Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Alan Guth on himself, science, cosmology

Aside from Edward Witten, another well-known winner of the Newton Medal (in 2009) was Alan Guth, the first father of cosmic inflation. Two month ago, the Institute for Physics posted the post-Newton-Medal interview with him, too.

He had no science background in his family. At least he doesn't remember any background. But his family was happy when it learned that Alan was into science. Well, they were happy for a while, before they realize that science wasn't quite the same thing as engineering, but it was fortunately too late for them intervene. ;-)

He grew up in a small town, Highland Park, New Jersey which only has 15,000 inhabitants or so today. Well, it may be a small town but your humble correspondent knows it very well from his Rutgers years (1997-2001). In fact, I officially had a physician over there although I have never visited him so at least, I was sometimes going to do shopping in a grocery store over there. You may guess what Guth's father was: Yes, he had a grocery store in Highland Park. It burned at some point. ;-)

Many or most people in the Academia and especially theoretical physics come from scholarly families – the tradition usually goes back several generations, in fact. It has advantages and it has disadvantages. This "inherited occupation" adds some amount of sterility to the environment. On the other hand, the "scholars who inherited the job" are trained to be productive scholars so I am pretty sure that in average, they write many more papers than the "first explorers of the scientific occupation in a family". The latter may often be more audacrious and creative, however.

Guth was affected by a fabulous high school teacher. He didn't know too much physics, Alan Guth later realized, but he was still lucky to have a dynamic guy of this type. He described some success of him as a theoretical physics when he was a high school pupil – something based on a pure thought but it still works well. ;-) Alan Guth married his high school sweetheart. Two kids, the son is a mathematician who proved e.g. the Son-of-Guth Theorem (naming convention due to Susskind, if I caught it well).

MIT was where he went to college. MIT was unusual socially because it didn't separate people who are "in" and "out". He liked it. He was surprised he had superior competitors – unthinkable at the high school. People specialized a bit. He became sure he wanted to be a theoretical physicist. Grad school. Postdoc jobs. One of them made him interested in cosmology. Magnetic monopoles in the early Universe became his important obsession.

Alan Guth explains what cosmology is – science of the Universe as a whole, especially focusing on its childhood. The Big Bang Theory was great but it needed things to be fine-tuned and failed to explain the uniformity, too. He discovered cosmic inflation while solving another problem, namely why Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory has't found magnetic monopoles during their polar expedition. Guth explains why inflation gives the bang to the Big Bang. A gram of matter is enough to create our large visible Universe. A gram is not much but it's still much more than the Planck mass so it's not a theory of everything.

It looked dramatic so he was afraid it was wrong but after some talks, especially those with big shots in the audience, it became clear it wasn't wrong. Today, cosmology is in the golden age, indeed. Things are accurate. He describes the composition of the Universe and the absolute nothingness at the beginning. God is pointless because because He is just a redundant connecting link – with this addition, you must just explain why He is there instead of the Universe. ;-)

Hat tip: Joseph S.


  1. So Sir Alan Guth faced the same Problem as I did Just last Year..!!!

    But he was lucky that his family came to know that Science is not as Engineering..and LUCKY for Science itself that my family came to know about it much earlier that they intervened right away !!!

  2. Huh, what does Alan Guth mean when talking about an initial condition of absolut nothingness which contains not even spacetime ...? It reminds me about something ...:-/

    Anyway, I like his way of talking and how clearly he can explain things; if he gives lectures they must be very nice ... :-)

    Thanks for sharing this Lumo

  3. Hi Dilaton, what does nothingness remind you of? ;-) It reminds me of the Neverending Story movie with the flying big dog.

    Inflation still has a space at the beginning, although an exponentially small one. If one discusses the true beginning, he needs an even more intense transformation, one that requires genuine quantum gravity and it probably involves a something-out-of-nothing process or instanton.

  4. Hm, I always thought that not even the nothingness in the cute story with the flying retriever would erase spacetime itself ...?

    Can the transition from the true beginning (when not even spacetime exists) be physically meaningfully attacked and discussed today?
    (I only know about some unreasonable something-out-of-nothing processes that allow for the creation of spacetime itself out of nothing :-P)

  5. Dear Dilaton, I would say that these insights about "something out of nothing" creation in physics still remain inconclusive. However, I would also say that it's been shown that physics is surely capable of answering closely related questions - and some closely related questions have been understood. So the opinion that such things must always remain outside the limits of science sound indefensible to me today although one can't rigorously show they're wrong yet.

  6. It is good to know that it doesnt require familiy history in science for a person to become a significant contributor to scientific knowledge :). I also liked that he is one of the scientists who married his childhood sweethearts :D.