Making Sense of Mind-blowing Physics: Part Two

A conversation with Sabine Hossenfelder and Natalie Wolchover

It’s been over fifty years since I sat shoulder to shoulder with the graduating class of Columbia University’s prestigious School of Journalism. I knew they were older but I didn’t think they would be so much bigger than me. I had never seen anyone as serious as the towering man at the lecturn (the Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism) who was outlining the core principles, the hallowed principles of responsible journalism. Could he have possibly been referring to me and my awestruck classmates?

It had never occured to me that journalism was a legitimate career choice. Journalism to me was story-telling, and storytelling was a way of playing with reality, of expressing myself, of entertaining and impressing my less imaginative friends. And afterwards, once I learned how to write down my stories, I never stopped writing. When Miss Gaynor, my English teacher, asked for contributions to the Beardsly Press, our class newspaper, I jumped at the opportunity. Whenever there was an empty space to fill, or a need for new material I volunteered. It only slowly dawned on me when there would be no more empty space to fill (by default) and no new names appearing on the masthead, that I, in effect, was single handedly writing the newspaper. Getting published, getting top billing, was the most intoxicating experience I had ever had in school. It was also the easiest thing I had ever done because it came so naturally to me. If I needed help, there was my right hand man George Stacey: he didn’t particularly like me, but he loved the idea of being in charge of the mimeograph machine, of collating the pages, of getting the issue out exactly on time. There was Patricia Mills, who would one day be a scientist, but who was too terrified to show me her first article but was delighted to serve as an all purpose go-to girl. Together, we were the Three Musketeers, and if that wasn’t enough, we had three assistants (whose names I don’t remember, who never contributed anything but wanted to be around us).

None of us knew that Miss Gayner had submitted issues of the Beardsly Press to a national contest, initiated by Columbia School of Journalism to find what they considered the most promising middle school newspaper. None of us had an inkling that we were in the running, much less that we had won first prize until Miss Gayner calmly told us one Monday morning! First prize, what did that mean, we wanted to know? It meant in two weeks we would gather together, board a train to New York City, be put up in the best room (with one roommate a piece) we had ever been in, in a luxury hotel in Midtown Manhattan. It meant we would be treated to front row seats in the famed Paramount Theatre for a live performance of none other than the Great American Entertainer, Bob Hope (then in his prime). Accompanying him were sidekicks, band leader Les Brown, a de rigueur bombshell starlet and a featured singer. None of it was new to me — one of my fondest childhood memories is laughing with my father as we listened to Bob Hope on the radio — but it was magical to see him in person. I had the same feeling the next day when, following the address to the graduating class at Columbia’s School of Journalism, we were ushered to a private performance just for us by the then new amazing ventriloquist Paul Winchell and his puppet friend Jerry Mahoney. Could it possibly be true that the words, the jokes articulated so flawlessly could possibly be coming from lips that did not move, from facial muscles that did not quiver? My quest, remembered to this day, was to nail down the truth and report it to my friends in Bridgeport (and to this day I’m certain they never moved — that is to the naked eye).

Despite that early triumph — I was twelve years old at the time — journalism was not and never would be a career choice. Journalism was about, primarily, facts and story telling was about feelings. The problem was feelings were facts but facts were not feelings. Journalism, as defined broadly was something that was true or false — the introduction of “fake news” as a concept would have gotten someone quickly expelled from journalism school: narrative as defined was always true in the sense that it didn’t matter if it were imaginary, virtual or real. Journalism had to be real. It’s existence depended on that.

Which leads to the question then — if journalism is not narrative, then what is it? Is it fact finding? Is it investigative journalism? Is it interpretive? Is it hermenutive? Is it immersive subjectivity? Is it the grand-sounding telling truth to power? Can it be stridently propagandist and still be journalism?

Here are some differences between journalism fifty years ago and now. Back then, interviews which were still relatively new were more likely testimonies, documentaries, oral histories, something that once out there could conceivably if worthy enough be put in a time capsule. The concept revisionism was not in the air. The new journalism championed by Tom Wolfe had yet to take hold. The wrecking ball of postmodern deconstruction, recycling and balkanization was not in full swing. The famous two cultures of C.P. Snow was regularly invoked but scarcely acted upon (compare that, for example, to the classic pluralism of William James which, a century later, continues to reverberate.)
 This split is reflected in science journalism. If narrative involves feeling, emotion, subjectivity as well as binary information then how exactly does one get emotional about unadulterated facts? And the answer is you don’t get emotional, you already are emotional about facts as most people already. We just don’t simply have feelings about feeling, we also have feelings about facts. We love things, objects, not just people. Scientists just love facts more than most people. As Natalie Wolchover shows (see part one of this article) it is possible to see facts — just as writers see words — as more than finished products to be expeditiously packaged and delivered. That is to see facts as details, and details as nuances, in need of interpretation. It was Roger Penrose who famously pointed out the modern computers may exchange signals but they don’t exchange or share understanding.That of course is because it’s hard to do. When it comes to “mind-blowing physics” it takes great patience, it takes someone like Natalie Wolchover who will sometimes spends “months” on an article to achieve that level of understanding. Which in why I tried to tell her (see part one) that I found her perspective to truth in the naturalistic sense almost reverential. Now imagine someone willing to devote twenty years of her life pursuing the holy grail of contemporary physics — quantum gravity — and you will begin to see the kind of drive motivating someone like Sabine Hossenfelder.

That said, there is another kind of intelligence. There is emotional intelligence. There is social intelligence. There is creativity. There are the life sciences as well as the physical sciences. There is subjectivity. There is point of view, all of which, to my mind, is best encompassed in what is called the psychodynamic perspective. This is the point of view that considers things from multiple angles, levels of the mind. It includes the cognitive, quantitative, the mathematical, the physical, the logical, the rational, the conscious. But it also includes the preconscious, the unconscious, the uber conscious (I like Thomas Nagel’s characterization of our sense of having “someone always looking over our shoulder”), most of all it includes the emotions, what Freud one hundred years ago termed instincts and their vicissitude. The concept is not new. I sum it up in a recent book The Elephant in the Room: The Denial of the Unconscious Mind. I make the case that this point of view (the psychodynamic method) has some things to offer the life sciences (of which I include science journalism).

Here’s one example: shortly after I had actually met with and seen Natalie Wolchover in action, I was delighted to come across her Quanta profile of Ed Witten A Physicist’s Physicist Ponders the Nature of Reality. Out of several thousand words I will select just three phrases and one short sentence. The first phrase is — in homage to Witten’s legendary reputation for preternatural intelligence — that he is “ a genius’ genius”. It’s meaning could not be more obvious. It’s been repeated, in various forms, many times over. But think about the phrase. We’ve all heard about great geniuses, super geniuses, mind-boggling geniuses, but have you ever heard the phrase genius’ genius? I’ve been reading all my life, but I know I have never heard it. In just five words, she conjures the otherworldly. We all have imagos for what the genius looks like, and how the genius performs. But now try to imagine the person the genius selects as her own “genius”. This would be like telling someone to think of Einstein’s intelligence and then think of what it would be like to be possessed of “Einstein’s intelligence squared.”

The second phrase — the journalist’s de rigueur of the subject’s appearance — is “Witten is tall and rectangular.” Think about that phrase which doesn’t describe a torso, a body, a head but an entire man and you arrive sooner or later, at the strange figure of a block-like man with feet: i.e. a man who is a box, a thinking box.

Now for the third phrase: … “in his quick alto voice…”

I had to look up alto voice on the internet. It’s between tenor and a soprano, the highest possible register for a man’s voice. You can hear his voice on the internet and decide for yourself if you think this is a fair description of how he sounds.

O.K., now for the short stunning sentence which concludes the paragraph:
 Coming after a one and one half hour long, utterly fascinating conversation with Ed Witten in his office which I urge my readers to read) and which is this:

“Later when I passed him on the stone path, he often didn’t seem to see me.”

From a purely psychodynamic perspective the sentence contains a shocking amount of information. It shows an eminent professor — known to be kind, sensitive and considerate of other’s feelings acting, seemingly without provocation, in a seemingly inhuman fashion towards a young woman known to be a consummate professional and with whom just a few days before, he was engaged in a seemingly pleasant in depth interview. Note that it does not happen once it happens often. The implication is this is a feature of this personality. Natalie Wolchover also remarks that he has an “air of being only one quarter tuned into reality until someone draws him back from these abstract thoughts.” She knows it is not her place to psychoanalyze Ed Witten but she cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Here is a man, a revered thinker who aspires to understand the universe and everything in it, who does not understand the foundational principle of human relations: that under no circumstances do you ever invalidate the existential presence of the other. As a therapist I can think of no deeper more permanent, more lacerating insult to the psyche then to be ghosted.

