Juan Maldacena scores big in string theory
Argentine physicist Juan Maldacena has
apparently scored the winning the goal in the global competition to
understand the quantum microstates of black holes. Black hole entropy
as a concept grew out of the theoretical discovery of Hawking radiation,
the outcome of combining quantum particle theory with classical gravity
in the vicinity of a black hole.
Did you always know that you would become
a theoretical physicist, or did you make alternate plans for yourself
as a young boy?
Well I didn't know that, when I was a young boy. I probably even didn't
know about physics at all. My father was an engineer, so I thought about
engineering. It was only in high school that I learned about physics,
and I became more interested in physics. And then I studied physics
just to see what it was like, to see if I'd like it or not, and, well,
I liked it and I continued studying physics all the time, since then.
You spent time away from pure theory
to work in an experimental group. What did you take away from that experience,
and do you feel it made you a better theorist?
Yeah, I spent some time working for experimental groups when I was studying,
and also when I was doing my Ph.D. and I thought it was interesting,
I learned something about life in the lab and things like that. I learned
about the problems you have when you really have to test some theory
or really measure something in real life. And that was very interesting.
The greatest gratification possible for
a theorist is to see experimental confirmation that a theoretical idea
does indeed represent the wisdom of Nature. How long do you think it
will take before string theory becomes fully gratifying as a scientific
Well I think it will probably take a long time, maybe twenty or thirty
years, or maybe more, before we start seeing some of these gratifications,
or some explanation, some contact with Nature. But along the way we've
been learning lots of new things. Even though they are not the greatest
gratification, they are some partial gratifications that we are on,
maybe, the right track. Or maybe not. But we have strong hints that
Right now there is a growing movement
to reform physics education by instituting various alternatives to the
traditional lecture-and-homework format. Do you see this movement succeeding
in the future, or is it just an educational fad that will pass with
time? Is it inevitable that physics should be a painful subject for
most of the students who take it?
Yeah, I think that's not an inevitable fact, and I think physics could
be made more interesting. And probably, the way I see it is probably
the lectures will have a different format. But I think it's essential
to learn physics to do homework and to think about things for yourself
for some time. And probably one will need to encourage people to think
for themselves, and so on, and that's the crucial thing about physics.
And it's just this learning process. In some sense I heard once an analogy
which I think is very appropriate, which is that learning physics is
like learning to play an instrument, and the only way to do it is to
play the instrument. And that equates in physics to doing homework problems
and learning to think about physics yourself.
You grew up in Argentina and now you have
a permanent lifetime job in Massachusetts. What do you miss the most
about your home country, and what do you like the most and least about
your new home?
Well, what I miss the most is my family and my friends in Argentina,
so the people I knew there. And what I like about my new home is the
possibility of doing physics, and the way everything is organized, life
is in many ways a bit simpler. And what I like the least is that I cannot
have these two things in the same place.