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Blog

Hail the academic intellectuals!

Woody_Allen_(2006).jpeg
Rooting theoretical physics in pop culture

By James Dacey

There are three breeds of academic who can inspire popular audiences. There are the academic luminaries whose brilliant insights have undoubtedly shaped their discipline – their mere existence is enough to inspire. There are those at or near the top of their chosen fields who take the time to “dumb down” their work for popular audiences – let’s call these the public engagers. Then there is a third kind – perhaps a dying breed in the 21st century – the academic intellectuals, who seem to exist on a different plane, up above the boundaries of traditional subject boundaries.

Having laid the foundations of their own fields, these academic intellectuals have a consciousness that enables them to look around and see how their work slots in with other pillars of academia. What’s more, they’ve also a strong grasp of how academia can appear to an “outsider”. Add to this, a great sense of humour and you may find an academic who has an audience hanging on every word.

Last night in his public lecture “Darwin and the Cosmic Landscape”, Leonard Susskind proved that he is firmly an academic of this third kind. As my colleague Matin Durrani described in the previous blog post, he was speaking as part of the University of Bristol’s centenary celebrations and the city’s Festival of Ideas. The central tenet of Susskind’s talk was that string theorists should look to Darwin because he “set the standard for what an explanation should be like”.

With his long white beard, “Noo Yawk” accent and hyper awareness of the “big questions” in physics, I saw Susskind as the perfect fusion of Charles Darwin and Woody Allen.

So often – and I have been guilty of this myself – physicists dismiss biology as “imprecise” or “stamp collecting”, but Susskind managed to illuminate the metascience of physics and biology to show they are both part of the same noble inquiry.

And hearing Susskind got me thinking about a frustrating fact of modern physics. That is: as physics becomes increasingly split into sub disciplines, the questions become increasingly broad, like “how can we unify gravity and quantum mechanics?” or “does life exist on other planets?” Given this, how can we possibly expect physicists to get a handle on the bigger pictures, let alone on “contemporary physics”?

So if we accept the difficulty facing physicists then intellectual academics like Susskind should be hailed and celebrated. Last night Susskind managed to firmly ground string theory and multi-verses in popular culture, illustrating his points with references to Bill Clinton’s adultery and Rube Goldberg the American cartoonist. In fact, it all reminded me of a particular favourite Woody Allen quote:

“What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

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4 comments

  1. “And hearing Susskind got me thinking about a frustrating fact of modern physics. That is: as physics becomes increasingly split into sub disciplines, the questions become increasingly broad, like “how can we unify gravity and quantum mechanics?” or “does life exist on other planets?” Given this, how can we possibly expect physicists to get a handle on the bigger pictures, let alone on “contemporary physics”?”
    Or, for example, if one has as big talent for show business as Woody Allen, why not to choose that now most successful profession instead of spoiling already bankrupt enterprise of fundamental physics? Why not to give a major place to those efforts in science that provably can – and dounify knowledge as you wish, not only in the restricted sense of official “theories of everything”, but in the direct meaning of naturally unified, creative reality, from electrons to consciousness, and explain/understand it all causally and realistically (and thus comprehensibly for everybody) instead of tricky manipulation with deficient abstract “models” and postulated supernatural mysteries?
    And that’s also the answer, James, to your question about “how can we possibly expect physicists to get a handle on the bigger pictures”: support and popularise existing results and efforts in that direction rather than evident impasses of official mysteriology misleadingly called “objective science”. Be a professional, James, not someone’s puppet, look for answers to questions of your real interest (representing that of fellow humans supporting science) instead of adjusting your inquiry and whole life to their vanity-driven and obviously wrong “answers” only because they can feed you in their restaurants. “Truth in exchange for food” is a wrong principle for science development (even if it’s everywhere dominating).
    “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”
    Your impressions are understandable indeed. Because if everything is not an illusion, then we definitely overpaid for official science abstractions. Bon appétit.

  2. In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen has a wonderful clip of himself worrying about the expansion of the universe, i.e. Brooklyn, as a boy …it’s on Youtube somewhere

  3. Great post, but its a bit long and most people like short and sweet posts!

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