Edward Witten

On The Big Bang, Music, and Beauty

Widely considered the greatest theoretical physicist in the world, Dr. Witten shares his perspective on the beauty of physics.

Interview by Nick Antoine

Q. What impact do the recent findings about the Big Bang and Inflation have on your work?

A. At the moment, there are questions about whether the recent findings will really hold up, or whether what was reported was an effect of dust in our galaxy. However, if the findings do hold up, they are remarkable evidence of an effect of quantum gravity and they give much tangible motivation for the quest to understand quantum gravity, which is what string theorists are engaged in. Also, this relatively large effect gives some hope that eventually it will be possible to obtain more precise clues about the workings of quantum gravity from future observations.

If your work is proven true, what are the consequences for everyday life?

Learning about string theory is like learning about a distant galaxy.  It is interesting, and the new understanding enriches our lives.

What do you think the world's willingness to spend a reported $10 billion on the Large Hadron Collider says about human nature?

I think people really care about the results obtained by scientists, partly of course because of the practical applications of scientific work, but not only. Many of our fellow citizens are truly interested in the things that scientists learn about the universe, whether it is discovering the Higgs [boson] particle at a high-energy collider, observing a distant galaxy, or trying to understand the fundamentals of quantum gravity.

What motivates you to do what you do?

The topics I work on are fascinating.  Modern ideas in physics and mathematics have a beauty that, to one who has experienced it, is just as real as the beauty of music.

For a recount of the recent discoveries in Inflation Theory and the Big Bang, see the New York Times' coverage here.

Originally published May 16, 2014.

Edward Witten

Dr. Edward Witten is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Mathematical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is best known for his research on string theory and is, according to TIME Magazine, often considered the greatest theoretical physicist in the world. He has received numerous awards for his work including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Einstein Medal, and the Fields Medal.