On stage at the World Science Festival on Saturday night, festival co-founder Brian Greene recalled the early days of string theory–the theory that brings together competing ideas in physics by postulating that there exist six or seven extra dimensions beyond space and time.
Greene was a graduate student in physics when string theory got its start, and remembers waking up early each morning to run to the mailbox in search of news of harmony and peace; that is, for signs that the long, obdurate conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics was resolving itself into a beautiful universe of tiny vibrating strings.
That was in the 1980s. Now, almost thirty years later, the conflict continues, and the strings—though beautifully imagined by artists and scientists—still haven’t made themselves apparent in the form of a testable prediction. This is a big problem for skeptics like Lawrence Krauss, who insist that untestable scientific theories are—well, not really science.
“It’s as if we’re fish who have suddenly discovered we’re in water,” said Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek about the Large Hadron Collider. “The LHC is the device for ruffling up the waters so that we can see waves.”
Wilczek took part in a panel discussion at a World Science Festival event on Saturday. The discussion revealed a bit more about how physicists will do the ruffling and what waves they expect to see. Besides once again allaying doomsday fears, the panel discussed each detector in the LHC and how it will help them find the “cosmic molasses” we’re swimming in–what gives everything in the universe mass.
We’re not that special.
At least, not for the reasons we thought we were. Our knack for acting altruistically, for communicating, for putting a complicated brain to good use: We’ve claimed all these as our own, as the things that set humans apart from every other species.
But recently, science has shown that we have a lot more in common with other animals, from bonobos to bees, than you might expect. On Saturday, five researchers helped set the public record straight by busting up a few humanocentric myths during “All Creatures Great and Smart,” a panel event at the World Science Festival in New York.
Myth #1: Humans are the only altruistic animals.
From proffering a shovel in the sandbox to writing a check to our favorite charity, humans commit altruistic acts whenever they do something for someone else without any concrete benefit for themselves. But you can cross sharing off the “uniquely human” list; in a simple experiment, anthropologist Brian Hare demonstrated that bonobos do it, too.
Alone in a room with some delectable snacks, each bonobo in the study had two choices: Enjoy the snacks on his own, or open a door to let another bonobo in an adjoining room come share the feast. Hare found that, time and again, bonobos in this situation chose to voluntarily share.
“It could be that they feel bad for the other guy, or maybe they’re just being politicians,” sharing now with the expectation they’ll be shared with later, Hare said. “Or maybe they just want to go on a blind date.” The fact that altruism might come with an agenda doesn’t make the bonobos’ actions any less remarkable, Hare added. These same motivations prompt a lot of the sharing we do, too.
A mathematician, a philosopher, a physicist, and an artificial intelligence expert get together to define the limits of human knowledge. Chaos ensues.
That’s the short version of Friday evening’s World Science Festival discussion, The Limits of Understanding, where panelists Gregory Chaitin, Rebecca Goldstein, Mario Livio, and Marvin Minsky bravely tackled the scientific and philosophical implications of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for a packed house.
Gödel’s work has perplexed thinkers for decades, but the on-stage team dispensed with the basics pretty quickly. As philosopher Goldstein put it, Gödel’s infamous proof from 1931 revealed that “there are true propositions [in mathematics] that can’t be proved.” Livio took a stab at incompleteness via analogy to physics: “We physicists look for a theory of everything in physics; Gödel showed that there is no theory of everything in math.”
Some picture gravity as a rubber sheet–stretched taut like a trampoline. If the Sun is a bowling ball, its heft will form a bowl-shaped valley on that sheet. In its stable orbit, the Earth rolls along the edges of the Sun’s valley. But if gravity is like a rubber sheet with weights on top, what happens when those weights misbehave? What if they collide or explode, sending ripples along the rubber surface?
In 1916, Einstein predicted the existence of these gravity waves: ripples not in rubber, but in space-time, the surface of our universe. Today, almost 100 years later, gravity waves remain the last piece of his theory of general relativity that no scientist has observed directly. But a series of detectors, including two in the United States, are looking for these waves.
