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February, 2007

What attracted you to physics?

Until I was a junior as an EE major at Caltech, I always wanted to be an engineer. From grade 7 onwards, I was repairing tube radios and TVs for the family and for neighbors. In those days of the late 1950s and early 1960s, one simply had to open the back and tap some of the tubes with a pencil and observe and listen. The culprit would usually reveal itself by a corresponding sound volume change or a different roll of the vertical stabilization, and then I would take the marginal tubes to the tube tester at a local store to double check their operating behavior. So I learned the importance of cause-and-effect versus simply having a correlation pretty well. Also, I picked up some electronic kits for building a crystal radio and other very simple circuits. But I really should have taken the clue to become a physicist when I was a senior in high school when, very early in the school year, my Physics teacher wanted me to take the regional physics exam for Southern California high school students. Surprisingly, I finished high enough on this regional exam to receive an automatic A grade for both semesters of high school Physics. However, I did all the Physics class work for the next 8 months anyway, because I wanted to really learn physics.

My enthusiasm for physics and my gradual change-over to physics as a career was strongly stimulated by Richard Feynman at Caltech. Along with another Caltech student, I had the opportunity to go with him to his physics lectures at Hughes Malibu one afternoon each week. The discussions of physics and other things on the road to and from Malibu as well as his two-hour lectures were a great inspiration. For several years I had this opportunity for which I have been ever thankful. I learned to have a very positive approach toward struggling with physics ideas, and I also learned how little I understood when compared to one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century. The crossover from EE to physics was difficult for me, but Prof. Feynman encouraged me by saying that I seemed to think more like a physicist than an engineer, and then he was kind enough to recommend me for graduate study in physics.

As a physicist, my weakest abilities lie in formal mathematical details, a real handicap because mathematics is the language of physics. However, about 10 years after earning a Ph.D. in Physics under the incredibly precise x-ray experimentalist K. DasGupta, I began thinking about how I would make the physical world from scratch. So I developed a feedback type of mechanism for particle motion, with the electron sending out feedback signals and the vacuum acting as a transponder, etc., and, to my surprise,  I was able to derive special relativity and could make a strong connection to Feynman's path integral approach to quantum mechanics. In better words, I had developed a fundamental approach to physics that might be the origin of the laws of classical and quantum mechanics! I was able to understand that each type of fundamental particle in my approach must be geometrically unique, but when I examined the Standard Model of leptons and quarks, no such geometrical information was included.

So I spent years trying to re-derive the Standard Model from pure geometry, and by the early 1990s I had succeeded, and I could predict two new, undiscovered quarks that should make their appearance in the Large Hadron Collider in early 2008. My geometrical approach to leptons and quarks resolved many questions that the Standard Model does not answer in its present interpretation, but physicists have not yet accepted my modification because it uses finite subgroups of the Standard Model gauge group, an unexpected twist that suggests that spacetime is discrete instead of continuous. Until I achieved this new approach to the leptons and quarks, I considered myself a marginal physicist at best. Now I really enjoy doing physics and struggling to understand the behavior of Nature. My approach to the leptons and quarks may be right or may be wrong, but I know that I can tackle the hard problems if I put my mind to them. And I learned how to do this struggle by being part of the Caltech environment of the 1960s. For me, it has taken almost a lifetime to learn what "thinking like a physicist" actually means!  

You were at Caltech in the 1960s when there were many famous physicists on the faculty and many others who were on the verge of becoming famous. What was that like?

