William Bialek (ΦΒΚ, University of California, Berkeley) is the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics at Princeton University and a former ΦΒΚ Visiting Scholar. An award-winning theoretical physicist interested in the phenomena of life, Bialek is known for his work emphasizing the approach of biological systems to the fundamental physical limits on their performance. His research has contributed to our understanding of coding and computation in the brain.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Like many little kids, I wanted to be an astronaut. My childhood coincided with the heyday of space exploration, and I had some idea about being the first Jew in space. In those days before Google and Wikipedia, I didn’t know that Boris Volynov had beaten me to it. Somewhere in my teens I started to focus more seriously on physics. A remarkable profile piece in The New Yorker
, written by Jeremy Bernstein, painted a very appealing portrait of physics as a lifestyle, and I was hooked.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
My physics courses were taught very well, and were exciting, but I don’t think they were transformative since they helped me along a path that was already set. The time I spent in philosophy courses opened my mind considerably. I took courses on Kierkegaard, and on existentialist literature and film with Hubert Dreyfus, and on philosophy of science with Paul Feyerabend. For many scientists Feyerabend was just too much, but I found him engaging and challenging. He emphasized that science is a complex human process, not a monolithic activity progressing according to a well defined method. He also transmitted a passion for argument itself, and saved his most ferocious criticism for those who were flippant on topics that deserved serious attention, or who substituted appealing catch phrases for reasoned arguments.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
I had the impression that our children were born curious, and that they developed a sense for the completeness of stories long before being taught any formal notions of rigor in arguments. I suspect that all children are like this. A good education encourages this curiosity, and provides tools with which to search for deeper understanding. I can’t imagine these things becoming less important.
What is your favorite part about your job?
The job of “professor” means different things in different places. I am enormously fortunate to have the luxury of thinking about the things that I find most interesting, and in exchange I am expected to transmit this style of thinking to the next generation. What’s not to like?
You previously participated in the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program. What was your most rewarding moment as a Visiting Scholar, or what did you take away from the experience?
I was deeply impressed by colleagues who maintain their passion for their subject, and for teaching, even when they are not as well supported by their institutions as they should be. With the students, there were many deeply memorable interactions. I think most often of a young Native American woman, interested in public health issues surrounding addiction. She explained that educating herself to best address these issues will involve going far from home, but worries that when she comes back she will be an outsider. I was struck by the clarity with which she expressed a problem that confronts all of us: how do we pursue excellence, and become part of select groups who can do unique things to help the world, without separating ourselves from a larger sense of community?
What is your favorite cultural excursion or experience in your town?
We have the great pleasure of going to small theaters, experiencing really extraordinary performances in intimate spaces. One theater company, Ensemble Studio Theater, supports the development of plays about science and technology, and there is a period during the year where one can see readings of many works in progress. These performances give the audience a look into the creative process, which I find very special.
What book are you reading right now?
I read in the evenings to relax. Mystery novels are a guilty pleasure, but good ones capture a sense of place and culture. Recently I have been enjoying a series of such novels set in the Dordogne, which mix the joys of the local food and wine with serious aspects of recent French history, from Vichy to the Algerian war.
What insights can you share about working at the interface between the disciplines of physics and biology?
It’s important to remember that working across disciplines is not a new idea. Many revered figures of 19th century science routinely crossed the borders among fields that we now distinguish as physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology. Despite these moments of interaction, however, the different disciplines did take different historical paths, and as with other groups of humans this leads to us having different cultures. We ask different kinds of questions, and we look for different kinds of answers. Sometimes people talk about disciplinary boundaries as barriers to progress, and want to erase the boundaries, perhaps creating some scientific version of Esperanto. But I don’t think we want to homogenize culture, either on the largest human scale or on the smaller scale of science. In the long run the diversity of cultures enriches us, and probably enhances whatever we understand to be progress; in the short run we need to respect one another. You should also beware that when people talk about erasing boundaries between disciplines they might really be interested in putting one discipline in service of another, exercising political power, and of course this is a lesson that extends beyond the sciences.