We had to cut quite a few stellar moments from Krista Tippett’s conversation with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss for the radio show and podcast. He’s a devoted atheist who has some provocative things to say about religion, the Higgs field, our country’s literacy about science and how it should be talked about in the same way as we discuss film or the arts.
Our unedited interview with him allows for the fullest listening, and it’s definitely worth your time.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
We get a fair number of people asking us to include more overt atheists in our weekly public radio program and podcast. If you’re one of those listeners, this week’s conversation with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss will be right up your alley.
He’s an energetic, witty thinker in the New Atheist movement who takes aim — fairly or unfairly — at religious believers. But, more importantly, his way of thinking about science as an integral part of our cultural formation and how many of us are let off the hook all-too-easily when we don’t know basic scientific principles.
His latest book is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. And if you’re at all a sci-fi fan, then The Physics of Star Trek is a great read for you.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth: The World Feels More Spacious
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Janna Levin’s novel off a table at a bookstore, drawn to it initially perhaps because we had just completed our show with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder on autism. Mathematician Alan Turing — known as the father of modern computing — is one of the autistic personalities who was mentioned in that interview. I was immediately taken by Janna Levin’s lush prose and the alluring, provocative ideas that she brings to life through human stories in space and time.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.
Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith” is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.
There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.
And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:
“I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free.”
Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose” in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.
Black Holes and the Sonic Song of the Universe
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
As Gordon Hempton points out, silence isn’t necessarily an absence of sound but a presence all its own. And, in much the same way, physicist Janna Levin says, space isn’t necessarily quiet either. Working at her lab at Columbia University, she projects that the universe creates an aural footprint that “will be music to our ears because it will be the quiet echo of that moment of our creation of our observable universe.” If we can only pick it up…
In this presentation at TED 2011, she plays her projections of the sounds the universe makes — black holes merging and falling into one another, the “white noise of the Big Bang. It’ll make you wonder about the biggest questions at the core of what it means to be a sentient being in this universe or the next.
Symbols of Power: Adinkras and the Nature of Reality
by S. James Gates
Physicists have long sought to describe the universe in terms of equations. Now, James Gates explains how research on a class of geometric symbols known as adinkras could lead to fresh insights into the theory of supersymmetry — and perhaps even the very nature of reality.
Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West African culture. This adinkra is called “nea onnim no sua a, ohu,” which translates as “he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning.”
In the land of theoretical physics, equations have always been king. Indeed, it would probably be fair to caricature theoretical physicists as members of a company called “Equations-R-Us”, since we tend to view new equations as markers of progress.
The modern era of equation prediction began with Maxwell in 1861, continued through the development of Einstein’s equations of general relativity in 1916, and reached its first peak in the 1920s with the Schrödinger and Dirac equations. Then a second, postwar surge saw the development of equations describing the strong force and the electroweak force, culminating in the creation of the Standard Model of particle physics in about 1973. The equations trend continues today, with the ongoing struggle to create comprehensive equations to describe superstring theory. This effort — which aims to incorporate the force of gravity into physical models in a way that the Standard Model does not — marks the extant boundary of a long tradition.
Yet equations are not the only story. To an extent, geometrical representations of physical theories have also been useful when correctly applied. The most famous incorrect geometrical representation in physics is probably Johannes Kepler’s model of planetary orbits; initially, Kepler believed the orbits could be described by five regular polygons successively embedded within each other, but he abandoned this proposition when more accurate data became available.
A less well known but much more successful example of geometry applied to physics is Murray Gell-Mann’s “eightfold way”, which is a means of organizing subatomic particles. This organization has an underlying explanation using triangles with quarks located at the vertices.
For the past five years, I and a group of my colleagues (including Charles Doran, Michael Faux, Tristan Hubsch, Kevin Iga, Greg Landweber and others) have been following the geometric-physics path pioneered by Kepler and Gell-Mann. The geometric objects that interest us are not triangles or octagons, but more complicated figures known as “adinkras”, a name Faux suggested.
