A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Sam Ting

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BILL MOYERS: With so many scientists from so many countries you have to be a good diplomat. You can't just order people to do things, can you?

SAM TING: No, you cannot order people because, as you probably know, doing experiments in space is not the cheapest thing on Earth. And so many countries have really gone out of their way to support this experiment. They do this because they are interested. They want to satisfy their curiosity. And you also cannot make a decision based on a vote because in physics the majority's opinion is really not always important. When you destroy the majority's opinion you can make advancement.

BILL MOYERS: Science just is or isn't.

SAM TING: Yeah, especially if you have a detector you say, "Well, I should put in 1,000 votes." And the other people say, "No, I should only do 250 votes or 300 votes." You cannot vote on this.

BILL MOYERS: You cannot vote on the votes.

SAM TING: Yeah, exactly. You have to think. And what condition it is safe. And what condition it is reliable. You have to think through. Now, before you make a decision what tests you must make.

BILL MOYERS: That is an extraordinary responsibility for one person to have, the decision involving multi millions of dollars and years of-- (UNINTEL). Do you ever feel intimidated by having to make that decision?

SAM TING: No, not at all. Because I'm interested in this and I consider this is one of the most important things. And my collaborators, they don't have to collaborate with me. They work with me because they're interested in this.

And so I have many, many collaborators and I think we often have disagreements. Sometimes even very serious disagreements. But so far, once a decision is made, everybody has been able to follow.

BILL MOYERS: Why is this so important to you, Dr. Ting?

SAM TING: Curiosity. To satisfy [my] curiosity. You know, if you think about it, if the universe came from a big bang there should be matter and antimatter equal amount at the beginning. Where is the universe made up of antimatter? There are many theories which says no, the antimatter universe does not exist. Actually the theory started in '67 by Andre Sakharov. But in physics if you do not do the experiment, you will never know.

BILL MOYERS: If you find out what you want to know what difference will it make?

SAM TING: Well, for me it will satisfy my curiosity. You are asking a very important question and that is what does pure research do to life on Earth? Well, many people ask me that. Let me give you a small example. About a hundred years ago at the frontier of research was the discovery of the X-ray and the discovery of the electron.. At that time it was a pure curiosity. And then in the 30s they began to use the X-ray in the field of medicine. In 1920's the most frontier science was atomic physics. So called quantum mechanics. At that time it was also pure scientific research but now it's used in laser, in communication, super conductivity and can affect everybody's life.

And the 40s and 50s the most-- the most advanced of science, the frontier was nuclear physics. Now, it's used in energy, defense, and in medicine. And so from discovery to application there's a time lapse. Typically 30 years or 40 years. But once it is used it really affects everyone's life.

BILL MOYERS: I understand that most of the time we do not know the practical consequences of what discovery you may make. And yet when I try to think back to the beginning of the universe to find out what was there and what wasn't there I have a struggle to try to imagine anything positive out of knowing what happened billions of years ago.

SAM TING: You know, our concept of what is this basic element-- what is the smallest thing at the beginning-- what made our universe, [our concept of that] really changes with time. And think of 100 years ago. One hundred years ago everybody on Earth believed chemical elements, so called periodic table, hydrogen, carbon, helium and the atoms are the smallest elements in nature.

It's only through research we now know these are not elements of nature. And in the 60s we believed the nucleus is the smallest element. Then in the 70s we believed it's not this nucleus, not those particles but something called quarks are the smallest elements.

You know, 100 years from now may-- When we look back maybe what I said to you today may be totally meaningless. But if you don't do it you will never know.

BILL MOYERS: So, this is why you sent me this little booklet which you put together about your work called "In Search of The Fundamental Building Blocks of Nature." You're saying we still do not know what these blocks of nature are-- what reality is?

SAM TING: It's kind of dangerous to say that, you know. If you scan through THE NEW YORK TIMES in the last 100 years, very often a brilliant scientist will say, "Oh, we discovered this and now we've understood everything." only to turn out to be wrong. And so science is always progress. I think it's hard to say where or how it's going to end.

BILL MOYERS: But we still don't know wholly what life is made of, do we?

SAM TING: I would say I do not know.

BILL MOYERS: I want to come back to this to make sure I have it for my audience. You're driven by this sense of the mystery. Something you don't know you must find out like Sherlock Holmes looking for the dog that didn't bark in the middle of the night. What is this mystery you want to solve?

