Life is short, ask an interesting question: Physicist Amar Vutha on deep mysteries

The title of this article is by no means an indication of Amar Vutha's attitude towards my curiosity and actual questions to him, but rather a pragmatic and heartfelt approach to his choice of scientific field.

Amar's name came to me from his partner, Ann McDougall, a woman I performed with many years ago at Lula Lounge in the RED Cabaret, curated by Lisa Pijuan-Nomura. Ann played Satan and I played the Serpent in a wildly ambitious multidisciplinary adaptation of Paradise Lost conceived by Erin Shields and Lisa Pijuan-Nomura.

Ann is also the designer of the Blue Ceiling dance logo!

I love how the world brings people back to you in waves.

I met Amar in his office at U of T, not knowing much about his work and admittedly, he didn't know much about me either. But Ann's recommendation that we talk to each other was enough to make us both plunge in.

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Amar Vutha is a professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto. He has received numerous fellowships and research grants for his work.

Dr. Vutha’s research group measures the oscillation frequencies of atoms and molecules, which are fixed by universal constants like the speed of light and the electron mass, and uses them to test the limits of known physical laws. One of his projects is to build compact and portable atomic clocks to better study gravity. Another involves measuring the shape of the electron to high precision, to find clues to why the universe only contains matter, instead of equal parts matter and antimatter.

Dr. Vutha was a physics undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. After obtaining his PhD from Yale University in 2011, he was a postdoctoral researcher at York University, before joining the faculty of the University of Toronto in 2015.




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LUCY: I'm working on a project right now that's a large scale for my company, using the time it takes light to travel from the sun to earth as the basis, the language of science as sources, how to embody abstract concepts of physics in the non-abstract body.


That's why I'm here and doing this: trying to understand more deeply how scientists do their work, why and how.


So my first question is how -- forgive me if I don't have the right language for this....


AMAR: Don't apologize just go right ahead....


LUCY: Ok. You use atoms and molecules to make precise measurements and I have no idea how you actually do that. So I wonder if you could explain that to me?


AMAR: The kinds of questions we try to answer -- I'm not always successful -- but the kinds of questions I'm interested in answering are things to do with what I like to think of as a deep mystery in physics. We can use physics to make better trains or washing machines. Whatever the answer to that is, it's going to be an extension of things we already know. 


But there are some genuine mysteries in the world right now -- you may have heard about dark matter, dark energy. And beyond these words, no one knows much about it. You know as much as anyone else. In all the experiments we've done none of them have shown any signs of dark matter or dark energy. All are consistent with what we've always known. Our only hints come from observations of galaxies far away, things on the cosmic scale.

Things on the cosmic scale are not very conducive to experiments. It's too far. I like to do lab experiments that show something new, something unexpected about the way things work. We are looking for cracks in the structure of physics as we know it. If there's something we don't quite understand, maybe that is a way in to understand dark matter or dark energy.


Does that help?


LUCY: Yeah.


AMAR: That's the kind of question I'm getting at.


So then, why use atoms and molecules? The reason I love them and why they are such good tools for trying to figure things out is that all atoms of a certain kind behave the same way-- A calcium atom in your bones is the exact same thing as a calcium atom on the sun or a calcium atom on the far side of the galaxy. That's the nice thing about atoms -- their properties are completely fixed by quantum mechanics. If you know a few parameters-- the charge, the speed of light-- you can predict the colour of light or its absence. That's the only thing atoms do: they make light and absorb light.


But they absorb and emit light in different colours depending on the element. So, you get the specific colours. Those properties are guaranteed by a very few simple pieces of physics.


That makes them nice for trying to do experiments that look for any kind of cracks in the structure.


Based on what we know every calcium atom will behave the same way. If you see a calcium atom behaving slightly differently in a big gravitational field from one in a smaller gravitational field then that becomes a reference object. Or a tuning fork.


Atoms give us some standards of reference we can use as tools.


Now how do you go about using the tools?

That's the part where you have to construct some arguments and get creative in some sense.


LUCY: As soon as you start to explain it, I get it. It's in the vernacular of saying "we're made of the same stuff as stars". Literally. You can isolate those things.


AMAR: It's also kind of miraculous too. We're not just kind of the same, it's exactly the same. If you put those two molecules next to each other you wouldn't be able to tell them apart.


LUCY: That's a beautiful image. It's something I know but when my imagination creates a picture of it, it's astounding. I love too that you speak about the deeper mysteries. It's part of what set me off on this journey. I think artists and scientists are the same because we try to illuminate mystery. And once we do, we step deeper into the darkness to try illuminate more. We are so often polarized, art and science. This idea that art is free and mystical, while science is trying to pin everything down, to nail down the furniture, so to speak. But that's not the truth at all.


