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The Nobel Prize—winning physicist’s second collection of essays, Lake Views, covers a range of topics, from religion and Armageddon to the “Future of Science, and the Universe.” A professor in the physics and astronomy departments at the University of Texas at Austin, he is widely published in the scientific community yet writes for the general public with well-reasoned clarity and a good deal of grace and humor.
How did you begin writing on topics outside of physics? Even though most of the essays in Facing Up and Lake Views are not about theoretical physics, many of them did come out of my experiences as a scientist. I used to moonlight as a consultant for the Department of Defense and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and that, along with my amateur interest in military history and technology, led me to write about missile defense, nuclear security, and glory-seeking in war. Later, in the late eighties and early nineties, I lobbied for the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. That forced me to explain to myself and to others what we are trying to do in elementary particle physics. It also brought me into conflict with trendy philosophers and sociologists who took a skeptical view of the pretensions of science, so I wrote about that. Over the years, I’ve been led to write about all sorts of things, from the latest discoveries in cosmology to the ancient tension between science and religion.
Speaking of that friction, do scientists experience personal conflicts between fact and faith? There are some very good scientists who are quite religious, like Francis Collins, who led the U.S. Human Genome Project, and Charles Townes, who invented the maser. But polls indicate that religious belief is much less common among scientists than in the whole U.S. population. When you spend your life seeking and sometimes finding naturalistic explanations for facts about the world, you get out of the habit of relying on supernatural explanations.
In 1979 you won the Nobel Prize in physics. Can you explain in layman’s terms the work that led to the award? In one sentence, this work unified two of the four fundamental forces of nature. But I should say a little more than that. There are four kinds of force that act on elementary particles. One is familiar: gravity. Another is almost as familiar: the electromagnetic force. There are two less familiar kinds: the strong nuclear force, which keeps particles together inside atomic nuclei, and the weak nuclear force, which allows one kind of particle in a nucleus to change into another kind and is responsible for the nuclear reactions that heat the sun. In 1967 I proposed a theory of the weak nuclear force, independently suggested a year later by [Pakistani physicist] Abdus Salam. It turned out it was a theory that unified the weak and electromagnetic forces—that is, it described them as different aspects of what came to be called an electroweak force. Together with a theory of the strong nuclear forces that was developed a little later, the electroweak theory is now known as the Standard Model. Right now I’m working on gravity.
Give us a glimpse into your writing routine. I do all my research and writing at home. If you see me on the UT campus, it’s because I’m giving a class or meeting with colleagues or students. But even when I’m at my desk at home, I often just spin my wheels, so I need something to keep me sitting there. My desk looks over Lake Austin, and I have a television set that I keep on while I’m working. Between watching old movies and enjoying the view of the lake, I generally manage to stay at my desk until I think of something worth doing. Harvard University Press, $25.95