Some of the biggest philosophical and ethical questions of this century may be raised on scientific frontiers — as we gain a better understanding of the deep structure of space and time and the wilder “microworld.” Astrophysicist Martin Rees paints a fascinating picture of how we might be changed by what we do not yet know:
"If science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even simple things like an atom are fairly hard to understand. And that makes me skeptical of anyone who claims to have the last word or complete understanding of any deep aspect of reality."
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
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.”
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
A Twitterscript of Lord Martin Rees Interview
by Susan Leem, associate producer and Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Professor Rees gives The Reith Lectures 2010 (photo: The Reith Lectures/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Rees’ calls for peaceful coexistence between believers and non-believers has made waves among atheists. He raised more hackles recently by accepting this year’s Templeton Prize (joining the ranks of past winners Mother Teresa, John Polkinghorne, and Billy Graham). He has one foot in each world as an atheist who is devoted to the cultural, “tribal” experience of attending church.
As a highly credentialed scientist, Lord Rees has studied and pondered the mysteries of black holes and separate universes, but what placed him on our radar is his concern for science’s impacts on human beings. He is a rare individual in that his sense of mystery and wonder for distant worlds and other forms of life doesn’t eclipse his awe of humankind.
He argues that even science is not unassailable, and its truths can be quite difficult to grasp. In fact, the mere questions that scientists ask today could not have even been imagined 30 years ago.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
Participating in the Mystery of the Universe
by Krista Tippett, host
"Misremember" is a word I often use about the history of science and religion in the West. We’ve forgotten or misremembered that the great classic scientists did not understand science and religion as opposed. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton may have had their struggles with religious authorities. And they did not believe that their scientific exploration would prove or disprove the existence of God. But they believed quite fervently that their explorations and discoveries in the natural world would deepen human understanding of the nature of God, of the mind of the maker.
In George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno, I found two modern-day exemplars of this tradition. They have clear boundaries between their science and their faith. Father George even goes so far as to say that to “need” God vis-a-vis his science would be a diminishment of God and of human intelligence. They both insist, in a few different ways, that they don’t see God at the end of their telescopes. Their belief in God and their sense of the love of God, are borne out in other kinds of experience.
Yet Guy Consolmagno has also written these words:
"(A)s I see the pattern of Creation unfolding, over and over…complexity from the simplest of rules, beauty from the surprising interplay of basic forces…I begin to get a closer appreciation of the personality of the Creator."
And when I ask him to describe that “personality,” he answers, without missing a beat, that “whoever is responsible for this universe has a great sense of humor.”
His own vocation might be seen as an illustration of divine humor, or at least one of history’s “jokes,” as Coyne puts it. The Vatican Observatory is located in the papal summer residence in Castel Gondolfo, Italy — once the home of Urban VIII, the pope who took Galileo to task. Today the papal summer palace has telescopes on its roof and houses one of the oldest astronomical research centers in the world.
Part of the joy of this conversation is the evident fun Coyne and Consolmagno find in this and in so much else, but most of all in the work they do. They take delight in each other, too, and it is a pleasure to hear them react to each other’s ideas. And they hold good humor in a creative, faithful tension with their equally intimate knowledge of the difficulties of human life and the shadow side of the natural world they study.
Guy Consolmagno considered abandoning his scientific career at one point because he could not justify studying the stars when people were dying of hunger. He joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Kenya where he was assigned to teach astronomy at the University of Nairobi. There, every time he cranked up a car-battery-powered telescope, entire villages would turn out in thrall to what he could show them about the night sky. He came to believe that the urge to look up at the stars and wonder where we come from and how we fit in is as essential to our humanity as our need for food. He joined the Jesuit order in his late 30s.
The 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, charged his men to “find God in all things” — in a laboratory as passionately as in a monastic cell. We didn’t originally plan this as an Easter show, but it seems fitting that, as our schedule unfolded, it landed in Easter week. And yet it it is a cosmic view of the Easter story that these astronomers evoke — one nourished by their apprehension of billions of years of the birth, death, and renewal of stars that made life on Earth possible. Inspired by this cosmic drama, they are also content with faith itself as something more dynamic than fixed, a process rather than a destination that is spacious and always evolving. George Coyne puts it this way: “Doing science to me is a search for God. And I’ll never have the final answers because the universe participates in the mystery of God.”