SAM TING: Let me give you a separate example. When I started my career I was doing experiments on properties of light. And then I found out light occasionally switches (UNINTEL) to have a heavy mass. And it's a very strange phenomenon. Light ray will go through, traveling when you enter into a nucleus and sometimes changes it into a particle with mass.

At that time most of this mass of particle-- there are only three kinds. Three kinds of mass. And I was asking why there only are three? Why could there be not four? Why could there not be five?

And then I started experimenting in Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. And sure enough I found light rays not only go to three-- with particle with three different kind of mass, there's a fourth kind. And the fourth kind has a totally different property from the rest of them.

If you don't ask this you will never know. You ask me how—what drives me? It's from your previous experience, from the experience you ask questions. I think the most important thing for a scientist is to find the right question to ask.

BILL MOYERS: Why is your work so controversial?

SAM TING: I don't think it's controversial. You know, in physics different people have different opinions. And if you do what everybody else had said, if you want to do experiments just to prove people's theory, then you really don't learn much.

So, there's two kind of physics. One is theoretical physics, one is experimental physics. Theoretical physics try to explain things. Experimental physics try to see whether the theory is right or wrong.

So, if you do an experiment and prove the theory is right you have learned nothing. It's when you do an experiment, prove the theory is wrong and you require a new theory, then you learn something.

BILL MOYERS: I can understand why a lone scientist working at his laboratory would wrestle with concepts and theories for a long time. But what you're doing involves thousands of people, hundreds of scientists, technicians-- lots of money, many nations. How do you persuade that many people to trust you?

SAM TING: People trust me mainly because they look at what I've done before. Is my experiment worthwhile? Have I ever made a mistake? The only thing you can say is people look at your track record, what you have done before.

BILL MOYERS: Have you ever made a mistake?

SAM TING: Not yet. But this does not mean it may not happen in the future.

BILL MOYERS: Now, what worries you most about this experiment? Where could it go wrong?

SAM TING: An experiment in space is very different from an experiment on the ground. In an experiment on the ground you can always go down to fix it. An experiment in space, one mistake is your last mistake 'cause if you lost a fuse you have lost the whole experiment and so you must make sure there are redundancies.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

SAM TING: Now, if you have a computer on board you cannot only use one, you must use four, five or six. So, if one goes bad it will switch automatically to the next one and to the next one. So, every detector has enormous amount of redundancy since you cannot go there to repair it.

BILL MOYERS: Are you concerned that after both the Challenger and Columbia disasters that the world may retreat from manned space experiments? And what would happen if we did?

SAM TING: I hope it doesn't because manned space flight is exploration. Imagine if Columbus had not made his trip, the world may have been very different. And you probably know-- in the 14th century there was a Chinese explorer--

BILL MOYERS: There's a new book out on that.

SAM TING: Yeah, a Chinese explorer went to Madagascar in Africa. But he never continued and so he never discovered America. And Columbus and Magellan, these people continued. So, giving up half way is not the way to proceed.

BILL MOYERS: So, even though there's human loss, huge sums of money lost, you think we have to continue the journey?

SAM TING: I would think if we don't do it, another country certainly would do it. You can not stop human curiosity.

BILL MOYERS: One of your cultural and spiritual ancestors Lao Tze believed that we would never find the origin of beginning. So, why do we insist on continuing the search, that journey? If we know we can never get to where we started.

SAM TING: But of course Lao Tze's theory had no experimental proof. So, we don't know whether [it's true.] No, we don't know if you don't do the experiment. You would never know.

BILL MOYERS: That seems like an endless quest.

SAM TING: Yes. Yes, I think exactly yes. Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And you're convinced that there was a big bang?

SAM TING: My view has no meaning. I could believe it or not believe it. You could believe it or you could not believe it. We do not know. You have to do experiments. If you don't do experiments, you will never know. Everybody says, "If you have no experiment everybody is entitled to their opinion." So, only when you have correct experimental results and then you can have some feeling of what's going on.

BILL MOYERS: What?? what experiment can you do to prove that there was a big bang?

SAM TING: Well, you have a theory. Big bang is a hypothesis, a theory. You can do many many experiments. You can never prove a theory. You can only modify or destroy a theory. When you do experiments that disagree with the hypothesis of the big bang, then you know the big bang theory is wrong.

We believe in relativity mainly because all the experiments agree with the prediction. So that's why gradually you believe it. You cannot find an experiment to prove the theory. It's only when you have done an experiment that disagrees with the theory that you know the theory has to be modified.

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