A Perfect World II: Richardson

A Perfect World II

Robert Richardson

Robert C. Richardson is Floyd R. Newman Professor of Physics, director of the Laboratory of Atomic and Solid STate Physics, and vice provost for Research at Cornell University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics (along with David Lee and Douglas Osheroff) in 1996, for research on liquid 3He, which they discovered undergoes a pairing transition similar to that of superconductors.

I’m basically a happy person who gets along pretty well as long as I have a warm place and food I like to eat. I guess in my perfect world I’d like to know what I know now but have the heart and lungs and body weight, and teeth, of a twenty-year old.

"I’m a very poor freehand graphic artist, and I’m also color-blind, so those are a lot more colors that I wanted to consider.When I’m painting here is the planet Earth, and I’m going to show an ocean and an atmosphere. The important thing is that the atmosphere is livable, the oceans are clean, and life on Earth is thriving. That’s the first thing that occurred to me–the image of the Earth from space." -Robert C. Richardson, Nobel Laureate (1996)
Credit: Richardson, © Trione, Andrews McMeel Publishing

I like a certain amount of intellectual stimulation and also some free and unfettered time to floow my pursuits. A university setting is paradise for me; I’ve been here at Cornell for thirty-two years, and I’m very committed to universities. I think, in the right circumstances, university education and research can be the most effective investments for the future survivability of the world. That’s where new knowledge is generated.

I researched the work that led to the Nobel Prize a long time ago, but I remember that as an extremely rewarding thing. We knew we had discovered something that had really fascinating and unusual properties, and the whole business of tracking it down was very exciting. I’ve felt that way only a couple of other times in research.

My first priority for the world is population stabilization without any major disruptions like war and disease, which would be awful ways to get to population stabilization. I want some broader understanding of what a sustainable environment is, so that we can have a reasonable hope that life can continue indefinitely. I also want the majority of the world to have a better standard of living. And of course, all those things are contingent on world peace, and a society that can survive, propagate and continue on indefinitely.

My personal belief is not in a god that’s humanlike. But I do recognize that there was a beginning to the universe, and that somthing ignited it. I know I can’t answer those questions. But it’s fun seeing what we can answer. I’m increasingly aware that some of the most interesting things in astronomy and astrophysics, for instance, can change the way people understand the universe, how it got started and where it’s going. I found those Voyager pictures of the moons of Jupiter incredibly exciting, these beautiful color pictures showing volcanoes on the surface. The things we learn from measurements of objects halfway across the universe can affect people’s religion in fundamental ways.

The big bang is something that when I was in college people would not have dreamed of. "Only religious nuts believe in that," we would have said. But there’s strong evidence that everything we know started off at one point, and one time. We discovered that through deep skepticism, careful experiments, and measuring things. It wasn’t through religious conviction in advance. So what could be more profound?

We’re also at a time right now when people primarily in the physical sciences and engineering are developing new instrumentation for looking at the most microscopic kinds of life. And there’s a recognition that there has been at least four billion years of evolution, during which nature optimized how everything worked, not only in human beings but in grasshoppers, and birds, and fish, and plants. Now we can take those things apart and do reverse engineering on what nature spent four billion years putting together. There are remarkable things that will come out of that that will certainly affect human beings in very deep ways.

Then, there’s the possibility of major changes as a consequence of information technologies. It’s possible to build hundreds of thousands of little detectors that sense everything that’s going on. So you could have a society in which there’s a benign way to make everything work together a whole lot better. It’s called intelligent infrastructure. That could be very, very different, and it could be very bad. Imagine, say, a central authority that has thousands and thousands of tiny, inexpensive cameras everywhere, that see where everyone’s going. It’s Orwell’s worst nightmare. So it could work both ways.

My family has been very important to me, my daughters growing up. I had two daughters, but one died four years ago at the age of twenty-eight, of cardiac arrest. It was a sudden, shocking thing. I think nothing can affect a human being more than the death of a child, and that’s probably built in genetically. I mean, I was deeply saddened by the death of my parents, but it seemed like a natural thing. When it happens the other way around, the grief is much deeper, and you feel a level of despair that you just couldn’t predict.

Author Profile: Debra Trione began work on A Perfect World in 1997 after serving on the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. During the 1980s she worked at Harvard University Press and as an editor at Harvard Medical School.

Related Web Pages

A Perfect World I: Tyson
A Perfect World II: Richardson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
A Perfect World IV: Venter
A Perfect World V: Hendricks
A Perfect World VI: Fuller
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