A Nobelist's Life Lessons

Michael Kosterlitz explains physics to the nonspecialist.

July 26, 2019

Physicists who attempt to explain their work to the general public are attempting an “almost impossible task,” according to a Nobel Prize winner, because, like secondhand-car salesmen, their words “seem to make sense” but may actually leave the public with little or no genuine understanding.

Michael Kosterlitz, who won the award in physics in 2016 for exploring unusual matter phases at ultralow temperatures, told Times Higher Education that, on the whole, any attempt to explain his work to the “man or woman in the street” is “a waste of time.”

In physics, “every second word is a jargon word,” he said during an interview at the 2019 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual gathering of prizewinners and young scientists in southern Germany held earlier this month. “What you’re saying just doesn’t make sense to them, which is fair enough.”

“People are attempting an almost impossible task,” he warned. “You’re trying to explain something to people who don’t have any background at all in these logical steps that are natural to, are part of, any scientist’s psyche, [but] which are alien to most other people.”

He also likened it to “going to Korea, or China, and trying to communicate without speaking any of the native language.”

Physicists still have to make the effort, Kosterlitz conceded, not least as they receive public money. But, on the whole, they are doomed to have to attempt something that is near impossible, he believed; attempts to explain his work to his wife fall flat 99 percent of the time, he said.

“People do make an effort to put a set of words together that seem to mean something,” Kosterlitz said. “In my opinion, it’s a bit of a con game” (although he later backtracked, adding that this description might be a “bit strong”).

Now 76, Kosterlitz, born in Aberdeen, Scotland, to refugees from Nazi Germany, was not always destined for physics. Instead, he was channeled into the field by a series of other limitations. “When I was at high school and college, I quickly realized that my memory is so lousy that standard subjects -- the humanities -- I couldn’t cope with because there was too much memory involved; therefore maths and sciences were the only possibility,” he told Times Higher Education.

Chemistry was also out. Kosterlitz is colorblind -- he found it impossible to distinguish between different shades of red in test tubes. He also seemed to attract danger in the chemistry lab, forcing evacuations by mixing together mystery chemicals that produced noxious gases, and once being blasted in the face by shards of glass from an exploding test tube.

As a natural sciences undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, Kosterlitz discovered a talent for rock climbing, and he sees parallels between scaling a cliff face and tackling a physics problem. “You’re stepping out into unknown territory, nothing to guide you, and you rely on your own skill,” he said. But the comparison only goes so far: the penalty for failure in physics is not death, he noted.

He even considered quitting physics altogether to become a professional climber, only to be dissuaded by his wife and father.

This turned out to be a lucky choice, as Kosterlitz put it, because a few years later he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, ending his climbing career entirely.

“My wife always says, ‘Actually, you know, Mike, I’m pretty pleased you’ve got MS, because otherwise you’d probably be dead by now.’ She’s probably right,” he said, breaking into laughter.

Earlier at Lindau, Kosterlitz told a room full of young scientists that winning a Nobel prize is 95 percent luck. “I followed this incredibly random, tortuous path where basically it was completely unplanned,” he told Times Higher Education.

The one downside to winning is that “I’m now expected to offer words of wisdom on all sorts of subjects, many of which I know absolutely nothing about,” he warned.

Shortly after winning the prize, Kosterlitz, who spent the bulk of his tenured career at the University of Birmingham and Brown University, described Brexit as the “stupidest thing I’ve heard of” during an interview with a journalist. “I just started getting hate emails,” he recalled. “That made me realize that people take what I say seriously.”

“Look, I may have won the Nobel Prize in physics, but, except for that, I’m still the same idiot I was six years ago, so why do you take me seriously now?” he said, with another laugh.