May 25, 2017

Physicist Brian Greene wants to build our confidence in science

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Until recently, physicist Brian Greene says he never made a comment on anything that didn't have to do with relativity or quantum physics. Now, he's stepping out, like some other scientists who marched on Washington in April or are considering running for public office, because he feels science is under siege.

Axios talked with Greene, who with journalist Tracy Day co-founded the World Science Festival, an annual event that takes place next week in New York, about his hopes to shift people's perspective on science and build confidence in it.

The takeaways:

  • Science is more fluid than "it's right or it's wrong."
  • Arguments over the early universe shouldn't discredit what cosmology has done so far.
  • The most exciting thing the Large Hadron Collider could do is find something totally unexpected and send us all back to the drawing board.

On whether we ask too much of science: "I think we've grown accustomed to one quality of science – it's right or it's wrong. And people look for that simple declarative perspective on the questions of science when the reality is science is more fluid. It comes forward with ideas and theories and we try to see whether those can accommodate the facts. When it doesn't quite work, we try to mold the theory to better explain what we observe. It is a much more fluid and organic process than the yes/no quality that you come to learn about in school when you take an exam and you either got the answer or you didn't, you either got the points or you didn't."

The current kerfuffle over the early universe:

"There is a reason the bulk of the community feels inflationary cosmology is the right direction to go. The approach is able to, in a very small package of assumptions, mathematically answer problems that we had no solution for in the past having to do with qualities of the universe that we've measured. It can then go further and make predictions about the microwave background radiation to high accuracy. That is all very impressive."
"On the other hand, Paul Steinhardt and a small group of folks are questioning whether the confidence in inflation is as warranted as the community thinks because he points out that there are certain deficiencies in the approach. This is a subtle argument and an interesting one ... If people come away with that sense that cosmology is this wonderfully detailed precise science and that is what allows for these kinds of arguments to take place, that will be a good thing. If however people come away thinking we don't understand anything about cosmology and they're fighting it out and we're back at square one, that would be unfortunate."
"Overall, I think controversy, argument and differences of opinion that battle each other out based upon evidence and analysis is a good thing for science. In this particular case, there is an interesting argument going on. But I think it is one that in the public sphere is unfortunately going to mislead a lot of people into a view that the foundations of cosmology are more rickety than they actually are. And that's unfortunate because cosmology has taken leaps and bounds."

The Large Hadron Collider is on again:

"In the best of all worlds, we'll find evidence for supersymmetry, this quality of particle physics that mathematically has been studied for over 30 years. Personally speaking, 90% of my own work has assumed that supersymmetry is correct and has gone on to then analyze reality with the expectation that we would find it in these collider experiments. Many of us have our fingers crossed that that will happen. At the same time, the last few years, barren as they have been with evidence for supersymmetry, have suggested to some don't hold your breath on this. It may not come through. It may not be what we find."
"So it is an important moment. It is interesting circumstances. If you don't find supersymmetry, it doesn't mean it's wrong, it may just need a more powerful machine to reveal it. But if you don't find it, it is hard to make the argument as strongly as you might to build the next machine that might have the capacity to do that. That's really the big one. In parallel to that, finding something completely unexpected would be even better. That smacks every particle physicist in the head and says go back to the drawing board and try to figure it out. That would be enormously exciting."

Confidence in science:

"We use evidence and data to gain more or less confidence in this or that idea regarding how the world is put together and how it works. That's the only basis for having a confidence in a collection of ideas. There is no role for faith or belief as it is used in colloquial language. It simply is evidence, facts and analysis and collectively those can be used to build confidence in an idea."

What it means to be human:

"Finding the balance between the rational and the emotional is one of the deep puzzles and paradoxes and areas of both great concern and great possibility. If I were to give a five word description of the piece we are doing at Lincoln Center on opening night, it really is about the interplay between the rational and emotional, between the scientific and the more humanistic approaches to reality. This is in some sense the lifeblood issue of what it means to be a human in the 21st century. These issues are not to be discounted, they are really to be celebrated."
"In the best of all worlds, people will recognize that the human and emotional side of ourselves need not be suppressed merely because we place confidence in science for extracting the facts of how the world works. Then it is up to us emotionally about what to do with those facts but we need to agree on the basics and that is the part that is most distressing, when we can't even agree on that."

Choice: live out your days on Earth or step into an alternate world for one day?

"If I could take my family with me, I would definitely be tempted to check out an alternate world just for the mind-smacking possibilities and just to see how they're realized out there. But at the end of the day, I am kind of a homebody and I would not want to go that one alone."
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