Ignas met Christoph Schäfer, an elementary particle physicist, visiting CERN in 2014. He was an excellent guide. Three years later, in 2017, they met in Palanga (Lithuanian seaside), where Christoph was on vacation with his wife Kristine and a children. Christoph kindly agreed to talk about CERN policy, particle search, and physical secrets. The conversation took place on warm midnight in August in a noisy resort bar.
When was it?
So long ago. Okay.
I have written a short story on that on my blog, and I read it today. I made some remarks, and I found the visit to very impressive. It inspired some thinking and some reading. When I traveled to the States afterward, we made a journey through some universities with a friend of mine, and he was interviewing people there, I was taking photos. So I’m going to ask a couple of questions now, nothing too exhaustive. Maybe it would be useful to start with some updates.
So what are you up to currently? And in general, after the discovery of , what’s next and what are you working on and what’s interesting happen.
First of all, you said that we met in October 2014. So that was just the transition phase from working in a large experiment at CMS. I was the Head of Safety at that time and moving to international relations. So that was just a transition phase.
International relations. So, for two years, I am now a hundred percent in international relations.
Before I was a hybrid and now I’m a hundred percent international relations. Also, in the meantime, I’m getting new management. We have a new director-general, and all the structures are a little bit changed. So my new duties are to keep looking for non-member States or social member States within Europe and Central Asia. This is the area of countries I’ll take care of.
Together with your Foreign Ministry. Yes. Absolutely. Yes, yes.
Slovenia had now become a social member two months ago. Latvia is about to apply. So when I have been in Riga in May, I got a Letter of Intent from the Prime minister saying that Latvia would like to join soon as a social member state and later as a full member state. We are in contact with Estonia; they also now interested in joining soon as a full member. So they are about to apply. They have already asked very detailed questions about what to do and so on, so hopefully, by December, they can send the application file. So these are the Baltics, a very active region. And I think that the effect Lithuania has on this region is beneficial. Others think: “If they can do it, we can do it too.” It’s not only in the Baltics, but it’s also everywhere, it’s regional. India applied, and then Pakistan applied. But Pakistan was doing it a little bit faster, then India left behind. Slovenia is catching up. So it’s about competition, and if the neighbors want to do it, the others want to do it as well.
Then for the Balkan or Southeast Europe — Slovenia is now a social member and becoming a five-year full member. Serbia now wants to become a full member. They’re already a social member, but there are some financial problems, so maybe it will still take another one or two years. Croatia has applied, but every time they finally have a stable government, there are elections, so we don’t have any person to talk to. The government is so unstable right now that there is no progress, unfortunately. Montenegro surprisingly did very well because an old colleague of mine became the Minister of Science in Montenegro.
Yes. They have a Minister of Science and a Minister of Education, but they are different.
Yes, exactly. She became the Minister of Science at the end of last year and of course that changed the picture because now we have direct contact. I think six weeks ago, the Prime Minister for Montenegro expressed the wish to become, in the long run, a social member. So it’s quite active.
Then, Central Asia — we tried to get closer to Kazakhstan. By the way, why Central Asia? Because historically, we call it the Soviet Union, because all the -stan countries, the 5 -stan countries, are part of that region. So that’s the reason why Central Asia is also in my portfolio because it’s more Western.
Politically. Mentally, they’re quite Asian. [Laughs] So Kazakhstan is now also getting there. Why? Because everything depends on the personal context. So our new director for international relations, which we didn’t have before, but now with new management we have, which is good, I think — she came from the UN system. She was working with Tokayev, a General of the UN Geneva, very closely, and she had to go back to Kazakhstan. So there’s a very close relationship between her and Tokayev. He is now the President of the Senate, number two in Kazakhstan, and that helped to open a lot of doors. So that’s the reason Kazakhstan is now about to come closer to signing. So you see it’s an exciting, very diverse work.
Yes. There are three differences. First of all, their contribution to . As a social member — it’s only 10% of what you pay as a full member.
But there’s a threshold of 1 million. So for the other small countries, it’s more than 10%. Like, Lithuania would pay 2.8 million as a full member. So there should only be 280 000, but since there’s a threshold of 1 million, Lithuania has to pay 1 million.
So I wanted to ask questions related to particle physics, but not too deep into it. After our visit to in 2014, I met Professor at MIT, where he teaches philosophy. He was a fundamental physicist by background and worked quite seriously in that field some time ago. But then he switched to become a novelist and poet. He publishes his fiction and poetry, and we have managed to translate into a Lithuanian one of the best-sellers he so far produced, “”. It’s an inspiring book. It sold very well in English and was translated into numerous languages now. They made a theater production in Serbia. That’s the latest news based on that.
