Nature Is More Clever Than We Are

Question: Have you ever been completely surprised by an \r\noutcome of your research?
\r\n

\r\nWilliam Phillips: All the time.  In fact, it’s one of the greatest \r\nthings about being a scientist is that you’re continually surprised.  \r\nNature is so much more clever than we are that we never understand the \r\nsecrets that nature has to offer, but little by little we learn more and\r\n more.  But every time we got into the laboratory, we’re surprised. 
\r\n
\r\nI work in an area of physics, atomic physics, where the basic principles\r\n as far as we know, the basic principles were pretty much understood in \r\nthe 1930’s.  Maybe some details were worked out in the 40’s and 50’s, \r\nbut we are still surprised every day by the results of these things.  \r\nSo, in spite of the fact that some people might say, well, there’s \r\nnothing new, we’re surprised every day and the things we learned were \r\nthe things that nobody imagined that things would work this way. 
\r\n
\r\nSo for example, let’s go back to this example about laser cooling.  \r\nEverybody thought they understood how cold you could get things using \r\nlaser cooling.  And the problem was a simple enough problem, you can \r\nwrite down the proof in a few minutes as to how cold it is possible to \r\nget something.  And we got it eventually 200 times colder for one \r\nparticular atom then the theory said it was possible.  Why?  Well, \r\nbecause the situation was a little bit more complicated. 
\r\n
\r\nRemember I said that physicists liked to make a problem really simple.  \r\nThat’s the physicist’s way of looking at a problem.  Well, Einstein once\r\n said, “A problem should be made a simple as possible, but no simpler.” \r\n And sometimes you make a mistake, and you’ll leave out some really \r\nimportant stuff, usually when you do that it makes things worse.  This \r\nwas a case where putting in the complications made things work better.  \r\nNobody would have guessed that that was going to happen.  I can’t \r\nimagine anybody sitting down and thinking.  “Okay, we’re going to figure\r\n out how laser cooling works and coming up with what actually happens.” \r\n We had to do the experiments first.  Nature showed us what was going to\r\n happen, and then clever people figured out what was really going on.  \r\nThese kinds of surprises happen to us all the time.
\r\n
\r\nRecorded on June 4, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Jessica Liebman

One of the greatest things about being a scientist is that you’re continually surprised.

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