Anthony J. Leggett’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 2003.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.
As a Nobel Laureate one gets asked many questions, some of them very peculiar indeed, but one frequent question that is quite reasonable is: What advice would you give to a student hoping to embark on a career in theoretical physics? Now I should make it clear that my only conceivable qualification, as a mere stripling, for giving this speech on behalf of all three of us physics laureates is that I happen to belong to that fortunate ten percent of the world’s population who were born with English as their mother tongue, so I do not know whether my fellow laureates would agree with my answer. But for what it is worth, here it is:
First, if there’s something in the conventional wisdom that you don’t understand, worry away at it for as long as it takes and don’t be deterred by the assurances of your fellow physicists that these questions are well understood.
Secondly, if you find a problem interesting, don’t worry too much about whether it has been solved in the existing literature. You will have a lot more fun with it if you don’t know, and you will learn a lot, even if what you come up with turns out not to be publishable.
Thirdly, remember that no piece of honestly conducted research is ever wasted, even if it seems so at the time. Put it away in a drawer, and ten, twenty or thirty years down the road, it will come back and help you in ways you never anticipated, and finally, take your teaching every bit as seriously as your research.
As I said, I don’t know if my fellow physics laureates would agree with my answer. However, I am sure they will join me in expressing our gratitude, first to the late Alfred Nobel for his generosity in endowing these prizes, secondly to the members of the Nobel Physics Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – having served on several committees for the award of much less prestigious prizes, I can only imagine how much work they have to do and how difficult are the decisions they have to take – and finally to your Majesties and the Nobel Foundation for this sumptuous banquet to-night.Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2003