In these exclusive interviews, we talk to Professor Neil Turok (Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and member of Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council), Professor Gerry Gilmore (Professor of Experimental Philosophy, in the Institute of Astronomy, at the University of Cambridge) and Professor Adam Riess (Nobel Prize Winning Physicist, Thomas J. Barber Professor in Space Studies at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences). We discuss some of the most fundamental questions about the origins of life, the universe, and look at some of the profound ways in which physics could be about to change our world.
In the estimated life of the known universe (around fourteen billion years), humanity (as we know it) has existed for an insignificantly small length of time (around two hundred thousand years). To put this in context, were the life of the universe, from its emergence to present day, presented as a complete year, humanity would have progressed from its emergence, through over one hundred and ten billion individual souls, generating the total sum of everything we know as a species- in around seven and a half minutes.
Describing the profound impact of our species, V. S. Ramachandran in his 2011 book “The Tell Tale Brain” describes how, “…humans are apes. So too are we mammals. We are vertebrates. We are pulpy throbbing colonies of tens of trillions of cells. We are all these things, but we are not ‘merely’ these things. And we are, in addition to all these things, something unique, something unprecedented, something transcendent. We are the first and only species whose fate has rested in its own hands, and not just in the hands of chemistry and instinct. On the great Darwinian stage we call Earth, I would argue there has not been an upheaval as big as us since the origin of life itself. ” he continues, “Any ape can reach for a banana, but only humans can reach for the stars. Apes live, contend, breed and die in forests- end of story. Humans write, investigate, create and quest. We splice genes, split atoms, launch rockets. We peer upward into the heart of the Big Bang and delve deeply into the digits of pi. Perhaps most remarkably of all, we gaze inward, piecing together the puzzle of our own unique and marvellous brain. How can a three pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity and even question its own place in the cosmos.” This profound reasoning, he says, is made more so when one realises that the very matter which our brain is made of was “forged in the hearts of countless far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and chance brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to wonder.”
Our innate curiosity, combined with dextrous ingenuity, has allowed us to practically describe the laws which exist in the natural world here on earth, and throughout the universe. These observations have been applied to deliver practically everything around us from our technology, to medicines, and even the way we communicate. The past century, in particular, has delivered some of the most profound advances in our species ability and left us on the cusp of potentially some of the most important discoveries since we emerged from the primal soup of life.
In these exclusive interviews, we talk to Professor Neil Turok (Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and member of Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council), Professor Gerry Gilmore (Professor of Experimental Philosophy in the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge) and Professor Adam Riess (Nobel Prize Winning Physicist, Thomas J. Barber Professor in Space Studies at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences). We discuss some of the most fundamental questions about the origins of life, the universe, and look at some of the profound ways in which physics could be about to change our world.
Dr. Neil Turok earned his PhD at Imperial College. After a postdoc in Santa Barbara, he was appointed Associate Scientist at Fermilab before moving to Princeton where he became Professor of Physics in 1994. In 1997 he was appointed to the Chair of Mathematical Physics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) at Cambridge. In October, 2008, he moved to the Perimeter Institute as its new Director. Among his many honours, he was awarded Sloan and Packard Fellowships and the 1992 James Clerk Maxwell medal of the UK Institute of Physics. For this work and his contributions to theoretical physics, Dr. Turok was recently awarded a prestigious TED Prize, and a “Most Innovative People” award at the 2008 World Summit on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (WSIE).
Dr. Turok also sits on the Canadian Government’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council.
Professor Gerard ‘Gerry‘ Gilmore is an astronomer who studies the nature and origin of our galaxy, the Milky Way. His work has pioneered the use of spectral surveys to chemically determine the galaxy’s history, and he was the first to propose that the Milky Way possesses a thick disc — a structural component believed to have formed early in the galaxy’s evolution. He also made the first reliable measurement of the amount of dark matter near our Sun.
His work has revealed the unexpected chemical distinction between stars in our galaxy’s halo and in its satellites. Gerard is also a principal investigator for the Gaia space observatory, which is creating a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way to help address fundamental questions about the structure and evolution of the galaxy.
Gerard has received many accolades in recognition of his work, including the Daniel Chalonge Medal in 2013. In addition to being a Fellow of the Royal Society, he has also been elected a Fellow of Academia Europaea and the Institute of Physics.
Adam Riess is the Thomas J. Barber Professor in Space Studies at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, a distinguished astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 and his PhD from Harvard University in 1996. His research involves measurements of the cosmological framework with supernovae (exploding stars) and Cepheids (pulsating stars). Currently, he leads the SHOES Team in efforts to improve the measurement of the Hubble Constant and the Higher-z Team to find and measure the most distant type Ia supernovae known to probe the origin of cosmic acceleration.
In 2011, he was named a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics and was awarded the Albert Einstein Medal for his leadership in the High-z Supernova Search Team’s discovery that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating, a phenomenon widely attributed to a mysterious, unexplained “dark energy” filling the universe. The discovery was named by Science magazine in 1998 as “the Breakthrough Discovery of the Year.”
His accomplishments have been recognized with a number of other awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, the Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize in 2007 (shared), and the Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2006.
Q: Why Research the Universe?
