Complexity and meaningfulness

Science writer Graham Farmelo interviewed Edward Witten, the mathematical physicist extraordinaire, in the summer of 2018. The full interview is available to listen here (27 minutes) and, thanks to Sabine Hossenfelder, to read here. I simply wanted to remark on one very small portion of it, where Farmelo says of Witten:

Apparently he showed up at Princeton University wanting to do a PhD in theoretical physics and they wisely took him on after he made short work of some preliminary exams. Boy did he learn quickly. One of the instructors tasked with teaching him in the lab told me that within three weeks Witten’s questions on the experiments went from basic to brilliant to Nobel level. As a postdoc at Harvard, Witten became acquainted with several of the theorist pioneers of this model including Steven Weinberg, Shelly Glashow, Howard Georgi, and Sydney Coleman, who helped interest the young Witten in the mathematics of these new theories.

“Basic to brilliant to Nobel level” struck me as a curious way to frame increasing complexity. The Nobel Prizes have indeed awarded work characterised by a certain kind of cleverness and informed creativity, but I don’t believe that has ever been a guiding principle. Instead, the prizes recognise inventions, discoveries and ideas that have contributed to the material and/or intellectual development of humankind.

However, Witten’s instructor is also right, at least in the context of physics, where “Nobel level” seems to be a point on the axes of complexity as much as meaningfulness (as provided by the prizes’ existential creed) because physics research has become so overwhelmingly specialised. As a result, newer ideas that extend older ones cannot escape the complexity clause if they’re also hoping to make the world a better place. All the easier ideas have already come and gone.

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