Sean Carroll hosts conversations with the world’s most interesting thinkers. Science, society, philosophy, culture, arts, and ideas.
Here's the Latest Episode from Sean Carroll’s Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas – Sean Carroll:
Some people never drink wine; for others, it’s an indispensable part of an enjoyable meal. Whatever your personal feelings might be, wine seems to exhibit a degree of complexity and nuance that can be intimidating to the non-expert. Where does that complexity come from, and how can we best approach wine? To answer these questions, we talk to Matthew Luczy, sommelier and wine director at Mélisse, one of the top fine-dining restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Matthew insisted that we actually drink wine rather than just talking about it, so drink we do. Therefore, in a Mindscape first, I recruited a third party to join us and add her own impressions of the tasting: science writer Jennifer Ouellette, who I knew would be available because we’re married to each other. We talk about what makes different wines distinct, the effects of aging, and what’s the right bottle to have with pizza. You are free to drink along at home, with exactly these wines or some other choices, but I think the podcast will be enjoyable whether you do or not.
Mattew Luczy is a Certified Sommelier as judged by the Court of Master Sommeliers. He currently works as the Wine Director at Mélisse in Santa Monica, California. He is also active in photography and music.
The space age officially began in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. But recent years have seen the beginning of a boom in the number of objects orbiting Earth, as satellite tracking and communications have assumed enormous importance in the modern world. This raises obvious concerns for the control and eventual fate of these orbiting artifacts. Natalya Bailey is pioneering a novel approach to satellite propulsion, building tiny ion engines at her company Accion Systems. We talk about how satellite technology is rapidly changing, and what that means for the future of space travel inside and outside the Solar System.
Natalya Bailey received her Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, where she helped invent a new kind of ion engine. She is currently co-founder and chief executive officer of Accion Systems Inc. She has been included in 30 Under 30 lists from Forbes, Inc, and MIT Technology Review.
One of the most important insights in the history of science is the fact that complex behavior can arise from the undirected movements of small, simple systems. Despite the fact that we know this, we’re still working to truly understand it — to uncover the mechanisms by which, and conditions under which, complexity can emerge from simplicity. (Coincidentally, a new feature in Quanta on this precise topic came out while this episode was being edited.) Steven Strogatz is a leading researcher in this field, a pioneer both in the subject of synchronization and in that of small-world networks. He’s also an avid writer and wide-ranging thinker, so we also talk about problems with the way we educate young scientists, and the importance of calculus, the subject of his new book.
Steven Strogatz received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard, and is currently the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell. His work has ranged over a wide variety of topics in mathematical biology, nonlinear dynamics, networks, and complex systems. He is the author of a number of books, including SYNC, The Joy of x, and most recently Infinite Powers. His awards include teaching prizes at MIT and Cornell, as well as major prizes from the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Lewis Thomas Prize.
The modern world is full of technology, and also with anxiety about technology. We worry about robot uprisings and artificial intelligence taking over, and we contemplate what it would mean for a computer to be conscious or truly human. It should probably come as no surprise that these ideas aren’t new to modern society — they go way back, at least to the stories and mythologies of ancient Greece. Today’s guest, Adrienne Mayor, is a folklorist and historian of science, whose recent work has been on robots and artificial humans in ancient mythology. From the bronze warrior Talos to the evil fembot Pandora, mythology is rife with stories of artificial beings. It’s both fun and useful to think about our contemporary concerns in light of these ancient tales.
Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar Classics and History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. She is also a Berggruen Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Her work has encompasses fossil traditions in classical antiquity and Native America, the origins of biological weapons, and the historical precursors of the stories of Amazon warriors. In 2009 she was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Consciousness has many aspects, from experience to wakefulness to self-awareness. One aspect is imagination: our minds can conjure up multiple hypothetical futures to help us decide which choices we should make. Where did that ability come from? Today’s guest, Malcolm MacIver, pinpoints an important transition in the evolution of consciousness to when fish first climbed on to land, and could suddenly see much farther, which in turn made it advantageous to plan further in advance. If this idea is true, it might help us understand some of the abilities and limitations of our cognitive capacities, with potentially important ramifications for our future as a species.
Malcolm MacIver received his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2001 from the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology. (This was after an unconventional childhood where he dropped out of school at age 9 and later talked his way into a community college program.) He is currently a professor of Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurobiology at Northwestern University. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering.
Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you don’t believe in God or the supernatural. Is there still a place for talking about transcendence, the sacred, and meaning in life? Some of the above, but not all? Today’s guest, Alan Lightman, brings a unique perspective to these questions, as someone who has worked within both the sciences and the humanities at the highest level. In his most recent book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he makes the case that naturalists should take transcendence seriously. We talk about the assumptions underlying scientific practice, and the implications that the finitude of our lives has for our search for meaning.