[Professor Neil Turok] This is a difficult question, but I think we can draw some insight from someone right at the beginning of modern mathematical science, Isaac Newton. People have regarded as a paradox- the fact that Newton spent most of his time doing alchemy, which doesn’t sound very scientific, and only part of his time doing mechanics and gravitation. Of course, his discoveries in mechanics and his law of gravitation were absolutely foundational to all of quantitative science, engineering, technology and, indeed, everything that came afterwards. Why was he doing alchemy? I think some insight into that is the fact that he was interested in magical things. He was interested in powerful and mysterious phenomena which somehow are beyond our everyday experience. The goal of alchemy- to create gold from base metals- was never realised, but I see his physics in exactly the same way. His physics was the part of his attempt to find magic which actually worked! I see science similarly to that. This is still a magical and mysterious thing that we are able to understand the world in very powerful and predictive ways- that is the foundation of all of our technologies today. Sometimes it’s not appreciated what a miracle and privilege it is to control, manipulate and understand the world in the way we can- through science; but the fact that we can is as mysterious as it ever was. Why should a creature that evolved out of slime, which has all the limitations which we do, be able to access this fundamental information about the universe which allows us, for example, to be able to predict the magnetic moment of the electron to a trillion decimal places on the basis of purely mathematical calculation. Why does that work? It is a miracle, it is magic, but it works- and that’s the part of magic that’s real. The rest, of course, is a hoax.
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] Every society of which we have any record, through the entire historical record of all societies that have ever existed on Earth, has been curious about their place in the universe.
Every society has some sort of explanation for daytime, night-time, the origin of plants, life and so on. Many of these explanations end-up as very complex religions and mythologies, but everyone is intrinsically interested. Understanding who and what we are, and what we’re part of is natural human curiosity.
Looking back over the past-few centuries, we also see that the more we understand about the world around us, the more we are able to control it for our benefit. For example, if we understand how plants grow? We can invent modern efficient agriculture. If we understand how we get sick? We can understand medicine.
[Professor Adam Riess] We’ve always been fascinated by our origins, we want to know where all of ‘this’ has come from, and what its purpose is.
One can certainly live their life happily, here on earth never looking up or contemplating what’s out there… but for many people (myself included) when you become aware of how much is out there? You feel this compelling pull of curiosity to understand.
It’s difficult to describe to people who aren’t curious, just what curiosity is. Imagine explaining to a robot or a computer what curiosity is! For those of us who experience it however, it’s almost a primal-pull.
In the fairly impractical field of cosmology, observing the universe is a fairly practical thing to do.
Q: What is the ‘universe’?
[Professor Adam Riess] There is a line between the observable and greater universe. The observable universe contains everything we could possibly or potentially see, everything where there’s been enough time in the history of the universe for light, gravity waves or anything else to travel to us. We believe that if you look beyond this horizon? There would be more universe.
For discussion it’s very useful to recognise that when we speak about anything outside the observable universe, we’re switching from the empirical to the speculative and theoretical
Q: What do we owe to the fundamental science of research into the universe?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] All the amazing quantum electronics we have, the computer science, amazing materials, communications technologies, software and so forth we take for granted, were unexpected spin-offs from basic physics.
In about 1890, there was a list of big-questions for what people wanted in the future. As the phonograph had just been invented, right near the top of the list was a grand-challenge to put affordable, high-quality music into people’s homes. Vast numbers of people played around with wax recording tablet and goodness knows what, and the actual solution we have today came from Einstein! Relativity and quantum mechanics…. Scientists were not working on relativity theory to provide smartphones with decent music, but this illustrates how the solutions to fundamental technical challenges can often come in a round-about way.
When Faraday had just invented the battery, and was doing lots of experiments on electricity, he was asked by a King at the time, ‘…well, this is all very nice Mr. Faraday, but what’s the point?’ – and he responded, ‘we don’t know yet Your Majesty, but we’re confident that it won’t be long before you can get taxes from it…’ and of course, he was right!
The whole of modern society was built on the back of esoteric research into the fundamental electrical properties of matter.
[Professor Adam Riess] Going back to the Greeks, we thought that we (the Earth) were at the centre of the universe, and terribly important… well, why wouldn’t we be! We were at the middle!
By looking up, we’ve learned how much there is out there, and how we’re not so special after all. We’re orbiting around a rather ordinary star, in a rather ordinary galaxy, in a rather regular place in the large scale structure of the observable universe. Yet, we’ve also learned that there’s something extraordinary about our planet. There is life and intelligence here, and we’re pretty sure that’s not a common feature.
By looking up, we’ve come to the profound understanding that we, as a species, and as a planet are both mediocre and miraculous at the same time.
Q: Can we conceive the scale of the challenge of understanding the universe?
[Professor Adam Riess] Humans can perceive progress, and the small steps forward we take. We can also look back on where we were in our understanding a long time ago, and realise we’ve made tremendous progress. Can we get our heads around the scale of the entire problem, or the entire set of solutions? I think that’s very difficult.
As humans, we’re better at taking small steps of progress than envisioning what our ultimate destination will look like.
Q: How are our views of the origins of the universe changing?
