April 17, 2014

What Do We Make of The Big Bang?

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths to come to grips with the beginning of everything? So we're clearing the deck to listen to wisdom of the physicists: where did we come from, what are we made of, what happens next, and why? And what do we do with what we're learning?

 

Guest List

Prof. Alan Guth, the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago;
Prof. Max Tegmark, at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background;
Prof. Robert Kirshner, the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science.

 

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths, and the matters of the day, to come to grips with the beginning of everything? We’re clearing our heads to listen to the wisdom of the physicists, in their words and images, to get to the bottom of some pretty basic questions.

Our “Top Ten” Questions:

1. Where did it all come from?
2. Where is it going?
3. What is it made of?
4. What is driving it all?
5. How big is it?
6. How will it all end?
7. What is real?
8. How do we know?
9. Where do we come into it?
10. Is there any meaning to it?

guth

A page from Alan Guth’s 1979 notebook, in which he theorizes cosmic inflation

 

Podcast • March 5, 2012

Lisa Randall: What we talk about when we talk about science…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)  I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about… Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Lisa Randall (39 min, 18 meg)

 I do theoretical physics. I like being able to decide every day what to think about…

Lisa Randall with Chris Lydon in her Harvard Lab, March 1, 2012.

Lisa Randall — our village explainer of 21st Century science — is talking about subatomic particles. What I’m hearing are resonances of what used to be called a religious curiosity and hunger.

What big science wants to measure, she’s saying, in the speed-of-light smash-ups of protons inside CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the strong force that holds things together.” And I’m wondering out loud: aren’t we all searching for the strong force that holds things together?

It’s not just that the elusive “Higgs boson” in the LHC’s simulation of the Big Bang’s aftermath is often called “the God particle.” (Leon Lederman, who wrote the book, actually wanted to call it “the god-damned particle,” according to Lisa Randall, but his publisher wouldn’t let him). It’s more that so much of our conversation corresponds with the language of religion — starting with experimental leaps of faith, invisible planes of reality, unprovable understandings and the driven pursuit of the unknowable.

I like the line attributed to Chris Hill of the Fermi Lab — using the churchy word “rubric” which used to mean the headings in the Roman Missal printed in red. “The Higgs boson is really a rubric,” said Mr. Hill in Discover magazine. “We don’t know what we’re talking about.”

What I like about Lisa Randall’s books — Warped Passages, about extra dimensions, and now Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about inner and outer limits of the cosmos — is the air of assurance and also mystery. In her office at Harvard, she is touching on the approachable and the sublime, relaxed about the overlapping metaphors and human interests, the “common questions” arising from religion and science. And of course there is a faith inside science. As she says, “You have to believe it’s worth pursuing.”

Podcast • November 9, 2010

Pakistan 3.0: The "CIA Jihad" and the Whirlwind Today

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Baluchistan… So it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done.

Salman Rushdie, in Shame, his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan. (1983)

Pervez Hoodbhoy is among the eminent cosmopolitan Pakistanis who press two urgent points about today: (1) that the clear and present danger at home is truly scary; that nuclear-tipped Pakistan (not Stone-Age Afghanistan, nor youthful, half-modern Iran) is the epicenter of Islamic extremism; that as Salman Rushdie said in closing a talk at Brown last Spring, “if Pakistan goes down, we’re all f**ked.” And (2) that it might help if Americans and their government understood what most Pakistanis observe: that it was a “CIA jihad” in the late ’70s and ’80s that implanted the virus of killer-force fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the last battle of the Cold War.

Physicist, film-maker and leading public citizen in Pakistan, Pervez Hoodboy is recounting how Pakistanis, “across the board,” came to hate intrusive America long before today’s drone missiles. 1979 was a turning point when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and then American arms and Saudi money constructed a counterforce in Pakistan:

You had the CIA bringing in the strongest and most ideologically charged of fighters from across the globe. It was billions and billions of dollars that got pumped into the creation of the mujahedeen, celebrated by Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson. You had the CIA distributing millions of Korans in the madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was this monster that grew so big that it was out of control. It ate up its master, the United States and now Pakistan… Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri and all these people who are being sought after so eagerly by the United States — these were creations of the CIA.

And now the whirlwind:

PH: I’m tremendously worried about how Pakistani culture is being morphed into something that looks suspiciously like Saudi culture. We used to be taught about the world; we used to be taught about history, geography. Now … everything is regarded through the prism of religion—and a particular variant of the religion. And that is the Saudi, Wahhabi way of looking at things. It’s infiltrated our language. We used to say while parting, Khuda Hafiz, that is, God be with you. Now we say Allah Hafiz. Now there is a subtle difference over here. The Persian God, Khoda, has been replaced by the Arabic God, Allah… There are now burkas everywhere. So, when I teach my class in the University, physics classes, I cannot see half the faces of my women students.

CL: You have seen this face of Islamism that most Americans haven’t. What makes it so powerful, so threatening?

PH: I’m threatened because Islamism threatens to drag us back to the 7th century… After the 2005 earthquake, which affected many areas of Pakistan, there were the mullahs who came out and said: this happened because you were watching television. And so there were thousands of televisions that were broken. After I returned from those areas and went back to my class — I was teaching Atomic Physics and Statistical Mechanics — I said to my students: “You know I have been over there, seen this terrible devastation and we have two duties. One, as Pakistani citizens, is to help our brethren. The other is, as students of science, we have got to tell these people that is was not the wrath of god. It wasn’t that people were sinful that the earthquake happened. It happened because tectonic plates were moving on a fluid surface of the earth and this is how mountains grow… And there was outrage in the class, against me. They said: but Professor, don’t you know that it is written in the Koran that this is how God punishes doers of bad. At the next class, I got exactly the same response. A few students later on came to me and said to me: Professor, we are really sorry; we thought you were right, but we couldn’t speak up. kwame