Profile with Laura Ruetsche

Laura Ruetsche (Minnesota & New College 1987) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the foundations of quantum theories. Laura was also a Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Middlebury College. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, a BPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford and a BA in Physics and Philosophy from Carleton College.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Laura Ruetsche: The most recent book that I read for pleasure was Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He’s a psychological researcher who studies the cognitive architecture that we have. It usually stands in good stead because it’s efficient, but can lead us astray in a way that causes us to be over-confident in our mistakes.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?

Laura Ruetsche: When I was eight, my family was visiting my cousins in Wisconsin and my dog ran away. We thought we had lost her! We drove home crying the whole way.  But we left an ad in the local paper, and a  week later, a farmer called to say that he had found her. I would say being reunited with my lost dog is my favorite childhood memory.

Rhodes Project: What motivated you to pursue a career in the philosophy of physics?

Laura Ruetsche: A series of accidents, perhaps. I really liked being a student. I was excited to get to college since there were so many amazing courses. Physics and Philosophy are two of the courses that I liked best. What motivated me to go into Philosophy of Physics instead of straight physics was the experience of having a summer internship at Bell Labs and living the life of a physicist. Those guys work too hard! They were maniacal and I felt as though the lines of enquiry that they were pursuing stopped before encountering the questions that I was most interested in. A combination of laziness and disciplinary focus made me think that Philosophy was more the thing to do.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy about your current job?

Laura Ruetsche: Right now I am Chair of my department, which is tons of work. So much work that I’m not doing that much research, which is an aspect that I don’t enjoy.  But it’s a really interesting challenge to have to manage institutional resources and navigate institutional policies. Part of why it’s interesting is the extent to which simply reading the accounts of the policies and descriptions of the resources isn’t a sufficient guide. You have to understand who people are and how they interact. It’s been a mind expanding excursion - even a sort of practical anthropology to do the job. I resent how much time it takes, but sometimes I can get things done that seem like they’re worth doing.

Rhodes Project: Can you give an example of something that you’ve managed to get done as Chair that you believe was worth doing?

Laura Ruetsche: Philosophy is not a diverse field.  It's overwhelmingly male and relentlessly white.  As Chair, I've tried to send signals that a supportive and inclusive climate for everyone is a good thing for everyone.  One way I've tried to reinforce those signals has been by working to get my women colleagues the recognitions (promotions, awards, named professorships, raises) they deserve.  (I've done the same for male colleagues as well, of course!) My faculty is 96% white, which seems ridiculous for the flagship university of the state of Michigan, situated 40 miles from Detroit, a place whose history dramatizes issues of race and inequality.  I made a sustained effort to have a prominent African American philosopher visit for a semester last year.  He was such a hit with students and colleagues across the university that we're now trying to hire him permanently.

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you in life?

Laura Ruetsche: Not having enough time for all of the things that I would like to do, like my research.

Rhodes Project: What does your research focus on?

Laura Ruetsche: For most of the 20th century, two broad issues dominated discussions of the foundations of quantum mechanics.  One was how to understand what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," suggested by quantum states that impose correlations between systems too distant from one another to communicate directly at sub-light speeds.  The anxiety here is that Special Relativity's folkloric ban on superluminal signaling is being violated. Another, called the measurement problem, is made vivid by Schrodinger's cat. According to quantum mechanics, a radioactive atom can get into a state that is eerily superposed between an excited state and a decayed state.  According to the conventional understanding of this state, the atom is neither excited nor decayed.  It's just plain weird.  But maybe that's OK, because it's only an atom. Schrodinger's cat shows us that if measurements unfold according to the fundamental law of quantum time development, the atom's eerie superposition infects the measuring device whose macro-properties afford the measurement record: the poor cat is left superposed between alive and dead.  And that's not OK.  

Those are great problems, but my present work addresses a feature they share, which is also a limitation on philosophical engagement with quantum theories. Each problem can be motivated by appeal to very simple quantum mechanical models consisting of two systems with two states each.  For such simple systems, there are mathematical theorems that assure us that we know what the quantum formalism is -- even if we don't know how to interpret it.  When you turn to more complicated quantum theories, like quantum field theories (QFT), however, those theorems break down.  There's a sense in which we don't even know which mathematical formalism is the appropriate vehicle of a QFT.  My work tries to draw the attention of philosophers to this circumstance, and to articulate and adjudicate questions it raises, like what a quantum theory is, and how we invest theories of mathematical physics with empirical content.  These themes are developed at mind-numbing length in my 2011 book Interpreting Quantum Theories (Oxford University Press).

Rhodes Project: If you could have lunch with one historical figure, who would it be and why?

Laura Ruetsche: Socrates. This is exactly what you’d expect a Philosophy professor to say! I think Socrates would be interesting because I am really curious about what kind of balance between inspirational and annoying he would be.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Laura Ruetsche: I read, I cook, I run, I cycle and I go to movies.

Rhodes Project: What are some of your personal goals right now?

Laura Ruetsche: When I am done with the Chair job I would like to return to a research project and try to see it through. I would like to carry on with a research program in the Philosophy of Physics.

Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?

Laura Ruetsche: Moving over the surface of the earth under my own power.

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