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Juan Maldacena scores big in string theory

Argentine physicist Juan Maldacena has apparently scored the winning the goal in the global competition to understand the quantum microstates of black holes. Black hole entropy as a concept grew out of the theoretical discovery of Hawking radiation, the outcome of combining quantum particle theory with classical gravity in the vicinity of a black hole.

Did you always know that you would become a theoretical physicist, or did you make alternate plans for yourself as a young boy?
Play sound Well I didn't know that, when I was a young boy. I probably even didn't know about physics at all. My father was an engineer, so I thought about engineering. It was only in high school that I learned about physics, and I became more interested in physics. And then I studied physics just to see what it was like, to see if I'd like it or not, and, well, I liked it and I continued studying physics all the time, since then.

You spent time away from pure theory to work in an experimental group. What did you take away from that experience, and do you feel it made you a better theorist?
Play sound Yeah, I spent some time working for experimental groups when I was studying, and also when I was doing my Ph.D. and I thought it was interesting, I learned something about life in the lab and things like that. I learned about the problems you have when you really have to test some theory or really measure something in real life. And that was very interesting.

The greatest gratification possible for a theorist is to see experimental confirmation that a theoretical idea does indeed represent the wisdom of Nature. How long do you think it will take before string theory becomes fully gratifying as a scientific enterprise?
Play sound Well I think it will probably take a long time, maybe twenty or thirty years, or maybe more, before we start seeing some of these gratifications, or some explanation, some contact with Nature. But along the way we've been learning lots of new things. Even though they are not the greatest gratification, they are some partial gratifications that we are on, maybe, the right track. Or maybe not. But we have strong hints that we are.

Right now there is a growing movement to reform physics education by instituting various alternatives to the traditional lecture-and-homework format. Do you see this movement succeeding in the future, or is it just an educational fad that will pass with time? Is it inevitable that physics should be a painful subject for most of the students who take it?
Play sound Yeah, I think that's not an inevitable fact, and I think physics could be made more interesting. And probably, the way I see it is probably the lectures will have a different format. But I think it's essential to learn physics to do homework and to think about things for yourself for some time. And probably one will need to encourage people to think for themselves, and so on, and that's the crucial thing about physics. And it's just this learning process. In some sense I heard once an analogy which I think is very appropriate, which is that learning physics is like learning to play an instrument, and the only way to do it is to play the instrument. And that equates in physics to doing homework problems and learning to think about physics yourself.

You grew up in Argentina and now you have a permanent lifetime job in Massachusetts. What do you miss the most about your home country, and what do you like the most and least about your new home?
Play sound Well, what I miss the most is my family and my friends in Argentina, so the people I knew there. And what I like about my new home is the possibility of doing physics, and the way everything is organized, life is in many ways a bit simpler. And what I like the least is that I cannot have these two things in the same place.

Juan Maldacena at the Aspen Center for Physics
Juan Maldacena at the
Aspen Center for Physics


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John Schwarz // Ed Witten // Eva Silverstein // Juan Maldacena // Jim Gates // Sir Michael Atiyah // Brian Greene


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