The word “adinkra” is of West African etymology, and it originally referred to visual symbols created by the Akan people of Ghana and the Gyamen of Côte d’Ivoire to represent concepts or aphorisms. However, the mathematical adinkras we study are really only linked to those African symbols by name. Even so, it must be acknowledged that, like their forebears, mathematical adinkras also represent concepts that are difficult to express in words. Most intriguingly, they may even contain hints of something more profound — including the idea that our universe could be a computer simulation, as in the Matrix films.
Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge
by Krista Tippett, host
I interviewed James Gates once before, a few years ago, when we were creating our show on Einstein’s ethics. We talked then about Einstein’s little-remembered passion for racial equality. James Gates spent part of his childhood in segregated schools — experiences he does not take for granted now that he is a preeminent, African-American physicist. But what I was so taken by in that conversation years ago was how he explained Einstein’s social activism in terms of the values and virtues of scientific pursuit. He spoke of empathy as a potential byproduct of the process of discovery. A scientist’s “What if…” questions can evolve into human “What if…” questions.
James Gates’ capacity to share both from his humanity and his life in science strikes me again, and comes through even more forcefully during our more recent conversation in “Uncovering the Codes for Reality.” This time, I spoke with him about his particular passions. He is a string theorist, with a special emphasis on supersymmetry — a quality in the universe which, if demonstrated, might help support string theory as a way to reconcile the greatest puzzle modern physics has tried to solve since Einstein. Simply put, the universe seems to follow different rules at the highest and the smallest levels of reality. String theory imagines that deeper than atoms, deeper than electrons, behind quarks, all of reality is brought into being by filaments of energy. These “strings” might span the whole of reality, and possibly explain why gravity behaves so differently from varying vantage points. Some leading string theorists posit that there are at least eleven dimensions — far more than the three or four dimensions we are equipped to experience.
That is about how far I comprehend the idea behind string theory. The lovely thing about a conversation with James Gates is that my incomprehension does not matter. He gives me much to chew on, and be enriched by.
For starters, he is just the latest voice — others include the astrophysicist Mario Livio, and the astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — to let me in to the secrets and power of science’s language of mathematics. He calls mathematics a kind of sixth sense — an organ of “extrasensory perception” — for scientists. By way of mathematics, scientists perceived and described the atom years before microscopes sophisticated enough to view them could be invented. Now, with mathematics, he and his colleagues are tracing clues and cosmic hints that may never be provable with our five senses — but that may shift our very sense of the nature of reality.
One of the things James Gates and some of his colleagues have “seen,” for example, are underlying codes embedded in the cosmos — error-correcting codes, like those that drive computer programs. (Full disclosure: he’s a fan of The Matrix — so am I — and we hear a little bit of that iconic movie in our one-hour podcast.) This is just one of many observations he makes that raises questions, he says, that physics alone can neither answer nor probe.
He is also working on an interesting frontier of expanding science’s own imagination about mathematical equations in describing reality. He and his colleagues have recently employed something called adinkras, visual symbols that may be able to unlock truths that equations alone cannot capture, just as there are truths that only poetry can convey.
There’s also a lot of fodder for one of my fascinations with the realm of science — the creative, playful, even spiritual act of naming things, especially in physics: beauty quarks and anti-beauty quarks, sizzling black holes, and superstrings, for example. The term adinkras, which comes from West Africa tradition and connotes pictures having hidden meaning, carries on this tradition.
James Gates’ own delight is infectious and illuminating, as much when he is letting us in on mysteries of the cosmos as when he shares the human lessons of his life in science. I’ll leave you with this, for example, as an enticement. When I asked him what he thought of Einstein’s statement that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” he said he had puzzled over this for many years:
“For a long time in my life, imagination was the world of play. It was reading about astronauts, and monsters, and traveling in galaxies, all of that kind of stuff, invaders from outer space on earth. That was all in the world of the imagination. On the other hand, reality is all about us. And it’s constraining, and it can be painful. But the knowledge we gain is critical for our species to survive.