As freshman undergraduates, we knew about some of the famous names on campus, for we had met them at freshman orientation at which we also learned that a B grade would be considered very good because few A grades would be given. Otherwise, they seemed like normal people. After a few years at Caltech, I think that our reverence for their abilities grew with each passing year. I remember Nobel Prize winners Carl Anderson and Linus Pauling very well. Pauling would give every third introductory Chemistry lecture, and he would end each class with a calculation for which he would pull off his slide rule tie clasp to calculate the result!  And Pauling would occasionally roam through our Chem lab looking for students to work on some of his many research projects. Anderson, who had discovered the positron 30 years earlier, could be seen in the hallways always talking to students, and he came through the Physics Advanced Lab many times to talk to us. Then there was Murray Gell-Mann, whom I never saw except at the Physics Department Colloquium talks, and Jesse Greenstein, the astronomer, whose voice could be heard in the hallways and who came to the astronomy related Colloquium talks. Carver Meade from EE was always around. He helped design the first microprocessor, the first artificial eye, and was the first to publish a paper on the possibility of a discrete spacetime. Amnon Yariv was there also, the person whose quantum electronics book essentially transformed quantum mechanics for use by engineers working on lasers. All of them sat in the front row at the Physics Colloquium talks. Another physicist, working on biological problems, was Max Delbrück, a physics colleague of Werner Heisenberg before WWII. Delbrück later was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work with mutants, particularly his creation of hundreds of mutant strains in the fungus Phycomyces, on which with three photo-mutants I did a 10 weeks research project as a Junior.

All these famous people were also in the Caltech environment when I was there as an undergraduate. Then Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 and Gell-Mann in 1967. The campus was buzzing with rumors each Fall. In the Physics Department the emphasis was on particle physics, also called high energy physics, and the majority of the Physics faculty were doing research at the frontiers of particle physics. Almost all the visiting faculty were particle physicists. Paul Dirac was there one year, and many other well known physicists came by to give Colloquium talks or visit for a quarter or more. Various pieces of the Standard Model of quarks and leptons were always being discussed. Several co-discoverers of quarks, Yuval Ne'eman and George Zweig come to mind, but they were about to leave or to switch to biological research problems. Of course Rudolf Mössbauer was there as were many more future Nobel Prize winners, including William Fowler, Roger Sperry, the split-brain physiologist, and my classmate Doug Osheroff, whom I knew only as a fellow student in a few classes. Other fellow students whom I knew and who have become famous in their fields are mathematicians Robert J. McEliece and Michael Aschbacher, the former in coding theory and the latter in finite simple groups.

We all loved the challenges hurled at us each week by the instructors, just pouring on the workload as if we could drink water from a firehose! All the famous faculty and visitors made the campus come alive with the desire to learn. These famous people often taught the beginning classes. Some were good teachers, others were inspirational teachers. Their greatest effect on us may have been having an open door to their offices so that an undergraduate could walk in anytime to ask questions or to get equipment to do a self-designed experiment. I took advantage of this unique opportunity many times while a student at Caltech. I also had the unique opportunity to work during several summers at UCLA for Nobel Prize winner Willard Libby and for Edward Teller on fascinating projects, but that is another story.

I suspect that many more famous and to-become-famous people were at Caltech during the 1960s, but I tend to forget most of the past and concentrate on the present. It's a habit I picked up from Richard Feynman, although he denied revealing it. I had heard him say that he wished that he could forget how he had previously solved a problem for then he would be free to find a new approach to a solution. To this day, my physics colleagues do not understand why I take so long to reach a conclusion about something I must have analyzed numerous times, but I start from ground zero each time whereas they recall what they did before. I think my way is quite exciting and often leads to new questions. Many theoretical physicists say that finding a new and appropriate question to think about is the most difficult aspect of doing physics. I do not have their difficulty, for I have always had an abundance of fascinating research questions to ponder. 

Why are you not working on some aspect of string cosmology at this time?

I have never worked on string cosmology, but I am aware of several of its features.  However, I do not think that superstrings nor string cosmology are required in order to better understand the Universe and its cosmology. Let me tell you why. A physics colleague Howard G. Preston and I have developed a new approach to gravitation from Einstein's general theory of relativity (GTR) which we now call quantum celestial mechanics (QCM). QCM dictates that all gravitationally bound systems are in quantization states determined by two physical quantities only: the total mass of the system and its total angular momentum. We know that QCM works for the satellites of the Jovian planets and it works for the Solar System when the dominating angular momentum of the Oort Cloud is taken into account. That is, QCM predicts particular equilibrium radial distances for planetary orbits whereas Newtonian gravitation says that all orbits are equilibrium orbits. Our linear regression fit for the planetary orbits is better than 0.999! Consequently, there is a repulsive effect from gravitation that can be checked in a table top experiment.

We also have shown that QCM works for more than 100 galaxies, essentially for any galaxy where modified Newtonian gravity (MOND) applies. No 'dark matter' is required to keep the fast revolving stars from flying off into space because all the disk stars are in the same QCM energy quantization state, for example. One only needs the total baryonic mass of a galaxy and its total angular momentum in order to determine the galactic quantization states. Our recent 2007 paper also demonstrates that QCM applies successfully where MOND fails, for clusters of galaxies, where more than 95% of the baryonic mass is plasma. Now I come to the almost unbelievable part of QCM. The angular momentum contribution leads to a repulsive gravitational potential term in addition to the normal attractive gravitational potential! When QCM is applied to the Universe, QCM says that light from distant sources is actually suffering a gravitational redshift because the distant clock rates are slower than our observer clock rates. What people have been calling a cosmological redshift for light, i.e., attributed to an expansion of space during the light transit time, is really a gravitational redshift because QCM says that the sources are in a more negative gravitational potential that the observer. And each and every observer experiences this same gravitational redshift effect. We even derived a new Hubble relation that agrees remarkably well with the Supernovae 1A data.

There is no need for an accelerated inflationary Big Bang and no need for 'dark energy'. QCM in its present interior metric approximation for a static Universe predicts reasonable results. Our Universe has always been in equilibrium -so there is no horizon problem - but we cannot see it all. There is more Universe beyond the farthest we can presently see. Now you may appreciate why I do not think that string cosmology is fundamental to understanding the Universe.

However, there is one more reason for me to ignore string cosmology. The Universe is 4-dimensional, not 10-dimensional. In 2006 I wrote a paper connecting my geometrical approach to leptons and quarks, which involves particular finite subgroups of the continuous gauge group SU(3)c x SU(2)L x U(1)Y of the Standard Model, to the superstring approach. I connected my 4-D discrete spacetime for leptons and quarks to a superstring discrete10-D spacetime via icosians and showed how the particular finite subgroup of E8 x E8 called Weyl E8 x Weyl E8 is the unique connection. The overall result is that Nature needs only a 4-D discrete spacetime to unify the interactions and that the nice mathematics in 10 or more dimensions simply mimics the 4-D results. If the b' quark shows itself at around 80 - 100 GeV in the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 as predicted by my geometric approach, then all my struggles over the past two decades will be the beginning of several decades of new physics research! There will also be an end to speculations about many different universes, about time travel, and about the evolution of fundamental constants, for fundamental mathematics will dictate the fundamental physics!

One occasionally hears comments to the effect that Nature is becoming more resistant to our efforts. Is it your sense that the pace of discovery in fundamental physics is slowing down?

I certainly do not see any slowing down in experimental physics. Nanotechnology and other new experimental regimes seem to be gathering momentum.  As far as my own theoretical research, I have many fundamental areas to investigate. And when the Large Hadron Collider turns on completely this Fall of 2007, I expect that new particles will be discovered and that some expected particles will not be discovered! I think that the Higgs, for example, is not needed and will not show up. My b' quark has the same decay signature into a b quark and a photon as would a Higgs, so I am realizing that most physicists will think that the Higgs has been discovered, until the spin state of the decaying particle is determined. What a surprise the new discovery promises to be!
Fundamental problems for the 40% of physicists who work in condensed matter physics are certainly not being exhausted.

But I do agree that the 25 years after WWII were special years for physics research, when there was a flurry of experimental and theoretical activities encouraged by ample government funding and a backlog of expertise delayed by the war, and now research has returned to normal again. I suppose the past few decades of physics can be compared to the present apparent lull in home sales after the first five years of this millennium when the U.S. housing market went crazy in many parts of the country and now has returned to normal. I suppose those who do not remember the normal times in the past are destined to suffer through them in the present! Besides, recent astrophysics problems have stimulated new fundamental physics research such as MOND and our QCM approach, such as questions about star synthesis and the presence of antimatter in galactic jets, etc. The new telescopes promise to bring us even more mysteries that may require new physics. The new tools to investigate the nanoscale and smaller will certainly bring new questions. As you can sense, I am very optimistic about the future of fundamental physics, more so now than ever in my past.

