Up Close and Personal With Greatest Theoretical Physicist Ed Witten

Edward Witten is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Mathematical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is best known for his research on string theory and is, according to TIME Magazine, often considered the greatest theoretical physicist in the world. He has received numerous awards for his work including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Einstein Medal, and the Fields Medal.

Question: What impact do the recent findings about the Big Bang and “Inflation” have on your work?

Witten giving a speech at Chalmers tekniska hogskola, Goteborg, Sweden, April 29, 2008.

Ed Witten: At the moment there are questions about whether the recent findings will really hold up, or whether what was reported was an effect of dust in our galaxy. However if the findings do hold up, they are remarkable evidence for an effect of quantum gravity and give much tangible motivation for the quest to understand quantum gravity, which is what string theorists are engaged in. Also, this relatively large effect gives some hope that eventually it will be possible to obtain more precise clues about the workings of quantum gravity from future observations.

Q: If your work is proven true, what are the consequences for everyday life?

EW: Learning about string theory is like learning about a distant galaxy. It is interesting and the new understanding enriches our lives.

Q: What do you think world’s willingness to spend a reported $10 billion on the Large Hadron Collider says about human nature?

EW: I think people really care about the results obtained by scientists, partly of course because of the practical applications of scientific work, but not only. Many of our fellow citizens are truly interested in the things that scientists learn about the universe, whether it is discovering the Higgs [Boson] particle at a high-energy collider, observing a distant galaxy, or trying to understand fundamentals of quantum gravity.

Q. What motivates you to do what you do?

The topics I work on are fascinating. Modern ideas in physics and mathematics have a beauty that, to one who has experienced it, is just as real as the beauty of music.

Interview conducted by Nick Antoine. Published May 14, 2014.

For a recount of the recent discoveries in Inflation Theory and the Big Bang, see the New York Times’ coverage here.

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