But anyway, my friend did an interview, we discussed different stuff and he said it came from a very sad period for physicists because — I’ll put it in a way I understand because you may easily comment that it’s totally wrong — my perception was that the two leading theories, string theory, and both don’t even permit a hope or a possibility to understand and explain the universe. Therefore, whatever theory follows, it only brings the science to some limit where it’s not transparent, and one has to stop there.
Lightman himself has written an essay in some American magazine, where he concluded that there is no motivation for a young person to study physics anymore compared to the situation 30 years ago. He also made me sad about that perspective of understanding the universe, and I wanted to ask if you agree with this?
No, definitely not. Why? Because it reminds me, I think it was Pierre-Simon Laplace 200 years ago, and he was a professor in mechanics, who said, “Give me the position and of any star in the universe, and I can calculate the position of the universe anytime in the past.”
Give me the velocity and position of any star in the universe, and then I can predict or calculate the exact position and velocity at any time or point in history, and at any time or point in the future because everything was deterministic. So, we only need the position and velocity of every single star. There was no degree of freedom anymore. Finally, showed up, and it told us that it’s impossible to measure the position of velocity precisely, so we moved on. So there are…
So it was completely predictable.
Quantum physics. Then came quantum physics, which contradicted because one thing is you can not measure velocity at a position precisely.
This glass? I can not tell you where it is and at the same time, to say to its velocity. It’s not possible.
The velocity. Physicists always say that speed is always velocity. [Laughs] Strange. So you see, we cannot do it. By physical, fundamental reasons, it’s impossible. Therefore you have uncertainty. It’s the uncertainty principle. You cannot measure it. Therefore it is unpredictable.
Yes, to a certain precision. But if you want to go to very, very high accuracy, you cannot.
I agree that quantum physics in our daily life has no direct impact, except for your mobile phone — there you need quantum physics. But for the moment, I agree. Therefore even mechanical engineers now don’t learn quantum physics because you can still build a bridge with Newton’s physics. Also, when you know, it’s completely wrong. But it’s still possible, because on a large scale the impact, like for glass, is minimal. It’s not measurable, so to say. But from a philosophical point of view, it’s not possible to measure both object’s position and velocity at the same moment. So, there was a change in the party. Everything was predictable, and now nothing is predictable.
A friend of mine told me — I don’t know if it’s true, maybe you can comment — that scientists still can’t explain why a chewing gum sticks to a table or the sole of your shoe. But everybody can nowadays produce a material which sticks or doesn’t stick.
True. True. True.
It’s true. The gluing process is highly complicated, and we don’t have a theory to describe what it is doing. It doesn’t prevent us from producing something like chemists or alchemists. Alchemists were very good at their time but didn’t know what they’re doing, but they did something.
So, it’s not impossible to do something without understanding it and also the question is, what does one know?
This is why it’s good to study physics. I agree with this term in quantum physics, the “counting theory”, which is now six years old and is the so-called . It’s quite successful. It describes everything we observe.
For 60 years, we did experiments, and now we proved the theory. For 60 years, it was a theory, but it turned out to be correct. So, at a specific moment, it was frustrating because you have it, and you know it’s not sufficient. You know it, but as I said before, it doesn’t explain everything. Even if whatever we do, we can’t find a contradiction.
Therefore we should continue to study physics because physics is not only about theory — we have theoretical and experimental physics.
Theory, indeed, has a dilemma right now, because we have the standard model, then we have other models like , string theory, multiverses. The problem is there’s no experimental evidence for that. It’s just a philosophy today. So, we need experimental physicists who can imagine new experiments to prove these things and finally find a flaw in the standard model, which then leads us to something new.
Yes, we need them because we take millions of data. Let’s say in one day, we have millions and millions of collisions, and most of them will be thrown away, because we already know and understand them. So we want to keep those which are interesting. But the question is, it’s like a mini photo, every question is a photo, and then you see these and decide, “Do I like the photo? Do I know the photo?” Then I throw it away, or if it’s something strange, then I keep it, try to analyze it and decipher what it could be.
To decipher what it could be, we need a theory because they have to lead us to something. Without a theory... I’ll give you an example. I don’t have my watch with me, but you mentioned you have a watch. You want to understand how the clock works. You open it, and you look at it, you know. Fine, but now you take this proton. It’s too small to open up. So what do we do? We smash the watches, and we see the debris everywhere. And then, what do we learn? Nothing. So again, we pick new watches, and then we observe their debris. What you see is entirely different than before, because it’s random. If you do it not just one or two times but up to 1 million times, we see it’s not random because some of the parts are more in that corner, some of the parts more in that corner. So you notice, there is structure. It’s not random. There is a structure. Do you understand how the watch works? No way.