So how could it be that play is more important than knowledge? It took me years to figure out an answer. And the answer turns out [to be] rather strange… Imagination is more important than knowledge because imagination turns out to be the vehicle by which we increase knowledge. And so, if you don’t have imagination, you’re not going to get more knowledgeable.”
Superstring Theory as a Unifier for the Laws of Physics
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Albert Einstein spent the latter part of his life pursuing a “single, all encompassing theory of the universe” to describe all of nature’s forces. Brian Greene, who is probably best-known for his NOVA specials, is on this path this path of discovery. He says that achieving this may require a whole new way of looking at the world around us.
A professor of mathematics and physics at Columbia University, Greene explains string theory, the concept that minuscule filaments of energy vibrating in 11 dimensions, tucked into the fabric of space, “create every particle and force in the universe.” String theory fills in the gaps of Newtonian physics, especially in regards to how gravity works.
Einstein’s Unification Theory depends on the existence of extra dimensions, which contain these filaments. Don’t miss this peek into the “ultramicroscopic landscape” of our reality — and our upcoming show with string theorist S. James Gates!
If you dig this photo, you’ll really dig our upcoming show with string theorist S. James Gates who talks about supersymmetry, adinkras, and error-correcting codes that he likens to the underlying DNA of the cosmos.
The LHC Quilt: now there’s something my mother and I can agree on.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
String Theorist S. James Gates: A Twitterscript
by Susan Leem, associate producer
S. James Gates is known for pioneering supersymmetry, a theory that could “explain some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, such as how elementary particles got their mass.” There’s actually a symmetry between these two fundamental entities that compose the universe, invisible partners with names like selectrons (partner of electrons) and photinos (partner of photons). Gates shares with us a scientist’s rich, connected way of looking at the universe, “where we become essential to the universe.”
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation and have aggregated them below for those who weren’t able to follow along. Look for our show with him in the coming weeks, and follow us next time at @BeingTweets.
- “My understanding of the word ‘space’ is so different than my understanding of space at age 4 or age 8.” -Professor James Gates 1:10 PM, 25 Jan
- “I ended up at MIT which itself was a dream…a school where you studied the good stuff.” -Professor James Gates 1:14 PM, 25 Jan
- “It’s about balance…we humans, it seems like we’re coded to look for symmetry.” - Professor James Gates 1:19 PM, 25 Jan
- “It shows up in our art and music, but if the world were perfectly symmetrical we could not exist.” -Professor James Gates 1:25 PM, 25 Jan
- “The Higgs particle we believe is responsible for the creation of mass for everything else in the universe.” -James Gates 1:26 PM, 25 Jan
- “With string theory we have a view of the universe where we become essential to the universe.” -Professor James Gates 1:30 PM, 25 Jan
- “We become part and parcel of what our universe is in a way I’ve never seen done in science before.” -Professor James Gates 1:31 PM, 25 Jan
- “In many cultures the act of naming is regarded as a very powerful thing.” –Professor James Gates 1:33 PM, 25 Jan
- “If science conjures, it’s when we get a clear picture of something we didn’t know and give it a name.” -Professor James Gates 1:35 PM, 25 Jan
- “Math is an extrasensory organ for those who learn to use it that way.” -Professor James Gates 1:36 PM, 25 Jan
- “I’m a hidden-dimensional refusenik.” -Professor James Gates 1:38 PM, 25 Jan
- “It’s almost like the equations are trying to tell you a story.” -Professor James Gates 1:40 PM, 25 Jan
- “When you do the calculations, it seems there’s an imperative to follow the path.” -Professor James Gates 1:41 PM, 25 Jan
- “We’re not trying to find solutions, we’re looking at the structures of the equations…like DNA.” -Professor James Gates 1:47 PM, 25 Jan
- “Adinkras have existed in West African cultures for a very long time. They are symbols that have hidden meaning.” -James Gates 1:54 PM, 25 Jan
- An Adinkra: “He who does not know can become knowing by education.”
