Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once said ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’ As people who’ve never professed to understand quantum mechanics, The Fence find this statement quite presumptuous, but decided we’d ask some of the world’s biggest boffins how much they do or don’t know about their jobs, life and everything else besides.
THE FENCE: In the vein of Feynman, is there one part of your own discipline which you have never fully grasped?
PROF. DAVID CARD (ECONOMICS, 2021)
Many things in the labour market are very hard to understand. For example, I find it very hard to understand whether people stay on their current job because they are uninformed (or misinformed) about other jobs, or because their current job is the best of all possible jobs, or because they are just too tired (or scared) to look for something else.
PROF. ANGUS DEATON (ECONOMICS, 2015)
For me, macroeconomics is like quantum mechanics. Though it is not just me. It changes shape all of the time, and I have done economics long enough to see what is true – and what is not true – change places over and over again. Slightly differently, there is an idea in statistics, used also in economics, called ‘regression to the mean’. Ask any economist or statistician if they understand it, and they will all say yes, of course. But the great statistician David Freedman used to say of testifying in court that whoever has to explain ‘regression to the mean’ to the judge has thereby lost the case. As an example, suppose poorer countries always grow faster than richer countries. So their income must get closer together over time? No, not necessarily. That is an example of ‘regression to the mean’ sowing confusion.
PROF. ANTHONY LEGGETT (PHYSICS, 2003)
Well, I missed out on standard high-school physics, so have always been a bit confused about simple things like why the noise from a kettle stops as the water nears boiling.
PROF. DAVID MACMILLAN (CHEMISTRY, 2021)
Honestly, I couldn’t understand theoretical chemistry if my life depended on it.
PROF. FRANCES ARNOLD (CHEMISTRY, 2018)
I’ve never fully grasped how enzymes do what they do. If you understand it, please explain it to me.
PROF. BARRY BARISH (PHYSICS, 2017)
Black holes. They existed as a mathematical concept for 100 years, and have now been observed and even imaged. But, why do they exist? Is it just because they can exist?
TF: Can you do long division?
No, I can’t do arithmetic at all, which is why I thank my lucky stars that I never had to take our qual. exam – I would certainly have failed miserably.
Yes, if absolutely necessary. However I keep a calculator on my desk and use it quite a bit.
Yes, I can. I can even do its much harder cousin, which is to calculate square roots with pencil and paper, no calculator.
Yes, anyone can do long division… it’s getting it right that’s the hard bit.
TF: Can you spell ‘necessarily’ at first attempt?
I think so. But I am a terrible speller.
Now I will never know. You have spoiled it for me, unless you are misspelling it.
If I have spell-check turned on.
TF: Where do you keep your medal? And when did you last wear it?
It is sitting on a shelf in my home office. I have never worn it – it does not seem to have a hook or a way to hang it.
At home, though locked up. It is not wearable. Unlike an Olympic medal, or a knighthood, there is no ribbon and no attachment. When I was in Cambridge, there was a rumour that Francis Crick once went to a party wearing only his medal, though it wouldn’t have hidden much, even if he’d had a ribbon.
In the bank, and I last wore it at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.
My wife told me she would hide it in a place that no one would ever think to look. Literally, the next day, I open the drawer on my bedside table, looking for the TV remote and find the medal box that has ‘The Nobel Prize’ written on the outside in big gold letters. It was such a bizarre moment – to be looking for the TV remote, and to find the Nobel Prize – I couldn’t stop laughing for about 15 minutes. It was hands down one of the most surreal and funniest moments of my life.
In a safe deposit box, and never displayed; I also have not worn the Nobel lapel pin, although I tried, once. At a Nobel event, I mistakenly put on a different pin, only to have several people point it out.
TF: What was the last piece of music you listened to?
Naima by John Coltrane. I was listening to a live version on YouTube and then it suggested a great version by Eric Dolphy
Liszt piano transcription of a waltz from Lucia di Lammermoor. Listening to it now.
Little Old Wine Drinker, Me by Dean Martin. Just played it so I can say that honestly… one of the greatest 60s drinking songs ever.
Probably my daughter’s flute practice.
TF: When buying a bottle of wine for a dinner party, how much is too much?
Maybe $100 if the guests really like Champagne.
I hope it doesn’t make me seem awful, but it depends on who is at the dinner party. I like wine, and often have dinner parties with others who like it a lot. One of my colleagues and best friends, Orley Ashenfelter, owns a vineyard in the up-and-coming wine region of New Jersey’s outer coastal plain. There are excellent wines in most price ranges, and so I would usually try to have something that was good, rather than necessarily expensive. (I have never done something that was once done to me. My host had a fine wine for himself, and much cheaper wine for his guests, though we all sat around the same dinner table. He was an economist, and I suspect he thought that he was maximizing total utility by allocating the good wine to the person who would appreciate it the most. Or he was just a jerk.)
I would be reluctant to pay more than $30.
Not sure I have been to a real dinner party in my life (in the British sense), but I am a reasonably active wine collector & drinker. I would say if I was getting together with a lot of good friends and they like good wine, you should bring whatever you can afford that you love. Wine is not about cost but about the experience of sharing it with people you have a great time with… so that could be Buckfast Tonic or a 1996 La Tache.
Depends who’s paying – hopefully someone who can buy a vintage bottle.
TF: Who is the most beautiful person you’ve ever stood beside?
Anne Case [the good Professor’s wife, Professor Lady Deaton, and the Alexander Stewart 1866 Professor of economics and social affairs at Princeton].
My top candidate for this is a person in the public eye, and I don’t want to embarrass her.
In the classical sense, I once stood beside Penelope Cruz at a swimming pool bar in Rome. She was pushing a pram and she looked at me and said ‘Could you please move?’ as I was standing in her way. I mumbled ‘yes!’ and quickly jumped… which in my mind counts as a real conversation with Penelope Cruz.
In the sense of a beautiful person in terms of being a human being, I met Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel Prize winner, only last week and we hung out for a while. She is a remarkable and lovely person and a seriously amazing role model. All three of my daughters were completely star struck by her.
The Royal Princess of Sweden.
TF: Have you ever emailed something to yourself, received the email notification, thought ‘Ah, an email’, before realising it’s just the very email that you sent a second before?
PROF. FRANCES ARNOLD (CHEMISTRY, 2018)
All the time. My inbox is clogged with notes to myself. I talk to myself, too.
TF: What is the best smell?
There are many great food smells, especially just before dinner. But new mown grass is pretty much up there too. And I miss the wonderful rich smell of English roses, which are much scarcer in the US, especially the heady ones.
Freshly ground and brewed coffee.
It’s a four-way tie between petrol, fish and chips that have been wrapped in a newspaper with a big pickled onion, white truffles, and the whole of southern California in the month of June.
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