Yes. That’s what I wanted to say. We cannot just look into that far, because we are not that powerful. Maybe in the future, but so far, we’re still studying particles indirectly.
So now, as a theoretician, automatically, I make a model of how this watch should look inside. And then I smash two watches, I make their collisions, and I compare the theoretical calculations with my experimental results. If they don’t fit, it means that the theory is wrong, so we do it again, and then after 10, 20, 30 years, hundred years, we come up with a theory where the hypothesis matches our results. That’s the moment when we think we’ve understood. We have proven nothing, but we achieved a theory, which sounds coherent. So, we need both theoreticians and experiments.
Yes. The Field theory is for electromagnetic fields. These are not quantized fields like . We do a field theory, but we quantize the area.
No. It’s a different story. We produce data, we try to understand that data, and with our current theory, we can precisely describe the data. You can decipher the data so accurately, that with our previous accelerator, we get so much data. The theory was so precise that we could predict the mass of a particle, which was impossible to discover because it was too heavy. But with all the corrections of the theory, we could then indirectly measure and predict the mass, which was not possible to discover before, because we couldn’t produce it. So, our current theory is so powerful that it can even predict new particles.
Yeah, I even remember from our visit when you very well explained that all matter consists of two types of quarks and electrons, and four forces hold them. That’s understandable even for a stranger. But is there any part missing in that theory? What do physicists feel is missing, any significant part which can potentially turn it around?
Almost everything is missing. For instance, tonight we don’t see stars, it’s too cloudy. Imagine, now we can see the stars. We look for stars and galaxies, and we see that all the spiral galaxies are rotating. We look at how they rotate, and we find that if you make a model out of it, there should be much more mass in that galaxy to describe this rotation process. How do we know the mass? By counting the stars. We know how massive the star is, so when we count them, it just adds up. We know they are visible masses, visible via stars. Then we see the rotation, we make a model, and we see it has to be much, much more — 10 times more mass than we can see.
The Dark Matter. Dark means that I cannot see it. So, I only see the visible matter. That is okay. Now I assume the Dark Matter. I count all the visible energy, every visible matter, I count all the Dark one, which I count indirectly from the rotation. So, now I have a huge, massive universe — very, very massive. And then I look — it’s expanding, not only the universe is expanding, but it does with an acceleration — the expansion is going even further and faster. But I know — because of gravity, it should collapse. Like , there should be a Big Crunch. So, something is missing there. Not only that, Dark Matter, which I cannot see, I even have to count on another energy, which we don’t know what it is, it could be another force. Only 5 percent of the universe is known, 95 percent is either Dark Energy or Dark Matter. So, we don’t have any clue what’s going on.
Absolutely. I think it’s fascinating. The problem is that our theories right now if they are right, the likelihood that we can find something according to the theory, is very slim. So, we need to produce a big accelerator… We hope that we can find something outside the current theory, because if the theory is right — which I hope is not, or we know it’s not — if you don’t have anything else, there’s no evidence and unlikely we will find something new. So, we have to look out for something completely revolutionary new.
Absolutely. I have very strong hopes because I think, as I told you, the universe is expanding, but actually for the first 380 000 years (the universe right now is 13.8 billion years), the universe was not transparent. The energy density was so big; the heat was so high that you had a plasma, and the could not escape.
380 000 years. The universe was not transparent, so even if you buy the biggest telescope and look at very, very distant galaxies, you cannot look closer. It’s impossible. So everything was interesting, which happened during the first three minutes, afterward, it’s just a boring, our universe. It’s only the first three minutes that are interesting. We can not reach that.
No. You see, the speed of light is limited, only 300 000 kilometers per second.
If I now see a star, let’s say, one light year away, I see the star how it was last year because the light takes one year to travel. It’s like when you go to the US, you always have a certain delay because it goes — well, you have cables now, but you go up and down, and you lose potential seconds. So, if I hear your voice, you could be dead in the meantime. Still there you are, it’s okay, but then I’ll never know what happened afterward. [Laughs]
So when you look through a telescope, you see the light which arrives now, but it was emitted earlier.
No, that’s the problem. I can only..
No, 3 minutes was the time which was interesting about the birth of the universe. After three minutes, everything was there. Nothing happened anymore after three minutes.
Up to 380 000 years after the Big Bang. Closer to the Big Bang, we cannot. But last year, finally, we proved that there are gravitational waves. With gravitational waves, we have now a means to look closer, very close to the Big Bang. So, we now have a new tool.
Of course, right now, we could prove they exist, do many experiments with them. It takes 20, 30, 40 years to make more sophisticated experiments.
