What technologies has basic science spawned that have trickled down to the public?
The key developments probably were the fax machine and the xerox. I think more than any other technology developments, they may have contributed most to bringing down the Soviet Union. We cherish in this country loyal disobedienc,e and as long as we have an open and free society and developments like that, the future looks good to me.
Talk about other speculative areas you've been involved in.
It is as tough and as speculative raising children as it is doing basic science, and sometimes incremental course corrections are not observed in their results for 30 years.
How do we improve the general appreciation of science?
The numbers are devastating, how many kids are wonderful, especially females -- half of the geniuses in this country -- but fall away and by the eighth grade, they're out of the game. And if you can't play, you're disenfranchised and you're angry. We need to build up a solid base of people who can use the power tools of the next generation or they're going to be left in the dust.
What big discoveries might we see in this century?
I'd start the list with information. We've seen in the last two decades an exponentially growing ability to store information, to process it, to transmit it, to visualize it. That's only going to accelerate in the next several decades. We'll transform the way that we deal with the world around us, with the way that we deal with ourselves. I'd put also on the list a growing appreciation to design, to fabricate materials -- materials that will be stronger, lighter, more durable, more flexible, whatever properties it is one wants, occasionally fabricating those materials, mimicking the way living things fabricate those materials. I think another likely transforming discovery is that we will look for and very likely find evidence for life off of this planet, whether it's either life in existence now, or life that was once in existence on Mars, under the ice on Europa, perhaps a planet around some other star. But I think it will happen. Those environments are too rich, too active not to have something like life arise. And I think when that happens it will fundamentally transform the way we think about ourselves, the way we think about life.
What big discoveries might we see in this century?
These days, as provost here at Caltech, it's part of my responsibility to understand how all the fields fit together and play against one another. As we're looking forward, say, in the next several decades, certainly many things in biology, understanding how living things work. Another is understanding the brain, understanding how that three pounds of chemicals can do what it does. In the more physical sciences, I think a deeper understanding of materials is going to have a big impact on the world. I think the practical manipulation and application of quantum phenomena are going to have a big effect on the way we live. I also think a better understanding of the earth, its climate, its geology are going to impact people's lives in the next 20 years or so.
Are universities destined to become more commercial?
I think one of the things that has become much more interesting and exciting in the last 20 or 30 years is the way in which universities have had an influence on commercial activities. It has been a good thing to get the ideas that we produce in the laboratories out into the commercial sector, and there have been some very important changes in society that have come about from technology that the universities have produced. Also the people that we produce with an entrepreneurial spirit have gone out and founded very important commercial organizations. But you can carry it too far. If we take the limit, where the university becomes a for-profit entity, I think we will have lost something very important. A lot of the beauty of scientific research is being able to follow your nose, independent of what the short-term profitability or non-profitability might be. Often it leads to very beautiful discoveries, it can lead to very surprising discoveries, and occasionally, it leads to very profitable discoveries. The short-term work I think we need to leave to commercial entities, but the long-term work needs to be done in an environment of unfettered inquiry, and that's what the universities have to retain.
What about quantum teleportation?
Well, among those technologies that are going to transform us in the next several decades, it is also the practical manipulation of quantum systems, using them to store, process, transmit information, other quantum phenomena, such as atomic lasers, for example. Quantum teleportation is a phenomena that is, in fact, much discussed now. It is something of a misnomer. We all think about the teleporters that we remember or see on "Star Trek." It's not like that at all. It is the ability to take the state of a simple quantum system and move it from one place to another without physically moving the system. So in some sense you're transporting the information in the state and not physically transporting the state itself.
Do we fully understand the laws of nature?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we understand laws within each domain of applicability. For example, we know that Newton's laws of motion work when the velocities don't get too close to the speed of light, and within that domain, we can certainly understand the laws themselves fully. We have a little bit of problem sometimes understanding their implications in very complicated situations. So you often resort to a computer to try to understand the implication of those laws, but we understand the laws themselves. If the particles get to be too fast or they get to be too small, then either relativity or quantum mechanics supercedes Newton. But again, within each domain of applicability, we understand those laws very well. The excitement comes when you go out in new domains, and so we ask quantum mechanics, we more or less understand that, but now we start to mix in gravity. That's something we really don't understand and will likely perhaps understand in the next several decades.
Does the general public properly appreciate science?
I think the public sees different implications of science in their life. They definitely see it in their consumer electronics. They definitely see it as it's reflected in national defense. There's a lot of science that they don't understand and because the press doesn't pay attention to it for the most part, they don't get an opportunity to understand well enough to get the connection to their everyday life.
Will our basic security improve quickly enough?
I have to differentiate between two types of security. The security associated with the industrial economic aspect of the entertainment industry, the encryption, the copy protection, the patents, the copyright rights, the payment for service, payment for use, is in a category by itself. Current law and current technology are mismatched. The other is national security. The data glut is not a data glut per se. It's a mismatch between the ability to collect and the ability to analyze. That will evolve over time.