Alan Lightman received his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology. After a number of years working as a theoretical astrophysicist specializing in black holes and high-energy processes, he scored an international bestseller with his novel Einstein’s Dreams. Increasingly concentrating on writing, he moved from Harvard to MIT, where he became the first professor to be jointly appointed in the sciences and the humanities. He later was made the John Burchard Professor of Humanities at MIT, which he has subsequently stepped down from to devote more time to writing. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which supports young women leaders in Southeast Asia.
When many of us think “Ancient Rome,” we think of the Empire and the Caesars. But the Empire was preceded by the Roman Republic, which flourished for a full five centuries. Why, after such a long and prosperous run, would an essentially democratic form of government change — with a good deal of approval from its citizens — into an autocracy? That’s the question I discuss with today’s guest, historian Edward Watts. It’s a fascinating story with many contemporary resonances, especially how reformers choose to balance working within the system to overthrowing it entirely. Lessons for modern politics are left largely for listeners to draw for themselves.
Edward Watts received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He is presently the Vassiliadis Professor of Byzantine Greek History at UC San Diego, where he was formerly Co-Director of the Center for Hellenistic Studies. He is the author of several books on ancient history, the most recent of which is Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny.
Quantum mechanics is our best theory of how reality works at a fundamental level, yet physicists still can’t agree on what the theory actually says. At the heart of the puzzle is the “measurement problem”: what actually happens when we observe a quantum system, and why do we apparently need separate rules when it happens? David Albert is one of the leading figures in the foundations of quantum mechanics today, and we discuss the measurement problem and why it’s so puzzling. Then we dive into the Many-Worlds version of quantum mechanics, which is my favorite (as I explain in my forthcoming book Something Deeply Hidden). It is not David’s favorite, so he presents the case as to why you should be skeptical of Many-Worlds. (The philosophically respectable case, that is, not a vague unease at all those other universes.)
David Albert received his Ph.D. in physics from Rockefeller University. He is currently the Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His research involves a number of topics within the foundations of physics, including the arrow of time (coining the phrase “Past Hypothesis” for the low-entropy state of the early universe) and quantum mechanics. He is the author of a number of books, including Time and Chance, Quantum Mechanics and Experience, and After Physics.
Everything we think about the world outside our immediate senses is shaped by information brought to us by other sources. In the case of what’s currently happening to the human race, we call that information “the news.” There is no such thing as “unfiltered” news — no matter how we get it, someone is deciding what information to convey and how to convey it. And the way that is happening is currently in a state of flux. Today’s guest, journalist Jessica Yellin, has seen the news business from the perspective of both the establishment and the upstart. Working for major news organizations, she witnessed the strange ways in which decisions about what to cover were made, including the constant focus on short-term profits. And now she is spearheading a new online effort to bring people news in a different way. We talk about what the news business is, what it should be, and where it is going.
Jessica Yellin has worked as a journalist in a number of different capacities. Beginning with local news in Florida, she then worked as an on-air correspondent and anchor for MSNBC and ABC, before becoming Chief White House Correspondent for CNN. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. She is currently focusing on a new project using Instagram as a new way of delivering news. Yellin is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for Public Integrity. Her upcoming novel, Savage News, is about a woman trying to navigate the modern news business.
Within every person’s mind there is on ongoing battle between reason and emotion. It’s not always a battle, of course; very often the two can work together. But at other times, our emotions push us toward actions that our reason would counsel against. Paul Bloom is a well-known psychologist and author who wrote the provocatively-titled book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and is currently writing a book about the nature of cruelty. While I sympathize with parts of his anti-empathy stance, I try to stick up for the importance of empathy in the right circumstances. We have a great discussion about the relationship between reason and emotion.
Paul Bloom received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from MIT. He is currently the Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research ranges over a variety of topics in moral psychology and childhood development. He is the author of several books and the recipient of numerous prizes, including the $1 million Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in 2017.
Reality is a tricky thing. Is love real? What about the number 5? This is clearly a job for a philosopher, and James Ladyman is one of the world’s acknowledged experts. He and his collaborators have been championing a view known as “structural realism,” in which real things are those that reflect true, useful patterns in the underlying reality. We talk about that, but also about a couple of other subjects in the broad area of philosophy of science: the history and current status of materialism/physicalism, and the nature of complex systems. This is a deep one.
James Ladyman obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, and is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He has worked broadly within the philosophy of science, including issues of realism, empiricism, physicalism, complexity, and information. His book Everything Must Go (co-authored with Don Ross) has become an influential work on the relationship between metaphysics and science.