[Professor Neil Turok] It’s incredible to look back on just a hundred years of history because you realise very quickly that our view of the universe has been utterly transformed in a hundred years. That makes you wonder about what’s going to happen in the next hundred. A hundred years ago most of the astronomers and physicists in the world believed ours was the only galaxy; that there was just one galaxy in the universe. They saw these little blobs of stuff in the sky called nebulae which they thought of as some kind of spread out gas, or maybe a collection of stars which they couldn’t resolve with telescopes, but nobody thought of these nebulae as other galaxies, or that there would be over a hundred billion other galaxies outside our own. So, our own galaxy has a hundred billion stars, and then it turns out there’s a hundred billion other galaxies beyond ours. This began to be appreciated in the late nineteen twenties by Edwin Hubble– who had the most powerful telescope in the world- and later on, by others. That’s not so long ago that we realised the scale of the universe, which makes us look very puny indeed! The second thing was the expansion of the universe, again discovered by Hubble. In the time when Einstein invented his theory of general relativity around 1917 he, like others, believed the universe was static and must have existed forever in a constant state. Einstein’s own equations, as an example of the magical power of theoretical physics, were generated through rational thinking and mathematics based on observations of our world. These theories were then able to predict other features of the world in entirely unexpected ways. Einstein’s equations for gravity are a very good example. He invented them with the goal of explaining phenomena in the solar system and gravity on earth- then he began to apply them to the universe and he realised that they did not allow the universe to be static- the universe had to be expanding or shrinking. He didn’t like that implication, and he never wrote anything about it. Instead, he added a “fix” to his equations called the “cosmological constant” to try and make the universe static. It didn’t work, but it was his attempt to fix up the situation. Later, of course, other people forcefully explained that his equations do not allow the universe to be static- and that was confirmed in the late 1920’s. So less than a hundred years ago we learned that the universe is truly enormous, possibly infinite, that we are insignificant within it, everything is changing with time, and that everything we see came out of a mysterious event called a “singularity” about fourteen billion years ago. What the implications that are, we are still struggling to come to terms with. That’s on the one side- on the side of the universe. On the other side, looking at how physics works- just over a hundred years ago, quantum theory was invented by Albert Einstein. This was an attempt to resolve some deep contradictions in the laws of thermodynamics- the laws of heat, electricity and magnetism (which were discovered in the nineteenth century). These contradictions were slowly dawning on people- that the framework for physics they had developed, didn’t really work at a deep level. Einstein came up with this notion of “quanta”- that everything, including energy, must come in discrete packets- it can’t really be continuous. This very simple idea, at some level, ended up utterly transforming our picture of the universe. It turned out that in order to develop a mathematical theory which incorporated that idea of fundamental discreteness- that energy comes in lumps- it had to revisit the whole notion that there is a single reality- that in fact the world is not just the place we picture it as where everything has a definite existence. The world, instead, seems to consist of all the bodies within it constantly exploring all the configurations they might have. So when I throw a ball at a wall- in the classical picture of the universe, before quantum theory, the picture was that the ball would not know about the wall until it hit the wall and bounced off it. In quantum theory that is not at all true. The ball knows the wall is there all the time. It knows the wall is coming and, in a sense, there is premonition. This is the only way we have to make sense of physics at a fundamental level, and furthermore it gives predictions which are accurate to one part in a trillion- so we are pretty confident that this is really the way the world works.
So just in a hundred years, our views were utterly transformed. What is coming next is hard to say- we can’t predict. To me it seems very unlikely that this was a one off event, that our views were transformed and that’s the end of it. There was a famous book by John Horgan called “The End of Science” where he was predicting the golden age has come and gone. To me that seems extremely unlikely given that we have similar fundamental contradictions in our understanding of the world to those which gave rise to quantum theory. We have the modern day versions of those, which we are struggling to deal with and to solve. I firmly believe that when we do so, similarly revolutionary changes occur in our view of the world.
Q: What are the principles we use to make observations of the universe?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] The experience of the last few hundred years is that science works best when it’s continually tested. Everything always starts with experiment or observation, mankind is not smart enough to just think of ideas from nothing and get them right! All our understanding of the universe comes from our observations of something, ‘Oh look! The sun rises every morning!’ or ‘…an apple falls to the ground’ – followed by a theory, for example Newtonian gravity…. And then testing that theory. If that theory then leads to predictions about things you didn’t know in advance, that turn out to be correct? You can be confident it’s a good direction to continue working. Everything in science has been done this way.
The concept of observation, explanation, prediction and then testing the prediction with new observations and continuing around that cycle is the basis for the whole of modern science. It’s just spectacularly successful. We don’t know why but it turns out those processes let our brains understand the universe.
Q: What is the nature of matter, time and of existence?
[Professor Neil Turok] The people who have thought the hardest and deepest about quantum theory do feel that at some level, our existing views need replacing. There are two categories of people who work on quantum theory. The first category are the technicians who work away using the standard rules, which continue to be extremely successful. So far there is no evidence against these rules. and they are being tested to ever greater degrees of precision. For example there is a fundamental aspect of quantum theory called entanglement which means that the state of two different particles, for example the direction of their spin, can be tied together in a way which is impossible to visualise classically. Neither of them has a definite spin in quantum theory. Typically they will have all possible spins What happens is‐ a measurement of the spin of the one will, in a sense, determine the spin of the other‐ even though neither of them had a definite spin before the measurement. This entanglement seems to operate over arbitrarily large distances. For example, we can create these two particles which fly apart from each other, hundreds of kilometres. They are then measured when they are hundreds of kilometres apart, and it is found that if you measure one in a certain state, the other one is found, apparently instantly, be in a corresponding state. You can’t actually use this to communicate‐ it is one of the most important aspects of quantum theory‐ it does not allow you to communicate faster than the speed of light‐ it never allows that. It does mean, however, that information is correlated on huge distances. There are proposals, for example, to test this using a satellite, which may ultimately be useful for communication and data encryption. The outer limits of quantum theory are being investigated and tested, and so far it has survived all tests. But many people who have thought deeply about it and worried about whether it really makes sense as an ultimate theory of reality- many of them have come to the conclusion that there has got to be something more sensible!
Looking at time and existence. What Einstein understood, for example, is that time should not be thought of on its own- there is no absolute time. Isaac Newton believed it was an absolute. He believed that if you had clocks all across the universe, they could be synchronised, and you could discuss all phenomena as if there was a universal time which everyone would agree on. Einstein discovered his laws of relativity by thinking about James Clark Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism and light. The only way he could reconcile them with Newton’s laws of mechanics was to suppose that time was not absolute, that different clocks and different observers would inevitably measure different times. If you started out with two clocks next to each other and put one of them on an aeroplane, and you fly it round the world and bring it back to the first clock, the times are not going to agree. This disagreement gets worse in more extreme situations; if you fly near a black hole, you will be vastly younger than other people when you return. Time is not at all absolute, and this is now tested experimentally. GPS systems incorporate this correction to time which Einstein discovered in an intrinsic way, they just wouldn’t function properly without the corrections made using Einstein’s theory of time and space. So we have learned that time is not absolute‐ but we have also learned the fundamental fact that the universe seems to have come out of an initial singularity fourteen billion years ago. Many people, including Stephen Hawking, have interpreted it as the beginning of time but I don’t believe that view is yet warranted. The only thing we are sure of is that at the initial singularity from which everything arose, all of our standard laws of physics break down. We are trying now to develop a more powerful theory than Einstein’s which will be capable of describing the singularity. The two types of theories we have – and neither is yet fully convincing – suggest that either time did have a definite beginning, or that there was another universe before the big bang and that the big bang singularity was a special moment, a very violent moment, where the pre‐existing universe collapsed and created this blinding flash of energy which then seeded the creation of the universe we see today. I think this is one of the most important issues we are struggling with- whether time had a beginning or not. The really amazing thing is not so much that we can make mathematical models, although that is a new thing‐ even ten years ago, we could not make consistent mathematical models, and now we can. The even more amazing thing is that observations capable of telling the difference between the two possibilities, that time began or it didn’t, are around the corner. In the next ten or fifteen years, we will have satellites in space, measuring gravitational waves- the ripples in space and time- which would have emanated from the big bang itself. The characteristics of those ripples will tell us whether the big bang was the beginning of time, or not- or at least- those observations will distinguish between the two leading theories; one of which says the big bang was the beginning, and the other which says it was not. We may learn over the next one, two or three decades, whether our universe began fourteen billion years ago- or whether there was a universe before the big bang.
Q: Is there a single unifying ‘theory of everything’?
[Professor Neil Turok] What is certainly true is that the pursuit of a unified theory, in the twentieth century, was incredibly successful. Even in the nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were thought to be completely different phenomena. Maxwell’s discovery was that they are all part of the same thing. That electric and magnetic phenomena are all connected and described by a single unified theory. Maxwell was the first “unifier” as it were. Einstein’s discovery of relativity was similarly unifying as he essentially described gravity as being the physical manifestation of the fact that space and time can fluctuate and are not, therefore, absolutes. This again unifies the fact that physics lives in the arena of space-time and there is this source of gravity- Einstein unified those ideas. Subsequently the laws of nuclear physics, particularly the weak interactions that give rise to radioactivity, were unified with electricity and magnetism, into a single theory- the “electro-weak” theory which has been phenomenally successful, and verified experimentally. This leads into the strong-interactions in nuclear physics, which cause protons and neutrons to be held together. Each of these are made out of smaller particles called quarks. Three quarks are held together in a proton and in a neutron. The protons and neutrons are then stuck together to form atomic nuclei. This whole process is described using the ‘theory of strong nuclear interactions‘. Attempts to unify that with the electro-weak theory have been pretty successful, but as yet there is no true experimental confirmation. We are hoping to learn more from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The reason we are so excited is that it is now probing energies such that we will learn whether our standard picture of unification of electricity, magnetism and the weak force is valid or not. The fundamental prediction it makes is that there should be a new particle, the Higgs Particle, which is key to the whole theory. The Higgs Particle is associated with the origin of mass, it explains why particles have a mass at all- and that is one of the most important physical characteristics of matter- that matter has mass and inertia. We are on the threshold of this either being confirmed, or even more excitingly being refuted. We are all holding our breath because the framework of unification, which was so successful during the twentieth century, rests on the Higgs particle. If the Large Hadron Collider confirms that this theory is correct and that there is a Higgs particle, it will show the pursuit of unification was on the right lines. The next step is then to unify with the strong‐force of nuclear physics, leading to what is termed the “grand unified theory“. There is also the possibility that Large Hadron Collider will discover a new symmetry of nature called “Supersymmetry” and then we will be looking for a super unified theory. A huge amount is at stake at the collider, and we are ninety-nine percent sure we are really going to learn some new physics there.
