doing useless things like classics and not doing useful things like physics.’ 

Leggett decided he would “enjoy most doing physics for a career,” even though he had no exposure to the subject except for his father teaching it at his old school. His father, who didn’t much like teaching physics, “didn’t want to interest me in doing it very much.” Still, Leggett decided physics was for him despite significant roadblocks, “the most obvious being that I had already done an undergraduate degree at taxpayer’s expense.” He didn’t think the taxpayers would be all that anxious to pay for another undergrad degree in a totally different subject.

The British army threw up a bigger roadblock. Britain’s military draft had about a year to go when Leggett graduated. “How do I go to my draft board and say, ‘Look, I would like to postpone things a little more.’” He didn’t think the draft board would buy it, particularly since the draft would have ended by the time he graduated a second time. That’s where a group of Russian engineers came to the would-be physics student’s rescue by putting up Sputnik.

“That was really a major event in the 20th century, to see this thing go “pop pop pop” in the sky. And so there was an immediate reaction of despair from the journalists and military, asking ‘How did the Russians get ahead of us?’ They came up with an answer: ‘Because we have the brightest young minds doing useless things like classics and not doing useful things like physics.’ ”

Of course the draft board gave him another deferment, and Leggett received another Oxford scholarship. And the rest … is future.

Tangling with complex questions

Leggett admitted studying classical philosophy wasn’t quite as useless as the army feared. “Philosophy is at least a much more analytic subject than history. In high physics, you do start tangling with questions you might classify as philosophical, that complex of questions in which there are no agreed cut and dried methods of solution…. Many questions that, say, 30 or 40 years ago were being known as philosophical are now the province of things like artificial intelligence.”

Leggett had a wide-spread of interests in the broad field of physics. “Some of them are what you may call technical condensed matter. Condensed matter physics is a sort of catch-all term. Nowadays it tends to mean just about anything other than the physics of atomic or sub-atomic particles on the one hand and cosmology on the other.”

So Leggett worked between the two extremes. What he became known for, and for which he won the Nobel Prize, was his work in superfluids and high temperature super conductivity. When Leggett speculates about the future practical outcome of his works, he sees the most hope in high temperature super conductivity for use in power transmission lines – and in floating cars.

Imagine, for example, one of these science fiction movies like ‘Wall•E’ where people float around on a platform. That’s not such a piece of fiction. In principle you can do it.

A super conductor is a metallic alloy or element that has zero electrical resistance. If used in power transmission, super conductors would eliminate the approximately 10 percent loss standard power lines experience, a major energy savings. But there’s a catch. Superconductors have to be cold, really cold, to work. Originally, physicists thought superconductors were theoretically limited to temperatures near absolute zero. In the mid-80s, physicists discovered high temperature superconductors that would work at 90 degrees Kelvin, still pretty cold at around -430 F, but it blew away the theoretical limit.

Because of that jump, Leggett argues there’s no reason an alloy couldn’t be found that would work in the heat of a hot August sun, transforming the world’s electrical grids into super energy savers. But that’s not all superconductors can do “if we make them stable at a high temperature,” Leggett said. One of the effects of a super conductor is that it “ejects” a magnetic field. That property has become a popular physics lab parlor trick as a magnet floating above a superconductor cooled with liquid nitrogen. But by 2100, Leggett thinks we may all be floating around

“Imagine, for example, one of these science fiction movies like “Wall•E” where people float around on a platform. That’s not such a piece of fiction. In principle you can do it.”

A European experiment on neutrinos suggested they could exceed the speed of light.“This is not mentionable in polite company,” Leggett said, at least not in the company of polite physicists.

Leggett is less certain about other predictions for 100 years into the future. “I think there’s a decent chance that we may have gone to the point where we can ask and possibly even answer the question of whether quantum mechanics does apply to phenomenon which are occurring close to consciousness.” These are issues that approach the philosophical, such as two results of an occurrence existing simultaneously in a temporary state until observed, but only one continues in reality. The most famous illustration of the temporary state is Schrödinger’s Cat. Concurrent temporary states appear to happen at the sub-atomic level, but can such indefinite reality impact our everyday lives?

“Quantum mechanics seems to describe pretty well what goes on at the atomic and sub-atomic level. Ordinary matter is made of atomic particles. Can you apply quantum mechanics in all its states to ordinary objects?” If you do, “you get into some pretty weird paradoxes.”

There’s an argument in physics that quantum mechanics is “meant to be a recipe for calculating the probabilities of various possible outcomes of experiments … and you don’t have to worry about it.” Leggett doesn’t find that interpretation “internally consistent.”

“Maybe we should have to worry about it. If you talk to most experimentalists, they like to think they are … testing some statement about the root structure of the world, not just about a set of probabilities.”

On a broader scale, he talked of the Kepler space telescope identifying a large number of planets which may have the kind of conditions that could harbor life. The problem is “that as we currently understand it, we just don’t have any way of getting there” – at least until a few weeks before the interview when a European experiment on neutrinos suggested they could exceed the speed of light.

“This is not mentionable in polite company,” Leggett said, at least not in the company of polite physicists who see the speed of light as a reliable constant on which much of physics is based.

Leggett had just returned from a conference, but “no one brought up the question of neutrinos. If I had tried to bring it up…” Leggett just stopped and shuddered at the thought. “I suspect they made a mistake.” But if the experiment was accurate, “it’s going to mean that some of the things you took for granted are not going to work.”

Beyond physics, Leggett wonders how many languages will be left 100 years from now. “We have these instances of languages just dying out. On the other hand, there are also interesting cases, the ones that come to mind are Welsh and Hebrew, where languages have been resuscitated. So there could be more languages. I think people do have a very strong tendency to try to find their own identity,” be it in language or geographic origins.

“If you asked, I’m a male British subject. Are these the kind of classifications that are going to away? Will we need to find identity in different ways?”

Leggett also questions how our moral conceptions will change. “Go back far enough, slavery was just taken for granted as a natural facet of society. Go back 50 years, equal opportunity was not thought of as natural The interesting question for me is, when people 100 years from now look back, which of the modern conceptions that we have today will they find totally unintelligible, absurd?”

His own prediction? “Probably the idea that a state can compel a public citizen to go out and kill people who that individual has no quarrel.”

– Tom Chmielewski

 (Photo courtesy University of Illinois)


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