Our climate is in the midst of dramatic changes, driven largely by human activity, with potentially enormous consequences for humanity and other species. That’s why science tells us, anyway. But there is an influential contingent, especially in the United States, who deny that reality, and work hard to prevent policy action that might ameliorate it. Where did this resistance come from, and what makes it so successful? Naomi Oreskes is a distinguished historian of science who has become, half-reluctantly, the world’s expert on this question. It turns out to be a fascinating story starting with just a handful of scientists who were passionate not only about climate, but also whether smoking causes cancer, and who cared deeply about capitalism, communism, and the Cold War.
Naomi Oreskes received her Ph.D. in Geological Research and History of Science from Stanford University. She is now a professor of the History of Science at Harvard. She is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles, many on the public reception of science. Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, was made into a feature-length documentary film.
String theory was originally proposed as a relatively modest attempt to explain some features of strongly-interacting particles, but before too long developed into an ambitious attempt to unite all the forces of nature into a single theory. The great thing about physics is that your theories don’t always go where you want them to, and string theory has had some twists and turns along the way. One major challenge facing the theory is the fact that there are many different ways to connect the deep principles of the theory to the specifics of a four-dimensional world; all of these may actually exist out there in the world, in the form of a cosmological multiverse. Brian Greene is an accomplished string theorist as well as one of the world’s most successful popularizers and advocates for science. We talk about string theory, its cosmological puzzles and promises, and what the future might hold. (For more general string theory background, check out Episode 18 with Clifford Johnson.)
Brian Greene received his doctorate from Oxford University, and is currently a professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University. His research includes foundational work on topology change, mirror symmetry, and the compactification of extra dimensions. He is the author of several best-selling books, including The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, both of which were made into TV specials for NOVA. He and Tracy Day are co-founders of the World Science Festival.
It’s hardly news that computers are exerting ever more influence over our lives. And we’re beginning to see the first glimmers of some kind of artificial intelligence: computer programs have become much better than humans at well-defined jobs like playing chess and Go, and are increasingly called upon for messier tasks, like driving cars. Once we leave the highly constrained sphere of artificial games and enter the real world of human actions, our artificial intelligences are going to have to make choices about the best course of action in unclear circumstances: they will have to learn to be ethical. I talk to Derek Leben about what this might mean and what kind of ethics our computers should be taught. It’s a wide-ranging discussion involving computer science, philosophy, economics, and game theory.
Derek Leben received his Ph.D. in philosopy from Johns Hopkins University in 2012. He is currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Ethics for Robots: How to Design a Moral Algorithm.
Sometimes science is asking esoteric questions about the fundamental nature of reality. Other times, it just wants to solve a murder. Today’s guest, Raychelle Burks, is an analytical chemist at St. Edward’s University in Texas. Before becoming a full-time academic, she worked in a crime lab using chemistry to help police track suspects, and now she does research on building new detectors for use in forensic analyses. We talk about how the real world of forensic investigation differs from the version you see portrayed on CSI, and how real chemists use their tools to help law enforcement agencies fight crime. We may even touch on how criminals could use chemical knowledge to get away with their dastardly deeds.
Raychelle Burks received her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Nebraska, and is now an Assistant Professor at St. Edward’s University. Her current research focuses on the development of portable colorimetry sensors that can be used in the field. She is active on Twitter as @DrRubidium, and often appears as an expert on podcasts and TV documentaries, as well as speaking at conventions and festivals. She is an active advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science.
Sir Roger Penrose has had a remarkable life. He has contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of general relativity, perhaps more than anyone since Einstein himself -- Penrose diagrams, singularity theorems, the Penrose process, cosmic censorship, and the list goes on. He has made important contributions to mathematics, including such fun ideas as the Penrose triangle and aperiodic tilings. He has also made bold conjectures in the notoriously contentious areas of quantum mechanics and the study of consciousness. In his spare time he's managed to become an extremely successful author, writing such books as The Emperor's New Mind and The Road to Reality. With far too much that we could have talked about, we decided to concentrate in this discussion on spacetime, black holes, and cosmology, but we made sure to reserve some time to dig into quantum mechanics and the brain by the end.
There won't be any regular episodes of Mindscape this week or next, as we take a holiday break. Regular service will resume on Monday January 7, 2019. In the meantime, here is a special Holiday Message. Most likely it will be of interest to very few people -- there's no real substantive content, just me talking about the State of the Podcast and some other things I've been doing. Thanks to everyone for listening, here's looking toward great things in 2019!
It's a big universe out there, full of an astonishing variety of questions and puzzles. Today's guest, Janna Levin, is a physicist who has delved into some of the trippiest aspects of cosmology and gravitation: the topology of the universe, extra dimensions of space, and the appearance of chaos in orbits around black holes. At the same time, she has been a pioneer in talking about science in interesting and innovative ways: a personal memoir, a novelized narrative of famous scientific lives, and a journalistic exploration of one of the most important experiments of our time. We talk about how one shapes an unusual scientific career, and how the practice of science relates to more traditionally humanistic concerns.
