Interview: Liberal Arts, Theoretical Physics, and the Purposeful Life

Kleban photo

By Will Zimmerman

If you are a follower of The Galileo Interviews or Know Time on YouTube, or if you are a loyal reader of journals like Scientific American, you are likely also a fan of ΦBK member and theoretical physicist Matthew Kleban. Phi Beta Kappa had its own opportunity to talk with Kleban recently and ask a few questions of this celebrity of the celestial sciences.

Kleban is Chair of the Physics Department at New York University. His research interests include string theory, theoretical cosmology, and particle physics. After receiving Phi Beta Kappa Honors at Reed College, where he earned his undergraduate degree, Kleban completed his M.A. at University of California Berkeley and his Ph.D. at Stanford University.

Among Kleban’s contributions to physics are the discovery of the first distinct signature of the black hole singularity in AdS/CFT, a determination of the effects of cosmic bubble collisions on the microwave background radiation and other cosmological observables, and work on the fundamental origin of cosmic inflation.

How did you come to the decision to study physics at Reed College?

Kleban: I started off thinking that I wanted to major in English. I took Intro to Physics for a distribution requirement—I didn’t enjoy it that much, but I found it easy. The physics courses I took afterwards, I enjoyed a bit more. 

I thought, “If I major in English, I’m never going to be a physicist, but if I major in physics I could still be a writer.” That’s what I was thinking of doing.

At the time of graduation, it sounds like you didn’t have a crystal-clear sense of how your degree was going to parlay into a career.

Kleban: Studying the liberal arts was like a preparation . . . preparation in the sense that you have the freedom to figure it out along the way.  I took English courses and history courses. I got interested in psychology . . .

It wasn’t a totally linear path for me, and I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do—if I wanted to go into academia. I decided to take a year off after Reed; I traveled around Southeast Asia for six months.

Did those travels inform the way you thought about your future?

Kleban: The decision to go into academia was really solidified for me on the trip. I realized that I wanted to do something that was intellectually challenging. I wanted to do something that meant something, at least to me.

There was this French stockbroker that I met there . . . under the French system—at least back then, maybe it has changed—you could get unemployment benefits as long as you were looking for a job. This guy had his mom filing the paperwork while he was on this beach in Malaysia playing volleyball and eating fish. He had, at least what he considered to be, a pretty sweet setup there.

That life didn’t interest you?

Kleban: I don’t have any judgement, but I didn’t find that appealing at all. I never have. I want to go. I want to do something that I think is valuable, something that no one’s done before.

When you look at your life and think about why you are here . . . to me, to learn something new or something that helps people, to create something beautiful or something interesting or complicated—that means a lot to me.

I want to do something that I think will last after I’m gone. Something that will have some kind of impact. And that trip solidified that notion for me.

How do these ideas about purpose connect to your professional work as a physicist and cosmologist?

Kleban: Most of my research is theoretical, and a lot of it focuses on questions about the origin of the universe, the fate of the universe, the very large-scale structure of the universe. Questions like these . . . it’s hard to think about them without also wondering about the bigger meaning of things, how the scientific findings are going to affect our view of the world.

And purpose is, of course, not exactly a scientific question. But I think it is tied up in the question of how we came to be and whether life could ever exist again.

Did you take any philosophy courses during your time at Reed College?

Kleban: No, I did not . . . but I co-taught a course many years later, History of Cosmology, with a philosopher of science. It was a discussion-based course, and both of us instructors were in the room the whole time. Teaching, of course, is one of the best ways to learn.

In that course, we read a number of books by philosophers, and then we read some history of science to understand how people’s views of cosmology have changed over the millennia. Taken together, we got into some of these questions about models versus reality and the meaning of life.

And this course was designed for students studying science?

Kleban: The students had a wide variety of backgrounds. Mostly, they weren’t science majors.

You’ve made a career studying intricate scientific phenomena that are hard to comprehend, especially for those of us without a background. What’s the value of talking and instructing about these theories and principles with non-scientists?

Kleban: I enjoy trying to explain scientific ideas in a way that’s comprehensible to the general public. At some point I would like to write a popular book on physics—my education laid a foundation for that.

But apart from the utility of explaining science to the public, my liberal arts education gave me a whole set of tools that I might otherwise not have. It makes life more interesting to know a wide variety of things—it enriches your view of the world, enriches you as a human being.

Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in journalism, film, and creative writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter of Phi Beta Kappa several weeks before his graduation.