Whether this pursuit of unification is correct or not remains to be seen. It is a guiding principle, and it does force us to try and simplify our equations and laws and make them more mathematically consistent- and that’s a good thing. When you try to rewrite your theory and make it simpler, neater and more powerful and, of course, less arbitrary- quite often you discover contradictions, logical flaws and so on. This is all part of the landscape of possibilities for theories which is a very useful thing to do. If we’re lucky, we may hit on a really compelling framework which, intellectually, will just look so beautiful and satisfying that we will think it must be true. That will stimulate experimentalists to test it and verify it. I would say there has been a tendency to claim success too early. Part of the bad press that super-string theory has brought upon itself, for example, is that it made too bold claims. People thought that super-string theory was the final theory‐ it’s all over, this really makes sense. But then, as time went on‐ people discovered flaws and weaknesses.
I also feel that one of the real tragedies of the modern world is that science and the public have become disconnected. Science has become this technical endeavour done in laboratories by people in isolation, and the rest of the world really doesn’t really understand what’s going on. It is very hard, for example, for the general public to judge whether or not the claims being made for any unified theory of physics are really justified.
[Professor Adam Riess] The universe provides us with a laboratory to look at and understand physics in ways that are simply not available to us here on Earth. We get to see the extremes of emptiness, the extremes of density, energy and gravity. From this, we can test our theories of physics, and discovering the fact that it’s very deductive and simplifying.
Physics is elegant. Take for example Maxwell’s four equations in electromagnetism. You can write those equations on a t-shirt and in principle, you would be wearing the entire theory of electromagnetism as it relates to the entire universe.
There is a temptation to think we can reduce the whole of physics into simple equations. Up till this point, it hasn’t manifested like that but we’re continuing to look.
Q: What are your views on the Universe being a quantum computer?
[Professor Neil Turok] I think the idea some people are promoting, that the world is a quantum computer, made by some higher intelligence, is very farfetched. What is true is that if the universe obeys quantum laws, and we think it does‐ then you have to use equations of quantum theory to describe it. Furthermore the evidence is that quantum theory plays a role, not only at the sub‐atomic scales of particle physics, but also on the scale of the whole universe because we see the deviations of temperature and density from place to place in the very early universe which seem compatible with what you would predict in quantum theory. This has actually been an amazing‐advance of the past two decades, to see that quantum theory may be relevant on extremely large scales. But saying the universe is a quantum computer, or that we are all living inside a ‘Matrix’ sounds pretty wild and speculative to me. I think what we can say, with some certainty, is that nature follows mathematical rules which are hard for us to conceptualise because they involve notions like parallel universes and there not being a single reality. These rules work, and they describe the world. I don’t think these rules are telling us that the universe is an artificial construction‐ we don’t need to conclude that. That is akin to a giant conspiracy theory, and I think generally conspiracy theories are wrong.
Q: Where do our great leaps in understanding come from?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] The process of scientific and technological advance is incremental. There are vast armies of people working in universities, companies and laboratories around the world, all steadily progressing in one direction of advance. However, there are occasional disconnects in this system and people may travel in different directions, and occasionally we get huge and unexpected steps forward.
Over the last 150 years, starting with Maxwell in 1850, it’s been clear that the really big advances come when people reduce the number of explanations needed to explain something. Realising that two things that look different were actually just different aspects of the same thing, for example electricity and magnetism, means you’ve understood more.
The theories that bring together two ideas together like that are often very, very successful at predicting new things that we didn’t know about. For example, radio waves, laser beams and many things that people had never dreamed about until Maxwell came along.
Q: How well do people understand the science of the universe?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] People are astonishingly poor at responding to our understanding, and are incredibly good at silo-approaches to their lives. Unfortunately, in our world many people think they understand things, without really understanding them.
Something like 60% of all educated people in the United States believe that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago! These are the same people who have spent their time looking at pictures from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope!
People are amazingly poor at taking big lessons and using them in their lives. Fortunately, there are some instances where we can do that, and cases where it’s essential. The famous topical example of course is climate change- unless people come to really understand that the world is a finite thing, we’re in trouble. The timescales involved however are difficult for most people to comprehend as it doesn’t impact their lives in quite as direct a manner as medicine for example- where people are happy to say, ‘I don’t understand how it works, but I know it will affect me, give me that pill…’
Even when societies are very well educated, they are very poor at sitting-back and being rational about their lives.
Q: How well do we understand the answers to the big questions around the birth of the universe, life and so on?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] We are making very rapid progress to understanding the big questions, though we have not answered them yet. The remarkable thing we’ve been able to do is to turn those rather general questions into quite specific ones.
Recent experiments mean we now know exactly how old the universe is, we know it had a beginning about 13.9 billion years ago. We know how old the Earth is, we know pretty-well when life (of some sort) started on Earth. We don’t know the why behind any of those.
Science is very good at saying what happens and immediately before, but not much further as we’re not (yet) good at going back in time. We’re very good at predicting the future, we’re very good at predicting how the Earth will continue to orbit the sun for a long time in the future, but we don’t know quite as much about how it formed in the first place.
In the past few hundred years, the big change has been that we can now ask those quantitative questions and we’re optimistic that- in many cases- when we answer those questions, we will understand why things are as they are. This progress has already been made in the subjects we call chemistry and engineering- we no longer argue about why elements interact, or atoms interact and make molecules, it’s understood and we don’t need a ‘God’ in the machine. We aren’t there yet on the really fundamental questions about matter and the nature of the universe.
Q: How does physics sit alongside other sciences, philosophy and religion?
[Professor Neil Turok] I would say it quite simply: science is the part of our intellectual endeavours which works most successfully. We don’t really know why it works, but we have learned how to do it, to develop rigorous, mathematical ideas and to test them experimentally. It takes me back to the point about Newton insofar as science really is the magic that works. But there are many aspects of human thought and discourse that science cannot tackle such as morality, aesthetics, and ethics. Science can inform those areas, but does not tell us how to live our lives.