-Professor James Gates 1:56 PM, 25 Jan
- “A large fraction of the fundamental science done at this point has been inward-looking.” -Professor James Gates 2:01 PM, 25 Jan
- “Science in my experience does not permit us the illusion of certainty.” -Professor S. James Gates 2:10 PM, 25 Jan
- “We are forced by the structure of science to recognize human fallibility, human limits.” -Professor S. James Gates 2:12 PM, 25 Jan
- “By embracing our limits, by embracing our fallibility we become more knowledgeable.” -Professor and physicist S. James Gates 2:14 PM, 25 Jan
Photo of S. James Gates by John Consoli/University of Maryland
Quarks and Creation: On the Complementary Nature of Science and Religion
by Krista Tippett, host
I first heard John Polkinghorne’s voice on the BBC in the late 1980s, at a time when I lived in England. Late one night, he presented a riveting radio essay. It couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, but it had a tremendous, lasting effect on me.
Polkinghorne spoke about reason and faith, science and prayer — subjects I was pondering deeply at that point, after a good decade in which I had dismissed religion and religious sentiments out of hand. He described connections between quantum physics and theology in inviting, commonsense terms. He applied chaos theory to make prayer sound intellectually intriguing. I was thrilled when I was able, in 2005, to talk with John Polkinghorne about the ideas he inspired in me 15 years ago and about many related questions I have accumulated since.
Just as I found myself speaking with him, of course, the centuries-old debate between science and religion — in particular the flashpoint of evolution versus creation — was taking on renewed energy in American culture. And even as that debate receded from the limelight, figures like Richard Dawkins popularized the thesis that scientific reason and religious faith are incompatible and at odds. But ironically, in this same historical moment, a lively, deepening international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers has expanded its reach across the rift that developed after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. John Polkinghorne is a leading figure in that development.
Most striking, however, is how John Polkinghorne’s perspective simply transcends the parameters and arguments that drive our cultural controversies.
Polkinghorne takes the Genesis stories, the biblical accounts of creation, seriously. But he points out that these are lyrical, theological writings. They were not composed as scientific texts. The early Christians, he says, knew this, and only in the later Medieval and Reformation times did people begin to insist on literal interpretation. To read a work of poetry as a work of prose, he analogizes, is to miss the point.
Drawing on the best of his scientific and theological knowledge, Polkinghorne believes that God created this universe. But this was not a one-act invention of a clockwork world. God did something “more clever”: he created a world with independence, a world able to make itself. Creation is an ongoing act, Polkinghorne believes, one in which the laws of nature make room for choice and action, both human and divine. He finds this idea beautifully affirmed by the best insights of chaos theory, which describes reality as an interplay between order and disorder, between random possibilities and patterned structure.
I’ll let you hear for yourself how he approaches mysteries like prayer, and the problem of suffering, in this frame of mind. I’ll leave you with two evocative notions from our interview.
First, modern science increasingly suggests that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true. A scientific puzzle of whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved with the discovery that light has a dual nature as both a particle and a wave. And here’s the key that made that discovery possible: how we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wave-like question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.”
Second, there is the matter of quarks. Modern quantum physics has come to depend on quarks as a foundational element in understanding the way the world works. But in a very real sense, quarks are an article of faith. No scientist has actually seen one, nor do scientists necessarily ever expect to. They are believed to exist because the idea of quarks gives intelligibility to the whole of observable reality.
These scientific notions give me new, creative ways to imagine the credibility of religious modes of thought. They underscore John Polkinghorne’s personable and passionate message that we need the insights of science and religion together to “interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.”