Janna Levin received a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, and is now the Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the author of How the Universe Got Its Spots, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and Black Hole Blues. Her awards include the PEN/Bingham Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is also the director of sciences at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY.
Everywhere around us are things that serve functions. We live in houses, sit on chairs, drive in cars. But these things don't only serve functions, they also come in particular forms, which may be emotionally or aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. The study of how form and function come together in things is what we call "Design." Today's guest, Ge Wang, is a computer scientist and electronic musician with a new book called Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime. It's incredibly creative in both substance and style, featuring a unique photo-comic layout and many thoughtful ideas about the nature of design, both practical and idealistic.
Ge Wang received his Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton University, and is currently Associate Professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. He is the author of the ChucK programming language for musical applications, and co-founder of the mobile-app developer Smule. He has given a well-known TED talk where he demonstrates Ocarina, an app for turning an iPhone into a wind instrument.
The "Easy Problems" of consciousness have to do with how the brain takes in information, thinks about it, and turns it into action. The "Hard Problem," on the other hand, is the task of explaining our individual, subjective, first-person experiences of the world. What is it like to be me, rather than someone else? Everyone agrees that the Easy Problems are hard; some people think the Hard Problem is almost impossible, while others think it's pretty easy. Today's guest, David Chalmers, is arguably the leading philosopher of consciousness working today, and the one who coined the phrase "the Hard Problem," as well as proposing the philosophical zombie thought experiment. Recently he has been taking seriously the notion of panpsychism. We talk about these knotty issues (about which we deeply disagree), but also spend some time on the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Would simulated lives be "real"? (There we agree -- yes they would.)
David Chalmers got his Ph.D. from Indiana University working under Douglas Hoftstadter. He is currently University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his books are The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, The Character of Consciousness, and Constructing the World. He and David Bourget founded the PhilPapers project.
I remember vividly hosting a colloquium speaker, about fifteen years ago, who talked about the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory, which had just started taking data. Comparing where they were to where they needed to get to in terms of sensitivity, the mumblings in the audience after the talk were clear: “They’ll never make it.” Of course we now know that they did, and the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves led to a 2017 Nobel Prize for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. So it’s a great pleasure to have Kip Thorne himself as a guest on the podcast. Kip tells us a bit about he LIGO story, and offers some strong opinions about the Nobel Prize. But he’s had a long and colorful career, so we also talk about whether it’s possible to travel backward in time through a wormhole, and what his future movie plans are in the wake of the success of Interstellar.
Kip Thorne received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University, and is now the Richard Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics (Emeritus) at Caltech. Recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers in general relativity, he has done important work on gravitational waves, black holes, wormholes, and relativistic stars. His role in helping found and guide the LIGO experiment was recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2017. He is the author or co-author of numerous books, including a famously weighty textbook, Gravitation. He was executive producer of the 2014 film Interstellar, which was based on an initial concept by him and Lynda Obst. He’s been awarded too many prizes to list here, and has also been involved in a number of famous bets.
Brains are important things; they're where thinking happens. Or are they? The theory of "embodied cognition" posits that it's better to think of thinking as something that takes place in the body as a whole, not just in the cells of the brain. In some sense this is trivially true; our brains interact with the rest of our bodies, taking in signals and giving back instructions. But it seems bold to situate important elements of cognition itself in the actual non-brain parts of the body. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is a psychologist and neuroscientist who uses imaging technologies to study how different parts of the brain and body are involved in different cognitive tasks. We talk a lot about mirror neurons, those brain cells that light up both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see someone else performing the action. Understanding how these cells work could be key to a better view of empathy and interpersonal interactions.
Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is an Associate Professor in the Brain and Creativity Institute and the Department of Occupational Science at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, and has also done research at the University of Parma and the University of California, Berkeley.
There's no question that human activity is causing enormous changes on our planet's environment, from deforestation to mass extinction to climate change. But perhaps there is a tiny cause for optimism -- or at least, the prospect of a new equilibrium, if we can manage to ameliorate our most destructive impulses. Wildlife conservationist Joe Walston argues that -- seemingly paradoxically, but not really -- increasing urbanization provides hope for biodiversity preservation and poverty alleviation moving forward. As one piece of evidence, while our population is still growing, the rate of growth has slowed substantially as people move into cities and new opportunities become available. We discuss these trends, the causes underlying them, and what strategies suggest themselves to bring humans into balance with the environment before it's too late.
Joe Walston is Senior Vice President for Field Conservation the Wildlife Conservation Society. He received his Masters degree in Zoology and Animal Biology from Aberdeen University. Before moving to New York, he spent fifteen years working in on conservation programs in Africa and SouthEast Asia. His work in Cambodia was awarded with that country's highest civilian honor. A species of tube-nosed bat has been named Murina Walston in recognition of his work on protecting bat habitats.