Yes. So, I have accelerated this glass, and it has just emitted gravitational waves. I also spilled some water. But the problem is, the mass is so small, it’s immeasurable. So, we can only see these gravitational waves when there is a supernova — when a big star is exploding. When a really big star explodes, only then we can recognize gravitational waves. So far, our instruments are very, very crude. But maybe in 20, 30, 40, 100 years, perhaps we can even measure those waves when I move my glass.
You see that? [Laughs]
Exactly. It’s fascinating. Physics is fascinating. Therefore people must study physics. There is a huge road out there, which we haven’t discovered yet.
I recently read, when traveling in Tibet and Bhutan, a couple of books by , an Italian who studied early . Those guys have built quite a consistent cosmology at that time. It was all-inclusive. That cosmology also included a sort of a theory of consciousness. It was not only dealing with a matter but also with a soul and other stuff, whatever it is, they were interrelated.
Some philosophers tried to combine quantum field theories with other theories of thought, whether produced by a human brain or something outside the skull. Sometimes they refer to phenomena similar to the Dark Matter. Did you have any chance to touch or discuss it?
No, not really. As particle physicists, we describe the world in a minimal number of particles, usually two or three, which is completely unnatural because whatever you see here, it’s a multitude of particles. The glass is billions of billions of billions of particles. The fact that you understand one particle and the correlation between one and another particle is fine. But if you put a lot of things together, you get new effects, so understanding the fundamental things doesn’t mean you also understand their compositions.
Consciousness is composite because you need a lot of particles, a lot of forces to come up with consciousness. So, what we’ve just talked about was a very small part of it. Why? Because we can describe mathematically. I think it is very difficult to describe brain mathematically. You can like artificial intelligence, you can simulate it — fine, but you cannot explain it.
Definitely. But first of all, there is a difference between intelligence and consciousness. Something could be intelligent, but that doesn’t mean it’s conscious.
That machine could possess artificial intelligence, but doesn’t know about itself. So that’s not consciousness.
People play with those terms sometimes… I may have an application on the phone that somebody likes to call artificial intelligence, but for me, it’s just a tool, not any intelligence. I see your point.
Right. We played with it already 20, 30 years ago. We have collisions of particles, and we call them “events”. We get lots of pictures of collisions and run through the sorting. The idea was to write software, which would do it automatically. So, it’s like artificial intelligence, and it’s capable of learning by sorting this category, next — if it looks the same, it goes to the same category even if it’s not programmed as such. Everybody does it. But I think it’s still so far from consciousness, and it doesn’t resemble consciousness. I think we should not completely confuse these two things. Consciousness, I feel like I’m not fully knowledgeable about it. I cannot..
Obviously, I’m not prepared to discuss it on a serious level, but some people see similarities in quantum field theory and those attempts to build a theory of consciousness based on ancient Hinduism theology and ideas like that. They also use terms or concepts which may sound or be perceived similarly to those different fields in quantum physics.
As a physicist, I would first ask a different question. Before I build something conscious or supposed to be conscious, I would, first of all, ask the question, “How can I prove that whatever I built is conscious? How can I tell it’s conscious, and how can I prove it? How do I know that you’re conscious?” I think we don’t know. I think there is no means to prove that one or another person is conscious. Even if I am conscious personally, maybe everything is fantasy. Then we build our machine and make it conscious, but how could we tell? I don’t know.
Yes, but with a machine, I think you have to ask more fundamental questions. How can we develop something that cannot prove it exists? So, the first thing is, we have to have the tools in hand, so that whatever you build, actually can be shown to be wrong. You don’t build a bridge if you don’t have a test that the bridge will hold. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense. You can walk on it, and if it doesn’t collapse, that’s fine, but it’s also a test. You need to have the tests in place to declare success.
Great. But I still observe some similarities in those areas. Just now, I remember your explanation when I have asked a question about the threat of the Large Hadron Collider. Initially, they talked a lot about the possible creation of a Black Hole.
True, I agree. I’ve seen this discussion, and it could be harmful to us. Yeah, I agree. But I think that whatever we do, there’s always an impact. Never in the past, we have thought about the impact, never. It will never happen until there is artificial intelligence. Why, for the first time, we should think first before we act? That never happened in the past will never happen again in the future. We do what is possible. We go and go and go and go until we do all. We will never stop ourselves not to go to the next step, never.
Do you think humankind can learn?
We shovel our own grave, eventually. Yes. So, that was maybe an effect of evolution. We are not at the crown of evolution, and we are at the bottom of the evolution.
Exactly, so I have no illusions. Whatever is possible, we will go for it. And then we will say, “Oops, that was a mistake. Okay, let’s go further.”