Rainer “Rai” Weiss is the father of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. He first devised the instrument as a homework assignment for some of his MIT students, and it started operating in 2001. Weiss spoke last Friday night as part of a World Science Festival event in New York.
On Friday evening, in the midst of the upscale boutiques and trendy cafes of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, a crowd filled the Galapagos Art Space for a sold-out show titled “The Science of Star Trek,” organized as part of the World Science Festival.
The crowd—scarf-wrapped, martini-sipping, not a single costumed fan in sight—was far from what one might expect at a Star Trek themed event (“closeted fans,” remarked one audience member after the show). Nonetheless, the packed space burst into applause as the night’s speakers were introduced: There was Laurence Krauss, a physicist from Arizona State; Seth Shostak, an astronomer with SETI; and Eric Horvitz, a researcher at Microsoft.
Moderating the discussion was the peppy Faith Salie, a regular on public radio but better known to Star Trek fans as the beautiful, genetically enhanced, Serena Douglas on the series spinoff Deep Space Nine.
Salie first steered the speakers into a conversation about whether the star ship Enterprise’s main means of navigating the galaxy—Warp Drive—is physically possible.
Serious scientists may disdain anecdotal evidence, but we have evidence that some of them are pretty good with an anecdote.
Last Thursday, the World Science Festival brought a collection of science geeks to The Moth, where the brave souls took the stage not to explain their work, but to tell stories of their lives in science. The evening’s biggest scientific celebrity was theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, winner of a 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. His story began with a phone call.
The editors of Scientific American were hoping he would write a rebuttal to a letter they’d just received. “The letter was from a man who I later learned was a banana farmer in Hawaii,” Wilczek recalled. “He was worried about black holes. He was worried about a particle accelerator that was being built on Long Island that could produce black holes, and he was worried that the black holes would swallow up Long Island and then the world.”
Do you see a hovering white triangle in this picture?
This optical illusion employs “illusory contours”–pieces of an image purposefully arranged to trick your brain into seeing the whole thing. Neuroscientist Jamshed Bharucha says that we play similar tricks with our ears: “The brain is basically a pattern-recognition machine. We are desperate to find patterns.”
Bharucha spoke on a seven-person panel last Thursday at “Good Vibrations: The Sound of Science,” a World Science Festival event in New York.
Bharucha asked a crowded auditorium at Hunter College to identify a sound. Shouts of “birds” rang out. One person yelled, “R2D2.” Bharucha followed the clip with a similar sounding song, and then another. After playing a combination of the three, whispers rose from the audience. Read More
How do you hunt for extraterrestrial life? You visit other planets, you find new planets, you study our own planet, or you listen.
All four methods came together last night at the World Science Festival when four speakers took part in a conversation called, simply, “The Search for Life in the Universe.” When you put four lively scientists with four different ways of thinking on a stage together, consensus isn’t the first thing to emerge. But the panel could agree on one thing: If you yearn to know whether we’re alone in the universe, it’s a hell of a time to be alive.
Steve Squyres of Cornell University is one of the project leads on the Mars rovers, those endurance robots Spirit and Opportunity that continue sending back Martian data. Spirit may be stuck, but in this week’s edition of the journal Science, Squyres’ team has published a new study based on information the rover found at a rock outcropping called Comanche about four years ago.
Spirit found evidence of carbonates that would have formed in the presence of water. The rover had done that before, but what’s exciting now, Squyres says, is that the chemistry of these new carbonate finds show they formed in water of a more neutral pH, rather than the more acidic circumstances that would have formed prior carbonate finds.
That water no longer flows on the martian surface, but “this points to more life-friendly conditions” billions of years ago, he said.
2. A Second Earth?
Humans have long imagined faraway planets around other stars, Harvard astronomer David Charbonneau said. “We are all alive at this magical moment when we have the technical ability to find those planets.”
The count of known exoplanets now stands at greater than 400, and astronomers have found most of those by one of two methods. There’s the wobble, in which astronomers spy a star jostled ever so slightly by its planet’s gravity. It’s like watching a dance, Charbonneau said, “it’s just that one of the dance partners is 1,000 times heavier than the other.” Secondly, there’s the transit method, in which a planet passes in front of its star and dims the star slightly, giving away its presence.
