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Interview with Spiros Michalakis

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


📷 IQIM

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei



Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection. We are here today with Dr. Spiros Michalakis who is a mathematical physicist at Caltech and also a science adviser to Hollywood, famously known for introducing the quantum realm to the Marvel Universe. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Michalakis.


Dr. Michalakis: Thank you for having me.


Interviewer: To start, we do have a quick round of rapid-fire questions so that our listeners can learn some interesting facts about you.


Dr. Michalakis: Sounds good.


Interviewer: So, first question: Which Marvel character would you choose to be?


Dr. Michalakis: Obviously, I have an affinity towards Ant-Man given my relationship with the character and my one-sided friendship with Paul Rudd and working with the team on the first and the second movies.


Interviewer: And let’s say you’ve created the world’s first time-machine. What time period would you travel to?


Dr. Michalakis: I guess I’m going to give a boring answer that I would actually just travel one second into the future. That’s it. I really like where we are currently despite all the struggles.


Interviewer: And let’s also say that you’ve just won the lottery. What would you do with the money?


Dr. Michalakis: I would create scholarships for kids in Los Angeles and for undergraduate and graduate students in universities across California and hopefully the nation.


Interviewer: That’s very kind of you to do, and I know a lot of students would truly appreciate that as well. And if you could own any object in the universe, what would you choose?


Dr. Michalakis: I love Feta cheese. I’m Greek so I really love Feta cheese. So, I think, it would be a goat. If I had the space to have a goat, I could have an infinite supply of Feta cheese. That would be enough for me.


Interviewer: A unique and a great answer! And for our last question: If you could meet any scientist dead or alive, who would you choose?


Dr. Michalakis: That’s an easy one. I’ve been privileged to already meet some of my heroes of science. I work with some of them, like John Preskill at Caltech. So, I think I am set. The nice thing about science is that we get to hear from the ghosts of Einstein and Hawking through their papers, so that’s really wonderful.


Interviewer: For sure. And now, before we discuss all the amazing things that you do today, I was wondering if you could give a summary of your educational path and what your interests were during your studies.


Dr. Michalakis: Yes, certainly. So, I grew up in the middle of three brothers in a small town outside of Athens, Greece named Sparta. I loved math since I was a little kid because my grandmother would just give me these math puzzles I had to solve in my head. And then at some point, I really wanted to understand how she was doing some magic with guessing numbers that I had in my head. So, I tried to explore mathematics as a part of the Math Olympiad of the Green National Team. Then, I moved to MIT, which my dad kept calling ‘mit’ because he does not speak English. So, that was fun. I was there with my brothers. We ended up just moving like nomads from one place to another altogether. And I really had a great time. I studied mathematics with computer science. It was a lot of fun. Then, I moved to UC Davis to actually continue with a PhD in mathematics, applied mathematics, but more towards bioinformatics, or the science behind using biology and information theory. But when I was there, I could not find for the life of me the man that was supposed to be my adviser. And so, I ended up just going to the head of the math department who just became my new adviser after he told me that he was going to teach me all about quantum teleportation. And that was back in 2003 when quantum computing was not really a big deal yet. But that did it for me and then I ended up studying physics, which I had not in the past, and quantum physics specifically. Then, I went to the Los Alamos National Lab for my postdoc and after that I moved to Caltech. And I’ve been at Caltech for about 10 years now.


Interviewer: Wow. Now, moving on to what you do today, could you tell our listeners about your careers and the cool projects you have been a part of.


Dr. Michalakis: So, as far as my research is concerned, what I’ve been looking into is very esoteric. I delve into the foundations of physics, quantum physics in particular. So, this is what I have been working on as far as my research direction goes. As for the outreach direction, there are so many different projects. One of them is working with a good friend of mine, Chris Cantwell, on a game. The first real quantum game that is also fun to play, which is called Quantum Chess. I ended up making a video with Paul Rudd and Stephen Hawking, narrated by Keanu Reeves, to try to introduce this game, Quantum Chess, to the world back in 2016. So, that was a lot of fun. It went viral. We recently collaborated with Google and the team that’s actually building their quantum computer and we played the game of Quantum Chess on the quantum computers. So, that was a lot of fun. But beyond that, I keep busy with consulting for other Hollywood movies, some of them will be coming out soon, like Bill and Ted Face the Music, and other ones that are further ahead into the future.