We humans love to tell ourselves stories about why things happened the way they did; if the stories are sufficiently serious, we label this activity "history." Part of getting history right is simply an accurate recounting of the facts, but part of it is generally taken to be some kind of explanation about why. How much should we trust these explanations? This is a question with philosophical implications as well as historical ones, and philosopher Alex Rosenberg's new book How History Gets Things Wrong claims that we should basically not trust them at all. It's not that we get the facts wrong, it's that we have wrong ideas about causality and how the human mind works, and we can't help but import these wrong ideas to our beliefs about history. Alex and I dig into how this claim arises naturally from a certain way that naturalists should think about the world.
Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, with secondary appointments in biology and political science. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Lakatos Award for the best book in the philosophy of science. Rosenberg is the author of numerous books and articles on philosophical aspects of various subjects, including biology, cognitive science, economics, history, causation, and atheism. He has also written two novels, The Girl from Krakow and Autumn in Oxford.
Special Halloween edition? Scott Derrickson is a film-lover first and a director second, but he's been quite successful at the latter -- you may know him as the director and co-writer of Marvel's Doctor Strange. (When I was younger, Doctor Strange was one of my favorite comic characters, along with Green Lantern. At least one of them got a great movie.) Scott was gracious enough to take time from a very busy schedule to sit down for a chat about a wide number of topics. Using Doctor Strange as a template, we go in some detail through the immensely complicated process of taking a modern blockbuster movie from pitch to screen. But Scott's genre of choice is horror -- his other films include Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- and we move on to discussing why certain genres seem universal, before tackling even bigger issues about worldviews (Scott is Christian, I'm a naturalist) and how they affect one's life and work.
Scott Derrickson is an acclaimed director, producer, and screenwriter. He earned his M.A. in film production from the University of Southern California. His films as a director include Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and Doctor Strange. He has written or co-written numerous other films, including Land of Plenty (directed by Wim Wenders) and Devil's Knot (directed by Atom Egoyan).
Economics, like other sciences (social and otherwise), is about what the world does; but it's natural for economists to occasionally wander out into the question of what we should do as we live in the world. A very good example of this is a new book by economist Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments. Tyler will be well-known to many listeners for his long-running blog Marginal Revolution (co-created with his colleague Alex Tabarrok) and his many books and articles. Here he offers a surprising new take on how society should arrange itself, based on the simple idea that the welfare of future generations counts for just as much as the welfare of the current one. From that starting point, Tyler concludes that the most moral thing for us to do is to work to maximize economic growth right now, as that's the best way to ensure that future generations are well-off. We talk about this idea, as well as the more general idea of how to think like an economist. (In the second half of the podcast we veer off into talking about quantum mechanics and the multiverse, to everyone's benefit.)
Tyler Cowen is the Holbert C. Harris professor of economics and General Director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is the author of over a dozen books and many journal articles, and writes frequently for the popular press. His blog Marginal Revolution is one of the leading economics blogs on the internet. He is widely recognized for his eclectic interests, from chess to music to ethnic dining.
String theory is a speculative and highly technical proposal for uniting the known forces of nature, including gravity, under a single quantum-mechanical framework. This doesn't seem like a recipe for creating a lightning rod of controversy, but somehow string theory has become just that. To get to the bottom of why anyone (indeed, a substantial majority of experts in the field) would think that replacing particles with little loops of string was a promising way forward for theoretical physics, I spoke with expert string theorist Clifford Johnson. We talk about the road string theory has taken from a tentative proposal dealing with the strong interactions, through a number of revolutions, to the point it's at today. Also, where all those extra dimensions might have gone. At the end we touch on Clifford's latest project, a graphic novel that he wrote and illustrated about how science is done.
Clifford Johnson is a Professor of Physics at the University of Southern California. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics and physics from the University of Southampton. His research area is theoretical physics, focusing on string theory and quantum field theory. He was awarded the Maxwell Medal from the Institute of Physics. Johnson is the author of the technical monograph D-Branes, as well as the graphic novel The Dialogues.
The job of science fiction isn't to predict the future; it's to tell interesting stories in an imaginative setting, exploring the implications of different ways the world could be different from our actual one. Annalee Newitz has carved out a unique career as a writer and thinker, founding the visionary blog io9 and publishing nonfiction in a number of formats, and is now putting her imagination to work in the realm of fiction. Her recent novel, Autonomous, examines a future in which the right to work is not automatic, rogue drug pirates synthesize compounds to undercut Big Pharma, and sentient robots discover their sexuality. We talk about how science fiction needs more economics, how much of human behavior comes down to dealing with our neuroses, and what it's like to make the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction.
Annalee Newitz is currently an Editor at Large at Ars Technica. She received her Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley. She founded and edited io9, which later merged with Gizmodo, where she also served as editor. She and Charlie Jane Anders host the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, a bi-weekly exploration of the meaning of science fiction.