Another example is free will. This is something on which physics has very little to say as yet – well, it may have something to say, but we don’t quite understand what it is yet. The transition from classical physics- the clock work universe where everything was determined by its prior state- to the quantum world where everything is possible, but with a different probability does seem to have something to say about free will but I think that nobody has any idea about how the mechanism of free will would operate within quantum theory. This is another fascinating challenge, but at the moment we do not have clues to which way we begin to address the problem- and it is a long way off.
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] Most scientists would say that requiring some non-scientific explanation for a question is a last-resort, you don’t go there until you’re absolutely certain that all other explanations have failed, and even then the ‘God’ question is left to the domain of ethics rather than philosophy. It’s about how people live their lives, rather than where the chemical elements of your body came from.
[Professor Adam Riess] Physicists don’t just sit around and do physics! In my field of experiments and observations, we also have to work with tools from other areas of thought and science such as mathematics, chemistry, biology, aeronautics, engineering and more.
We have to realise that certain questions aren’t even science questions, but tend into the metaphysical, philosophical or even religious. My field of cosmology is butting-up against an uncomfortable one of these with multiverse-theory, which proposes that there are many universes out there. This could just be a nice idea, except some scientists call on this idea as a resolution to this difficult problem of the dark-energy we see in the universe. Why do we have such an unusually weak dark energy that has allowed the universe to form and have life in it? One of the answers that started to come to us is that there may be many universes, and it’s only the lucky universes that have creatures that can be born and come to contemplate the miracle that they are able to exist.
By definition, anytime or however rare life is, anywhere in the universe… to those who are born there and have enough intelligence to contemplate their existence, this ‘rareness’ will be a struggle to their understanding.
The ones that won the ‘life’ lottery ticket are the only ones who live and get to contemplate their win. We may have won the ultimate lottery, and it may be a foolish struggle to understand who handed us this lottery ticket and why, but if we could see this greater number of universes out there, maybe we would reconcile that someone had to win, and it just so happened it was us. On the other hand, we turn to a fundamental question- is this science? It’s difficult to design an experiment or observation that would test the hypothesis that there are other, unobservable universes.
Q: What are your views on the nature of Life?
[Professor Neil Turok] From a physicist’s point of view, life is a deeply paradoxical thing. It doesn’t violate any of the laws we know‐ but it is not what we would have expected: its what we refer to as an “emergent phenomenon“. This means a phenomenon where even if you understand the laws and rules of a system at a fundamental “microscopic” level, you may not be able to predict what that system does at a large “macroscopic” level. To understand life, you have to understand the world at a series of different levels, not just in terms of molecules and how they interact with each other. You have to understand how, when large numbers of molecules gather together, and they have a source of energy and sufficiently complicated networks of interactions, then all of a sudden self‐organising phenomena can happen. A cell can maintain itself, maintain its pH, water content and so forth in an active manner. So far, physics has not yet proven itself in the realm of biology. The litmus test for physics is if you can predict something reliably and accurately, and if the predictions always turn out to be true. When you try to apply physics thinking to living systems- they are, so far, too complicated for that kind of prediction to be possible. This is similarly true of areas such as financial markets. Many physicists have gone into financial mathematics and prediction of financial markets, and they have often gotten egg on their faces. The market is too complicated and driven by all kinds of psychological and other pressures which we cannot yet describe in an accurate mathematical way.
Personally, I am fundamentally agnostic about this. I think it is so far too complicated for physics and mathematics to offer much insight on. For reasons we do not yet understand, the world on the very tiniest scales, sub-atomic, seems to be incredibly simple and we can make predictions which are accurate to a trillion decimal places and verified by experiments in an utterly reliable manner. Likewise the universe on the very largest scales, over fourteen billion light years, is astonishingly simple. It is almost the same everywhere and in all directions. We can calculate from basic theory what the variations in density in the universe are from place to place, how they give rise to galaxies, stars and so on. At the very large scales, the universe seems very simple and comprehensible. It is the intermediate scale where there are living things and very complex phenomena such as the weather and chaos‐ where the world is much harder to describe accurately. My own inclination as a scientist has been to focus on the simpler problems where we can understand something of fundamental importance, but in an arena where we can trust the equations, where the physics is simple and robust enough and can be tested with experiment. For somebody interested in fundamental physics that means to focus on the very smallest or largest scales. The very complex phenomena on intermediate scales, such as life and intelligence, are so far beyond our abilities to tackle. I would love to think about those‐ but so far, we don’t have a good thread or core idea which we can follow and I think, at the moment, we are awaiting insight from experiments or from really new ideas which can give us a thread we can pull on and hopefully develop our understanding. The very fact that life exists‐ the basic laws which govern it‐ are very far from being understood. We know about genetics, we know about the constituents of life. If you ask a detailed question about where the energy came from, we know all about that. What we don’t understand is how collectively, a bunch of organic molecules, put into a bag‐ which is a cell‐ spontaneously organise themselves into all kinds of structures, preserve themselves, consume energy, produce new proteins and so forth. I would say that we don’t have a mathematical description and laws to really tell us how that works. It’s deeply mysterious.
