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.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Believe in soulmates? You're more likely to 'ghost' romantic partners.

Does believing in true love make people act like jerks?

Thought Catalog via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
  • Ghosting, or cutting off all contact suddenly with a romantic partner, is not nice.
  • Growth-oriented people (who think relationships are made, not born) do not appreciate it.
  • Destiny-oriented people (who believe in soulmates) are more likely to be okay with ghosting.
Keep reading Show less

Herodotus’ mystery vessel turns out to have been real

Archeologists had been doubtful since no such ship had ever been found.

(Christoph Gerigk/Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
Surprising Science
  • In 450 BCE, Greek historian Herodotus described a barge that's never been found.
  • When the ancient port of Thonis-Heracleion was discovered, some 70 sunken ships were found resting in its waters.
  • One boat, Ship 17, uncannily matches the Herodotus' description.
Keep reading Show less