Aging -- everybody does it, very few people actually do something about it. Coleen Murphy is an exception. In her laboratory at Princeton, she and her team study aging in the famous C. Elegans roundworm, with an eye to extending its lifespan as well as figuring out exactly what processes take place when we age. In this episode we contemplate what scientists have learned about aging, and the prospects for ameliorating its effects -- or curing it altogether? -- even in human beings.
Coleen Murphy received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University, and is currently Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrative Genomics at Princeton.
Language comes naturally to us, but is also deeply mysterious. On the one hand, it manifests as a collection of sounds or marks on paper. On the other hand, it also conveys meaning – words and sentences refer to states of affairs in the outside world, or to much more abstract concepts. How do words and meaning come together in the brain? David Poeppel is a leading neuroscientist who works in many areas, with a focus on the relationship between language and thought. We talk about cutting-edge ideas in the science and philosophy of language, and how researchers have just recently climbed out from under a nineteenth-century paradigm for understanding how all this works.
David Poeppel is a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU, as well as the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive science from MIT. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded the DaimlerChrysler Berlin Prize in 2004. He is the author, with Greg Hickok, of the dual-stream model of language processing.
To paraphrase Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, scientists tend to focus on whether they can do something, not whether they should. Questions of what we should do tend to wander away from the pristine beauty of science into the messy worlds of ethics and the law. But with the ongoing revolutions in biology, we can’t avoid facing up to some difficult should-questions. Alta Charo is a world expert in a gamut of these issues, working as a law professor and government official specializing in bioethics. We hit all the big questions: designer babies, birth control, abortion, religious exemptions, stem cells, end of life care, and more. This episode will give you the context necessary to think about a host of looming questions from a legal as well as a moral perspective.
Alta Charo is currently the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned a B.A. in Biology from Harvard, and went on to receive her J.D. from Columbia University. Charo served as a bioethics advisor on the Obama Administration transition team, as well as working as a senior policy advisor at the Food and Drug Administration. She has been a Fulbright Scholar, is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, and was awarded the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award at UW-Madison.
For something of such obvious importance, money is kind of mysterious. It can, as Homer Simpson once memorably noted, be exchanged for goods and services. But who decides exactly how many goods/services a given unit of money can buy? And what maintains the social contract that we all agree to go along with it? Technology is changing what money is and how we use it, and Neha Narula is a leader in thinking about where money is going. One much-hyped aspect is the advent of blockchain technology, which has led to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. We talk about what the blockchain really is, how it enables new kinds of currency, and from a wider perspective whether it can help restore a more individualistic, decentralized Web.
Neha Narula is the Director of the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT. She obtained her Ph.D. in computer science from MIT, and worked at Google and Digg before joining the faculty there. She is an expert on scalable databases, secure software, cryptocurrencies, and online privacy.
Jazz occupies a special place in the American cultural landscape. It's played in elegant concert halls and run-down bars, and can feature esoteric harmonic experimentation or good old-fashioned foot-stomping swing. Nobody embodies the scope of modern jazz better than Wynton Marsalis. As a trumpet player, bandleader, composer, educator, and ambassador for the music, he has worked tirelessly to keep jazz vibrant and alive. In this bouncy conversation, we talk about various kinds of music, how they might relate to physics, and some of the greater challenges facing the United States today.
(This and the next few podcasts were recorded on the road with headset microphones, and the sound quality isn't quite as good, sorry about that.)
Hailing from an accomplished New Orleans family, Wynton Marsalis was marked as a prodigy from a young age. He played locally before moving to New York and attend Julliard, and played and recorded with artists such as Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock. He has recorded numerous albums as a leader of small ensembles, big bands, and as a soloist with symphony orchestras. He is a multiple-time Grammy winner and the first to win in both jazz and classical categories in the same year, and in 1997 his oratorio Blood on the Fields was the first non-classical work to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Marsalis founded and continues to lead Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is in residence at Lincoln Center along with such organizations as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet. He has won the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal, along with numerous other awards and honorary degrees.
Few events in recent astronomical history have had the worldwide emotional resonance as the 2006 announcement that Pluto was no longer considered a planet, at least as far as the International Astronomical Union was concerned. The decision was a long time coming, but no person deserves more credit/blame for forcing the astronomical community's hand than Caltech astronomer Michael Brown. He and his team discovered a number of objects in the outer Solar System -- Eris, Haumea, Sedna, and others -- any of which was just as deserving of planetary status as Pluto. Rather than letting the planetary family proliferate without bound, astronomers decided that none of these objects dominated the orbits in which they moved, so none of them should be planets. Now Brown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin have found indirect evidence that there is another real planet far beyond Pluto's orbit -- which they have dubbed Planet Nine just to remind you that there are currently only eight. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/mike-brown.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Mike Brown received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from U.C. Berkeley in 1994, and is currently the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech. He shared the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics in 2012 for his discovery of major new objects in the outer Solar System, and in 2007 won Caltech's annual Feynman Teaching Prize.
