Associate Professor, Faculty of Science
• BSc Monash University
• PhD Theoretical Physics, Monash University
Michael Morgan has been the head of the Physics Department at Monash for the past seven years, and one of his current areas of research involves investigating quantum vortices, which are topological defects that arise in a beam of electrons which are passed through an abberated lens. Techniques such as the ones are currently being developed will one day enable image resolution down to the picameter (1/1000th of a nanometer, which is about 1/6000th of the width of a human hair). This will enable devices to be engineered on incredibly small scales. I spoke to Michael about his work, and life as a physicist.
Do physicists spend a lot of time philosophising?
No, they generally don’t. Of course after a few drinks they do, but generally most physicists are very pragmatic and they won’t spend their life worrying about the interpretation of quantum mechanics. As Richard Feynman, a very famous theoretical physicist, said: “it’s safe to say that no-one really understands quantum mechanics”. So worry all you like but it won’t do much. Quantum mechanics is bizarre, as you’re probably aware, but physicists don’t often spend a lot of time worrying; there are a small handful of physicists who spend their time worrying about that but they’re in a minority… so no. Every physicist probably has thought about it at some stage, but we don’t lay awake at night worried about it. But we sometimes lay awake at night worrying about pragmatic things.”
How do you find the money and time to do research?
I think good scientists will always find a way. And there are some people that say ‘oh I can’t do research because I haven’t got this or I haven’t got this time to do it’, but some of the most productive physicists in my department are the people with some of the heaviest teach loads; equally, some are very productive on low teaching loads. I find that if you fundamentally want to address questions that you are interested in you make the time to do it.
So would you choose to be a physicist again?
Yep – I mean for all the faults and for all the difficulties that universities have, there’s very few jobs where you actually get to do what you would do if you weren’t even paid. So I sometimes annoy my wife when we go on holidays by reading and calculating and it took a long time for her to realise that I wasn’t doing work, that this was actually enjoyable to me. It’s like saying to a musician ‘if you went away on holiday you’d never bring your instrument with you’, or to a painter ‘you can’t paint when you go on holiday’.
Some of you past work was on Cosmic Strings, but recently your focus has changed. What inspired the transition?
This tells you another thing which makes science important. You have to understand the amount of time that my PhD student and I invested in this, and then found that nature didn’t give a damn – we were wrong. Or at least if they do play a role [in the evolution of the universe] they don’t play a role at anything like the level we anticipated. So serendipity, creativity [are important], but what makes science science, what makes it valuable, is that you have to have it testable, and it doesn’t matter how pretty your theory is, nature is the final arbiter – If it’s wrong it’s wrong. And that’s when you’ve got to be willing to go okay, we’ve gotta move on. And sometimes that can be very hard, sometimes you want to hold on. And you know, sometimes if you‘re lucky or bright (and we weren’t either lucky or bright enough) then that wrong idea can morph into something that gives you a deeper insight and that can lead to amazing discoveries. But in our case it didn’t.
One of the main goal of theoretical physics is the search for a Theory of Everything. Do you think that a singular theory will ever be derived?
Well, you know, this gets into a philosophical debate. Personally I’m not fussed if there’s no theory of everything. After all, if there’s a theory of everything there’ll be physicists out of a job, won’t there? The search for a Theory of Everything on one level is misguided, and on one level it’s a misnomer; it’s not a theory of everything it’s a theory of the fundamental forces: gravity, electricity & magnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. Okay, they’re the forces that govern the universe. Govern atoms, govern molecules, govern nuclear decay, govern binding of the galaxies and so forth. So in a sense, knowing the origin and the unification of those forces does explain a lot … but it’s still hard to jump from that to, say, a complex biological system. So emergent phenomena and complexity – yes on a fundamental level it’s built into the equations – but there are aspects of this that emerge that are not anticipated by just looking at the fundamental equations. So the search for a fundamental unification is really a search at one level to unify just the forces. But that doesn’t mean to say that as soon as you’ve done that, all of science is laid bare. It’s not.