Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sheldon Glashow on apocalypse

Promoting hysteria during a visit of the skeptical nation of Czechia

Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow whom I know pretty well from various parties (and from Sidneyfest where I took his picture used at Wikipedia: the fingers standing on the shoulder of the giant belong to Kenneth Lane) – and who was born on the same date as your humble correspondent and Werner Heisenberg – was visiting my homeland and lecturing at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Yes, of course that the local students confused him with Sheldon Cooper.

In this Thursday interview for Ekonom (The Economist), he offered his own doomsday scenario, aside from some surprising memories.

Once we burn all of our forests, our civilization will end

If we're not going to be clever enough, we will soon burn all the oil, coal, as well as the forests. And that will be the moment when the civilization be over, physics Nobel prize winner Sheldon Glashow claimed during his lecture tour targeting the students of the Czech Technical University.

Many key discoveries depended on the development of weapons. What should be the driver of science in the era of peace?

These days, people are focused on economic problems and I can't avoid the observation that in the era of budgetary cuts, scientific education and research often become the first victims. However, global warming represents a great threat for the society. Generally I don't think that the human civilization in its current form may survive for a few more centuries. It's necessary for it to radically change and that's the greatest challenge. We have to learn how to live in the world as it is and with the resources that are actually available.

The present civilization depends on oil. What will happen when we run out of it?

Obtaining enough energy is a key question. A simple solution is that once we run out of oil, we will consume gas and coal which will last for a longer time. Afterwords, we will also burn the forests. And right afterwords, we will witness the end of civilization. Of course that we could use uranium for additional long years but the contemporary age doesn't waste too many kind words for this element.

Do you share the opinion that the greatest amount of new insights may be expected on the interface of several scientific disciplines, e.g. chemistry and physics?

I don't know but experts with a good enough training are capable of switching their thinking rather quickly and change their specialization. That's why physicists are supervising disarming as well as global warming, among other things. The community of physicists includes winners of the medicine Nobel prize, chemistry Nobel prize, as well as the Nobel peace prize.

What role did chance play in your life?

At the end of the 1950s, I wanted to work at the P.N. Lebedev Institute in Moscow together with eminent physicist Igor Tamm who used to intensely support my work at that time. However, it wasn't quite easy for an American to obtain the Soviet visa during the toughest years of the Cold War. That's why I ended up at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. As I was fruitlessly waiting for a positive word from the Soviet embassy, I managed to partly solve the open problems of the electroweak interactions which was the topic that later earned me the Nobel prize.

What do you consider to be the most important characteristic of a scientist or a constructor?

In research of any kind, it's important to keep an open, unbiased mind. It's no exception when the actual result of research differs from the planned goal. The researcher wanted to demonstrate something but he may find out that the reality is different and he must be able to honestly admit that it's the case and that his original idea wasn't right. The same principle applies to industrial research and development, too.

What's your impression from the Czech Republic?

I have had a great opportunity to give lectures to the students of the Czech Technical University in Prague. I could tell that they were immensely interested in what they were doing. And that's very important: my parents were teaching me that it wasn't important whether I would become a physician, scientist, or musician. What's crucial is to wake up and to look forward to another day at work.

In Czechia, I have met enthusiastic technicians who couldn't hide that they were thrilled by their discipline. And the collaboration between a technical university and a technological firm is beneficial for both parties.

Sheldon Glashow (80)

He got his college degree at Cornell and PhD at Harvard.


After his stays at various universities and at CERN near Geneva, he returned to Harvard in 1966 where he remained up to the present [LM: not really, as I've been using his office for quite some time and he showed up once in 6 years; he's been at Boston University since the mid 1990s]. He won the physics Nobel prize in 1979. In 2011, he added an award from the European Physical Society for the discipline of particle physics.

Comments by LM

You see that Glashow says some things that are wise (open mind, unexpected conclusions of research etc.) but when it comes to many issues such as his ideas about the future, he is just – if I express it as diplomatically as I can – batshit crazy. A Nobel prize just can't save you from such things. There won't be any looming problem with energy. Even with the current technologies, we could get our energy e.g. from the Sun or many other sources if everything else failed. And we could build the required panels (or something else) in a few years. It's just less economical today but it's only about the factor of 2 or 3 in the price. No qualitative threat for the society exists in this direction.

Touching song. In the real world, however, it's much more likely that you will die because of cardiac arrest and an incompetent physician than because of the fire eating the last forests.

It's also crazy to say that the present era doesn't give green light to uranium. It's doubly crazy to say it in the Czech Republic that plans to double its nuclear energy production within a few decades and turn it into a dominant source of energy. It's triply crazy to say that nuclear energy has no future at the Czech Technical University where many people actually work on nuclear energy. The university has a whole faculty, FJFI, dedicated to nuclear engineering. Over 1,600 students study at this nuclear engineering faculty only! Specializations include dosimetry; reactors; various "less nuclear" related activities, but also fusion! Yes, you may study engineering of fusion in Prague. Chimp has sent me an article claiming that the same Czech Technical University will also transform Czechia into the global HQ of robotics. I have my doubts but it's intriguing.

Globe in the future 200 years. Viva Africa. YouTube is full of such infographics.

Also, I can't hide that I was surprised by Glashow's huge desire to live in the Soviet Union in the 1950s. That's when and where Stalin murdered tens of millions of people, including lots of intellectuals. Sheldon Glashow must have had reasons to think that he personally wouldn't be endangered. ;-) You may believe that people like your humble correspondent who are utterly scared of Stalinism and left-wing ideologies in general couldn't really feel safe in the academic environment that considers Stalin's regime to be just fine – more precisely, a society of dreams.

In fact, I found his answer to the "interdisciplinary" question strange, too. I don't believe that in practice, people may effectively change their academic specialization too easily. But what's even more bizarre is Glashow's pride about the former physicists who work in the climate hysteria industry. Every idiot can work in the climate hysteria industry – and most of them actually do. The fact that this list contains lots of former physicists is embarrassing. In fact, even the "supervisors of disarming" fail to be a reason for legitimate pride. Disarming may be lovelier than the construction of atomic weapons but it is surely a less impressive activity that requires much less expertise and skills. One doesn't need good physicists or otherwise unusually skillful people for such activities.


  1. Uranium...did he at all mention Thorium?

  2. I admire your restraint :)

  3. I don't think so - at any rate, what I claim the text to be is an honest albeit linguistically imperfect translation of the interview as published here...

  4. The total entropy of Glashow's brain is clearly approaching zero. A far greater increase in entropy results from the confusion imparted to his audience. The second law is quite safe.

  5. That makes him a great heat engine, right? :-)

  6. Totally irreversible.

  7. As the entropy sets in Prof. Glashow's head begins to compress into a more spherical shape.

  8. The man is stunningly ignorant.

    But in that regard he is typical of academics of all disciplines. They earn a PhD in a field with negligible breadth, so narrow they are usually ignorant of most subareas in their own discipline. How many theorists in relativity or quantum mechanics know anything at all about mechanics? Probably none. The average BS civil or mechanical engineer knows more than any Nobel Laureate.

    And when it comes to areas outside their own discipline, their ignorance is simply embarrassing. And dangerous, because the press gives them a soap box simply because of a Nobel Prize, or a Macarthur Prize or a Pulitzer, or some such irrelevant nonsense.

    Really, academics (I R one) should not be allowed to speak outside their own lecture halls, and then only narrowly on the topics in the syllabus.

    They shouldn't be allowed to vote, either.


  9. Re Fusion: Eric Lerner came to town (Newark, NJ) last week to attend the rally and march celebrating NJ People's Organization for Progress' 381st day of continuous protest. (Emulating the 381 day Montgomery bus boycott, at least in longevity.) Eric Lerner is the head honcho of Focus Fusion (also author of The Big Bang Never Happened.)

    Focus Fusion has leapfrogged (ito maximum temperature) over the big dollar fusion projects, according to this story: . I marched alongside Lerner, and asked him whether his effort was being adequately supported.

    In short, no, and furthermore, securing investors is a time stealing distraction from serious work.

    Lerner mentioned that they've had some fruitful technical cooperation with an Iranian university (who went around the Iranian government, IIRC), and could benefit from more such efforts. (In light of the likelihood of hostilities breaking out with Iran, this particular avenue of cooperation likely already has an expiration date.)

    I told him that I would get his brochure into the few technical contacts that I had, and maybe try and organize a website for other laymen to work their technical/investor/government networks.

    Although I don't have the technical chops to KNOW that Lerner's approach is worth generously funding, in light of his accomplishments, it sure seems like a positive gamble. Especially, one for the environmentalists, some of whom are writing tearful letters to their grandchildren for failing to stem the cooking of planet Earth.

    Since these people believe CO2 is the culprit of their expected earthly hothouse, and fusion, despite some radioactivity issues (minor compared to fission reactors, I've read), will produce no CO2, WHERE ARE THE GREENIES WHEN YOU NEED THEM?

    In any event, I think both lefties and righties should be able to enthusiastically get behind fusion energy, even if for different reasons. What's necessary is that a small handful of enthusiasts - of whatever political leanings - force the message out onto their networks.

    You mentioned that the Czech Technical University is also working on fusion. Perhaps they're interested in collaborating with the world's record holder in fusion temperature?

    Don't quote me on this, but from the description that Lerner gave me of their current technical challenges, it frankly sounded more like a problem in material engineering than physics. (They need some very smooth surfaces, but they are machining these parts.) IOW, they may be nearer to a practical model than they suspect. With a staff of only 3 people, there's going to be gaps in their knowledge.... Perhpas the Czechs can help out? Also, what about your Rutgers contacts? Lerner's lab is in Middlesex, NJ.

  10. I think Sheldon Cooper has more common sense than Sheldon Glashow

  11. I think some if this might be due to too much specialization and some arrogance among physicists. I've hears lots of ignorant things from physicists on philosophy, politics, etc.

  12. Why should he be ignorant? I mostly agree with him, although I should probably keep it to myself on this blog. I certainly do not consider myself a Fachidiot (although I will hopefully gain a Ph.D. in about 1 year). I have more education in biology/ecology/social sciences then most physicists. It is an experimental ecological fact that environments have something called a carrying capacity and that various species are interdependent etc.