Scientific American, “Bad Boy of Physics: Profile,” (Summer 2013) is the source for what follows.

Meet the son of a Bronx plumber who wasn’t allowed to take physics in high school:

Leonard Susskind

Says Susskind, “We may never be able to grasp [physical] reality. The universe and its ingredients may be impossible to describe unambiguously.”


And why should we take his words seriously?

[For more use the DOOR.]




May never”?  In recent decades scientists have learned startling, but very complex, new things about small particles of matter–and how they behave on Earth and far from it. As Susskind explains in layman’s terms what he thinks exists, his modest “may” seems to morph into “probably” or “probably never.”  And he’s not alone in such thinking.

Young Susskind was not your average troublemaker. Here’s how his fascinating interview by Peter Byrne of S. A. begins:  “I was a bad high school student, [but] was very good in mathematics….in college, which was an engineering school, I took my first physics course. I was just so much better than anyone else, including the professor. And fortunately, it was not a source of contention between us that I could do things he couldn’t. But then I was actually told by one of the engineering professors that he didn’t think I was cut out to be an engineer, which was correct. I asked him, ‘What then should I do?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re exceptionally smart. You should become a scientist.'”

So Susskind became a physicist.

Brief stats: He’s a prof at Stanford. He’s been with and/or has studied about the recent bigwigs of theoretical physics (in one case, for example, siding with some of the ideas of Niels Bohr against some of those of Einstein), and, according to S. A., he’s known for pioneering string theory, black hole physics, the multiverse, and exploring the deep nature of physical reality. More details can be easily located.

Susskind’s research–and opinion–is respected among his peers. To say much more is to step into a quicksand of complexity that presently confounds and divides even other theoretical physicists struggling to understand, describe “what is,” and connect “ordinary” physics with the “extreme” physics of subatomic behavior. (And that’s a simple overstatement.)

Perhaps we should look back at Susskind’s opening declaration.

What do we take away from this?

[In my words]  The deeper we go into the physics of matter and energy, the less we seem to be able to connect the dots of how it all goes together with any confidence*. Or such is the case at present–and “may,” or very probably always will be**. The human mind just may have hit the wall as to understanding the big picture in a 4-dimensional world***.

And Leonard Susskind has rolled up his sleeves, and is honest enough, and secure enough, to say so.


* Contrast this attitude with the smug confidence of some current best-selling scientists, especially from biology and biochemistry, about what we “most certainly know.”

** An unfortunate common reaction of many religious people to such honest admissions of scientists, especially physicists like Susskind, is to smile and pity those who work hard to push ahead and attack “impossible” scientific investigations. Some, by the way, prove to be not so impossible after all, for example, the sequencing of the human genome project, incidentally, that was led by a Christian (Francis Collins). Finding evidence that suggests that the human mind has hit a wall beyond which it cannot go further, is not so glorious–though it’s important to admit.

*** That’s the 3 space dimensions plus time.


Author: John Knapp