Perhaps I’m too optimistic. Many people I respect are not as optimistic as I am for sure, and I must say I am sympathetic to this. I am more optimistic, and actually a bit of a techno-utopian. In my hands, if not always in my mind, material examples do not vaporize out of political despair or intellectual tendencies. Desperation can guide hope, of course. The clichés about the shortness of life are true. The need to make the huge allotment of time spent at work meaningful can give a hopeful bent to our thinking. But here I actually want to invoke the power of physics to reassure our pessimism. I want to invoke the power that physics had when Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce purchased their first microscope 60 years ago. Physics led to everything new that humans did in the following 50 years — and is leading us to everything new that we will do in the next 50 years.
Success in physics was driven by complimentary forces, momentum, and institutions of government, business, and academia. Any perceived or real stagnation comes now from dysfunction in all of those areas. It does not come from an exhaustion of nature’s potential to transform matter from something that seems magical into a ubiquitous expectation of progress. Some systems need to be broken in a real sense, but it is also possible for us to wake up, read a book, and use the tools of previous innovators in physics to power the 2020s in ways that the 2000s have been too sluggish to adopt.
The only way I can see to do this is to remind them of the fantastic feats of physics that already exist, and what tools they have to invent whatever’s next.
Tools and imagination are a powerful combination. Together they are the impetus that creative humans need to harness in order to make sure that our dreams are not lost in 1950s science fiction, or 20thcentury nostalgia. I do not care to characterize anymore what Newton or Goethe did, or even the achievements of Edison or Shockley. I use physics here not to talk about cosmology, or string theory, but rather in the traditional way in which applied physics turns calculus, linear algebra, and experimentation into applications. Those applications now run the gamut from genomics and gene editing to gene therapy and personalized medicine. From macro, to micro, to nano factories. From classical computers to quantum computers. From 2D semiconductors that have reached the tail end of what is physical possible, to 3D semiconductors that are only now becoming the tools for most of what is possible.
Peter Thiel has publicly made an observant, though unresolved comment that we have been stuck in the success of bits, which is slowly coming to an end, and little in the way of atoms. This is certainly true when we look at valuations on the public and private markets, in our books, and in the hands of FAANG leaders and entrepreneurs. Podcasts and television tell me this is true, as does my investment portfolio, but all those hours that I am working tell me the opposite.
Going to Washington DC and talking to the mainstream press can often be an act of speaking about two levels lower than the way we work. This is not the fault (well mostly) of those institutions, as much as it is a need for recalibration. There was a time when those institution were driven by urgency to let the world watch new technology unfold before their eyes. People saw cars and wanted to ride them, planes and wanted to fly in them, unharnessed energy that they wanted access to, and rockets that they wanted to take us out of our atmosphere. They saw a geopolitically competitive world that was existential in nature. The pace of technological advancement demanded that everyone else acknowledge it too. Governments had agencies like NASA, companies had Bell Labs, and inventors had garages. Everyone had books and the cinema.
Almost no one thought that the future would be invented by biology, chemistry, or physics. They thought it would be invented by humans. We are engineers of the mind, at least part of the day, whether we calculate or catalyze. But somewhere along the way, physics, biology, and chemistry became separated vocabularies that were stronger than the integral of them — and when that happened, we often handed over the reins of invention to scientists. Life became too challenging, or so we were told, to know it all. In a recent podcast called Portal, Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel lament this. Peter says, not with a sense of defeat exactly, but as an observation of fact, that in the 17th century Goethe could know most of what was possible, in the 19th century Humboldt could. I might challenge this some, in ways that do not matter, as I am not sure that Goethe understood Newton completely, or vice versa, but perhaps that had to do with competitive approaches rather than with ability.
To get back to Washington DC though, I was invited to speak at two significant events, one was a congressional subcommittee on quantum computing, and the other was at the yearly science fiction museum conference. In the first, congressman arrived in suits, and sometimes asked questions about science, but more often made small speeches about unrelated politics. At the Sci-Fi convention, many were dressed in Star Trek or Battle Star Galactica costumes and asked serious questions about quantum mechanics. This contrast made me wonder if the seats of power are not in fact occupied by who we think they are…and whether our politicians are listening to our Trekkies the way they should. If elected Democrats ask why Republicans ignore the science of climate change, and Republicans ask why Democrats overregulate drug discovery, and neither has any intellectual curiosity, only the wooden jargon of dogma — it seems unlikely to me that they will succeed to comprehend, let alone act on the ideals of the sci-fi audience.
Picture Peter and Eric’s world of the knowledgeable Goethe from this perspective. Is that a world we could actually create? Goethe was a politician, running Weimar and creating policy for the Duke. He was a poet observing humanity and nature as a founding father of romanticism, and most importantly to him, a scientist who obsessed and wrote on optics and botany, just to name a few things. Has the complexity of fission, heavier than air flight both on planes and rockets, and smart phones halted our ability to be 21st-century versions of Goethe? Is it the complexity that has scared us? It doesn’t seem to have scared the Sci-Fi crowd I met in DC. But it has seemed to scare Silicon Valley, Capitol Hill, and the labs of the Ivy league. The forensics of these reasons are interesting, but not as interesting as fixing the problem.
How do we cure the desperation of the ultra-educated, the high-IQ, and the general population — who are in many cases rightly concerned about the harm they have felt from aspects of globalization and automation (and often mislead or confused about them, but that is not the point)? The only way I can see to do this is to remind them of the fantastic feats of physics that already exist, and what tools they have to invent whatever’s next.