Dialogue with Dr. David Gross at UP

GradSchoolLife, January 12, 2008

The invite came from DOST sent to graduate students and researchers under the local scholarship. The event was co-organized by the DOST's National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and National Research Center of the Philippines (NRCP). Prof. Gross is a 2004 Nobel Laureate for Physics at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of California.

The dialogue was held at NISMED in UP, January 9. The series of the Bridges Program-Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace is being coordinated by the International Peace Foundation. The Bridges Program has established itself as an international, intercultural and interdisciplinary platform for creative cultures of learning and continued education for all people through lectures, workshops, seminars and dialogues to help raise awareness of a wider public for building a culture of peace.


I'd like to thank my sponsor, DOST-PCASTRD for the invitation. As anyone who truly knew me would've expected my reaction would be after receiving the invite, I immediately signed up and planned my trip to the university. I'm not sure if there's a comprehensive online resource of the Bridges Program though but if the above mentioned introduction (including links) is still not enough, let me know and I can lend you a booklet of the Bridges program. For the uninitiated, Dr. Gross is the co-author of String Theory, bringing physics one step closer to the Grand Unified Theory.

The Dialogue

Fast forward to the dialogue, people from different fields including physics, statistics, math and economics raised some interesting questions. Questions range from Dr. Gross' personal history of physics, winning the Nobel, his hobbies and interests. From these lighter topics in particular, questions were asked on how he came to be a theoretical physicist and what he felt after winning the Nobel. Dr. Gross then defined what physics is which is basically what physicists do and physicists do a lot. He described what theoretical physicists do which is basically defining the universe only with a pencil and paper. He also talked about the people he worked with and their expectation year after year of his winning the Nobel prize for physics.

More technical questions touched on the following subjects: theoretical physics and "crazy physics" otherwise known as general physics, quantum chromodynamics, String theory, quantum gravity, unified theory, asymptotic freedom and reductionism. There was a question on how far he thinks we are from the unified theory as well as the latest news on quantum gravity. That question was followed up with a good one about whether there are human limitations that prevents us from understanding a theory of everything. These were answered by a discussion on the bipolarity of human attitude--pessimism and optimism, of the great unknown and human's innate need to understand the universe we live in, the pursuit of science, the human mind likened to the limitlessness of language hence the former's infinite capacity to understand, the value of creativity, of seeing the world differently, of passion and of genius.

There were also academic discussions on research, rebellion, advising and of course grad school. Particular questions were how to encourage young students to pursue science as opposed to their parents' more practical choice of profession like law, business and becoming a medical doctor; how difficult it was for him to break away from a path in research and join another; and the qualities of a good advisor. At this point, Dr. Gross' talk covered the pursuit of science for science and not for fame or money or winning Nobel prizes. His advise was to follow one's heart and to love the work involved. He encouraged rebellion not only in research but moreso in the real world setting an example by criticizing his own government and personally taking steps to promote a culture of peace, tolerance and diversity. He encouraged challenging the conventional thinking.

Results and Discussion

I'm surprised though that nobody asked the professor things like do you believe in a God and is there an advanced form of life out there although he mentioned that he is agnostic. In relation to the quantum theory and question of limits to human mind in its understanding of the universe, nobody also asked whether at some point we are discovering the structure of the universe or we are structuring the universe as we see it although I know what the answer would be for a staunch believer of science like him.

Some comments thrown by Dr. Gross were about how lucky kids are nowadays because of the internet which provides ready information to various wonderful scientific topics. I agree of course but thought it's equally hard to sort out information off of the internet for the untrained mind. The internet is kind of double-edged because as far as information is concerned, it covers both the useful and rubbish kind. Even for the useful kind, at the very least it's a requirement to be discriminating of the kind of information and the source. Having said that, I still think the benefits of the internet far outweigh the negative impacts. Anyway, Dr. Gross also mentioned how comfortable grad school has become that it has taken graduate students longer and longer time to graduate. That remark earned appreciative chuckle from the audience and I couldn't agree more with that.


Overall, it's been a great pleasure to attend the dialogue with Dr. Gross. After the event, some students asked for his autograph and took pictures with him. It's just too bad I didn't bring any physics book for him to sign on. I was just by myself when I went to the talk and felt embarrassed about asking random people to take a picture of me with the Nobel Laureate even if I didn't bring a camera. By the hall after the dialogue session, I met former physics instructors in my 4 years of undergrad studies that ended some 6 years ago. One of them was my undergrad thesis advisor. I considered telling him, "hey I'm a geophysicist now" thinking he'd be glad to hear but dismissed the thought right away since there were lots of people and even so I felt elementary (actually kindergarten, well maybe toddler still) with a Nobel Laureate along with many physicists in the crowd so I just told him, "Oh I'm still a grad student".

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Post Script

If you made it to this point, congratulations. Here's an interesting question for you: which of those questions in italics do you think I asked Dr. Gross during the dialogue?

Posted by angel at 7:25 AM

Labels: speak academese, UP Centennial