I don’t recall that I had heroes per se, growing up, but my understanding of the possibilities of life was strongly shaped by a few mentors and role models. Here are some of the things that were said to me that I think about every day.
When I was 14 or 15 my father told me that every era is characterized by common beliefs that almost everyone subscribes to. Question them, and you begin to think for yourself, he said. This is important he added, because only by thinking for yourself that you have a chance to do something that matters.
Around 16 I studied general relativity with a mathematician called Paul Esposito who told me to think about a physics or math problem every night before going to sleep. I still do this and I have often found that I wake with a solution in mind.
Much later, when I was a new graduate student, Richard Feynman told me that in physics there are things that everyone believes but no one can demonstrate. He said that if a lot of very smart people try to prove something and fail, you might find it much easier to prove the opposite. When I told him some of my early ideas about quantum gravity his evaluation was, “Not nearly crazy enough.”
As I was finishing graduate school, I briefly met the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend after one of his classes, and took the opportunity to ask his advice. “As long as you know exactly what you want to do,” he replied, “no one in the academic world will put as much energy into saying no to you as you can put into saying yes…Never in my academic career,” he finished, “have I spent two minutes doing something I didn’t want to be doing.” I turned for a moment to get my coat and when I looked back again he was gone.
Lee Smolin has made influential contributions to the search for a unification of physics. He is a founding faculty member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. His previous books include The Trouble with Physics, The Life of the Cosmos, and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. He will be speaking at Seattle’s Town Hall on May 7.