My second example is a brand new blog by Sabine Hossenfelder Research Perversions Are Spreading where she makes her case that academia is “infected with perverse incentives.” She knows what she is saying “is obvious” and that she “by no means is the first to point this out”. She is not exactly a conspiracy theorist but she frankly admits. “I distrust them (scientists) too”. She is to be admired for her defiant spirit. She is willing, if necessary, to put her career at risk. She is confident in her powers as a diagnostician. She sees the problems with HEP as deriving from physicists intent upon exploring the ramifications of fantastically obtuse mathematical ideas unmoored from reality, with utterly no chance of being scientifically verified as part sickness, part confidence game, part Gordon Gekko greed is good. After twenty years, she has given up on any realistic hope of obtaining tenure. All of this and much more will be part of her long awaited first book Lost in Math. If the book is half as good as its title (which I think is great), it will draw considerable interest. It’s hard to imagine, at the very least — based on the considerable power and appeal of her blog that the book will not be well written.

Most likely she will be typecast as an iconoclast, in the spirit of Lee Smolin, who is her friend and John Horgan who is her comrade in arms. But Sabine Hossenfelder is no one’s doppelganger. She is an original. I like two things about her: I especially admire and enjoy the laser-like focus of her brilliant mind and I applaud and am entertained by her free-wheeling, impish creativity.

The moderator was Robert Lee Hotz, a writer at the Wall Street Journal and a distinguished Writer in Residence at the Carter Institute of Journalism at N.Y.U. Although I had never heard of him before — something about his impeccable manner and incredible level of seriousness — made me immediately accept him as the real deal when it came to professional journalism. I sat in the second row from the front with a clear view of the plain dais, just fifteen feet away from where Robert Hotz, Natalie Wolchover and Sabine Hossenfelder were seated and waiting to begin. The closest to me was Sabine Hossenfelder. To my surprise, right behind me were John Horgan, who immediately and considerately removed a sweater draped on the back of my seat as soon as he spotted me, and Peter Woit. Smiling and friendly they both seemed excited to see what would unfold (as was I).

Disclaimer: Ever since I was twelve (and was toasted along with some classmates by the Columbia School of Journalism, I knew I would never be a professional journalist.I also knew that I loved journalism (of the story telling kind) and I loved science. Put them together and they comprise some of the greatest books I have ever read: Men of Mathematics by E.T. Bell, which I read when I was fifteen and was my introduction to a mind-blowing book; Genius by James Gleick which remains the richest and most satisfying biography of a genius I have ever read; The Strangest Man by Graham Farmello which is not far behind; Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk the greatest biography of the greatest philosopher of language, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos by Dennis Oberbye, the greatest book on astronomy by far I have ever read; Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy by Kip Thorne; the best book by an authentic scientific genius I have ever read; The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics was Reborn by Louisa Gilder with it’s unmatchable empathic feel for the inner lived experience of the creator of quantum mechanics; From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll. Jim Holt said it best when he told me “the book is a masterpiece”; and Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts — the greatest exploration of the multi dimensions of creative mathematical genius I have ever read. There are many others, but these are high on my list of favorites.

Spoiler alert: Unless I missed it, there was no mention of making sense of mind-blowing physics. The conversation was primarily pragmatic. The focus was on the hurdles the young journalist would be likely to face and the strategies that were needed to be employed. Theories as such were not discussed, questions of ethics were not broached. To his credit Robert Hotz consistently took the high road. He seemed determined to elevate the level of discourse to the highest possible level. Thus he opened up the discussion with a familiar question:

“Natalie, could you tell us… what it was… you were on track to be a scientist… what brought to journalism?”

If Ed Witten is the genius’ genius, then Natalie Wolchover is the journalist’s journalist. Gathering herself for just a moment, she dove in.