Charbonneau is also a member of the Kepler Space Telescope team. It launched last year with the express purpose of exoplanet hunting, and at the World Science Festival he predicted it would find a truly Earth-like world in two to three more years (he’s gotten close already). Plus, in 2014, exoplanet hunters will get another assist from this bad boy, the James Webb Space Telescope, a full-scale replica of which is currently on display in Battery Park.
3. Science Staycation
“This is my favorite planet, I have to say.”
Michael J. Russell is the most Earth-focused of the four panelists who spoke last night. And he might be the most convinced that Earth is not alone in harboring life. As someone who studies the emergence of life on our homeworld, especially the possibility that it emerged in the pressure cooker of deep-sea vents, Russell is impressed by the reach and expansion of life here. And that’s a good sign for life elsewhere in the universe.
What can Earth tell us about life on distant worlds? Life, Russell says, leaves evidence of itself in the waste it leaves behind. It accelerates chemical reactions—through photosynthesis, for example. Says Russell: “The question isn’t, ‘What is life?’ What we should ask is, ‘What does life do?’”
Zeta rays. Zeta rays are the key.
OK, I don’t know what zeta rays are, and neither does Jill Tarter, longtime member of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The point is that we’re using technologies and weird physics that we didn’t know about a half-century ago when SETI was founded. Given our location in the galaxy, she says, any civilization that might like to contact us probably has had more time to mature. “We can be fairly confident that we are the youngest,” she said.
Thus, we use the methods we know—like optical and radio signals—to search for alien intelligences. But they might be trying to reach us with zeta rays, or some other crazy thing we haven’t discovered yet. That, plus the great vastness of the galaxy, tells Tarter that 50 years of nothing but silence doesn’t mean SETI is a failure. It means they’re just getting started.
[Read more about SETI's first 50 years in the feature "Call Waiting" in the July/August issue of DISCOVER, on newsstands soon.]
So what if it’s out there?
“First of all, I’m going to take a drink of champagne,” Tarter said.
In case you were worried, SETI does have a plan in place for its response to an alien signal. Tarter says the scientists won’t attempt to respond themselves, but would rather tell the world and try to reach a global consensus for our planet’s next move.
Right… “global consensus.” Tarter concedes that this sounds great on paper and is probably impossible to achieve. But in a socially connected world, maybe we can just take a vote on whether or not we want to tell E.T. we’re here.
That plan, of course, would apply only if we found intelligent life. But if we detected even “pond scum,” Squyers said, the achievement would be monumental. He’s willing to accept that habitable environments proliferate throughout the galaxy. Even in our own solar system, promising locales for life like the moons Europa and Titan lie outside what we would call the “Goldilocks Zone.” But finding that life independently arose twice just in our own tiny solar system would mean to him that the universe is “teeming with life.”
I hope it is.
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Time is a constant in modern life. We waste it. We obsessively track it. We continually wonder “where it goes.” We run out of it. We never have enough of it. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, psychologist Daniel Gilbert, and psychologist and neuroscientist Warren Meck from Duke University gathered Saturday evening at the World Science Festival’s “Time the Familiar Stranger” event for a discussion on our most precious commodity. They addressed both complex questions such as the existentialism and relativity of “the present,” and more mundane topics such as why children must continually ask “are we there yet?” on long car trips.
Unlike many panel discussions where participants agreeably confirm others’ views, each participant brought a unique perspective to the subject of time. Sacks focused on his clinical experiences with patients whose perception of time was altered by Tourettes’ Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, and other neurological conditions. Meck discussed his experiments on how time influences human and animal behavior. Gilbert was more abstract, addressing time as a psychological construct that influences our mental health.
Moderator Sir Harry Evans, editor at large of The Week, just wanted to know the basics. “Why can’t I remember where I put my cell phone this morning, when I can vividly remember events thirty years ago?” he asked.