- Home page
- Wikipedia page
- How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
- Online course, The Science of the Solar System
We're all going to die. But while we are alive, it's up to us how we understand and deal with that fact. In the United States especially, there is a tendency to not face up to the reality of death, and to assume that our goal should be to struggle at all costs to squeeze every last minute out of life. The Death Positive movement aims to change that, helping people to both face up to death on a personal and cultural level, and to give themselves more control over the manner of their own deaths. One of the leaders in this movement is today's guest, Megan Rosenbloom, who works as a medical librarian by day. We talk about attitudes toward death around the world, the differences between dying at home and in a hospital, the importance of autonomy in old age, and how individuals and societies can cope with the ultimate inevitability that comes with being alive. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/megan-rosenbloom.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Megan Rosenbloom received a Masters from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008, and is currently Associate Director for Instruction Services at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California. In 2016 she won a Mover & Shaker award from Library Journal. She is active in the Death Positive movement, serving as the co-founder and director of the Death Salon. She is currently working on a book about the history of books bound with human skin.
- Home page
- Norris Medical Library page
- Order of the Good Death
- Death Salon
- Anthropodermic Book Project
- Talk sponsored by USC's Office of Religious Life
Our understanding of heredity and genetics is improving at blinding speed. It was only in the year 2000 that scientists obtained the first rough map of the human genome: 3 billion base pairs of DNA with about 20,000 functional genes. Today, you can send a bit of your DNA to companies such as 23andMe and get a report on your personal genome (ancestry, health risks) for about $200. Technologies like CRISPR are allowing scientists to edit genes, not just map them. Science writer Carl Zimmer has been following these advances for years, and has recently written a comprehensive book about heredity: She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. We talk about how our understanding of heredity has changed over the years, how there is much more to inheritance than simply listing all the information we pass down in our DNA, and what the future might hold in a world where genetic manipulation becomes widespread. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/carl-zimmer.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Carl Zimmer is a leading science writer whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He is the author of thirteen books, including a university-level textbook on evolutionary biology. He has been awarded prizes and fellowships by the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. He teaches as an adjunct professor at Yale University.
- Home page
- Matter column in The New York Times
- Yale home page
- Wikipedia page
- Amazon author page
- Talk on Science, Journalism, and Democracy
Both words in the phrase "liberal democracy" carry meaning, and both concepts are under attack around the world. "Democracy" means that they people rule, while "liberal" (in this sense) means that the rights of individuals are protected, even if they're not part of the majority. Recent years have seen the rise of an authoritarian/populist political movement in many Western democracies, one that scapegoats minorities in the name of the true "will of the people." Yascha Mounk is someone who has been outspoken from the start about the dangers posed by this movement, and what those of us who support the ideals of liberal democracy can do about it. Among other things, we discuss how likely it is that liberal democracy could ultimately fail even in as stable a country as the United States.
Yascha Mounk received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. He is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard, a Senior Fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America, and Executive Director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His most recent book is The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.
Poker, like life, is a game of incomplete information. To do well in such a game, we have to think in terms of probabilities, unpredictable strategies, and Bayesian inference. These are ideas that play a central role in physics and rationality as well as in poker, which makes Liv Boeree such a great person to talk about them. Liv is a professional poker player who studied physics as a university student, and maintains an active interest in science generally and astrophysics in particular. We talk about poker, probability, the likelihood that aliens exist elsewhere in the universe, and how to be rational when it comes to charitable giving. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/liv-boeree.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Liv Boeree earned a First Class Honours degree in Physics from the University of Manchester, before becoming a professional poker player. She has won well over $3 million on the poker circuit, including taking First Place at the 2010 European Poker Tour Main Event in San Remo, Italy. She is the co-founder of the charity organization Raising for Effective Giving, which has raised millions of dollars (largely from fellow poker players) for good causes.
- Home page
- Wikipedia page
- TEDx talk on probabilities
- Vox article on the Fermi paradox
- Raising for Effective Giving
If you scale up an animal to twice its height, keeping everything else proportionate, its volume and weight become eight times as much. Such a scaling relation was used by J.B.S. Haldane in his famous essay, "On Being the Right Size," to help explain certain features of living organisms. But scaling relations go much deeper than that, and they are often much more subtle than the volume going as the cube of the length. Geoffrey West is a particle physicist turned complexity theorist, who studies how features from metabolism to lifespan change as we adjust the size of an organism -- or of other complex systems, from cities to computer networks. His insights have important implications for innovation, sustainability, and the best ways to organize life here on Earth. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/geoffrey-west.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Geoffrey West received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He is currently a Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, where he served as President from 2005 to 2009. He has been listed as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. He is the author of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies.
