An Interview with Dr. Chris Hooley

Transcript of highlights: Insight Podcast Episode 1

For our inaugural interview we sit down for a delightful conversation with Dr Chris Hooley, a man recognised for his style and presence around the physics building. We talk about some of his thoughts on physics, what physicists are like at parties, and how to ruin an almost perfect moment in St Andrews.

Sam: Could you tell us something about your original interest in physics?

Sure! It was very… odd. I was at school in England. I did quite a scientific set of A-levels, essentially because I was good at maths. I was always good at maths as far as I remember, even at primary school where you have to partition fish between groups of people, I was very happy with all this stuff. My father was an engineer and I think he was very happy I was good with mathematics, and that he could talk about it and teach it. He taught me calculus at a young age. As soon as he thought that I was ready for it, he would teach it, so I was often ahead of what was done at school. So anyway, I ended up doing Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Further Maths, and French (which is maybe not such a scientific subject). I was tooling up for science.

Then in Sixth Form, I became interested in Philosophy, which started as an interest in logic, but then became broader. Some friends and I formed a little reading group where we would read some philosophical works that seemed to be important. Looking back, we made some odd choices because we didn’t know what we were doing. Anyway, I realised I would actually like to do Philosophy, but with my A levels, they wouldn’t take me on a degree with Philosophy because they were all scientific. I thought ok, maybe if I do one of these joint degrees like Physics and Philosophy, I can get in on the physics and then exit as a philosopher. That was the plan when I went to university, I was not planning to be a physicist. And then halfway through the degree, I was less interested in the Philosophy that I’d expected, I felt I was hearing the same argument several times, thinly disguised as different arguments. Of course, we also started studying quantum mechanics, which I found completely fascinating.

I went to my tutor at the end of my second year and said: “I know this is a crazy thing, and I know that my degree doesn’t contain any statistical physics or condensed matter, but nonetheless, any chance of going into a PhD in physics after that?” And he could easily have said “No, no chance of doing that, you’ve made your bed, you’ll have to lie in it”, but he did quite the opposite. He gave me a huge amount of his time, his books and resources. He organised with his colleagues to give me one-to-one tutorials on the bits that I was missing, so I had a wonderful year in 1995 basically learning privately all the bits that I have missed by doing Philosophy. And then I was ready. In practice, I had to stay in Oxford, because on paper I wasn’t qualified. If I was going to go on into a DPhil, I was probably going into it in oxford because they knew me, but probably nowhere else. I applied to several other places and, sure enough, no dice. And then it was just a question of applying to Oxford and indicating interest in a supervisor. Here, I did what they say you should never do, and I chose the person. I was pretty agnostic between working in high energy or condensed matter. I’m not sure I really understood what the distinction was between them. I met my future supervisor at a party, we got really drunk, and so I asked him “Can I put you down”. He worked in condensed matter theory – and now so do I.

Sam: What are the concepts that you maybe struggled with as a student?

Classical Mechanics! That’s something I have no intuition for. If you show me a mechanical device with masses and pulleys and things and say, “I’m going to release this, which way is it going to move?” I’d have no clue. I have no good intuition for rotational motion. I have no good intuition for rotational inertia. Classical Mechanics has always been the subject where the only way I can do it is to set up the equations and just rigorously solve them. I just can’t see it, somehow. Which is odd, as people usually say that they have the intuition for classical mechanics, and they can’t see quantum mechanics. I can see quantum mechanics, obviously not from the beginning, it took some work, but I developed some sense for it. Classical Mechanics, I mean I know how it works, but I don’t feel it, somehow.

Sam: There are always these stereotypes about physicists being those guys you don’t want to invite to the party. You’ve worked with many of them, so now maybe it’s time for you to defend them, or maybe concede a few points…

I concede nothing. In some sense, obviously, once there is a stereotype, people play to it a bit. I suppose it is true that when you look at the people who got into the sciences at school, they were the ones that when you asked to choose between people and rocks, they chose rocks. That must say something. But it’s also true that if you go to the March meeting of the American physical society and you wander around the halls at 4pm and you say to people that you only faintly know “do you fancy going for a beer?” I’ve almost never heard anyone say no to that question.

Sam: Have you asked this question a lot?

That’s my entire approach to the March meeting of the American physical society! Of course, you start as a student thinking “Oh, I must go to all these talks”. But with thirty-three parallel sessions, by the time it’s over, you’ve missed 97% of it, so why feel too guilty about the remaining 3%. Go find someone to have a chat with them, you’re bound to find out more interesting things that way.

Phila: What’s a single piece of advice that you’d give to the students in the physics department to enjoy their university experience to the fullest?

Piece of advice…I don’t know how universally applicable this is, but I would say make good plans. The reason for that is because making good plans is a really good way to enjoy what you’re doing. Often people don’t enjoy what they’re doing, because they know they should be doing something else, or that they are behind with something else. There’s always something else praying on their mind. If you can plan well enough to stop these things, it’s amazing how much you can enjoy what you’re doing.

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