Nobel winner: explaining physics to public a ‘waste of time’

Michael Kosterlitz tells THE how colour blindness shaped his career and why Nobel winners shouldn’t be taken too seriously

July 22, 2019
Michael Kosterlitz
Source: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2019

Physicists who attempt to explain their work to the general public are attempting an “almost impossible task”, according to a Nobel prizewinner, because, like second-hand car salesmen, their words “seem to make sense” but may actually leave the public with little or no genuine understanding.

Michael Kosterlitz, who won the award in physics in 2016 for exploring unusual matter phases at ultra low temperatures, told Times Higher Education that, on the whole, any attempt to explain his work to the “man or woman in the street” is “a waste of time".

In physics, “every second word is a jargon word”, he said during an interview at the 2019 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual gathering of prizewinners and young scientists in southern Germany held earlier this month. “What you’re saying just doesn’t make sense to them, which is fair enough.”

People are attempting an almost impossible task,” he warned. “You’re trying to explain something to people who don’t have any background at all in these logical steps that are natural to, are part of, any scientist’s psyche, [but] which are alien to most other people.”

He also likened it to “going to Korea, or China, and trying to communicate without speaking any of the native language”.

Physicists still have to make the effort, Professor Kosterlitz conceded, not least as they receive public money. But, on the whole, they are doomed to have to attempt something that is near impossible, he believed; attempts to explain his work to his wife fall flat 99 per cent of the time, he said.

People do make an effort to put a set of words together that seem to mean something,” Professor Kosterlitz said. “In my opinion, it’s a bit of a con game” (although he later backtracked, adding that this description might be a “bit strong”).

Just like second-hand car salesmen, physicists use words that “seem to make sense” to the general public. “But the underlying thing they’re talking about, the poor customer doesn’t really know,” he said.

Now 76, Professor Kosterlitz, born in Aberdeen, Scotland to refugees from Nazi Germany, was not always destined for physics. Instead, he was channelled into the field by a series of other limitations. “When I was at high school and college I quickly realised that my memory is so lousy that standard subjects – the humanities – I couldn’t cope with because there was too much memory involved; therefore maths and sciences were the only possibility,” he told THE.

Chemistry was also out. Kosterlitz is colour-blind – he found it impossible to distinguish between different shades of red in test tubes. He also seemed to attract danger in the chemistry lab, forcing evacuations by mixing together mystery chemicals that produced noxious gases, and once being blasted in the face by shards of glass from an exploding test tube.

As a natural sciences undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, Professor Kosterlitz discovered a talent for rock climbing, and sees parallels between scaling a cliff face and tackling a physics problem. “You’re stepping out into unknown territory, nothing to guide you, and you rely on your own skill,” he said. But the comparison only goes so far: the penalty for failure in physics is not death, he noted.

He even considered quitting physics altogether to become a professional climber, only to be dissuaded by his wife and father.

This turned out to be a lucky choice, as Professor Kosterlitz put it, because a few years later he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, ending his climbing career entirely.

My wife always says: ‘Actually you know Mike, I’m pretty pleased you’ve got MS because otherwise you’d probably be dead by now.’ She’s probably right,” he said, breaking into laughter.

Earlier at Lindau, Professor Kosterlitz told a room full of young scientists that winning a Nobel prize is 95 per cent luck. “I followed this incredibly random, tortuous path where basically it was completely unplanned,” he told THE.

The one downside to winning is that “I’m now expected to offer words of wisdom on all sorts of subjects, many of which I know absolutely nothing about,” he warned.

Shortly after winning the prize, Professor Kosterlitz, who spent the bulk of his tenured career at the University of Birmingham and Brown University, described Brexit as the “stupidest thing I’ve heard of” during an interview with a journalist. “I just started getting hate emails,” he recalled. “That made me realise that people take what I say seriously.”

Look, I may have won the Nobel Prize in Physics, but, except for that, I’m still the same idiot I was six years ago, so why do you take me seriously now?” he said, with another laugh.


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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, I agree in the sense that it takes a lot of time the scientist to find the right words to tell to the public, and after that, and having experienced to explain to his granmother, as Einstein said, maybe he needs more time for the public to stay hearing than it is usual.