An Interview with Anthony Leggett

Haegwan Kim

Do you think of yourself as a successful person?

Anthony Leggett

From my academic career, yes I do.

HK

How do you define the term ‘success’?

AL

I’ve been able to solve some problems that seem to be interesting. Secondly, the fact the solution is recognized by the community is also important.

HK

Money doesn't matter to your success.

AL

No, I don’t think so.

HK

Can I ask why did you start to study physics?

AL

My original study was classical philosophy. I started to study physics because I felt somehow that I wanted to work in an academic discipline of which criteria of right or wrong are provided by nature rather than by opinion of personal knowledge.

HK

Can physics change the world?

AL

Well yes, certainly it’s changing the world. Well I think physics has not responsible for the industrial revolution, but I’m sure it’s helping many other things. It’s a scientific discipline which improves our world substantially.

HK

Can you tell me your understanding of the relation between physics and philosophy?

AL

I think the definition of philosophy is that discipline which asks questions having no agreed techniques of the solution. Look at the human history, both philosophy and science, specific methods to make progress, for example astronomy, is coming from a spin-off from the philosophy. More recently biology, chemistry, and nowadays artificial intelligence has developed in that way. So philosophy is a core of question of which withdraw methods of finding of solution.

HK

Then can we say the philosophy is the beginning of all studies.

AL

Yes, I think so. The original form of science.

HK

Do you think there are as many philosophies as the number of world population? Because I started to find the universal law of success universally and I want to make the world a better place. At the same time, I am stuck in the fact that there are the 7 billion of justices, philosophies, and thoughts in this planet.

AL

Well I suspect that the knowledge of population in the particular country and particular time has not fulfilled.

HK

Do you think all the knowledge can be integrated into the one?

AL

I suspect, a lot of suspects, not. Because it requires a particular cost, but to in one time, in one place, one knowledge can be grew up.


HK

What is the most important thing to promote your academic career?

AL

I think there’s several things. I think some the most important points were that I was working in a very relaxed environment. I was a lecturer, assistance professor and there was no particular kind of pressure on research. During the vacation what we did was basically just to do what we wanted to find out.

HK

Do you think the importance of relaxation can be applied to other areas as well?


AL

These activities are so different, so conditions for success are different. For example politics is to pursuit short-term pleasure.

HK

Can you give an advice for those who are struggling with finding the solution?

AL

If you mean in academic state, I would say, one of the most important things is to prove your own curiosity, something very positive to keeping the way to result your satisfaction.


-2nd Interview-

Haegwan Kim

Last time we talked about your personal success as a Nobel laureate. This time I want to talk about success at social level; mainly education and physics. Let’s talk about education at first. Could you tell me your sense on the importance of higher education?

Anthony Leggett

Well I think obviously it’s absolutely essential, both in the sense of – the practical sense – of maintaining the pace of scientific and technological development for society. And also in the individual sense, bringing out the various potentials in the students.

HK

What is required for being a educator?

AL

Well I think basically one’s got to be interested in communicating to one’s students. You’ve got to be interested not only in doing your own research, but also in communicating both the vast body of knowledge, in physics for example over the last 300 years or so. Both the traditional knowledge and also the exciting new developments in one’s area. So I think there certainly isn’t any kind of rigid separation, I assume there isn’t any kind of rigid separation between research and teaching. And I think the best teachers are very often those who are also the best researchers, and would like to communicate the excitement and the results of their research to the students.

HK

As we talked last time, you are familiar with philosophy as well. Do you feel like teaching students at the philosophy department as well?

AL

I actually from time to time, I am actually doing it this fall, I teach an undergraduate course which is cross-listed in physics and philosophy. It’s essentially basic philosophy of physics.

HK

Do you consider students need to get general knowledge or specific knowledge at the level of undergrad?

AL

Well I think it’s certainly desirable to have a fairly broad exposure to a range of subjects. I think in retrospect, the kind of course that I took at Oxford may have been rather too narrow. Particularly the physics course. It really was confined to physics and we didn’t learn a lot about chemistry or material science or whatever. And I think perhaps in retrospect it would have been desirable to pick up rather more at the undergraduate level. I guess quite a lot of US Universities these days do have these fairly wide ranging courses. It’s a delicate balance. Of course, the fact that courses in the US are relatively wider ranging than they are in the UK also means that people don’t get to quite the same level in any one subject. So for example, we typically find that British physics students, who have taken a British physics undergraduate degree, if they want to go into graduate study in physics, are at least a year ahead of their US counterparts. So it is a delicate playoff, but by and large I think I prefer the US system.

HK

Universities in the two countries have higher reputation than universities in other countries. If you look at university ranking, the top 20 or so is almost the UK and the US. Is this phenomenon plausible?

AL

I think undoubtedly there are Universities of comparable standing in other countries, yes. It is just a matter of quantity really. I think the USA has not one but half a dozen or so really world class, well probably more than that, world class Universities. Similarly for the UK. Many other countries have one or two. For example I think the National University of Singapore is quite competitive in many ways, but it is just one place. Obviously in a country with the population of only four million, you can’t really…

HK

And language does matter right? I mean, English.

AL

Yeah, that might be a factor. But I think by and large in subjects like the hard sciences, like physics for example, that really isn’t a major factor. If an idea is good it will get out worldwide independently of what language it was originally published in. So I don’t really think that’s a
major factor.