Last January 2006 Time magazine had a cover story captioned "IS AMERICA FLUNKING SCIENCE? Our superiority was once the envy of the world. But are we slacking off just as other countries are getting stronger?" It seems that science in the U.S. is going the way of grape picking, that is, it is increasingly being left to people who weren't born in this country. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Practically all Americans live and think in ways that do not require any real understanding of science. Instead, we have a long history of inventiveness, of finding a way to make a task easier or using a method that is faster than before. But we seem to forget that the world has become extremely competitive even in our strong suit of invention. For example, during our first 150 years, agriculture was foremost in America's heartbeat. But farmers did not need to learn much science. They did not need to know the physics behind tilling the soil - how breaking up the soil reduced capillary action and the subsequent water evaporation. They simply learned how to do it with better and better tools. In spite of science breakthroughs, we humans are intuitive.

Science conflicts with intuition, so learning science is a difficult task. No one has yet invented an easy way to learn physics, for example. However, it is estimated that less than 10% of Americans historically have created the new ways and the new products, and there is no reason to think that this 10% fraction has diminished. Now, regarding science research itself, there seems to be some correlation, if not cause and effect, between fundamental science funding and the rate of  the discovery of new scientific results.

America is still a strong competitor, but the Europeans collectively have surpassed us. The question becomes: Can the few percent of dedicated Americans in science compete favorably with the world? I think so, but we will all find out in the next few decades. Actually, I am more worried about competing in engineering than in science. I am also worried about the need for better teachers of science in grades K-12, particularly in high school physics. Learning to be an engineer is a tough struggle, but the monetary rewards tend to be greater than being a scientist. Nevertheless, the decline of American born physical science and engineering majors may indicate that the struggle to learn science and engineering and mathematics may be too tough for the new American psyche that now desires the opportunity for quick riches and/or quick fame.

45% of Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years," 84% of Americans believe in miracles, and 40% of Americans believe the world will come to an end within their lifetime. At the very least these figures seem to imply a profound disconnect between science and religion. In your opinion, is this partly responsible for the fact that fewer students are serious about pursuing careers in science?

In most European countries, religion and government are tied together in a healthy relationship, although it's obvious that religion plays a very minor role in the politics and in the government decision-making. Here in America, in contrast, the Constitution states that it is our right to be free from religion, but in actual practice we have federal representatives who often invoke religious arguments. My experiences tell me that religious physicists are just as curious and capable of discovering and discussing Nature's secrets as any non-religious physicist.

Let's consider one extreme. In the ideal case, scientific results and their interpretations are expected to be independent of personal biases. In practice, we scientists are surely biased in our selection of which questions to tackle, in the methods we use to uncover Nature's answers, and in the ways we interpret those answers. However, the scientific community as a whole does an excellent service of ensuring that the end results are as close to the ideal case as possible. In better words, science is unique in human endeavors because Nature itself is the final judge of scientific truth, not some committee.

With regard to students avoiding careers in science, I think that many great students choose a non-science career because they foresee the other career as interesting and it offers the opportunity to make big money. Very few physicists make big money doing physics. However, most of us physicists have a comfortable income and a good family life. We are somewhat different than most people because we tend to be skeptical about new ideas and methods until we understand them. People say that we are often less sociable than most people - I don't know whether that is a blessing or a detriment. We do not advertise our profession very much because we know that to be a physicist takes a special type of drive and enthusiasm for understanding the behavior of Nature. But if you take a careful look around, you will find physicists (and mathematicians and chemists) using some aspect of their physics background in important roles in practically all human activities from finance to sports to social behavior to teaching and to the development of consumer products. What we probably do not need are more physicists doing fundamental research, for we presently have an overabundance by at least a factor of three in most research areas!

And finally, I think that Americans can believe whatever they choose to believe about miracles and humankind and our world's end. However, I am quite disappointed that such a large fraction of Americans still hold on to such beliefs that have been around for thousands of years in spite of the tremendous increase in our scientific understanding of Nature. What science teaching needs is a pedagogical method to make the science "stick" in the minds of its students like the "stickiness" of Blue's Clues or Sesame Street, but no such method exists today. I suppose that I can only repeat that the laws of Nature are non-intuitive and it takes a struggle, with persistence and guidance, to learn how to properly apply them to the world.