Why did you opt for physics and one of its most difficult specialisations at that?
I became interested in physics because I’m interested in the world, and if we want to understand our place in the universe, humanity’s place in the universe, then physics is pivotal. Astronomy and all the other natural sciences are derived from it. Chemistry in its own way is a subdivision of physics. And then molecular biology grows out of chemistry. I could give more examples of this dependency. At the time I was choosing my studies, I thought that physics would give me the best basis for thinking about the world as a whole and I wasn’t disappointed. I was actually toying with idea of studying economics, but at the time, economics was a skewed subject, so I decided that if I studied physics they would at least not lie to me. During my studies I hesitated over the topic of my MA thesis but then I went to a lecture on quantum mechanics, which was a shock for us students. Some can’t stick it out and a lot of others get a lot out of it. It turned out that the microworld was completely different to how we had imagined it and it was fundamentally different to our world, it was a ‘fairy land’. To some degree it’s impossible for us to understand intuitively and that’s what attracted me. Later I specialised in quantum electrodynamics, which was a sort of academic apprenticeship. That’s what I wrote my doctorate on. At one point my colleagues got me interested in the phenomenon of entanglement. At first, I didn’t think I’d do anything in that area, but then someone posed an open problem and my friend Jarek Pykacz and I solved it after a week of very hard work, at which point I thought that maybe I could do something in that area after all. I remember being advised not to go into research on the basics of quantum mechanics because it was believed at the time that the majority of the fundamental results were already behind us and that the basic theorems had been laid down almost a quarter of a century earlier, but at the end of the 1980s, it turned out that this was absolutely untrue. Some fundamental works appeared, including one by Greenberger, Horne and Zeilinger, which showed that the number of fascinating and amazing phenomena in the quantum world was beyond anything we had suspected before then. Above all it demonstrated that the more particles we have interacting with each other, the more interesting the quantum phenomena become – exactly the opposite of what had been believed. This is when I entered this field and managed to achieve something. I joined it at a time when a turbulent development was on the way. Later quantum cryptography and quantum information appeared and it remains an area which is undergoing development at an unprecedented rate. I don’t think it has reached a plateau yet, and we will be seeing a colossal growth in activity within this domain for several years to come.
Many people think that great scientific research can’t be done in Poland, given the low financing of science – the equivalent of that for one university in the USA ‒ but your case disproves this.
In my case you must remember that I am a theoretical physicist and that as far as the Polish budget is concerned, my greatest achievements in the 1990s didn’t cost a penny, and that I paid for conference trips out of my own pocket. Things can be achieved in theoretical physics almost without expenditure. Now this situation has changed and some of my colleagues and I have, by Polish standards, enormous sums of money for research. We are even able to employ a total of around twenty young people from grants. The sciences in Poland are indeed underfinanced and in experimental science where expenditure is a must, then as a country we don’t have much of a chance of making great breakthroughs. At the same time, and this is important, thanks to grant agencies like the Foundation for Polish Science, the National Centre for Research and Development or the National Science Centre, where I am a council member, the stream of support is somehow sensibly directed to those academic groups which are the most promising. At the present moment in time, it would be wrong to claim that there is no financing for very good scientists in Poland. You could say, however, that good funding of science will only exist when the average scientists, or the good ones without sensational results, also have good or average funding. This is basically not the case. There just isn’t enough money, and I have announced as a council member of the National Science Centre, that until our budget starts with a digit higher than one, I formally will not be voting to confirm the budget structure. Unless there is a dramatic rise in the funding of science in the next five years, I think Poland will remain a second-rate country, at least in Europe.
Physics is fascinating because …?
Firstly, because you learn how the world functions. If you know physics, then you know the basics of chemistry. You understand why molecular structures exist and you can have a feeling for microbiology and related subjects. You also achieve a high level in mathematics by studying physics. Half of every physics student’s first years are devoted to mathematics, either in the form of pure mathematics, issues from analysis or algebra, or in the form included in the mathematical description of physics. This gives you an enormous range of knowledge, thanks to which you can understand the world and besides, it’s good exercise for the mind. This allows a lot of physicists to reach important positions in many other areas of life. At the moment, Chancellor Merkel is one such flagship figure, as she’s a physicist, and the Polish Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz was a physicist, not to mention the role physicists played in the opposition movement. It gives you a solid knowledge of the world and is a sort of mental exercise that prepares you to solve the problems that have to be solved stage by stage. I heard recently that Spain wants to introduce chess lessons into schools. I can say for myself that I haven’t played since the moment I started studying physics, because the same mental effort is involved that I have every day. One of my outstanding doctoral students said in an interview, and I must add that he started in marketing or management, “every day I solve some sort of puzzle, I meet new scientific problems and in a certain sense it is pure fun”. Conducting academic research does contain an element of adventure because you don’t know what the result is going to be but also of sport and competition because there are sometimes situations where you’re beaten by one day. At the same time, we have to cope with enormous stress, the same level of stress that participants in the Dakar Rally experience when they drop out of the race. The profession also makes you a citizen of the world. Academic contacts are fascinating, as is the opportunity to discuss different things and to write joint academic works. It is wonderful to meet people with the same passions, and science discussions in front of a board are all the greatest experiences for scientists.
Is a theoretical physicist a bit like a writer, working under the influence of inspiration and concepts?
In the early stages of your career it is like hackwork, since it’s the promotors who set the work profile, but in the later stages, in the case of theoretical physics, it’s a ‘journey’ from idea to idea. Some ideas are so very exciting that you abandon your normal life for several months. I had such an idea in 2004, unfortunately it didn’t work out, but for four months I lived in another world, completely separated from all other events, and I tried to solve that problem. Even the very nature of the thinking, which is similar to chess, means that you have to dedicate yourself completely, and that you can’t think that you’ve left the soup boiling on the gas ring. The moment you start working, you land in such an abstract world that only that problem exists. Only sometimes you’re woken out of this world by the ringing of a mobile phone. There are also times of hackwork in getting grants. Applying for grants and writing reports on them really is torture for me. It’s also great when you have an idea, but sometimes the thought strikes you: “Oh no, I won’t see anyone else for two weeks and I will be totally consumed with this idea – what will the family think?” Thanks to the fact that we now live longer and are healthier, even professors can experience that type of exhilaration.
Do you have time for a hobby?
My main hobby is long-distance running and I run about 50km a week. I’ve taken part in nearly all the 10km runs and Park Runs in Gdynia and I recently ran the Gdańsk half-marathon. Altogether I have run in more than 40 marathons. I’ll be running the next one this year, either in Gdańsk on the 17th May or in Vienna on the 26th April. My other passion is music, I like listening to jazz. I have quite a collection of discs, I go to concerts and I love the Solidarity of Arts festival that takes place in August on Ołowianka island in Gdańsk. We plan our family holidays so as not to miss it – so far I’ve been to all of them and they were all a great experience. Lately I’ve become interested in humanity’s path to the present day, how apes evolved into humans. So I read a lot of books about anthropology, the theory of evolution and human development. I’m also interested in history, and Second World War history in particular, and because I wanted to be an economist, the global economy. I like the cinema and travelling, although it’s getting hard for my family to take me off somewhere because of all the professional trips.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski