Telephone interview, October 2022
“It’s probably one of the most beautiful theories ever invented”
Telephone interview with Anton Zeilinger following the announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics on 4 October 2022. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
Anton Zeilinger conveys his love for the elegant simplicity of quantum mechanics in this call recorded shortly after the public announcement of his Nobel Prize. “With very few symbols”, he explains, “you can explain a whole lot of things from the smallest quantum particles up to the origin of the universe.” Zeilinger emphasises that the news also sends a message of huge appreciation to all the people he worked with, and ends by introducing Adam Smith to the strange and potentially useful world of quantum teleportation.
Adam Smith: May I speak with Anton Zeilinger please?
Anton Zeilinger: Yes, that’s me.
AS: Hello. My name is Adam Smith, calling from Nobelprize.org.
AZ: Can you just hold on for a second? Just a moment please.
[Music. ‘Please hold the line’]
AS: As you may know, we have a tradition of recording extremely short interviews with new laureates.
AZ: Yes, absolutely, actually I saw… I saw yesterday the interview you did with Svante Pääbo, whom I know very well actually.
AS: Ah, well, then you already know what questions might be coming.
AZ: [Laughs] Right.
AS: How did you hear the news?
AZ: Just when the… when the secretary general called me, called me, yes.
AZ: This was at 11 o’clock. I was sitting at home working on some paper, you know, and it came the phone call, yeah.
AS: And what was your first reaction or action on hearing the news?
AZ: I was speechless! I’m still kind of… I don’t know what to say. I mean this is a fantastic appreciation. I would emphasise it’s also a huge appreciation for the… for all the people who I worked with, starting from my teacher, Helmut Rauch, who started the foundations work in Vienna in late sixties, early seventies, and this was really a curiosity, but it was encouraging for me. And then I also talk of the 150 or even more students, who ever worked with me. I appreciate everyone. This was really something.
AS: It’s a very nice thing to say, because of course science is a very social thing, and I imagine that’s one of the key reasons that you’ve spent decades doing this, that it’s just such a lovely activity being with all these great people around you.
AZ: Well, it’s lovely to work… to see the excitement in the eyes of young people when they realise how interesting things we are working on. For myself it was just curiosity. It was always curiosity, and still is curiosity. I make possible some work on applications in my group, but my interest is always curiosity. You know, life is short, and still I’m curious to see what will happen in the near future, or in the future as long as I am alive, I don’t know how I can follow this anymore.
AS: The concepts are very hard to get one’s head around. I mean, for ordinary people quantum mechanics is a mysterious world. But it’s a world that has been so robust that it’s held up to every challenge. It’s quite remarkable isn’t it.
AZ: That is actually really, really remarkable. There’s two things that are remarkable about quantum physics. One is that it is absolutely robust against all experimental challenges. The predictions which the theory makes for experiments are confirmed to incredible precision, and even in the most counterintuitive ways. On the other hand, the theory is also mathematically extremely beautiful. It’s probably one of the most beautiful theories ever invented by mankind. And these are two features which are so enormous. I try to convey this over to the general public, so I like to give talks about this to just, you know, regular people who have no background. I have a feeling that people can appreciate that.
AS: It’s really lovely to hear you talk about the joy to be gained from the beauty of a mathematical formula, even though of course most of us can’t quite see that beauty for ourselves, but to have it translated is a very special thing.
AZ: Yah, the beauty is… I don’t know how to define the mathematical beauty, but probably that with very few symbols, very few symbols, which are arranged in some kind of symmetric way, you can explain a whole lot of things from the smallest quantum particles up to the origin of the universe. That is beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s not a complicated thing in the basic, in the basic quantum mechanics, it’s still very simple, simple points.
AS: I can’t let you go with[out] asking about the phenomenon of teleportation, because they mention it in the press release, and I think people will be very excited by the mention of this word. I am.
AZ: We all know teleportation from StarTrek and so on, where somebody’s transported. Teleportation in quantum physics is somewhat different. It’s a transfer of information, and the reconstitution of this new matter, like, if you think… basically, the information is actually what defines everything. Like your body is defined by the information, how the atoms are arranged. It doesn’t matter whether it’s changed, for example the carbon molecules in your body, against some others. The matter’s not important, information is important. Using this quantum entanglement one can transfer the information from one object to another one without actually knowing the information. This is actually quite fascinating, quite interesting. But it’s extremely beautiful.
AS: It sounds both beautiful and potentially incredibly useful in the future.
AZ: The point is that this is one of the basics of how future quantum computers can talk to each other. They can send information from one quantum computer to another one.
AS: An amazing world is opening up. It’s been a huge pleasure speaking to you. We look forward to seeing you in Stockholm in December.
AZ: Yes, yes, thank you.
AS: Thank you. Bye bye.
AZ: Okay, bye bye.
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