Sunday, December 7, 2008

Michael Nielsen Interview

Recently, I had to do an interview of someone who was on, or had been on, a similar career path to the one we want to pursue (being in grade 10, there's some growing up left to do, but it doesn't feel right to say 'when we grow up'). I've been thinking theoretical physicist as of late (have I mentioned that before?) and I was hoping to interview someone who's... in theoretical physics. At first, it seemed like a hopeless journey; how could I reach someone who's in physics and actually convince them to do an interview? I didn't even know where to start to find a physicist, unless one counts asking my dad. Of course, he said something along the lines of 'Michael Nielsen! He was a physicist and is now writing on the future of science as a whole. He's famous and his career path is extremely relevant.' My curiosity was piqued.


On Tue, 2 Dec 2008, Sam D wrote:

1. I hear various things from time to time about the demographics across scientific disciplines (while watching physics, mostly), and if one really wants to see them, statistics are readily available online. These statistics have a tendency to change though, and therein lies a lack of solid information (considering the future hasn't happened yet, and sociology is far from perfected), but enough speculation to go around. What are your thoughts about demographic change in the next ten or twenty years?

There are many demographic changes going on in physics. Some of the dimensions along which change are occurring includes gender, nationality, and age. (And, of course, there are many others). All of these are fascinating, and have potentially huge implications.

One that I find particularly interesting is the growing internationalization of physics and more generally science. It used to be that do cutting-edge work there was a huge advantage to being in one of the richest countries (e.g., Canada or the US), preferably at a major research University. Although there are still big advantages to that, it's becoming increasingly possible to get involved from anywhere in the world.

For example, projects like MIT's Open Courseware and Rice University's Connexions make high-quality University-level educational materials available for free to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Other initiatives are making it possible for people anywhere to keep up with (and, in some cases, become involved in) the latest research. I don't know what the long-term consequences of this shift will be, but it seems very important, and it seems like this will be a major change over the ten to twenty years that you talk about.

2. Science fiction, being imagination often having no association with actual science, is inherently based on the imaginations of people that, well, write imaginative pieces for money. Through my logic, this inherently leads to very interesting ideas, if still often not founded on reality. How many physicists, roughly, look into the ideas presented by authors? Among those physicists, (if there are any,) how often would they, on average look into these fancies?

I don't know. A lot of my physicist friends read science fiction, but I've never asked any if it's had a direct impact on their science, and so I don't know. I don't recall it ever having a direct impact on my science, but it's certainly had a major impact on what sorts of things I find interesting in science, and more generally. I believe the futurist Peter Schwartz once commented that science fiction writers can actually change the future, because they influence what the next generation of scientists will dream about. That seems about right to me.

3. Besides writing a book in its promotion, adopting it personally, and possibly talking about it to people in general, are there other ways that you plan on marketing, promoting, and otherwise helping along the adoption of Web 2.0? What would you suggest to others to help its proliferation?

On the first part of your question, I'm still trying to figure that out myself. I view the book as part of a much bigger project (not just my project, but one shared among many) of helping scientists really take full advantage of online tools. I have a lot of ideas about how to do that, but I'm still pretty preoccupied finishing off the writing of my book, and so I won't make a concrete decision about what's next until I'm near being done with the book.

Your second question really depends on who is involved: different people can do different things, and so I'd suggest different things to different people. One thing I think everyone interested in science online should be doing, though, is using at least some of the tools that are available (e.g., blogs, or wikis, or twitter, or whatever they like). I know of a few people who write papers about this stuff, but don't actually really use it themselves.

4. I've been told, through fiction and forums, that Occam's Razor weighs strongly when comparing theories that seem pretty much as strong as another, but roughly how seriously is it really used, in your experience?

I don't like the way Occam's Razor is often mentioned. It's very true that simplicity is a good _heuristic_ to use when trying to solve hard problems: if you have a very simple idea that seems to solve a lot of problems that previously puzzled you, it seems to be the case that it's usually (but not always) better than a more complex idea. But that's all it is: a good heuristic.

5. Among the questions generic to the extreme, I find this one still begs to be asked. What are your thoughts of job competition in ten or fifteen years for students wishing to enter theoretical physics?

It's very, very difficult to get a good job as a theoretical physicist, and I don't see that changing much. Many people start training to be theoretical physicsts, but very few end up with full-time work as theoretical physicists.

6. Ok, let's imagine that the open science approach has come around in about 15 or 20 years, if it takes that long (or is realized that quickly). Do you have any idea what the distant future will hold? What the step after the next might involve? Would you change your answer if this scenario were to take place in 50 years? If so, how might you change it?

Part of the beauty of open science is that it should accelerate the rate of discovery across all fields. This has an interesting consequence, though: it makes prediction harder. I do think that the possibility of developing a general-purpose artificial intelligence (which open science may help) is a pretty amazing one, albeit also somewhat scary.

Hope those answers are of help to you,


Michael Nielsen



On Tue, 2 Dec 2008, Sam D wrote:

Following q1: Does knowledge of various languages (for me, English, French and Spanish) affect entry into and the practice of physics? Also, considering the development of services that allow people to use the Internet to have meetings with people in other places, how often are scientists still travelling for them, and do you expect this to change?

At present, knowledge of English is very common among scientists the world over, and more or less seems to serve as a de facto language. It seems likely that in the future other languages will grow in importance - if India or China were to become the dominant scientific country, for example.

Following q5: Do you see any other shifts happening in employment for other physical fields, or do they all seem to be as the theoretical branch is: extremely competitive if one is pursuing exactly what they were taught?

I expect that most scientific fields will remain extremely competitive if you want to get a full-time job doing basic research, or as an academic in those areas.

Thanks again for answering these questions so quickly. Also, in forums I'd seen Occam's Razor used from time to time by people who considered it a very important scientific tool, and I wasn't sure how seriously they were to be taken, if at all. Once more, it's a huge help to me that I got these today, and I'm grateful.

On Occam's razor, please don't take my word for it. I'm just one person, and other people may have different ideas. The question you have to make up your own mind about is how sensible you think Occam's razor is, in each of its different forms - people tend to wield it in slightly different ways.

Let me give you an example, though, of why I don't personally think it's such a good idea to accept Occam's Razor in its strongest forms. In the 1940s Richard Feynman developed his own formulation of quantum mechanics, the so-called path integral formulation. It was in some sense "equivalent" to the standard formulation, but appears quite different. In many ways, it's actually much more complex than the standard formulation. Should we therefore reject it, on the basis of Occam's Razor? Well, several decades later, 't Hooft and Veltman proved a major result about certain quantum field theories using the path integral approach to quantum mechanics, a result that other people hadn't been able to obtain using the standard approach. They later won the Nobel Prize, in part for this work. Obviously, it's a good thing that 't Hooft and Veltman had this tool in their arsenal of ways to attack the problem, even if it's in many ways more complex than the standard tools.

Hope that's all of help.



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