The Science Museum organized a 55-minute conversation of Nima Arkani-Hamed with Ian McEwan, an English novelist. Note that Nima is dressed in an unusually elegant, formal way, to show that physicists are culturally superior. Relatively to him, McEwan is dressed like a rank-and-file physicist. ;-) The female host mentions that Nima is an avid reader; she doesn't even have to say that he is a spectacular piano player, too.
The video starts with a 16-minute test of patience. Jump to 15:45 if you're sure that you would be able to pass the test. ;-)
The novelist thinks that the society undervalues science relatively to arts. He also feels compassionate about the scientists because they need to race, to be the first ones, while novelists may always write a derivative book that will be said to be unique, anyway.
Well, I am not sure whether the degree of interaction between these two Gentlemen was too high but to say the least, fans of Ian McEwan were led to be exposed to one contemporary particle physics' most energetic minds.
McEwan says that a writer may still do perfectly fine if he or she is totally detached from science. But the total detachment is less and less frequent although he later admits to have many writer friends with zero interest in science.
Before 18:00, the novelist says that "climate change forces people to learn something about science". You may bet that I had to interrupt my watching for some time to lower the tension in my stomach. McEwan's "climate change" reason to be interested in science reminded me of the young rabbis who asked Richard Feynman whether electricity was fire (to know whether they could use an elevator on Saturday):
It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something—to be a rabbi—and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.Nima points out that everyone can appreciate arts but you must know something to appreciate science and to see that e.g. Nima is not just another crank.
Around 26:00, the novelist says that the humanities have increased the gap between science and the arts as these postmodern hacks are trying to hijack the word "theory", for example. Science's truth is just another ideology, and so on. McEwan has lost a few friends who love to relativize the truth. These views are passing – from arts to politics, Nima adds.
Near 29:00, Nima talks about a physicist's popular talk with a 12-year-old kid who complains that the Higgs field is just like the aether. So the physicist tries to explain "trust us, we're not stupid" and argue that the Higgs field is like an aether in the analogy but it is not like the aether. ;-) Analogies have limitations but Nima believes that the essential points can be explained – to a very engaged audience. For example, Nima himself learned much cosmology from Weinberg's popular "The First Three Minutes" (so did I, when it was piecewise translated to my childhood's favorite VTM magazine). Nima also talks about the severe constraints that Nature imposes on our viable theories.
The novelist's subsequent monologue mixing teaching of science, "applied mathematics", statistics, and natural selection was something that looked somewhat chaotic to me. I didn't really understand what he wanted to say and I would bet that neither did he. At least, they may discuss the beauty in science and arts – and what the concept means and doesn't mean. Science's sense of beauty isn't a matter of fads, Nima points out. It's because the beauty is a shorthand for something else – some inevitability or uniqueness. I have learned that "pretty", "cute", "cool" mean something else than "beautiful" in physics. Nima also talks about the completion of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony from the four tones. It looks inevitable but Beethoven had to try flawed drafts first. The analogy with the search for the right beautiful theories is clear.
McEwan says that the contemporary music isn't about beauty; it is a method to express the anxiety. Poetry and self-organizing structures are more beautiful. But music may return to the beauty. Modernism has declared that emotions and beauty are frauds, he argues. He suddenly mentions the abolition - of the spacetime – and the reality of time. Nima isn't interested in debates "what is real"; they are crap, he says politely. Instead, he talks about the mixing of space and time and the reasons why the concepts are probably not fundamental. McEwan reinterprets Nima's words in some way but he doesn't recognize the ideas so they laugh. Nima also says that the question itself is often unclear up to the moment when the final right answer is almost isolated.
McEwan was asked by the host whether the creative efforts in science and arts are analogous. He only has "fantasies" what theoretical physicists could be doing the whole day. And one of them is that they're like novelists, sitting in some relaxed position with a notepad near them. They are in a misty state with some bits of the talent etc. Despite the mythology, Nima says, people don't go to their offices to write systematic equations from A to B and say "now I succeeded" at the end. This is the usual story about the approach of Nima's colleague Edward Witten, however. ;-) It never ever works like that...
There is a difference between big discoveries that some giants sometimes make and the tiny, $3 million discoveries that people like Nima are doing, he emphasizes. :-) A good story has a higher chance to be right but some stories are too good to be true. So 99% of our life is to prove that some too good stories are wrong. So a physicist knows he's a nearly constant failure. To make things worse, he's sure about the failure because he knows how the success looks.
After 57:00, McEwan says that extra dimensions etc. seem profoundly inelegant to him, especially if there are 11 dimensions. 10 would be better, he says. I honestly can't figure out whether he's joking but if he's serious, it is really really stupid! Now, the need for scientists to be the first one and to compete is mentioned. Novelists can write derivative junk and be considered unique at the same time. McEwan says that scientists may race for days or weeks. Well, we would sometimes hunt minutes because of that. ;-) McEwan praises "The Double Helix".
Nima mentions that scientists discover, not invent, so it's enough to be in the vicinity of the truth and not fight it. The truth sucks you soon or later – sooner if you're more talented. McEwan claims that Darwin had the greatest anxiety attack. Nima finally says that the credit etc. is important for the individuals, not for the grand scheme of things. Physicists have a different thinking and it's important to think in new ways – but not just about new things. One must think in new ways about old things and all things.
McEwan says that he likes to think of science as just one aspect of curiosity etc. In this sense, he agrees with his postmodern former friends, I think. He says that faith directly opposes science. The female host finds an elegant moment to terminate the debate.
If you are going to watch it, don't forget to share your impressions.