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Author Topic: Questions That Plague Physics: A Conversation with Lawrence M. Krauss
Jimmy Brogan
Babbler # 3290

posted 19 August 2004 12:12 PM      Profile for Jimmy Brogan   Author's Homepage     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Questions That Plague Physics: A Conversation with Lawrence M. Krauss

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: What are the top questions bedeviling physicists today?

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: Three that I find fascinating are: What is the nature of dark energy? How can we reconcile black hole evaporation with quantum mechanics? And, finally, do extra dimensions exist? They are all connected. And they are all going to require some new insights into quantum gravity. But someone is going to have to come up with a totally new and remarkable idea. And it's hard to predict when that is going to happen. In 1904 you couldn't have predicted that Albert Einstein would come up with a remarkable idea in 1905.
I think the resolution to these problems is likely to be theoretical and not experimental. This is because direct experimental signatures that might point us in the right theoretical directions in these areas probably lie beyond the realm of current experiments. I'd also bet that the solution to these problems is not going to resemble anything being done now, including string theory.

SA: Is string theory the physics equivalent of The God That Failed, as some people used to say about communist ideology?

LK: Not exactly. But I do think its time may be past. String theory and the other modish physical theory, loop quantum gravity, both stem from one basic idea: that there's a mathematical problem with general relativity.
The idea is that when you try to examine physical phenomena on ever smaller scales, gravity acts worse and worse. Eventually, you get infinities. And almost all research to find a quantum theory of gravity is trying to understand these infinities. What string theory and what loop quantum gravity do is go around this by not going smaller than a certain distance scale, because if you do, things will behave differently. Both these theories are based on the idea that you can't go down to zero in a point particle, and that's one way to get rid of mathematical infinities. The main difference, I think, between the two theories is that string is intellectually and mathematically far richer.
String theory hasn't accomplished a lot in terms of solving physical problems, but it's produced a lot of interesting mathematical discoveries. That's why it fascinates. Loop quantum gravity hasn't even done that, at least in my mind.

SA: How did you come to write The Physics of Star Trek?

LK: Actually, it began as a joke, probably sometime in 1993. I had just finished Fear of Physics for Basic Books. I was chatting with my editor about what I might do for them next. Somewhere in the conversation, she mentioned something about her daughter's being a Trekker. "How about The Physics of Star Trek?" she laughed.
That night I started thinking about the transporter, a Star Trek device that disassembled your atoms, moved them almost instantaneously to somewhere else and reassembled them in that place. What might it take to build one? That led to my making a list of all these neat Star Trek phenomena that one could use to hook people into thinking about physics. If people loved this imaginary stuff, I thought, why couldn't they love real science, which is a thousand times more amazing?
I was blunt about Trek things that wouldn't work. But I also pointed readers toward more fascinating possibilities in the real universe. Real science comes up with ideas that no fiction writer would have the temerity to suggest. Think about cosmic antigravity, something I work on at my day job: no one understands why empty space should have energy. It's the weirdest idea in the world!

SA: You are one of the few top physicists who is also known as a public intellectual. In the middle of the past century, that kind of activity by scientists was much more common. Albert Einstein, in fact, was an international celebrity, whose private views of everything from nuclear disarmament to Zionism were solicited by the press. Why do you think you're such a rare bird that way now?

LK: I can't speak for others. Besides my own research, I see part of my mission as trying to close the disconnect between science and the rest of the culture. We live in a society where it's considered okay for intelligent people to be scientifically illiterate. Now, it wasn't always that way. At the beginning of the 20th century, you could not be considered an intellectual unless you could discuss the key scientific issues of the day. Today you can pick up an important intellectual magazine and find a write-up of a science book with a reviewer unashamedly saying, "This was fascinating. I didn't understand it." If they were reviewing a work by John Kenneth Galbraith, they wouldn't flaunt their ignorance of economics.

SA: How did science illiteracy become socially acceptable?

LK: We all know how badly science is taught in many schools. So many middle school and even some high school teachers have no background in science. When my daughter was in the second grade and I went to her school, I was stunned by how her teacher seemed incredibly uncomfortable with having to teach even the simplest scientific concepts. I think this is common. And there is the reality that science has grown increasingly esoteric, making it more difficult for laypeople to grasp.
The truth is--and I'm hardly the first to say this--after World War II, American scientists became an isolated elite. The secrets that allowed them to change the world also allowed them to shirk responsibility for citizenship. Scientists became a class above society, rather than a part of it. And so for the longest time, certainly until the 1970s, many American scientists just didn't believe that reaching the public was important. Those were good times, with lots of money coming in. The wake-up call came in 1993, when Congress killed the Superconducting Super Collider. That was a real signal physicists were doing something wrong.
We hadn't convinced the public--or even all of our colleagues--that it was worth billions to build this thing. And since then, it has become clear: to get money for what we do, we're going to have to explain it to the public. My predilection is to try to connect the interesting ideas in science to the rest of people's lives.

He's making a bid to become another Sagan - a top scientist with both a strong desire and the ability to disseminate scientific literacy.

From: The right choice - Iggy Thumbscrews for Liberal leader | Registered: Nov 2002  |  IP: Logged
Babbler # 490

posted 19 August 2004 12:29 PM      Profile for DrConway     Send New Private Message      Edit/Delete Post  Reply With Quote 
Excellent. Brian Greene is another of those who I think is well on his way to promoting scientific literacy. His second book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, has fascinating looks at what might be considered esoteric principles of science, and makes them quite relevant to today's attempts to understand the nature of the universe.

His earlier book, The Elegant Universe, focussed primarily on explaining the deficiencies in why general relativity is not quantizable using the quantum-mechanical assumption of point fundamental particles, and how string theory erases this problem.

His new one is broader-ranging as a result, but I liked his first one. Very few books are extremely influential to me, but this was one of them. Before reading Elegant Universe, I would have sworn up and down that there was no way to successfully unify general relativity and quantum mechanics; I had been told in the mid-90s that for all the promise of string theory it was still too abstract and fraught with difficulties to be an excellent candidate, and so I had believed that such progress would not be made. Boy, was I wrong and I don't mind saying so.

We should not forget Isaac Asimov, who also did much to try and increase scientific literacy by writing many popular articles and books on the subject in a way anyone could understand. While he was a chemist and later a biochemist, he wrote on things ranging far afield, from physics to astronomy. He was even able to write lucidly about rather esoteric bits of quantum mechanics and relate them, amusingly, to human behavior (if anyone's curious, he was relating the nonconservation of parity in the weak interaction to the fact that homosexual relationships can exist because humans don't conserve parity in choosing up partners. )

What's interesting is that there's a growth of scientific illiteracy at the same time as the arts-type courses are being de-emphasized in high schools in favor of the "hard" science and math courses which are considered essential to get into a university and a career which pays.

I'm not sure why this trend is happening, unless the people who, in times past, would have taken as much science as they wanted provided they could do all the arts that they could do, now are forced into doing science, and as a result memorize just enough to pass the course, and then forget all about it because they never liked it anyway.

From: You shall not side with the great against the powerless. | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged

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