Origins

“Ah, the origin of the universe,” sighs physicist Leonard Susskind from the stage of Beckman Auditorium. “Boy, does that ever take me back.”

An hour later, Paul Davies intoned for the third time, “as Lenny already mentioned…” before explaining again that the universe is in fact quite old, and did or did not, perhaps, depending on your point of view and interpretation of various fine intricacies some small subset of specialists may or may not understand, come from somewhere.

The third physicist to speak, Caltech’s own Sean Carroll, probably couldn’t even tell who to credit before making a point. Was it “as Paul already mentioned,” or “as Lenny alluded,” or “as Paul said that Lenny previously indicated that I might say when it was my turn, about the point Paul made clarifying Lenny’s tangent on my thesis…”

Perhaps you see the difficulty, at something like the Origins conference, in keeping your physicists apart. When it comes to speculating on genesis, they appear to be bosons. (Note to non-physics people: that’s not as mean as you think. “Boson” is the name of a famous circus clown. He invented gravity. To help him juggle.)

Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptic Society, brought a host of eminent scientists to Caltech last Saturday to speak before a lay audience (like me). Ostensibly, their goal was to collectively meditate on whether “science makes belief in God obsolete.”

The scientists involved were as nonplussed by the imponderability of this question as any other reasonable person would be, and proceeded to talk about their research, instead.

Cristof Koch, Caltech’s (literally) colorful neuroscience professor, shocked his audience by explaining that, as a scientist, he thinks consciousness comes from somewhere. He tries to find out where by looking very closely.

For example, in occasional unfortunate instances, it’s medically necessary to stick all sorts of wires in epileptic people’s brains. As long as you’re doing that, you might as well mess around with some science.

It turns out that each concept you can consciously identify, such as “redness”, “pain”, and “Halle Berry-ness”) (a special property shared by her image, text of her name, and a sound recording of her name, but not images of other actresses or anything else researchers can think of), corresponds somewhere in your brain to the binary activity of a neuron. If you are seeing Halle Berry, the neuron fires. If you aren’t it doesn’t.

Sounds simple, right? That’s because it’s from a talk for designed for simple people. Consciousness is complicated, comes in varying degrees, and is notoriously slippy to analyze. But does Koch think the study of consciousness involves theology? No.

Do Susskind, Davies, and Carroll think that God can help explain the origin of the universe? No. If you stretch, it’s a slightly-fuzzy no. But still no.

Does David Prothero, Caltech/Occidental-affiliated expert on the fossil evidence of evolution, think religious considerations aid our understanding of the origin of life, or the Cambrian proliferation of life? Emphatic no.

But frankly, they just don’t seem that worried about it. They were brought in to talk about God. But except for Prothero, whose science is the target of a vigorous attack from certain flavors of Christianity, the speakers at the Origins conference confined their theological ruminations to a couple of bullet points on their final “in conclusion…” slide.

Sean Carroll excitedly delved into Boltzmann’s hypothesis that the universe’s low-entropy past is a statistical blip in an infinite history, then excoriated the idea and presented a new model of baby universes pinching off and “never writing home to their parents.”

Susskind compared the finely-tuned nature of physical constants to the finely-tuned sequence of a human genome to illustrate his idea of how string theory might explain the state of the universe.

Prothero described lab experiments in creating the chemistry of life. Davies speculated on the meta-laws constraining choices among logically-consistent universes. Koch told me I would forget the color of his orange shirt (I think), and that this was based on science.

So imagine that. You work so hard to bring a bunch of great scientists together to have a discussion about some sort of general silliness mankind spends its time fretting over, but they ignore the bait and discuss their scientific passions instead. Well, newly-minted frosh, welcome to Caltech.

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One Response to “Origins”

  1. Olber’s Paradox « Arcsecond Says:

    […] This “constant light everywhere” situation is not really so far from the truth, since every direction in the sky does glow the same temperature. It’s just our luck that the temperature of the night sky (more commonly, the Cosmic Microwave Background) is two orders of magnitude colder than the Earth, and that the Earth is about an order of magnitude colder than a star. Nice place to be, thermodynamically, as Sean Carroll pointed out in a public lecture I previously wrote about. […]

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