Thursday, July 02, 2015

The Hindu: an interview with Ed Witten

A big portion of the world's string theorists gathered in Bengalúru, India last week. The local newspapers have published a couple of stories – e.g. about Ashoke Sen etc. One fresh interview in The Hindu is titled
‘Supersymmetry may show up at the new run of LHC’
Šubašrý Desikan has talked to Edward Witten who was introduced as the "world's only physicist who has won the Fields Medal".

Much like in most interviews since 2006 or so, the first question was a deeply unoriginal one about the empirical character of string theory. Witten answered that physicists are interested in string theory because of its elegance and especially because it seems to be the only way to reconcile the two pillars of the 20th century physics, quantum mechanics and general relativity.

When asked about the experimental tests in a foreseeable future, Witten said that he finds the discovery of supersymmetry at the 13 TeV LHC run likely. Witten also discussed some observable implications of string theory for cosmology and singled out Juan Maldacena's inflation talk (video, PDF) at the conference which is based on Juan's and Nima's recent joint paper. In Witten's opinion, it may take decades to get the required technology etc.

In the wake of a question about the 100th anniversary of Einstein's general relativity, the famous physicist reminded the readers of the experimental implications of GR: all of modern (Big Bang etc.) cosmology, modified predictions for the motion of objects in the Solar System, gravitational lensing, gravitational waves, and black holes.

The journalist suggests that mathematics has ultimately nothing to do with reality. Witten says "It is true that mathematics is the language in which physical laws are formulated." For a decade, the last line of my e-mails said "Superstring theory is the language in which God wrote the world." Up to his poetic deficit, Witten said the same thing. Since Newton's times (he needed to invent calculus), doing physics was inseparable from understanding old and new things in mathematics.

Witten sees string theory both as a theory of elementary particles as well as a theory that has much to say to other branches of physics and mathematics. The very composition of the question suggests that the journalist is a reader of some anti-string websites which is unfortunate.

He was also asked about the world news and activism. Witten feels strongly about many things but he has personally and semi-professionally worked on the Israeli-Palestinian peace project – although I would doubt that he has been defending the best strategy to achieve a sustainable peace. At the end, the readers – and numerous curious and potentially very important students waiting in India – are told that the horizons of physics are at least as wide as ever before.

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