About the smaller image (inset): Brother Guy Consolmagno shows a Mars meteorite. (photo by: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
An argument often given for why Earth couldn’t host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life. And, in any case, natural selection doesn’t always mean winner-takes-all.
— Paul Davies, from his op-ed "The Aliens Among Us" in last Thursday’s New York Times.
The theoretical physicist/cosmologist/astrobiologist who appeared in "Einstein’s God" posits that we should look “under our noses” — right here on Earth — for extraterrestrial life as well as scanning the universe. If you’re at all intrigued by the thought of extraterrestrial life, this article will get the synapses firing.
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Wonder of the Cosmos (through an Upgraded Lens)
by Colleen Scheck, producer
Last week NASA published pictures from the newly-refurbished Hubble telescope. Beautiful. Mysterious. Divine. And, simply, Wow. These were the words that ran through my head when I saw them. It’s worth reading the descriptions of the photos on NASA’s site for more detail on these galactic happenings. I also liked this online comment:
"These photos, and the multi-billion year life behind them make me think I’ve wasted the better part of my life looking down at my feet, instead of looking up into the sky."
I don’t have profound thoughts to add, but comments from two cosmologists who have been on SOF seem to apply. From our show "Science and Hope," George Ellis, a practicing Quaker from South Africa:
How do you — because you’re telling me that you also, I believe, you’re telling me you have concluded that there is a God and there can be a God in your cosmology. But how do you think your way around into that question?
It’s a very valid question, and it’s one for which we haven’t got any clue to the answer. But that is the same for every attempt to understand the foundations of the universe. Science runs into that and religions run into that. My colleagues are producing theories of what they call creation of the universe out of nothing. But when you probe them, you find they’re not producing theories of creation of the universe out of nothing. They are assuming a huge machinery of quantum field theory and fields and particles and interactions, which generates universe, not creation of the universe out of nothing.
Which had to come from somewhere.
Yeah, it had to come from somewhere else….And in the end, we run into a metaphysical blank, whether you pursue it scientifically or religiously, and you simply have to give up in wonder and awe and say, ‘I don’t know the answer, and it’s just marvelous the way things are.’
And, Janna Levin, a novelist and professor of Physics and Astronomy at Barnard College, spoke with Krista for our program "Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth":
….What are you working on that also, you know, starts to reshape the way you see the world around you and the way you move through it?
Well, it’s funny, people have often asked, when I’ve been describing the work that I’m doing, they’ll say, ‘Well, who — why should I care about that?’ I’m telling something about extra dimensions and maybe the universe isn’t three-dimensional, but maybe there are extra spatial dimensions. It is very abstract. We could do a whole show hammering that out.
But supposing we grasp the notion of multidimensional space and spaces and finite, people say, ‘Why should I care about that? You know, my taxes are high. We’re on a war in Iraq.’ And these are fair questions, but my feeling is that it changes the world in such a fundamental way. We cannot begin to comprehend the consequences of living in a world after we know certain things about it. I think we cannot imagine the mindset of somebody pre-Copernicus, when we thought that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that the Sun and all the celestial bodies orbited us.
It’s really not that huge a discovery in retrospect. In retrospect, so we orbit around the Sun, and we take this to be commonplace, and there’s lots of planets in our solar system, and the Sun is just one star out of billions or hundreds of billions in our galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. And we become, you know, little dust mites in the scheme of things. That shift is so colossal in terms of what it did, I think, to our world, our global culture, our worldview, that I can’t begin to draw simple lines to say, ‘This is what happened because of it’ or ‘That’s what happened because of it.’
We see ourselves differently, and then we see the whole world differently. And we begin to think about meaning — and all of these questions that you’ve brought up — completely differently than we did before. And I’d feel the same way if we discovered that the universe is finite or if we discovered that there are additional spatial dimensions, if these things will impact us, I think, in ways that we can’t just draw simple cause-and-effect arrows.