"It's very difficult to know whether something is useful or not, but one can know that it's exciting"
Telephone interview with Duncan Haldane following the announcement of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics, 4 October 2016. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Duncan Haldane: Hello
Adam Smith: Hello, this is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
DH: Ah ha.
AS: Well, first of all many congratulations on the award.
DH: Thank you.
AS: How did you hear the news?
DH: Well they called me up at the usual 4:30 telephone call, at local time here anyway, in the morning.
AS: Your immediate reaction?
DH: Well I was aware that there was a vague possibility but I didn't think it would happen.
AS: What did you do after hearing the news, immediately?
DH: Had a cup of coffee. [Laughs] I mean I'm a bit British, or phlegmatic, about these things so I didn't kind of faint or anything.
AS: Do you think that there's any significance in the fact that all three of you Laureates were born and initially educated in the UK and then all moved to the States?
DH: I suppose in the late 70s I think there was a bit of a de-emphasis by British funding things on fundamental research as opposed to useful research. I think it is a very bad thing when government agencies start to say… we should never say things like "What's it used for?" Because all the big discoveries of really useful things don't really come about because someone sits down and thinks "I want to discover something useful". They occur because someone discovers something interesting and it turns out to be tremendously useful. I mean that's the history of everything, in the transistors. The surprise in everything is that quantum mechanics is so much richer than we dreamed. Quantum mechanics is so bizarre! The things it can do, we didn't discover them earlier because it was just difficult to actually even imagine that quantum mechanics might do these kinds of things. And now we've found a whole lot of new topological physics and quantum mechanics and it's starting to become a big field. Basically, the world is more rich than we … Basically there must be all kinds of things out there that actually happen or can happen but we don't see them because we haven't been able to dream that such things are possible, and that was really, probably a surprising effect in all this. It's very difficult to know whether something is useful or not, but one can know that it's exciting.
AS: That's a very important message to deliver. I shouldn't keep you much longer because I imagine that people are going to be battering down your door any second.
DH: OK, I think I hear somebody else trying to come through on call waiting.
AS: Let me just ask you, will you be coming to Stockholm in December to receive your Prize?
DH: Yes, I will be, certainly, yes.
AS: Ah, splendid, well we very much look forward to seeing you then.
AS: Thank you so much for speaking to us.
DH: Thank you so much. Bye.