HK

For empowering human beings, education is a primary issue. And to enhance the educational level I think the internet educational system is pretty remarkable. For example if the young are able to watch your all lectures, or other lectures of MIT or Harvard or Stanford it is a pretty nice thing. What is your opinion on this?

AL

To an extent yes. Certainly that is a nice feature of the internet. In some ways a more important consequence of the internet has been to, as it were, level the playing field for research, at a research level, for example in China and India. Until the advent of the internet they could do good work but it would take a long time getting published, it wouldn’t get well known outside the country. Nowadays if you write a paper you can put it on the Los Alamos archive and it gets propagated worldwide in seconds.

HK

I also presume people in the field of physics need loads of experiments, and therefore need to collaborate…

AL

Yes that’s certainly true. But actually nowadays, what is quite remarkable in fact is that I nowadays see a lot of experimental papers in physics which have authors from institutions which may not only be in different Universities, but sometimes even in different continents.

HK

Cool.

AL

I guess this is usually because it’s one that’s manufactured the sample and then they’ve sent it by air to the other group, etc. etc. but I mean it is certainly not impossible to have this kind of collaboration, in fact it’s coming more and more frequent I think.

HK

Ok, let’s move our conversation to physics. Can you explain a little bit about how low temperature physics is used for our daily lives?

AL

Well traditionally low temperature physics has not been, in some sense, at the forefront of applications, even with condensed matter physics. Traditionally, the sort of area where one thinks of physics as having made a major impact is say the semi-conductor area, where of course you have the invention of the transistor and so on and so forth, many other things. Most of these things do work at room temperature; therefore they are not part of the traditional domain of low temperature physics. I mean there have been applications in the past. One can use liquid helium, for example, to cool high field magnets. Or one can actually use super-conductors, sometimes to build these magnets. But that’s all rather limited, for example for magnetic resonance imaging. But that’s a limited application.

What I think will be a major application, if it can be realised, is the possible use of high temperature superconductivity. Or conceivably, if we get it, even room temperature super-conductivity to power distribution. That will have a major impact I think. Somewhere between 10 and 15% of the current US electricity production is actually dissipated in transmission. And that’s going to increase in the future almost certainly, because whether we go over to widespread use of solar energy or nuclear energy, in either case the actual generation is going to have to be situated at distances probably thousands of kilometres from the major population centres.

HK

Is there still many rooms to develop in the field of low temperature physics?

AL

I think undoubtedly, it’s just that we don’t know where to look these days. I think undoubtedly there are new surprises that are going to come. It’s true to say that in the whole history of low temperature physics there’s been no major development. Well possibly, actually, oddly enough with the exception of the superfluid helium three. That the one case I think in which we could say that something interesting was predicted ahead of time. But apart from that, really all the major developments have been unexpected, and I am sure there are a lot more to come.

So certainly that fraction is going to increase. Now if one could actually either find a material which was a stable super-conductor at room temperature, alternatively if one could improve the existing super-conductors, where they can actually be used for long distance power transmission, that would basically save at least a fraction of that 15 or 20%. So I think that would really have a major impact. Also, because one could imagine things like magnetic levitation at room temperature. Right now one does use super-conducting limitation for certain purposes, but to use it routinely in everyday life, one would need a room temperature super-conductor.

HK

That’s very interesting. I wonder how other scholars think about this.

How about quantum mechanics?

AL

Well I think it already has. Off all of most semi-conducting devices, including the transistor, are actually based essentially on the principles of quantum mechanics.

HK

Scientists focus on observable, I mean scientific and objective facts. So I guess it’s quite easy to collaborate with people from other countries?

AL

Yes certainly. I think as long as one is not talking about anything to do with the military, then it’s certainly not a zero sum game. In fact rather the opposite. If scientists in one country make a discovery, that is positively to the benefit of those in a different one.

HK

Do you communicate with each other in English?

AL

Usually. I mean, if necessary I can probably communicate in other languages, but English has become more or less the lingua franca of physics.

HK

How about other fields of science?

AL

Well I think in most fields, certainly in the hard sciences and probably also in the biological sciences yes, I suspect it’s the same. In some areas of the humanities it may not be quite as universal I think. For example in certain areas of philosophical or historical studies, I think for example within Europe you do find French and German still used quite substantially. But that’s my impression, I don’t know.

HK

Do you foresee we will use English in all academic fields, both natural and social science?

AL

Well I think that depends on a lot of things. I think the only really plausible competitor right now is Chinese. And a lot will depend on exactly how Chinese scientific establishment develops. In fact I think Chinese does have a reasonable chance of becoming competitive with English because, as you know, outside of China there are large communities which can at least read Chinese and even if they do not speak Mandarin. And then Japanese scientists at least can get something out of a Chinese paper, a written Chinese paper, again even if they don’t understand every written detail. So I think it’s not impossible that Chinese may eventually overtake English.

HK

That’s remarkable insight. As the final question, could you give your advice for students how to spend their 3-4 years of under graduation process?

AL

I think the advice I always give to students at this kind of level is by all means you obviously have to absorb a lot of the wisdom that’s been accumulated, in the case of physics over the last 300 years or so. So you should be trying to absorb it. But occasionally you will come across something which you really don’t understand. And maybe you will go to your teachers, or your fellow students, and they will shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh that’s obvious. Everyone understands that.” But if you don’t feel you understand it, follow your curiosity and work away at it until you have got an understanding which you find is satisfactory. Don’t worry if everyone else says it’s trivial or obvious. That’s the advice I would give.

Sir Anthony Leggett is the Nobel-Prize winning physician, a professor at the Illinois University.

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