Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and raised in China and Taiwan, Samuel Ting received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1976 and is now leading a multinational experiment with NASA to search for antimatter, the opposite of our known universe. Bill Moyers speaks with Dr. Ting about his childhood years in war-torn China, his current project, and his philosophy of science.
BILL MOYERS: If Samuel Ting is right, somewhere out there is the missing half of the universe – and he’s going to find it. His reputation as a Nobel laureate in physics is at risk – and a whole lot more.
From his base at the European organization for nuclear research in Geneva, Switzerland, Samuel Ting has persuaded sixteen countries and 300 physicists to build a seven-ton detector magnet. If all goes well, it will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy space center in the year 2006, and flown to the international space station orbiting the earth. Its mission: to search for something no one knows for sure even exists—what scientists call anti matter.
BILL MOYERS: I only passed science in college because I persuaded my lab instructor who was older to date me. And she had a benevolent attitude toward me and she tolerated my ignorance. So, to a layman what is antimatter? What is it you’re looking for?
SAM TING: Anti matter is the same as matter except everything just opposite. If a matter have positive charge antimatter have negative charge. So, all the properties are just the opposite. The question is: if the universe came from the big bang there must be equal amount of matter and anti matter at the beginning. That’s the simplest assumption. And so where is the universe made out of antimatter.
BILL MOYERS: So, you’re looking for what we don’t know.
SAM TING: That’s right. If you’re looking for what you know it’s useless-it’s not interesting.
BILL MOYERS: But you believe you know something? I mean you believe-
SAM TING: No.
BILL MOYERS: That there is something there.
SAM TING: No.
BILL MOYERS: Or is it just a guess.
SAM TING: You ask the question. You cannot—it’s—it’s very—it’s very dangerous for a—for an experimentalist to have a preconceived idea. My view has no meaning. You could believe it or you could not believe it. We do not know. You have to do experiment. If you don’t do experiment you will never know. I think the most important thing for a scientist is to find the right question to ask.
BILL MOYERS: So, how do you propose to find it?
SAM TING: We- since anti matter and matter annihilated each other- when they meet they always annihilate each other so you cannot measure them on the ground And so you have to go to— go to space.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, there’s no book you can read is there to help you with this?
SAM TING: No, but you can think. I talk to people, I have many collaborators. Listen to everybody’s opinion. And then- then make a decision what to do. And- you also cannot make a decision based on vote, in physics the majority’s opinion is really not always important.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
SAM TING: Because it’s always- the advancement of physics is always when you destroy majority’s opinion you make— advancement.
BILL MOYERS: What you’re doing involves thousands of people, hundreds of scientists, technicians- lots of money, many nations. How do you persuade that many people to trust you?
SAM TING: The- the only thing you can say is people look at your track record, what you have done before.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever made a mistake?
SAM TING: Not yet. But this—this does not mean may not happen in future.
BILL MOYERS: If you find out what you want to know what difference will it make?
SAM TING: Well, many people ask me that. Let me give you a small example. About a hundred years ago at that time the frontier of research is the discovery of X-ray.
BILL MOYERS: Of?
SAM TING: X-ray and the discovery of electron. At that time it was a pure curiosity. And then in the 30s began to use- an industry in medicine. And the 40s and 50s the most- the front — the most advanced branch of science, the frontier is nuclear physics. Now, it’s used in energy, in defense, in medicine. And so from discovery to application there’s a time lack. Typically 30 years or 40 years. But once it is used it really affects everyone’s life.
BILL MOYERS: I have a struggle to try to imagine anything positive out of knowing what happened billions of years ago.
SAM TING: Our concept… what made our universe it really changes with time. In the 60s we believe the nucleus is the most- the smallest element. Then in the 70s- in the 70s we believe it’s not this nucleus, not those particles but something called quarks are the smallest elements. You know, 100 years from now may— when we look back maybe what I said to you today may be totally meaningless. But—but, you know, if you don’t do it you will never know.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying we still do not know what these blocks of nature— what reality is?