AMAR: We make it up as we go along sometimes. 


LUCY: That's kind of terrifying too.


AMAR: Fortunately, the things I study are completely useless. I just spent the last 8 years trying to figure out how big protons are. There was some inconsistency.  We thought maybe it was a sign that physics had broken down somewhat or maybe we made a mistake. It's completely "useless" problem. We found the answer is 84. It makes no difference for washing machines and trains. So, in some sense, it's liberating because there's no kind of responsibility. It doesn't have to cure a disease or.....At least with the stuff I'm doing, I know in 100 years there still won't be a practical use for knowing the size of a proton. No one will die if I got it wrong.


LUCY: Discovery for the sake of trying to understand.


AMAR: There's a carefreeness working in this field. If I were in a field where there was more weight or responsibility, I think maybe I'd have to be more careful, I wouldn't be as free with the things I'm curious about.


LUCY: Leaping a little sideways from that -- so many scientific advances have been fuelled by the military or government -- i
n your field is there any pressure like this?

AMAR: Not directly in my field. But we do use atoms and molecules in practical ways. One example is quantum computers. So that's getting a lot of people interested....


LUCY: And scared.

AMAR: Possibly. It's not any good for much but it's also not very bad for much at the moment.

LUCY: Someone I was speaking to recently was really freaked out about the idea of quantum computing being able to unravel all our security on the internet.

AMAR: Ah, no, no. It'll be at least one or more decades before it gets to that point. And even then, it'll only be able to unravel the kind of encryption we do today. That's like saying you can now break the codes that the Soviets used during the Cold War. Already there are codes that are un-hackable by quantum computers.

LUCY (laughing): Well I wasn't worried about it personally.....

AMAR: (also laughing): Yes of course. But it's a field of some interest now. I don't work in it directly, but I'm aware of what's going on. A lot of governments are getting worried that, for instance, China is going to figure something out before they do. Then China will have some unknown, undefined military advantage. So there is some of that ...

LUCY: It's around but not a big pressure.

AMAR: Not for me. That subfield tends to be better funded than mine. If someone cares, then it's easier to get money, from defence agencies, venture capitalists. It's happening. But my specific field is pretty darn useless so there's not so much. I am hoping it will stay this way, so we keep our fingers clean.

LUCY: It must be hard to be in that position. In the arts we rely on grants and funding but there's supposed to be a system of objectivity involved in the process. The pressures are not as high stakes as if you have a defence agency coming at you with millions of dollars. 

AMAR: Some people enjoy it. Competition. People are tripping over each other trying to be more attractive to get that money.

LUCY: So how did you get into this field? I guess I'm thinking back as far as childhood, what was the journey to particle physics?

AMAR: When I was a kid I mostly just wanted to be a biologist. I loved animals and insects. For as long as I can remember I wanted to go around after creatures through to the time when I was a teenager as well.

Then I thought I should maybe try and see what people really do in this field. I had this idea of how a biologist works, in the field going around discovering things. So I did an internship over the summer to find out. I realized most biologists are lab-based. And even those who work with bees and dragonflies-- maybe some of them spend some time in the field, but a lot of the work in that area now is genetics. So time in the field is collecting specimens to bring back to the lab. That part took the fun out of it for me.

Around that time I was also getting interested in astronomy, mostly because I just liked staying up and watching stars. I learned more and more about astronomy and realized what I liked most about it was the physics. 

Astronomy to me is like going to a zoo and watching a bunch of animals. If you want to understand why zebras have stripes and lions don't, you have to get into the biology of it. Looking at the sky is fun -- there's all kinds of crazy things up there, galaxies and supernovas -- but at some level if you want to go beyond naming them, if you want to know what makes them tick, then you have to get into the physics.

I did my undergrad in physics, still sorting of holding out for biology but along the way it became clear I wanted to do physics.  I learned that there were people asking these deep questions. The most common way to try to answer these questions was to build a big machine like the one at CERN and smash some particles together to make some more stuff and then smash that stuff. That's been the dominant approach to fundamental physics for the better part of 30-40 years. It's been quite successful.

But that's a huge effort. it's not the kind of work that one person does. It means thousands of people working together, big teams. That's just the scientists. Not talking yet about the engineers who make the machines.

I wanted to work on something much smaller in scale because I like working with my hands. I like to be connected to the apparatus with which I'm making measurements. I don't really like working in teams of hundreds of people. I was hoping I could find a fun thing to work on in the small scale. I discovered that there were ways of working on fundamental physics in labs with small teams, and not only that, it might be the best way of doing it right now. This approach of accelerating and smashing things together has saturated its level of usefulness. I think we've figured out as much as we can using that approach.

