Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


Sheldon Glashow: The Nucleator

  • A brief biography of Sheldon Glashow can be found here.
  • Even though Sheldon's father passed away in 1962, only a year after his Nobel Prize-winning discovery, he played a huge role in Sheldon's life.
  • How does he think his father would feel about his success in science?
    • Sheldon believes his father would have certainly appreciated it.
      • "He was himself frustrated because he never managed to complete college, even though he'd started at Cooper Union. But he never quite had the time with a young family to feed so he had to do his plumbing. So, yeah, he would have been very appreciative had he lived." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Did science fiction have any impact or influence on Sheldon's path toward becoming a theoretical physicist?
    • Science fiction was an important part of Sheldon's life during his young teen years.
      • He recalls reading Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) almost religiously.
        • There was a column called Brass Tacks that talked about science, and it was there that Sheldon learned about the possibility of atomic bombs before they were used in WWII.
    • "I can say that science fiction to some extent got me into science. My brothers were also responsible in various measures, but science fiction played a significant role and I still appreciate it." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Julian Schwinger, Sheldon's Ph.D. advisor, was well known for advising 12 or 13 students at a time, an unusually high number.
  • But Sheldon points out that he didn't spend very much time with any one student.
  • Sheldon didn't manage to get very far, but he thinks he managed a few things well enough to convince Schwinger that his thesis was possible.
    • "But altogether, during my college career, aside from having lunches where we didn't discuss science, I must've spent no more than two hours with him for advice and encouragement." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Sheldon considers his experience a lucky one.
    • "Our choice of postdocs when I was at Harvard was very democratic. We discussed the matter and came upon our favorite choices. We were lucky. We hit upon the right people at the right time." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Carl Sagan’s influence on Sheldon came later in his career.
    • Sagan's first wife, Lynn Margulis, was Sheldon's wife’s sister.
    • Sheldon thinks that one of the greatest contributions that Sagan ever made to science was to convince Lynn to major in biology.
      • Many of her accomplishments, though unappreciated early on, eventually led to her becoming a widely acclaimed biologist by the end of her life.
    • Carl came by to Harvard once and was researching on whether there could be life on Mars.
      • He ran into a mathematical problem that he couldn't solve, so he asked Sidney to solve it for him.
      • Sidney was later flabbergasted to discover that he had written a paper with Carl on the possibility of life on Mars.
  • In 1964 he returned to Copenhagen to work with physicist James Bjorken.
  • They published a paper together which introduced the idea of the charm quark, including its name.
    • "I don't know why I picked that word, but charm was a thing that averted evil, the evil being the strange changing neutral currents that don't exist." - Sheldon Glashow
    • And then he promptly forgot about it!
  • In experimental physics, there is often a sense of rivalry and a fear of getting scooped. Does the same rivalry exist in theoretical physics?
    • No.
      • For Sheldon, theoretical physics has always been a cooperative endeavor.
      • He went to high school and college with fellow theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, and they were both professors at the University of California, Berkeley where they co-published several papers.
        • Though their working relationship did fall apart for a while, their differences weren't for reasons related to physics.
      • He also recalls his long-term professional relationship with Sidney Coleman.
        • Together they published several papers inspired by Coleman's Ph.D. adviser Murray Gell-Mann's wave theory.
        • They even collaborated on a series of papers around testing Einstein's theory of special relativity towards the end of Coleman's life.
  • The role of collaboration looms large in Sheldon's book.
    • COVID has made this more difficult.
    • There aren't any trips or sabbaticals or conferences where people can easily gather to discuss and share ideas.
      • The total impact of this on physics is yet to be seen.
  • However, it’s fascinating to observe the advances in virology. 
  • Ego is a difficult subject to address in theoretical physics.
    • Instead, Sheldon talks about how science can be a lot of fun.
      • He doesn't think he began doing "real science" until graduate school.
        • He first wrote a paper with an experimental physicist that, at the time, wasn't a great paper, but he credits it as his real start.
      • After completing his studies, Sheldon went to Copenhagen, Denmark to work at the Niels Bohr Institute.
        • He spent two years there, splitting his time with CERN in Switzerland.
    • Sheldon fondly recalls the science he did with John Iliopoulos, which led to the Glashow-Illiopolous-Maiani paper.
    • This work emerged, in part, on the beaches of Mexico.
      • Sheldon and John came upon their ideas while “swimming around in the ocean.”
    • "I was having so much fun. Which is the name of the game, as far as I'm concerned, in science." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Sheldon relates a story about being at CERN at the time that Jeffrey Goldstone was.
  • A year later, both he and Sheldon were in Scotland at a famous summer school where Peter Higgs was also present.
    • There they had many discussions about the possibility of electroweak unification and methods of describing the weak interactions.
    • But Higgs did not really participate much in these discussions because he was the wine steward.
    • Sheldon thinks that had Higgs been with them for their discussions then it's likely that Gladstone would have been involved in coming up with the ideas that became those of Higgs and company later on.
  • Another example is the IMB experiment which led to the discovery of neutrino oscillations, both atmospheric and solar oscillations, and to the consequential discovery of supernova neutrinos.
  • When new scientific ideas are exposed on social media platforms, many are attacked and destroyed before they can escape the infant mortality stage. 
  • Does social media have the capacity to hamper scientific progress? 
    • Sheldon doesn't think so.
      • "I'm not a fancier of social media in any respect, and I could speak of many deleterious effects that social media may have had, but not upon the progress of science." - Sheldon Glashow
