Why do physicists need philosophers

Between physics and philosophy

Philosophy and physics - two sciences that are fundamentally different for Andreas Hauser, but complement each other in many respects. Because: “In physics, sooner or later you come across insurmountable limits of knowledge. But the questions you ask yourself as a researcher don't stop there, and you enter the exciting field of philosophy. ”For example, when it comes to visions of artificial intelligence, parallel worlds, the relationship between spirit and matter or the like, but especially with considerations such as: "How do I actually imagine 'strength'?"

How do I actually imagine 'strength'?

News + Stories: Where do humanities and natural sciences currently overlap most impressively?

Andreas Hauser:Given the current situation, we can use the area of ​​artificial intelligence here, for example. The “DeepMind” project from Google is particularly exciting: the company recently designed a neural network (note: a kind of artificial brain) that can play Go wonderfully. This complex Asian board game thrives on tactics, creativity and strategy. Until recently, not a single computer program could hold a candle to a professional player. But: The computer program AlphaGo from DeepMind was able to defeat the Korean Go grandmaster Lee Sedol 4: 1 in 2016. It seems that the last hurdles are slowly being overcome. The computer is now beating us for the first time in human core competencies. This stimulates heated discussions both in the natural sciences and in the humanities.

The computer is now beating us for the first time in human core competencies.

At some point along the way, I had to choose my career and I chose physics. But I wouldn't draw the separation so sharply. Unfortunately, in our hectic times, researchers rarely think about how to integrate all the terms of modern physics into a functioning worldview that can be offered to someone who is not a specialist with a clear conscience.

Can you bring your philosophical knowledge to the current research work?

Andreas Hauser:Not at the moment. But I find the environment at TU Graz and the conversation with colleagues very inspiring. But I notice that my background is helpful with basic problems such as concept formation in order to be able to classify things better, especially with very abstract concepts from quantum mechanics. Modern physics is very complicated, you have to deal with certain things for a long time before you understand them sufficiently well. This is particularly evident in quantum physics - you can hardly talk superficially about it. On the one hand, it is difficult for laypeople without basic physical training to contribute meaningfully to the discussion. On the other hand, physicists often allow themselves to be carried away with philosophical outpourings that seem rather uninformed and naive to humanities scholars. I consider the often noticeable arrogance on the part of natural scientists to be completely inappropriate.

Has this duality always interested you?

Andreas Hauser:Yes. Even then at the grammar school in Judenburg, my hometown. In addition to physics, I was interested in both Latin and philosophy. After studying in Graz, I left for New Zealand with my then partner and now 15-year-old son Jakob, where I worked for two years at Massey University in Auckland. It was a great time both in research and for us as a family. As a theoretical physicist, you have the advantage that you are less tied to large funds or universities with a high reputation. Much more important is the individual who supports you with your own ideas and can help you move forward. During this first stay abroad, it was Peter Schwerdtfeger, an expert in the field of relativistic quantum chemistry. After that, I spent two years at the University of California at Berkeley, where I dealt with catalysis on metal particles - a topic that is now also topical in my current workplace. Together with the head of the institute, Wolfgang Ernst, who provides the experimental input, I would like to develop a new class of materials - mixed-metal nanoparticles.

Please explain that to me in more detail!

Andreas Hauser:We call it “nano Mozart balls”. If you let helium flow into a vacuum and cool it down to a few tenths of a degree above absolute zero, then small helium droplets are created. If these droplets are then sent through a series of metal vapor cells, they pick up individual metal atoms, which then form small metal clusters themselves within the droplet. Depending on the doping, a certain shell structure results. By selecting the metals that are allowed to evaporate, the physical and chemical properties of the end product can be adjusted in certain areas. In addition, these extremely small structures behave completely differently than the extended metal. In this way, you can specifically create materials with different properties. One possible application would be, for example, as catalysts for activating short-chain alkanes in order to subsequently chain them into longer units. In this way, biogas could be converted into a fuel additive, for example, which is liquid at room temperature and is therefore much easier to transport.

Andreas Hauser and the team working around the nano Mozart balls.

For this work, as a theoretician, I am now in a sense an “exotic” at the Institute for Experimental Physics, but still landed very well! In the team with Wolfgang Ernst as an experimenter, who brings his know-how on the subject of nanomaterials as well as the entire technical equipment for the aforementioned, extremely complicated synthesis process, we want to see together what else can be extracted from these metallic nanospheres.

Your work sounds very demanding. You are not only concerned with one research project, you are active in several subject areas. Is there any free time left?

Andreas Hauser:Unfortunately, I have little time at the moment. In New Zealand we did a lot of hiking, rock climbing, or just going to the beach to play rugby. I was also able to unpack my paraglider there again. At the moment, however, I almost only do indoor sports, e.g. strength training and boxing. Before my years abroad, I was an enthusiastic epee fencer for a while - I still have my equipment in the office for a few quick exercises in between. I also play classical guitar and flute. Like the "kiwis" in New Zealand, I am a nocturnal bird and often come back to the office in the evening to work. For example, yesterday I was there until midnight and then whistled a little on the flute.

After work, the scientist likes to play the flute - in the office.

Doesn't that bother your colleagues at all?

Andreas Hauser:I once asked a colleague in the hallway: He just said dryly that he was used to it. In his previous office in the other wing, someone plays the flugelhorn every now and then. Apparently he did not manage to escape! One cannot imagine what happens in the corridors of the Institute for Experimental Physics at night. (laughs) Oh, and then there's my drone, with which I do a few practice flights here and there at night in the auditorium.

I love the flexibility in working hours - as a theoretician you almost always have your office with you and you only need a computer and a good internet connection. Often you have the best ideas in a different environment or during a break. When you let your thoughts run free, great things happen.

But you've never been bored either, have you?

Andreas Hauser:No! And if I do, I'll take my Rubik's Cube and practice a little. But dad doesn't stand a chance anyway. Jakob can do it in less than a minute. Nerd.