A minor memory of Leo Kadanoff
Einstein once famously said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”
But when you’re a graduate student or postdoc struggling to make a career in physics, that quote rarely feels true. Instead, you are usually made to feel like productivity and technical ability are the qualities that will make or break your career.
But Leo Kadanoff was someone who made that quote feel true.
Leo Kadanoff, one of the true giants in theoretical physics during the last half century, passed away just a few days ago. Kadanoff’s work was marked by its depth of thought and its relentless creativity. I’m sure that over the next week many people will be commemorating his life and his career.
But I thought it might be worth telling a brief story about my own memories of Leo Kadanoff, however minor they may be.
During the early part of 2014, I had started playing with some ideas that were well outside my area of expertise (if, indeed, I can be said to have any such area). I thought these projects were pretty cool, but I was tremendously unconfident about them. My lack of confidence was actually pretty justified: I was highly ignorant about the fields to which these projects properly belonged, and I had no reason to think that anyone else would find them interesting. I was also working in the sort-of-sober environment of the Materials Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory, and I was afraid that at any moment my bosses would tell me to shape up and do real science instead of nonsense.
In a moment of insecure hubris (and trust me, that combination of emotions makes sense when you’re a struggling scientist), I wrote an email to Leo Kadanoff. I sent him a draft of a manuscript (which had already been rejected twice without review) and asked him whether he would be willing to give me any comments. The truth is that the work really had no connection to Kadanoff, or to any of his past or present interests. I just knew that he was someone who had wide-ranging interests and a history of creativity, and I wasn’t sure who else to write to.
His reply to me was remarkable. He told me that he found the paper interesting, and that I should come give a seminar and spend a day at the University of Chicago. I quickly took him up on the offer, and he slotted me into his truly remarkable seminar series called “Computations in Science.” (“The title is old,” he said, “inherited from the days when that title would bring in money. We are closer to ‘concepts in science’ or maybe ‘all things considered.’ ”)
When I arrived for the seminar, Kadanoff was the first person to meet me. He had just arrived himself, by bike. Apparently at age 77 he still rode his bike to work every day. We had a very friendly conversation for an hour or so, in which we talked partly about science and partly about life, and in which he gave me a brief guide to theater and music in the city of Chicago. (At one point I mentioned that my wife was about to start medical residency, which is notorious for its long and stressful hours. He sympathized, and said “I am married to a woman who has been remarkably intelligent all of her life, except during her three years of residency.”)
When it came time for the talk to start, I was more than a little nervous. Kadanoff stood in front of the room to introduce me.
“Brian is a lot like David Nelson …” he began.
[And here my eyes got wide. David Nelson is another giant in theoretical physics, well-respected and well-liked by essentially everyone. So I was bracing myself for some outrageous compliment.]
“… he grew up in a military family.”
I don’t think that line was meant as a joke. But somehow it put me in a good mood, and the rest of the day went remarkably well. The seminar was friendly, and the audience was enthusiastic and critical (another combination of emotions that goes very well together in science). In short, it was a beautiful day for me, and I basked in the atmosphere that surrounded Kadanoff in Chicago. It seemed to me a place where creativity and inquisitiveness were valued intensely, and I found it immensely energizing and inspiring.
Scientists love to tell the public about how their work is driven by the joy of discovery and the pleasure of figuring things out. But rarely does it feel so directly true as it did during my visit to University of Chicago.
On the whole, the truth is that I didn’t know Leo Kadanoff that well. My interactions with him didn’t extend much beyond one excellent day, a few emails, and a few times where I was in the audience of his talks. But when Kadanoff was around, I really felt like science and the profession of scientist lived up to their promise.
It’s pretty sad to think that I will probably never get that exact feeling again.
Take a moment, if you like, and listen to Kadanoff talk about his greatest work. It starts with comic books.