Philosophical differences: What does physics tell us about the real world?

IN COLLEGE, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY Hans Halvorson was dismayed by the idea of having to choose between science and the humanities, so he blazed his own path, combining philosophy with physics and mathematics.

Why are philosophers fascinated by science? As a cultural phenomenon, we cannot ignore the power of science. It has transformed our world into what we know today. But I believe it is not the only source of knowledge. A lot of what we know comes through ordinary life experiences.

What questions are you working on? I’m interested in what physics tells us about the real world. There are two opposing views. One view is that our theories perfectly describe the reality we see around us — this is known as realism. But there are many cases where what we thought we knew from science turned out to be wrong, for example when Einstein’s theory of relativity trumped the Newtonian view of space and time. The opposing view is called antirealism, and says that physical theories are good at making predictions that we can use in our technologies, but they do not describe reality. I take the view that there must be something right on both sides, and that there may be a way to translate one view to another. A question I am looking at now is whether two competing theories of the structure of the universe, string theory and quantum loop gravity, have a common core.

How does your training help you think about these ideas? My Ph.D. dissertation was on the foundations of quantum mechanics. But I wanted to do something new, and I was fortunate to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation award that enabled me to spend a year at the Mathematical Research Institute at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands learning an area of mathematics known as category theory. Now I am applying these concepts to the philosophy of science and the debate between realism and antirealism.

How is this of value to the public? I think part of my job is to help people understand how science fits into their lives, especially in the United States where there is tension between science and religion. I understand the difficulty of reconciling beliefs with what we learn from science. But it is also not good to just believe what science says, because it is always changing. Science is full of unknown discoveries.

–By Catherine Zandonella

Alexander Polyakov wins Fundamental Physics Prize

Alexander Polyakov

Alexander Polyakov (Photo by Martin Rocek)

Alexander Polyakov, the Joseph Henry Professor of Physics, received the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize in 2013 for his work in field theory and string theory. His ideas have dominated work in these fields during the past decades, according to the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation. The award recognizes Polyakov’s influential work in string theory, which looks to find common ground between quantum mechanics and general relativity. In addition, he was honored for his work in quantum field theory, a framework for modeling the dynamics of particles.

The prize is awarded to researchers who have made transformative advances in physics. Polyakov, who received the prize during a ceremony in Geneva, was selected for the honor by the recipients of the 2012 Fundamental Physics Prize.

Quantum computing moves forward

New technologies that exploit quantum behavior for computing and other applications are closer than ever to being realized due to recent advances. These advances could enable the creation of immensely powerful computers as well as other applications, such as highly sensitive detectors capable of probing biological systems.

“We are really excited about the possibilities of new semiconductor materials and new experimental systems that have become available in the last decade,” said Jason Petta, a quantum information scientist and an associate professor of physics at Princeton, who collaborated with Andrew Houck, an associate professor of electrical engineering, on a study published in Nature in October 2012 describing a method for quick and reliable transfer of quantum information throughout a computing device.

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Quantum Entanglement Science and Technology Program.

–By Catherine Zandonella