SAM TING: It’s kind of dangerous to say you know. If you look in The New York Times- if you scan through in the last 100 years very often a brilliant scientist will say, “Oh, we discovered this and now we’ve understood everything.” Only turn out to be wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that you were destined from childhood to be a scientist?
SAM TING: I— was born in Michigan. My parents were rather patriotic types. The war between China and Japan started so they took me back. I was only four months old so I had nothing to say.
They believed their destiny was in China. And so they took me back. And—I grew up in China during the wartime. So I really didn’t go to school. But- at home, my father and my mother, they were both university professors, always talked to me about—Michael Farraday … the one who- who you invented electricity. James Clark Maxwell, Isaac Newton. And talk about scientists. So ever since, since I was young, I’ve heard about this name so I began to— to be curious.
BILL MOYERS: What was it about them that turned you on?
SAM TING: Just— the things they are doing. To explore the unknown.
BILL MOYERS: How old were you when you came back?
SAM TING: Twenty. I was twenty. The school had given me a scholarship.
BILL MOYERS: I see.
SAM TING: And—so I—because of that—I was always very grateful to the University of Michigan. So I went to school- from— entering as an undergraduate to get my PHD. It took me about six years, which is considered quite fast. Most of the people take about ten or so. And during those six years—I was very, very happy.
And during Saturday, there is something called football. And so I went to football. I still remember my first football was with UCLA. And after a few minutes, I understood it, I figured it out. (LAUGHTER) And-
BILL MOYERS: What did you figure out?
SAM TING: Figure out what’s a touchdown, what’s—okay—there was somehow—somehow I figured this out. And since then, I developed a complete loyalty to the University of Michigan’s football. And so- in my six years at Michigan, I’m ashamed to say I did not go to all the classes. But I never missed a football game.
And so even now, I still go back once a year.
BILL MOYERS: You won the Nobel Prize for discovering something called the J-particle.
SAM TING: Uh-huh (AFFIRMATIVE).
BILL MOYERS: Can you tell me-a layman what that is?
SAM TING: Okay. Before the J-particle, there were about hundreds of particles. All these hundreds of particles has-common properties. Like, I how long they live before they decays. It’s just like- people on Earth lives about 100 years. Most the people live -J-particle has a very unique property. Its alive time is about 10,000 times longer. Imagine you suddenly– in Tibet, you suddenly found- found a family, people- instead of living 100 years, live 10,000 years. And then, you— there must be something interesting.
BILL MOYERS: How did you imagine the existence of a J-particle when most scientists, or all scientists thought that we had identified all the particles?
SAM TING: That’s exactly it, I do not think we have identified all the particles.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you give your acceptance speech in Chinese?
SAM TING: The reason is, acceptance speech has been given in every language except in Chinese.
The United States ambassador to Sweden actually was not very pleased. That time, the relation with China was—was not perfect. So, actually come to talk to me and said, “Well, you are American. Why do you give the speech in Chinese?” I said, “You know, I can speak whatever language I want.” At that time, China is a closed society. I want— I had very much wanted to invite my aunt, who lived in China to come. And the Chi—Chinese government said no. And so, I said, “Well, if you say no, I’m going to tell your students how I feel about the- how the Chinese education is.” I want to mention to the Chinese student: in science. It’s not only theoretical physics, theory is important. To be able to do experiments, it’s also very, very important.
BILL MOYERS: Is this because Chinese are more interested in theories and stop there, than in practical application?
SAM TING: There was a sentence in the Confucius teaching, said, “People who use their mind control people using their hand.” In my little speech, I meant— I look, you know, people use their mind. Of course, it’s very important. They’re doing theoretical work. But to be able to use your hand together with your mind to major experimental phenomena is equally important. The advancement of science is the interplay between theory and experiment.
My main theme- Confucius philosophy- it’s good. In two…2,600 years ago. May or may not apply it— in its entirety today.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think science ultimately triumphs over philosophy?
SAM TING: This I do not know. The- ten years from now, when much older, I probably can answer this.
BILL MOYERS: Dr. Ting, thank you very much. I have really enjoyed this, and I’ve learned a lot from you.
SAM TING: Thank you.
This transcript was entered on April 1, 2015.