I recently sat down (at my computer) and had a great online exchange with Mike Doolittle who runs the amazing blog called The A-Unicornist. Mike is one of the most intelligent and clear thinking writers you’ll read online, so I was truly honored that he took the time out of his schedule of work, rock, and blogging to have an engaging discussion with me. As we geeked out over things cosmological I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of his knack for clarity and easy to understand explanations–whereas I feel I’m always struggling to state things precisely Mike is a natural. Check out his blog if you get a chance and enjoy the discussion!
FYI: Just a couple free-thinking laymen shooting the breeze about things they are passionate about. We’re by no means experts or professionals here (just so you know), but we both love science, especially the area known as cosmology–the study of the cosmos and our origins. So without further delay, onto the interview.
I’m most fascinated by String Theory, just because it is by far the best candidate we have for a quantum theory of gravity. Crazily enough, while other theories incorporate gravity, String Theory actually predicts gravity. Granted it’s a retro-diction, but it’s still a pretty impressive piece of mathematics. A unified theory of physics still seems very elusive, but the Large Hadron Collider may be able to test some of the predictions of String Theory, like supersymmetry. It’s a pretty exciting time to be into physics, especially because this will probably be the largest particle accelerator we get for a long time. To get to significantly smaller scales we’d need an impossibly huge particle accelerator. To probe the Planck scale directly (where we might be able to observe the one-dimensional strings of String Theory), we’d need one larger than the solar system. But in the next few years I anticipate the LHC making some very big discoveries.
I loved Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe”, and of course Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” is a must-read. Some of the other books I’ve read, like Lisa Randall’s “Warped Passages”, are a little more technical and esoteric. But if you’re just being introduced to cosmology, both Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking have written some very readable books that nicely illustrate where we are and what some of the possibilities are for the future. I would actually recommend to most people that they get started with lectures. TED Talks has some great lectures on physics that introduce general concepts without getting too technical.
Well I love Hawking. He’s undeniably brilliant, and he’s a great writer. Brian Cox, the “rock & roll physicist,” is also very entertaining just because of the clarity and palpable excitement he speaks with. Brain Greene has a knack for explaining complex things in terms mortals like me can understand. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is fantastic too, for his sense of humor and his ability to express the poetry of some really amazing facts – like the fact that the very atoms that comprise us were cooked from lighter elements in ancient stars that exploded their enriched guts across the galaxy. The universe is literally inside us. That’s a very profound and humbling thought to me.
It’s difficult to pick one. We’ve discovered fundamental elementary particles, called quarks. It was amazing because scientists had predicted their existence back in the 60s, but we didn’t actually observe them until the 90s at Fermilab here in the U.S. In the last decade we’ve confirmed within a 2% margin of error that the universe is geometrically flat, which has big implications for cosmology. We have strong evidence that dark matter and dark energy are real, even though we don’t know much of anything about what they are or what they do. And for future possibilities, the unification of the five versions of String Theory into M-Theory was a big mathematical accomplishment, though there’s still a lot of work to be done just in terms of developing the theory, much less empirically testing it. I’d love to say that I’d like to see a unified theory of physics, but I think more pragmatically there are some interesting concepts with regard to extra dimensions (that’s spatial dimensions – not to be confused with other universes) that may be tested with the LHC, and I’d love to see us confirm the Higgs boson and supersymmetry, as well as develop a working understanding of dark matter and dark energy. Those are real possibilities within the next ten years, whereas a quantum theory of gravity… well, who knows. We’ve been at it for nearly a century, and it’s always seemed just out of reach.
Without a doubt, the answer to both questions is the same: the Big Bang. I’ve often heard it described as an “explosion in space”; it wasn’t anything like that – it was the expansion of the very fabric of space-time. Edwin Hubble noticed that distant galaxies were all getting farther away from each other, which means they must have been closer together in the past. When we extrapolate that backward billions and billions of years, we reach a point where the equations of Einstein’s General Relativity break down, in what’s known as the cosmic singularity. This is what’s often called the “beginning” of our universe. The Catholic church, back when the Big Bang was formulated, got pretty excited because it seemed to confirm the Bible. This misconception continues to this day. The singularity is just an artifact of General Relativity, and shows us the limitations of that model of physics. If we use quantum theories, the laws of physics do not break down. The universe gets to a very small size – Planck size, or 1.616 x 10-35 meters, and we just don’t know what happened before that. But most modern cosmological theories, including String Theory, do not predict a singularity or a “beginning” to the universe. Instead, they reshape our understanding of time itself.
