Web general

Berkeley Talks transcript: Pulitzer-winner Wolchover: ‘Knowledge of physics is a superpower’

a person talks to a graduate in a cap and gown
Natalie Wolchover (Photo by Sarah Wittmer)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #170: Pulitzer-winner Wolchover: ‘Knowledge of physics is a superpower.’

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

James Analytis: I am delighted to introduce today’s commencement speaker, Natalie Wolchover. Natalie is a senior editor at Quanta Magazine, covering the physical sciences. Her writing has won numerous awards, including the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting, and has been featured in The Best American Magazine Writing, The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing in Mathematics.

Now, I should point out, we invited Natalie before she was the Pulitzer Prize winner. So, I kind of feel we got here first. She was Cornell University’s distinguished visiting journalist for spring 2022, a director’s visitor at IAS in 2017 and a writer-in-residence at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in 2016. Wolchover studied physics at Tufts University and briefly at the University of California here at Berkeley. She is currently working on a book about the search for the unified theory of nature. Please join me in welcoming Natalie Wolchover.

Natalie Wolchover: Thank you, James. I have to say, as a dropout of the Berkeley physics department, I never thought I’d make it onto the stage. More on that in a minute. First, congratulations to Berkeley’s new bachelor’s, masters and Ph.D.s in physics, and congratulations to your families, friends and communities. You must be so, so proud.

It’s not an easy road to a physics degree, even in normal times, but you all haven’t had a normal student experience. For the class of 2023, the pandemic disrupted much of your college career. Not long after you got here and were supposed to be social and make friends, you suddenly couldn’t do that very easily. I also think about how you wouldn’t have easily been able to gather in groups to study and do problem sets together, which is such a good way of learning physics.

There’s no sugar-coating it. That’s hard. I want to applaud you extra much for overcoming those challenges and making it to this finish line. Of course, this is also, or more so, a starting line. As you look ahead to your future, whether you’re planning to continue your academic career as a physicist or go into finance or software development or engineering or any other field, I want to offer you a perspective based on my observations.

“Knowledge is power,” my grandpa always used to tell me. Well, I think knowledge of physics is a superpower. We tend to forget, when we’re in a bubble of people who’ve studied physics as we are in this auditorium, just how unusual it is to understand the laws of nature. Galileo wrote that “the universe is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it. Without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.”

You all understand the language of nature. You are not wandering about in a dark labyrinth. You have a headlamp on. That superpower will bring you many opportunities. The training you’ve had gives you the ability to reason clearly and logically about problems, to isolate the important details and ignore irrelevant ones, to model situations and make predictions based on equations. That all makes you really good at solving puzzles.

And furthermore, it feels good to solve puzzles. Whether or not you end up being a research physicist and solving the puzzles of the universe, which if you do, call me. In all likelihood, you’ll seek the kind of job that regularly provides that wonderful thrill of having solved a difficult puzzle. People will pay you a lot of money to solve difficult puzzles. My advice or humble request, really, is to always ask yourself, “Should you be solving this puzzle? Who will the solution benefit, and who might it harm? Is it a puzzle that the world needs solved?” Take personal responsibility for the power that you possess. Consider the moral dimensions of your work. Think about what really matters to you and the impact that you want to have on the world.

With your abilities, take care not to become a tool for achieving harmful ones. There’s a famous historical example that illustrates both the power physicists possess and the moral complexity that can result from that power. That’s the development of the atomic bomb.
The physicists in the Manhattan Project thought they were in a race against German scientists who, had they developed the bomb first, would’ve won the war for the Nazis. So, many of the American scientists felt morally obligated to try to invent the bomb first. Take Albert Einstein. He didn’t work on the Manhattan Project directly because he couldn’t get a security clearance, but his, E=mc2, was the basis of the idea that a small amount of matter could become a huge amount of energy.

And in 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, warning of possible German nuclear weapons research and advising that the United States should start a similar research program. After World War II, it became clear that German scientists had not been anywhere close to developing nuclear weapons. Einstein said if he had known this, he would not have written to Roosevelt. He had acted on too little information. After that, Einstein worked to control nuclear proliferation; many of the Manhattan Project scientists did. And they lived their lives in anguish about the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the rest of their lives, many of them.

It’s a common dynamic, I think, in innovation: People convince themselves that someone else will do or make something if they or their team doesn’t. So, there’s an attitude of, “Well, it might as well be us who does it.” But the Manhattan Project scientists were wrong about that. Without their specific efforts, nuclear weapons would not have been used. That was not a clear-cut situation that they faced, so history doesn’t condemn them for the most part. But the bottom line is that brains and technical skills like yours can have enormous consequences. Don’t let the pure intellectual thrill of solving puzzles subsume these kinds of moral and ethical considerations. Integrity and intentionality will make for a rewarding life.

I fell in love with physics as a kid, as I’m sure many of you did, and I set out to become a physicist. I wanted to study at Berkeley, and indeed I had the honor and great fun of coming here for graduate school. But only after getting that close to my goal of becoming a physicist did I realize that it wasn’t quite my calling. I didn’t want to be a physicist. I just wanted to think and write about physics, to distill the meanings of new discoveries in physics, consider varying perspectives and conceive an overall understanding.

This all occurred to me over a single sleepless night during winter break after my first semester here. That night, I decided to quit my Ph.D. program and instead pursue science journalism. And I called up the physics department the next morning and dropped out.
I acted quickly because I knew they would need to find a replacement instructor for the discussion sections I was supposed to teach, starting in a few days. Still feel bad about that. But I also felt sure of my decision, and indeed it was the right one. I love what I do.

So, regarding what impact you want to have, another piece of advice I would humbly give you is to listen to your instincts and don’t be afraid to quit or change course. So far, you’ve made excellent choices. You are where you need to be, where every parent dreams their child will be. But up to this point, the correct path has been more or less prescribed for you: study hard, get a degree. Now the path to success gets more ambiguous, more individualized. Best of luck finding your path and my most heartfelt congratulations to all of you for your tremendous achievement. Thank you.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.