Q: What is the role of art, philosophy and creativity in science?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] We can learn a great deal from combining the way people think, after all everyone thinks differently and many people do appreciate the abstract as well as the concrete and specific. An equation can be beautiful if you understand it, but so can fine art or poetry.
It was the old medieval and classical way of learning, one did all these different branches of learning- from rhetoric to theology and law- and so any educated person had done all those things. Now that each subject is so big, we have to specialise very-early and people only learn a very-narrow part of the spectrum of knowledge. We don’t have ‘renaissance man’ any more, and so we look through our narrow-tunnels. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but often it’s not, and often it restricts our approach.
I suspect strongly that the current appreciation of the potential value of ‘big data’ and how we combine data, will extend very quickly into linguistics. You have to understand how the mind understand language before computers can talk to people rationally, before we get AI. Unless computers can understand how and why our brains respond to different stimuli, they will not be able to fully help us.
It’s not just a utilitarian approach that’s going to broaden our ability to understand hard problems.
Q: What is the role of science in society?
[Professor Neil Turok] One of my other fundamental views is that this miracle of science‐which‐works to an astonishing degree – : this miracle is cross‐cultural. Whether you are from Japan, Bangladesh or Cameroon, the electron is described by Dirac’s equation. . Science is something above us as individuals‐ in that sense, it is like a religion. It is something which we don’t understand, but it can be a powerful unifying force for humanity because it is objective and especially because it will be absolutely key to our future whether we survive as a species and as a planet. Advances in technology are going to be essential to solve the energy problem, global warming, and maybe even ultimately the necessity to get into space and onto other planets. The fact that we have this unifying force for all of humanity is one of our most important hopes for the future. For me, it’s very powerful, and the disconnect between most of society and science which I mentioned earlier is very unfortunate. I would blame both sides; scientists need to be much more active in explaining what they are doing, what the importance and implications are, and the public also needs to realise that encouraging kids to get into science is one of the best things they can do for the future because that will enable them to tackle the problems the world faces.
The moon missions were an amazing example. Almost all of the physicists of my generation, or a little older, who were kids or teenagers in the sixties, went into science in some way because of the moon mission. It was incredibly influential for all of us.
Q: Could we ever progress beyond our understanding of time and space?
[Professor Adam Riess] Einstein’s relativity gave us a nice picture of time and space that works very well, and explains a lot of things we see. However, when you bring that picture into the world of quantum mechanics? It’s not so compatible.
Many people are struggling to find a deeper-reality; and perhaps this could come from string-theory or some other theory that can marry our understanding of gravity, time and space and physics at the scale of the atom. If there is a success to that process, it would be revolutionary- and maybe our existing theories of time and space would no longer have meaning.
Discovery is a bumpy path. It was a little over 20 years ago that we discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and that it’s filled with dark energy. Yes, this answered some questions but it created a whole lot more. If you were to measure the success of society based on the number of questions we have yet to answer? Turns out, we’re not doing so well…
If you want to study the questions we have now versus the questions we had a few decades ago, you can see we have made progress. Many of our older questions have been answered, and new questions have replaced them.
To use the analogy, we do indeed, occasionally, figure out a particular chicken that came from a particular egg, but the process is never-ending.
Q: How do you reconcile scientific with creativity and curiosity?
[Professor Adam Riess] Poets and philosopher still have to wake-up, put their pants on, eat food and can separate their creative thinking with the practical.
I don’t love bureaucracy, I don’t love writing research grants, but at the end of the day I love to think about the universe, and what these observations can reveal, and I can hold these seemingly at-odds phenomena in different parts of my brain.
Science is magical. Anyone who has every played with a transistor radio experienced the thrill of listening to different cities and countries. Imagine saying to that person, ‘hey, why don’t you listen to the radio stations in space? If we’re broadcasting here on Earth, maybe there are broadcasts in space, and all we need is a big-enough antenna!’ it’s a very seductive idea to excite people with the right orientation.
Q: What do you think the next century of research holds?
[Professor Adam Riess] We know how, experiments, the building of technology (such as particle accelerators and space telescopes), and observations, that we are able to progress in a step-by-step way. We will make progress this way, and our work will yield important clues.
What’s much harder to predict, and has a bigger impact, is when someone like an Einstein comes along and gives us a tremendous leap-forward. When we will we get our next Einstein? When will the next giant intellectual breakthrough come? Einstein completely re-imagined space, time and gravity in ways that would have been near-impossible had he simply followed the steps.
Looking back at the history of science, there have been these giant ideas that have catapulted the field forward. Nobody can predict this. We can’t say, ‘hey, we’ll switch on this particle accelerator in 2 years, and have a seismic shift in our understanding in 5 years…’
If we look at the old story of the sword and the stone…. Everyone comes along and tries to pull it out, but the sword is waiting for the right person. Science is like that. Observers and experimentalists are pointing out the puzzles, the swords in the stone, things that don’t fit our understanding, or are left-over from theories. Those challenges will attract the right people to solve them, and we need to permit a culture that celebrates those challenges, and creates the right environment for people to generate brilliant ideas.
This unpredictable phenomenon of giant leaps is fun!… every time I go to a talk, I have a certain excitement… What if this new, crazy idea could be the one that changes everything?
Q: What would be your message to the future?
[Professor Gerry Gilmore] Wordsworth once wrote, “Shades of the prison-house begin to close upon the growing Boy.”
