Makers of Universes

By Sean Carroll | November 6, 2009 8:27 am

It can’t be easy being the guy who has to introduce Albert Einstein. But it helps if you’re George Bernard Shaw.

You have to love YouTube, although this is only an excerpt from a somewhat longer speech. Most of the text is here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Science and Society
  • Gavin Flower


  • Sili

    It’s a little sad to think about Einstein’s subsequent involvement with the bomb after that speech.

    But it’s wonderful to hear how Shaw understands the interim nature of science.

  • hackenkaus

    Einstein was a loser. Lenny Susskind has made at least 10^500 universes.

  • Suburban Scarecrow

    Shaw had absolutely foul political views. He was a Stalinist and advocated genocide against the undesirables of society. In my view that colors anything else he may have said.

  • NewEnglandBob

    3. hackenkaus:

    But we can see Einstein’s universe. Not so much Lenny Susskind’s universes.

  • drunk

    Ah yes, there is only one George Bernard Shaw too.

    As to Lenny’s 10^500 universes, what good if all are fakes? Even little me can make that many fake ones. What would Shaw says of Lenny?

  • Ahmed

    You’re right, it can’t be easy, because it is not easy to make sense of human aspirations.

    He still leaves it a bit unclear why exactly making models of universes should be placed higher on the scale of worthy endeavors than other things, like eating a chocolate, or building an empire. Yes, ideas trump events in the grand scheme of things (agreed on in principle since the Greeks), but what ideas? People have different interests, and I can see this turning into a needless (and provocative) essay on a profound topic, but it is a very important topic.

    Generally speaking, the more basic and fundamental an idea, the more important it is. Meta-information is more valuable than information, when it encapsulates that information, because it renders it redundant. And physics is supposed to describe fundamental reality, so it goes without saying that we honor its principal achievements like so.

    But it’s not the models people write down that are ultimately important. It is the *realization* of the phenomena that is really fundamental. Who cares if you write down an equation that works in various scenarios for a hundred years? The equation itself is only as important as any other stepping stone or temporary figure or human event that perishes with the passage of time. It’s not about sentimental regards to immortality; the problem is that no model is intrinsically true to begin with. Nobody has ever built a universe. I think the grander part of science is knowing what needed to be explained and why it was explained thus, rather than the actual form you end up with.

    Solutions can take equivalent forms; it’s the underlying observed phenomenon that is fascinating.

    I spoke to an accomplished mathematician not too long ago at my institution, a man with fairly important discoveries in number theory, who told me he avoided physics since high school. He spent his entire life studying the realm of logic and away from “reality”, because modeling reality didn’t seem to make sense to him.

    “Physics.. describing things.. How do you even go about doing that?”

    And maybe he’s right. Maybe we are not in a position to truly understand anything, despite all we’ve achieved. We can have faith that reality presents itself to us in a form that is sensible and true, and it is a very noble pursuit to try to come up with formal systems describing it, but the things we scribble down are only the limitations of our imagination. Only the observable effects they try to model can ascribe to reality, so that in being aware of them we can be said to have understood something true.

    All I’m trying to say is that ideas, even ingenious ideas, can rise and fall like the rest of the meaningless (and necessary) markings of human history.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Well I think he’s too harsh on Napoleon, but then most people are. And on physics my sympathies lie with Ahmed’s mathematician friend. But a smart guy that Shaw, even though he was seduced by Stalinism.

  • Pingback: Stephan Faris - Ground Up – How do you introduce Albert Einstein? - True/Slant()

  • Phillip Helbig

    “It’s a little sad to think about Einstein’s subsequent involvement with the bomb after that speech.”

    The only involvement with the bomb which Einstein had was that Szilard got him to sign
    a letter to Roosevelt urging that the U.S. build one. This was due to the facts that a) he was
    a prominent scientist, b) had fled from Nazi Germany himself and c) knew the Belgian royal
    family (the main source of uranium was the Belgian Congo).

    When he wrote the letter, he (and everyone else) believed that Nazi Germany almost had
    the bomb already and that there was a real danger it would be used (with V2 rockets
    to carry them, they could have been a quite nasty weapon).

    He didn’t participate in any way. Even if he had wanted to, the FBI wouldn’t have allowed
    it, since they considered him a radical.

    The U.S. would have built the bomb anyway, even if he hadn’t signed the letter.

    After the war he put a lot of effort into encouraging disarmament and non-proliferation.

    Or do you mean E=mc**2? That applies to all reactions, nuclear, chemical, whatever,
    though only in nuclear reactions is the change in mass appreciable. If you’re blaming
    the equation, then blame Newton’s laws for all wars.

  • Aaron

    The entire speech is excellent. Anyone have a link to a version that includes the end?

  • Cusp

    >Well I think he’s too harsh on Napoleon

    Ahhh! The rose-tinted glasses of history. And did you hear that Mussolini made the trains run on time!

  • Sili

    I meant the letter, yes. Sheeesh.

    I know he was for disarmament afterwards.

  • Martin E.

    Thinking Napoleon is utterly bad is a very Anglo attitude, which I shared as a young lad. Continental Europeans have a very different attitude, and not just the French. But I went along with the UK consensus, until I said something negative about Napoleon at a coffee break and was taken to task by one of the engineers: “You’d have been one of the peasants back then; you had nothing to gain keeping the old feudal powers in place. Napoleon swept all that away right across Europe, reforming the legal systems to set equality in place. Sure, the reaction to that brought the monarchies back, but fatally weakened. The modern democratic world was conceived then, even if it took a long time to be born.” (I paraphrase.) [And we got the metric system, except where Napoleon didn’t conquer – the UK and US.] That’s quite a legacy, Mr. Shaw.

  • Neal J. King

    Apropos of absolutely nothing, there is a great new cartoon at xkcd: “Sympathy tips for physicists”

    I admit to getting it “very wrong”: I was thinking about separating mother/child pairs.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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