- Home page
- Wikipedia page
- Amazon page
- TED talk on "The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations"
- Google Scholar publications
According to atheism, God does not exist. But religions have traditionally done much more than simply proclaim God's existence: they have provided communities, promoted the arts, handed down moral guidance, and so on. Can atheism, or perhaps humanism, replicate these roles? Anthony Pinn grew up as a devout Methodist, but became a humanist when he felt that religion wasn't really helping the communities that he cared about. Today he is a professor of religion who works to bring together atheism and the black community. We talk about humanism, identity politics, and the way forward. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/anthony-pinn.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Anthony Pinn received his Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University, and is currently the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, where he was the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at the university. He is the Founding Director of The Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning at Rice University, and Director of Research,The Institute for Humanist Studies. Among his many books are Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist and When Colorblindness Isn't the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race
- Home page
- Faculty page at Rice
- Wikipedia page
- Amazon.com page
- Online course at edX: Religion and Hip Hop Culture
- Talk on How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist
The human mind loves nothing more than to build mental boxes -- categories -- and put things into them, then refuse to accept it when something doesn't fit. Nowhere is this more clear than in the idea that there are men, and there are women, and that's it. Alice Dreger is an historian of science, specializing in intersexuality and the relationship between bodies and identities. She is also a successful activist, working to change the way that doctors deal with newborn children who are born intersex. We talk about human sexuality and a number of other hot-button topics, and ruminate on the challenges of being both an intellectual (devoted to truth) and an activist (seeking justice). [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/alice-dreger.mp3" social_gplus="false" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Alice Dreger received her Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. She has worked as a faculty member at Michigan State University and Northwestern University. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and was the Founding Board Chair of the Intersex Society of North America. She is the author of a number of books, including Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar's Search for Justice, and most recently The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World.
- Home page
- Wikipedia page
- Google Scholar publications
- Amazon.com author page
- Talk on The Physics and Philosophy of Time
For the first full episode of Mindscape, it's an honor to welcome social psychologist Carol Tavris. Her book with co-author Eliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), explores the effect that cognitive dissonance has on how we think. We talk about the fascinating process by which people justify the mistakes that they make, and how that leads to everything from false memories to political polarization. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/carol-tavris.mp3" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Carol Tavris received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous books, covering topics such as gender, biology, and emotion, and is a frequent contributor to a variety of newspapers and magazines. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
- Carol Tavris on Wikipedia
- Social Psychology Network profile
- Amazon.com author page
- A lecture on "Dissent and Dissonance: The Science and Art of Argument."
I've decided to officially take the plunge into the world of podcasting. The new show will be called Mindscape, and will mostly consist of me talking to smart people about interesting ideas. (Occasionally it will be me talking by myself about ideas of questionable merit.) I'm a grizzled veteran at appearing on other podcasts, and it's past time I sat in the director's chair here. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/episode-zero-audio.mp3" artist="Sean Carroll" social_gplus="false" social_email="true" tweet_text="Sean Carroll's Mindscape Podcast, Episode 0: Welcome!" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Today I'm just releasing a short teaser podcast, in both audio (bottom of this post) and video (right here) form. Next week will be a more official launch, with several real episodes, all of which I had enormous fun recording. FAQ:
- It won't just be about physics, although physics will naturally appear. Indeed, the opportunity to talk about things other than physics is a large part of my motivation here. I have plans/hopes to talk to historians, psychologists, biologists, philosophers, artists, filmmakers, neuroscientists, economists, writers, theologians, political scientists, musicians, and more.
- The video above is just to lure you in. Almost all episodes will be audio-only.
- I don't have a strict release schedule, that will depend on other obligations. I would guess one every two weeks, perhaps weekly if things start going super-well. (So if you want more episodes, encourage others to subscribe!) Typical episodes will be an hour long, at least to start, though don't hold me to that.
- Right now you can both subscribe to the RSS feed, and/or to an email list, both available on the sidebar to the right. If you join the email list, you can choose to either get just the episodes as they are released, or just special announcements relevant to the podcast, or both.
- Soon I hope to be available on iTunes and Google Play and various other platforms, but I'm not sure how quickly that happens.
- There won't be any ads to start, but I am planning to monetize it if things go well. These microphones don't pay for themselves. I'm not really in it for the money, but if money starts rolling in, my incentive to keep going will be correspondingly boosted.
- Feel free to leave comments and discuss individual episodes as they appear. There is also a subreddit which might make a good conversation spot.
- Like everything else I do that isn't physics research, this is a hobby, and might have to take a temporary back seat if things get busy. But so far it's been a lot of fun, and I'm excited to see where it will go.