Interviewer: And I know that you’ve been involved with a lot of movies, especially from the Marvel Universe, so could you possibly mention some of the movies you’ve been involved in and what your influence was?


Dr. Michalakis: So, my first interaction with the Marvel Cinematic Universe outside of like going to watch the movies like everyone else was when I was flown out to Georgia to Pinewood Studios to consult on Ant-Man. I honestly did not know at the time who Ant-man was, and I was wondering why I was unlucky enough to be stuck with Ant-Man instead of Ironman or Thor or Hulk or, you know, one of the bigger dudes. But I ended up spending hours with everyone involved in making the movie, especially with Paul Rudd who was asking me so many great questions nonstop about quantum physics and what happens when you shrink and all that stuff. And then that led, as you mentioned earlier, to introducing the quantum realm through Ant-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and then, later on, consulting on the sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp. And I ended up writing some of the lines for characters of Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, and Lawrence Fishburne when they talk about quantum stuff. So, that was a lot of fun, and I was surprised that Marvel would allow me anywhere near the script or the minds of the writers and the producers. But they did, and they’ve been amazing in that respect. And since then, I had the pleasure of meeting Brie Larson, having dinner with her, and discussing the fact that I had worked on the first draft of Captain Marvel itself. And if I had my way, and maybe this will still happen, she would have been a quantum physicist or quantum cryptographer who was working at the air force. This also goes back to your question before. Honestly, if I could be anyone, my favourite character is Captain Marvel. Very empowering. Very awesome. And also, Brie herself is a really wonderful human being.


Interviewer: And just in general, how much of the science in these movies would you say is accurate?


Dr. Michalakis: That’s a good question. I mean it’s as accurate at the first level as they would let us make it and at the second level, and more important to me and more honest at least as far as I’m concerned whenever I’ve consulted, as accurate as I want it to be. I would much rather engage the next generation emotionally than intellectually because I believe that if you can achieve the first, the second one follows without you having to hold anyone’s hand.


Interviewer: Definitely. And all your projects and all these incorporations of science into different aspects of life has made science more entertaining. It’s shown the entertaining side of science, and I feel like in that way, you have made science more inclusive to the general public as well. So that does bring me to ask you: Why do you think it is important for the general public to engage with science?


Dr. Michalakis: I think my answer is going to be unique in this respect. I don’t see science as the panacea, as the place everyone has to go to see the world in its true hues. To me, it’s important to realize as scientists that the place from where science begins is a very tenuous place. It’s not the collection of facts. It is a fun journey that allows you to expand your mind. Even as a scientist, you’re just like every other human being who thinks that the world should be this way until you have the integrity to allow for the possibility that it’s not that way. And even though it hurts at the moment when you find out you were wrong, the pleasure of finding things out is so much more rewarding that you learn to let go of any control you thought you had over how the universe is supposed to work.


Interviewer: That’s a really great answer that I had personally never really thought of, and just because we are a bit short on time, I do have one final question for you: What advice would you give to undergraduate students listening to the show right now?


Dr. Michalakis: I would say, you should have fun. There is a lot of pressure to be great, to do great things, to compete, and all these things. And there is value to that as well, to go through trials in life, to grow, to become strong, so you can support others also and become something larger than just yourself. But if you just try to have as much fun as possible, including like making friendships and understanding other points of view, while you’re going through your studies, especially during this time when you may not be able to be physically close. In my mind, relationships and friendships are much more important than even the pursuit of truth.


Interviewer: And that does bring us to the end of this interview. Dr. Michalakis, thank you once again for joining us today and for highlighting the entertaining side of science. And for everyone listening, make sure to check out SciSection’s podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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