Paul Davies, 72, has made important contributions in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology. He has garnered many awards and accolades, and has an asteroid named in his honour.
What was your childhood or earliest ambition?
I was born a physicist. I grew up in austerity-ridden north London in the 1950s. Being interested in science became a huge adventure. The world I could imagine, just beyond our senses, was a wonderland of exploration.
Private school or state school? University or straight into work?
Woodhouse Grammar School in Finchley. The quality of teaching was exemplary. Then University College London.
Who was or still is your mentor?
Astronomer Fred Hoyle: slightly crazy, slightly brilliant. He gave me my first job when I completed my PhD. I liked the way he was ready to push the boundaries. Freeman Dyson’s irreverent, iconoclastic way of looking at the world appealed to me. John Wheeler, the father of modern quantum gravity, again had a particular, quirky way of working.
How physically fit are you?
The older I get the fitter I am, because I am convinced that exercise staves off old age. I run regularly and also do high-intensity interval training. You exercise in bursts and then collapse in a heap.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Probably ambition. I prefer the word dedication, or even obsession. You can’t be a great scientist without being slightly obsessed — you have to elbow a lot of things aside and put in a lot of hours and thought.
How politically committed are you?
A colleague once described me as infuriatingly moderate.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
A private plane. I’d need a pilot as well, of course.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I’ve just acquired a Tesla Model 3. I’ve never been a car person — I’ve always had old, scruffy-looking cars — but it has the most astonishing features.
In what place are you happiest?
In Sydney. We have a lovely house there, right on the harbourside. Australia is Britain with sunshine — I feel completely at home. My job is in Arizona, which is not a bad place to be, but the US is a strange society. I find it very strange that a country enshrines the right to carry guns.
What ambitions do you still have?
To go to Antarctica. And it’s always been my hope that I would be closely involved with the first detection of extraterrestrial life. I’m also involved with extraterrestrial intelligence — more of a long shot.
What drives you on?
My wife. She is a strong motivator. It would be very hard to turn away from the intellectual excitement of science. The progress in the past 50 years in the fields that interest me has been spectacular.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
The Bunch-Davies vacuum turned out to be immensely influential.
What do you find most irritating in other people?
When they don’t get to the point quickly.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
There was an awful sense of insecurity at that age. If only I could communicate with my younger self and say, ‘Don’t worry, it will all come good’.
Which object that you’ve lost do you wish you still had?
Nothing of great significance. I’m always losing books.
What is the greatest challenge of our time?
Artificial intelligence — it’s both an opportunity and a threat. The handover to machines and computers is happening very fast. I worry where it’s going to end up. And I’m concerned about the future of democracy, which has been an extraordinary experiment but it’s not clear it’s working very well.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
Not in any usual sense. My existence in the first place is a mystery. What non-existence would mean is doubly hard.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
Nine. I’m not totally satisfied because I haven’t discovered ET — yet. But I’ve had a fantastic time. It can be extraordinarily satisfying grappling with the secrets of nature — as I always tell young people.
‘The Demon in the Machine’ by Paul Davies is published by Allen Lane, £20