Why I'm Not Writing About This Year's Nobel
The death of physics blogging
On Tuesday, the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics was announced as going to John Clauser, Alain Aspect, and Anton Zeilinger, “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” I’ve been rooting for something along these lines for about a decade now (since Dave Wineland and Serge Haroche shared the 2012 Nobel; there are other plausible groupings of laureates in this general area that might’ve put Wineland together with one or more of these folks), so I’m extremely happy to see this prize. Not only are these guys brilliant scientists, they have solid reputations as good human beings— as I said on Twitter, Aspect is the rare breed of internationally renowned PI who will make time to talk seriously with random graduate students when visiting another lab, or at a Gordon conference. I’ve interacted less with Zeilinger (briefly but positively), and not at all with Clauser, but I’ve never heard bad things about either.
So, as I said, I was pretty psyched to see this prize announced on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, I’m also absolutely crushed by work stuff: I’ve had a lot of administrative stuff to do as Chair these last few weeks, I’m teaching intermediate quantum mechanics for the first time and all the class prep takes way longer than I want it to, and I’m giving an exam this week which needed to be proofread and uploaded on Tuesday morning. So there was no way to write at length about the long-awaited Bell Test Nobel.
I have, however, blocked out Thursday mornings as personal writing time, so I made a mental note Tuesday that I would spend this morning writing up the Prize. Except, now I’m here on Thursday, and both surprised and relieved to find that I’m not going to do that. So instead I’m going to write about why I made the decision not to write at length about this year’s Nobel, despite the fact that I’ve been actively rooting for these people to win for years, which comes down to four factors aside from my day-job workload.
First, despite being closer to my research area than some other recent prizes that I have written up, this is an area where I don’t actually feel like I have that much value to add to what’s going to be written by other people. Quantum foundations is an area of physics that’s famously obscure, but it’s also very popular, so there’s no shortage of science writers who have written about the subject before, and thus can turn out perfectly acceptable copy about this prize. This is in stark contrast to something like the spin-glass part of last year’s prize, which was weird and complicated and thus largely ignored by journalists in favor of talking about just the environmental part. That got me to write up an explainer for Forbes, because it was pretty clear that nobody with a higher profile than me was going to do it.
So, I’m going to mostly leave the write-ups to others— if you’re reading this on the day it publishes, I definitely recommend the Physics World homepage, where in addition to their brief news piece about the announcement, they have a whole slew of quantum optics stories highlighted (too many for individual links), including multiple articles (co-)written by Zeilinger himself. David Kaiser’s piece in Nautilus is also worth noting; Kaiser has both collaborated with Zeilinger on relevant experiments, and written an outstanding book on the history of the whole field of quantum foundations, so it’s a really well-informed and readable take.
Second, and closely related to the first, there isn’t much value to be added here for me, personally (with one exception that I’ll discuss later). This is a topic I’ve written about extensively in the past, as I noted in a brief Twitter thread Tuesday:
I already know the subject matter pretty well, so writing this up would be a bit of a grind— trying to find a new angle to talk about the same stuff again, worrying that I’d accidentally use the exact same words and analogies I’ve used in the past and get accused of “self-plagiarism” (I should be so lucky…), etc. Last year’s spin-glass piece was intially motivated by annoyance at journalists, but once started I was carried along by the fun of learning about something new and complicated. There wouldn’t be any of that here, just Yet Another Entanglement Post, and I’ve been there, done that, and had the T-shirt for so long it’s gotten ragged and is consigned to the “undershirt for pick-up hoops” bin.
Third, which is close to but still distinct from a combination of the previous two, there are people who care about this a whole lot more than I do, and are eager to fight about it. Most of these fights are about popular articles mistaking or eliding extremely fine points about the details of quantum foundations, which are quickly seized upon as an opportunity to re-grind axes that are already honed to edges a single molecule thick.
I don’t have a dog in this particular fight (to mix an unfortunate metaphor), so I have no real enthusiasm for wading in to support one interpretation or class of interpretations. And while I do know the countours of the field and the lines of battle well enough to duck around most of the trouble spots, it would take some effort to craft a post that did the job. At which point the end result would be chirping crickets and drifting tumbleweed, because most of the people talking about this on social media are more interested in the fight than the physics.
Which brings us around to the fourth and final factor, which was the decisive one this morning: doing this would feel like work, and blogging is not supposed to be work.
When I got up this morning, I was very seriously intending to write up the prize for a post at Forbes, because I could get a not-entirely-trivial sum of money by doing so. The way my contract with them works, though, I would need to write not just that one piece, but five new posts in October. That’s a much less appealing prospect, but I spent the first half of this morning’s dog walk trying to figure out a way to wring five short articles out of this announcement, or failing that, up to four other things I’d be willing to write up.
Then, somewhere around the midpoint of our usual morning route, I said “Fuck this, I’m not going to do it at all.” And immediately I felt so much better about my plans for the day.
Way back when I started a blog to write about physics and other things, I did it on a hobby basis, absolutely for free. It’s spun off into a bunch of side hustles that generate extra income, but I’ve always tried to keep the actual blogging in the “hobby” bucket— if I get paid a little bit as a result, that’s great, but I don’t want to be making decisions on what to write about and when to write for purely financial reasons. And that’s what this would’ve been— if I had written a long explainer today, it wouldn’t’ve been done with a sense of joy at writing something fun, it would’ve been signing up for a bit of a grim and dutiful slog. And, fuck that.
So I’m not writing up this year’s Nobel Prize. Again, I want to make clear that I am enormously happy to see this field recognized and for Aspect and Zeilinger in particular to win (nothing against Clauser, I’ve just never had any interaction with him, unlike the other two). And in a week or two, I will absolutely be using this prize as a news hook to motivate a two-week module on quantum physics in our first-year seminar course.
I’m just not fired up about this announcement in a manner that makes me want to make writing about it a top priority. So I won’t, and that’s that.
Yes, I am aware of the irony of writing probably 1500 words about how I’m not writing about something. I contain multitudes, and all that. If you want to be among the first to learn what future nonsense topics I am engaged by enough to make writing about it a top priority, here’s a button:
And if you’ve seen something written about the Clauser, Aspect, and Zeilinger prize that you think is especially worthy of praise, please do feel free to put a link in the comments:
(I guess I can’t really stop anyone from using the comments section to heap opprobrium on articles you think are Bad, but I’d rather you didn’t…)
I feel all of that -- I'm still in the position of writing/blogging about things that I think are interesting such that it is really a joy to do when I can block off the time to really do it, without the pressure of a contract or obligation. Thanks for your thoughts!
Instead of commenting on your writing about what you are not writing, let me instead tell you something I miss a lot from writing you have done in the past that you have not done recently!
I really used to love when you took a recent paper that showed some interesting result and went through it in detail for us. You haven’t done that stuff since before Forbes was your platform I think. I miss it and not many people do that anymore.