    • He attributes this success to science having its own social medium, arXiv.org, developed by Paul Ginsparg
    • arXiv is a free distribution service and an open-access archive for over 1,810,505 scholarly articles in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics.
  • Sheldon believes that for physics and science worldwide to progress, people need to have easy access to the latest information and developments in their fields.
  • Sheldon doesn't think that researchers need to teach, or vice versa.
    • But he feels that he has gained greatly from teaching.
    • "I probably would have done even more research had I not had the responsibilities of teaching, but I probably wouldn't have been as happy." - Sheldon Glashow
  • Sheldon doesn't believe so.
    • "I think I would follow the tradition of Einstein and others (like Paul Dirac) for advocating elegance and beauty." - Sheldon Glashow
  • The bigger issue for Sheldon is the funding of "useless" research for things that will have no direct impact on our lives.
  • Sheldon goes as far as to state that all of the research so far discussed is, in fact, useless.
    • There exists no practical purpose or application for our knowledge of strange particles like the Higgs boson.
  • Another example Sheldon provides is the work being done at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).
    • While they have made many wonderful discoveries and opened up new forms of astronomy, their discoveries do not extend past increasing our understanding of the universe just a little bit better.
  • Sheldon wonders how we'll continue to fund forums of "useless" science, like astro- and particle physics.
    • America, Europe, and Japan have not traditionally been generous with scientific funding.
  • The discovery of the Higgs boson, using the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), cost roughly $20 billion.
  • He questions if more resources should be spent on biological research, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • He also anticipates funding being redirected to climate change initiatives, pandemics, and other threats to human society.
  • The standard model of particle physics is extraordinarily complex. 
  • For a complete overview, as well as useful and interactive visualizations, check out Quanta Magazine’s A New Map of All the Particles and Forces. 
  • The standard model of particle physics is extraordinarily complex. 
  • For a complete overview, as well as useful and interactive visualizations, check out Quanta Magazine’s A New Map of All the Particles and Forces. 
  • Beyond the Standard Model
    • Why are there so many basic particles?
    • Why are there so many free parameters (or coupling constants)?
      • "There are no answers to those questions." - Sheldon Glashow
    • How do we include gravity in the picture?
      • "String Theory might have an answer to that question, but we still have no certain answer." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Why are there at least three fermion families?
      • "That's a big question. Why are there three? I don't know. Those are the kinds of questions I would like to have the answers to." - Sheldon Glashow
    • How many families are there, all told?
    • Why are the families so much alike?
      • "I would love to know why there are three families of quarks and leptons and I would like to know if they are as identical to one another as we believe. Could there be something missing in our plans? I'm still hoping for an outrageous discovery from the Large Hadron Collider. It could be, for example, the discovery of a new particle that decays into a pair of leptons with the same charge or something like that, which just doesn't fit into the picture at all. And that would lead us to perhaps, a new direction." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Why are the charges of the fermions the way they are?
      • "The standard model constrains them to a very high degree. For example, the integer character of the electric charge and the proton charge is incorporated within the standard model. We understand that." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Why do very large numbers appear to play a fundamental role in our theory?
      • "That's a central problem that many people talk about, like the small value of the cosmological constant, and indeed that's mysterious. But to me, equally mysterious and equally large, is the ratio between the mass of the top quark and the mass of the neutrino. Those numbers are of the same crazy order of magnitude." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Is the photon really massless?
      • "I think we can agree on that." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Are the neutrinos really massless?
      • "No, it is very neatly answered, all too satisfactorily answered." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Are there any magnetic monopoles?
      • "There have been many searches in the old days and they were uniformly negative. And nobody rightly expects that monopoles will be found. There's always that possibility, of course." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Does the proton live forever?
      • "A damn long time is what we've learned. There's not even an indication of proton decay." - Sheldon Glashow
    • The original formulation of supersymmetry had a very specific purpose in mind that made it worth looking for supersymmetry particles, but they didn't find them.
    • While it's conceivable that the LHC might yet produce evidence for supersymmetry at some point, it won't be the supersymmetry that we currently imagine.
      • Everything comes back to the central question: is there anything else up there to discover?
      • "None of the current theories are able to suggest whether there is something that could be found at the next accelerator." - Sheldon Glashow
    • Simulation, No; Multiverse, No; Aliens, Yes.
      • Does Sheldon think we're living in an advanced simulation?
        • "No, “I don't think we're in a simulation. That's the realm of science fiction." - Sheldon Glashow
      • What is Sheldon's view on ideas like the multiverse?
        • "I'm still of the old fashioned view that the role of the scientist is to deal with observable phenomena. By their very nature, any other universes are not observable phenomena. So I would draw a line at that point and disclaim any interest in multiverses or other phenomena that are inconsequential from the point of view of scientists who observe or scientists who measure." - Sheldon Glashow
      • Does Sheldon believe that life is abundant in the universe?
        • "I'm absolutely convinced because of the enormous size of the visible universe. Maybe in this galaxy, but if not, we have billions of others to choose among. So yes, there'll be life out there and intelligent life as well." - Sheldon Glashow

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