That depends. Some people are ignorant, but have a natural curiosity. You can work with that. I mean, that’s me! There’s so much I have yet to learn. Others have a rigid adherence to dogmatic viewpoints, and they usually aren’t worth the trouble. Before you can talk to them about cosmology, you have to address the issues causing them to be resistant to new knowledge.
I don’t know that there’s an easy fix at all. If someone is in the new-agey Deepak Chopra school of thought, it’s usually just a misunderstanding of science and you just have to steer them in the right direction; you know, remind them that Deepak Chopra isn’t actually a physicist and introduce them to popular science books by reputable physicists. But if someone is adhering to a specific dogma the way ID’ers tend to be evangelical Christians, you have to address that first by for example talking about the Bible – is it historically reliable, is it logically coherent, etc. Beliefs tend to arise as a sort of network of experiences, knowledge and biases. I remember arguing til I was blue in the face with an evangelical Christian friend of mine about evolution. Then we started talking about the Bible – he started looking at the Old Testament more critically, with all its scriptures where God commands stonings, subjugation of women and genocide, and that created the cognitive dissonance he needed to start examining everything more critically. Now he’s an atheist and loves learning about evolution. A direct approach isn’t always the most productive.
It’s funny you say that, because “A Brief History of Time” is actually what pushed me into atheism. Even after I lost my faith in Christianity, I still held on to a very vague concept of a higher power. I was sort of a “deistic agnostic”. It wasn’t any theory in particular that changed my mind, but Hawking’s exposition helped me recognize the fact that the idea of God really fails in every conceivable way as a hypothesis for explaining anything worth explaining – the origin of the universe, our morality, our evolution, even our sense of meaning in life. But I didn’t recognize my philosophical folly until I became better acquainted with science. Cosmology is really about the biggest questions of all – why are we here, where did we come from, that sort of thing. Once you can see why “God did it” isn’t a good answer to those questions, it inspires a great sense of wonder, curiosity, and most of all humility.
I don’t read much fiction, though a good friend of mine has promised to loan me “Ring World”, a favorite of hers. But I am a complete nerd when it comes to sci-fi movies and TV. Right now I’m working through Battlestar Galactica, and it’s just fantastic. I enjoyed Caprica for its brief run, and I’m really into Stargate Universe. Movies, I love everything from “Contact” to the new “Star Trek”. I’m such a geek though that when I watch stuff like that, I’m always thinking about what is and isn’t plausible. For some reason artificial gravity really annoys me. It’s funny how, like in SGU, the whole ship can get shot up or be almost totally drained of power, but gravity always works just fine.
10. Where do you think the future of cosmology and physics know how will take us? In other words, what are your predictions for the future and beyond with regard to the course we now traverse?
I wish I knew. It’s easy to take something like GPS systems for granted, but they wouldn’t work unless we took General Relativity into account. But Einstein could never have imagined back in the 1920s that his equations would be used to synchronize satellites with our cell phones. Right now, with the Large Hadron Collider, we’re on the cusp of some potentially transformative discoveries in physics. It could lead to advances in quantum computing, nanotechnology, medicine, neurology, and who knows… maybe we’ll even get that whole interstellar travel thing down. The LHC cost over $10 billion to build, and a lot of people questioned the wisdom of that investment when the world is faced with so many urgent problems. But were it not for quantum mechanics we would not have many things that have transformed our lives, including computers and the internet. It might seem ironic, but I think part of the excitement of physics is really just having no concept of where our discoveries will take us. Sometimes just exploring the mysteries of the universe is one of the most important things we can do.