That approach has not really been helpful for answering the bigger questions. What is dark matter, what is dark energy? People are hopeful maybe, but it seems to me that this might be a time for better ideas. Things that haven't been tried, need to be tried.

LUCY: That is really interesting in relation to the book I'm reading right now: Lee Smolin's "Einstein's Unfinished Revolution". I think he's very much in that kind of thinking. We've gone as far as we can go with quantum mechanics as is and we need better ideas or better questions to take us further. 

A choreographer I often work with says this too: you have an idea, but is it a good idea that will create a good work of art? Or is there a better idea? How do you figure out what the better ideas are?

AMAR: That's a good question. Do you have insights from your field?

LUCY: I feel like it's a lot of trying stuff and listening to your intuition about it.

AMAR: I was going to say the same thing. It has to smell like an interesting thing to go after.  Part of it is: is it feasible? It's great to want to solve some grand problem, but you have to be able to do it on a realistic time schedule. We're always trying to balance how interesting and how amazing is the question with how realistic is it that you'll actually be able to do it?

I want to know what dark energy is, but I have no feasible way to do it.

Whereas one of the other interesting questions, which I do have some ideas for, is why isn't stuff made of anti-matter? This table in front of me has a bunch electrons, protons all that. But it turns out that in the Big Bang, for every electron, there's an anti-electron, for every proton, an anti-proton. We know that in the beginning, or right after the beginning, there should have been stuff and anti-stuff, but if you look today, all the anti-stuff is gone. We don't know where it went or why.

LUCY: That's fascinating.

AMAR: It turns out there's sort of a way to try to figure out what happened using molecules. And that's related to something I did as a PhD student about a decade ago. That approach we're still trying to go after. It's an interesting question but we also have a workable idea. It has feasibility.

LUCY:  It's worth going after.

AMAR: That's what you're looking for. You want something interesting. Life is short. You don't want to waste your time going after questions you don't care about. But at the same time if you only go after the super, grand questions which don't have any feasible chance to be answered, it's an equal waste of time.

LUCY: I think I read a quote from Richard Feynman who was talking about that, to the effect, if you can't relate your theory or question to something that's in nature, in the universe, then why are you doing it? If you're so focused on one little thing that has no relation to the network of what is known, then why? Vastly paraphrased of course.

You've spoken about some big, deep questions: dark matter, dark energy and anti-matter. Are there any other deeper mysteries that you are interested in?

AMAR: Those are my big three. Certainly as an experimental physicist living today, I feel that we're somewhat lucky that we have some interesting questions to go after. Wouldn't it be terrible if we understood everything and there was nothing else to do but make a faster washing machine?

We're fortunate. I have this theory that nature is maximally inscrutable. If everything was completely random it would actually be quite easy to understand. And if it were completely orderly it would also be easy. Nature has this way of being just hard enough to figure out. 


Thirty years from now, when we know the answers to these big questions, people will look back and say "Ah, those people were really lucky to grapple with these questions."

It's a privilege in that sense. Why do I even have this job? It's sort of ridiculous that I get paid to sit in my office and think about why, what happened to the anti-matter?

LUCY: In my view, it's one of the most important jobs in the world in a way because it's adding to a deeper human culture.

AMAR: It is culture. It's on par with other things that people do for culture's sake. But it doesn't sound like a real job. I console myself with knowing that I'm also teaching. That's the "honest" part of my job. But the trying to figure out dark energy? I've only been in Asia and North America and I'm trying to figure out what's happening way out there? It's bonkers. It should not be possible but it is. That's the best part.

LUCY: You've spoken a bit about this, but where do you find or feel the creativity in your process?

AMAR: Again, as an experimental physicist, my job is really to try to make good measurements and make measurements that advance our understanding. Some of the questions that would be nice to answer, I don't know how to answer, given what is at my disposal. That's one place where creativity comes in. If someone comes up with an amazing way of testing dark energy, I appreciate the elegance and beauty in using the available tools to answer an interesting question.

LUCY: It must be kind of satisfying when you have that ah-ha!

AMAR: I don't think it comes at once. It comes by degree. One year you look back and say that thing I thought was stupid isn't so stupid after all, but then you look back another year later and think, no it was really stupid. I feel like it evolves more gradually, at least in my field. It's fairly rare that someone breaks out with a "boom, now I know how to....!!!" Usually you've been thinking about it for a while using the stuff that you have and you go through 40 different ideas and come up with nothing. You go away and then have one last idea.