As we get older, we get too much experience. That experience is what we call wisdom or common sense, but what it really does is restrain our ability to understand what we see! We get constrained by having to interpret everything in terms of our previous experience, and our previous experience can only relate to the slow-moving, low-gravity, easy world on which we are getting that experience- it tells us nothing about black holes, elementary particles and so on.
As we get more experience, we get less intelligent and less capable. We may get wiser and more knowledgeable, but we are less-able to be imaginative and creative.
Every major advance in basic-science has come from people who were under 30, and lot of the reason for this comes from the interdisciplinary links between psychology, science, economics and philosophy.
Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on explaining how the rational user and the efficient market were both just figments of our imagination because our brains have evolved to keep us alive, and the longer we’ve been alive, the better we’ve got at using our brains to keep us alive. Keeping us alive is not the most efficient way to understand our surroundings however, and as a result- our brains use only a tiny part of the information that’s in there, and focus on what we need to get through for the day.
The way to make progress is to break-away from the assumptions that you don’t even know you’re making. Those assumptions are largely cultural, and that’s why all these people brought up in religious societies have firm-opinions on the origins of the universe that don’t correspond to what we see through telescopes.
The whole of history is littered with examples of people getting it wrong, or not making the advances they should have made, because they were so confident they knew something, and that something they knew was largely cultural bias.
You have to have the courage to question everything, and not take anything for granted.
[Professor Adam Riess] Isaac Newton talked about seeing further by standing on the shoulders of giants… The truth? It’s giants, standing on giants, standing on giants. Every generation has the luxury of a higher perspective than the ones before them.
Never before has so much been known. Never before have we had this many clues. What are the next steps in our understanding? That’s for the next generation to figure out.
F. J. O Coddington, in 1940 wrote an important essay in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. He states, “In the long, slow episodic unrolling of my life, and of learning from books and people and meditation, I have (like all of us) from time to time encountered certain ideas, principles or methods of thought or of attack which seem to me master keys- keys not indeed to unlock the ultimate hidden mysteries, but at any rate good enough to open many doors-if only to show how empty are the boasted treasure stores some of them guard from the public eye. Perhaps the most obvious example is that key, or rather bunch of keys, labelled “Evolution.” I do not mean Darwinism, or any other precise and detailed theory of biological development, but the broad conviction that most matters can be better appreciated when one has contemplated their history and development in the belief that these are likely to have proceeded by a system of growth conditioned by heredity and reaction to environment.”
Over many thousands of years, intellectual enquiry in all disciplines from sciences to humanities, has taken aboard these fundamental questions of “where did we come from?“, “why are things as they are?” and “what does it all mean?” and created theories. “In the history of science,..” as Stephen Hawking comments in his 2010 book, “The Grand Design“, “we have discovered a sequence of better and better theories or models, from Plato to the classical theory of Newton to modern quantum theories. It is natural to ask: Will this sequence eventually reach an end point, an ultimate theory of the universe, that will include all forces and predict every observation we can make, or will we continue forever finding better theories, but never one that cannot be improved upon?”
It is this very curiosity that has led us on a journey where we progress from believing with total conviction that rain is metaphysical, caused by the anger of the gods, to a world where we can, with reasonable certainty, discuss the fact that our entire universe could simply be one of an infinite number of threads of probability, in a system where every possible outcome of everything exists simultaneously, in an unlimited number of universes. For scientists, understanding the true nature of this total system may be called “unification” and for religious philosophers it may be called “understanding god“. In either case, the implications are profound.
It is arrogant for us to assume that we are somehow discovering the “secrets” of the universe. It would apply a certain degree of existential sleight of hand whereby the universe chooses, in a quintessentially human way, to withhold information from us. We, as a species, have existed for only 0.0014% of the total life of the universe to-date, and for the remaining 13.99billion years, it would appear the universe has functioned perfectly well without us. In a more recent context, it does not take a huge amount of scientific enquiry to determine that the Earth itself, not only existed before we did, but was potentially better off for that fact.
Our journey, instead, is one of inspiration. Humans are storytellers at heart. We have language, art, culture, science, philosophy, religion and a whole manner of disciplines which allow us to engage in a range of stories from the mundane to the metaphysical and from the intellectual to the idiotic. This is part of what makes us quintessentially human and is a significant factor in our (self ascribed) success as a species.
Scientific enquiry yields new chapters in our story. It helps us understand how we came to be, and potentially where we go from here. The stories create the tools we need to sustain, develop and defend our very existence as a species and will, in time, bring us closer together as a society, and help us to put right much of the damage we have done to an environment so beautiful, and so rare, that science cannot plausibly comprehend its very being. The difference now, more than ever before, is that the stories we generate are not fairy tales. They are based on rigorous global research and discourse often between many thousands of minds. The stories are tested using technologies which were previously held in the realms of science fiction and present us with answers equally profound to the questions they were intending to solve.
For us, as actors in this production, we must remain engaged in the story and realise it’s context. Science is not separate from us, science is us. It is our story, and serves to give us a window into a specific part of our existence which we otherwise may not understand. Such enquiry cannot be viewed in isolation, however. Human culture is, by its very definition, not simply scientific; rather it is manifest from a gamut of disciplines from the arts, humanities, and other spheres. For us to understand our very humanity, therefore, we must understand the components must be viewed together, and in context. As Einstein himself once said, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”
And as for our role in this story? Carl Gustav Jung’s words are perhaps the most appropriate saying, “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
So, as it was said in Genesis 1:3, “Let there be light.“