“I don’t know, I was going to be a scientist and then one day, I just got this epiphany. I really don’t know where it came from… but it changed everything. In one day I dropped my classes… I left college… I went home. I knew what I wanted to do… I would be a writer… a science writer… It combined everything I wanted to do…”

There was no thread to the discussion that followed. One question did not lead to another. There did not seem to be any common ground between discussants. If the conversation never did reach the heights of making sense of mind-blowing physics it was not for lack of trying. Robert Hotz repeatedly urged the participants to say more, to elaborate on their thoughts. At times he would wave his hands as though to speed up the flow of words. It didn’t help that the audience, comprised mainly of students, seemed so incredibly young. Their primary interest seemed to be in finding ways to kickstart or advance their fledgling career.

For some reason I continued to be fascinated by Sabine Hossenfelder, who sat quietly, motionlessly, in her chair staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. She is one of those people who are so much smarter than the ordinary person that they can listen with only a corner of their mind, but understand perfectly whatever is being said. Thus, when the conversation turned to the various uses of analogies and metaphors, and Sabine was asked to comment, she instantly replied “I don’t use one I use both. I think the content and direction of the conversation determines that. But, as for writers, yes, writers use analogies. I mean isn’t that what writers do? Use analogies?”
 Behind me I heard sotto voce laughter that I knew was coming from John Horgan and Peter Woit. This was what they had come for.

Sabine’s Jokes

She was just getting warmed up. At one point, while commenting on the prevalence of skepticism among contemporary science writers, she turned to face the audience.

“And then there’s John Horgan… he doesn’t believe in anything”.

Behind me John Horgan exploded in laughter, as though being insulted by Sabine Hossenfelder was a badge of honor, the verbal equivalent of a sparring partner receiving a black eye from none other than the Muhammad Ali of old. As the jokes kept coming, the laughter from the crowd began to swell, the sotto voce laughter behind me became less sotto voce.

Suddenly Sabine confronted the crowd:

“I don’t know why people are laughing… I don’t like laughter.” At once the laughter died out. I had to be impressed at her ability to manipulate the crowd with just a few words. As for myself, I could only wonder at what appeared to be a strong conflict. On the one hand, she has to know that she gets palpable visceral pleasure from getting off a good joke at someone’s expense. On the other hand, she seems to feel — that unless she can control the pace of laughter, according to her mood — then there is always the possibility she is being laughed at, taken for a clown instead of the sensitive suffering deep thinker she quite obviously is (yet someone who is irresistibly drawn to, making, as she puts it, “wacky videos”)

Take Away

This is what I most remember:

During the Q and A, a very young, but precariously ambitious student strode up to the standing mike situated, horizontally to the right of the class.

“I just want to ask what would you do if you were asked to write an article on STRING THEORY FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS?”

The question, meant to be a gotcha question instead, created a pall as though the discussants had encountered some conversational roadkill.

Comical though that was, what made the incident memorable was this: the way everyone in the class immediately turned to their left to address their interlocutor. That is everyone, except Sabine Hossenfelder, who sat stonily with her back to the speaker. The fact she could do that was no less amazing to me than the fact fifty years ago Paul Winchell could throw his voice without moving a muscle in his face (to be fair to Sabine, jet lag could be the simple explanation for her seemingly odd behavior).

After it was over, I went up to Robert Hotz and Natalie Wolchover and told each of them, as thoughtfully as I could, what I liked especially about their performance. They both thanked me warmly for my comments. Encouraged, I told Natalie Wolchover that I would like to briefly interview her for and asked for her email address. Nodding, she immediately wrote out her email address for me on a small piece of paper (that’s the easy part. The hard part is carving out some time from an overloaded schedule, ironing out the inevitable logistical conflicts that arise and actually meeting the person).

Before leaving I wanted a mulligan with Sabine Hossenfelder. Maybe a softer, gentler approach would work. Maybe if I spoke less, listened more and retreated at the first hint of conversational torpor I would get a better result. The reader will not be surprised, that it didn’t work.

Nevertheless, I learned something quite valuable. I learned never to underestimate the enormous gulf that exists between the reader and the author. Between the author and the book. Between expectation and reality. I am not discouraged. I want more than ever to read Lost in Math when it is published next year. Maybe tucked in its pages I’ll find a key that could help me unfold the mystery to the brilliant, enigmatic but always fascinating Sabine Hossenfelder.

Gerald Alper


God and Therapy

What we believe when no one is watching