LUCY: You feel like there's an ah-ha moment, only when it comes together and it works.

AMAR: Yes. Because right up until the moment it works it's a lot of "I don't know, I think it should work."

Some of the experiments we do in my lab come from a combination of hunches but it's not done 'til it's done and typically in my field that takes five or six years. It's a little more gradual than a mathematician who suddenly sees the equation or a theorist who suddenly knows why.

[Learn about Amar's lab here: http://uoft.me/vutha]

LUCY: The experimental process takes time because of repetition and observation. 

AMAR: Part of [the idea of the ah-ha moment] is the popular view of physicists. The popular books by physicists tend to be written by theoretical physicists. The theoretical physicists do have more ah-ha kind of moments. My cynical take on it is that they're the scientists with too much time on their hands. Meanwhile experimentalists are trying to fix something that's broken and don't have the time to write an amazing book. 

You mentioned a few names of authors yourself and they are all theoretical physicists. You've had insights into the way theoretical physicists work, but the experimentalists are more than 50% of the total field. 

LUCY: The theoretical people can't go ahead without the experimentalists.

AMAR: It goes both ways. They come up with ideas and we can test in the lab. But at some level if the experiments don't give interesting measurements the theory dries up. People think physics is standing at the blackboard working something out, but most of what I do is drawing and designing experiments. The nuts and bolts of what needs to come together.

LUCY: Are there any good books out there on the experimental process?

AMAR: There are! Let me think....Simon Winchester. He wrote one recently about precision. [The Perfectionists] How people have improved ways of measuring more and more accurately.

They exist but they're not quite as prolific as the others.

LUCY: Lee Smolin told me that all those theoretical guys have the same agent. It's not necessarily that the world wants these books, it's that there's one guy pushing for these books to be written and out in the world and people are getting into the subject matter that way.

AMAR: Theoretical physics makes for a good story. In some sense, who wants to read 100 pages of how I figured out how to get rid of some broken part of an experiment? But I'm hoping some experimentalist someday will break through with a book for the general public.

I say this from a personal place. Growing up when I was trying to learn what physicists do, a lot of it was "you should try to be like Feynman" or be like someone who spends their time constructing theories etc. More than half the field is doing the work of experiments in basements, their stories are swept under the rug.

LUCY: It seems there's a new wave in the sciences for scientists to become better storytellers, better communicators of their research. I don't know if I've noticed this only because I've been more focused on this world in the last couple of years or.....

AMAR: No, I would agree. I think some of it is good, but I'm not convinced that it's all good. There are more stories about science. Part is motivated by this feeling that we're getting more superstitious, less scientific, stupider... the effects of current politics. Part of it is a reaction to that. I think when it's done by good communicators it's very good. 

There's a bit of pressure inside the community to be on Twitter etc. That you have a responsibility to inform the public. I don't know if I buy that. A lot of the time you're a scientist because you're good at making measurements, not because you are a good communicator. A lot of those people are really terrible communicators. We shouldn't necessarily stay that way. But like I said, life is short, should I spend time becoming a better communicator or doing the things that I am good at? I think I should leave the communicating to the professional communicators.

As long as you can clearly explain what you're doing without unnecessary hype, then you should be fine. This notion that you should be out there promoting what you're doing, in 200 words or less -- this expectation is growing more and more. The notion that we should be public figures.....I love talking to people who are non-experts because I feel it's my responsibility to try to explain what I do. But at the same time, is it the best use of my time? I'm not 100% convinced. But I am a huge fan of the professional science communicators. It's an important job.

LUCY: It is an interesting point. We feel that in the arts too. There's an expectation that you will be visible constantly, your product has to be visible all the time. In dance it works well because video and photos are so compelling on social media.

AMAR: But if you're spending a lot of time on that, it's taking you away from creating your core content.

LUCY: Or you start framing your work so that it fits social media when your end target is a stage or a gallery or.....

AMAR: Even if it's a subtle, sub-conscious thing.

LUCY: I had a residency at the end of the summer (2019) and I felt like I should be getting clips of our work to share constantly but then I thought "None of this is going to look good in that format because that's not the kind of piece I'm making. It's not the kind of rehearsal I'm having." I don't have 20 seconds of explosive moments that are going to grab you on social media. 

That's not why we need live performance.
That's why we should read those books about science. 

AMAR: The work is not a sound-byte. A definition. We have to appreciate what the questions are.

LUCY: And to keep questioning through the whole process. And to look back at the original question and ask, is that still what I'm working on? and does it matter if it has changed?

Right now, I don't have to look at my list of questions for you because I asked the first one and the rest just spilled out. The first question was interesting enough to keep the whole conversation going. 

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