Big Ideas at 2011 World Science Festival
By Rod Dreher—Director of Publications
“The only way to understand Nature is to ask all kinds of nasty questions,” the eminent physicist Gerardus 't Hooft told a New York audience recently. But, the 1999 Nobel laureate warned, these questions may make scientists and others uncomfortable because the answers could challenge settled convictions.
What kinds of questions? Try these: Are we really living inside a “Matrix”-like hologram? Why does the universe seem to be full of a mysterious dark substance that we cannot see? Are the brains of geniuses different from everyone else’s?
Some of the world’s top scientists and, well, geniuses explored these big questions earlier this month at the fourth annual World Science Festival, a five-day New York City event in which scientific luminaries, artists, and others gathered to talk, trade ideas, and share their insights with tens of thousands of festivalgoers.
This year, the John Templeton Foundation, a founding Festival benefactor, sponsored five panel discussions at the event, as part of WSF’s Big Ideas Series. The goal: to help the public better understand the profound concepts behind some of the most exciting scientific quests of our time.
Can science shed light on the nature of ultimate reality? If you ask 't Hooft and Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, co-discoverers of the holographic principle, evidence indicates the universe might be a hologram (a three-dimensional image created when light passes in a particular way through a photograph). The celebrated pair shared the WSF stage with two other leading theoretical physicists, whose panel discussed why the bizarre physics of black holes gives us good reason to think observable reality may actually be a two-dimensional informational construct that only appears to be 3D.
“It should be clear that [this] is the most radical thing about space, time, and matter since the invention of quantum mechanics and relativity,” Susskind told the Big Ideas audience. “It’s very clear that we’re on the cutting edge, the cusp of a paradigm shift in how the world thinks of quantum mechanics.”
These astonishing ideas about the fundamental nature of the universe emerged unexpectedly from scientific inquiries into black holes and information theory. It took geniuses like these scientists to make these imaginative connections. Another Big Ideas Series panel—a diverse group composed of scientists and artists—took up vexing questions about the “enigma of genius.”
“Sir John Templeton observed that, throughout human history, a relatively small number of exceptionally creative, brilliant minds have made disproportionately large contributions to the scientific, technological, and spiritual progress for humanity,” says Hyung S. Choi, who directs the Foundation’s programs in the mathematical and physical sciences. “Sir John believed that if we can find, nurture, and support geniuses, we will see many more transformative discoveries that will benefit humanity.”
Indeed, according to panelist and psychologist Dean Keith Simonton, the traditional idea that everyone has the capacity for genius has been supplanted by the recognition that true genius exists in a small number of people.
True, environmental factors can nurture genius, but neuroscientist Douglas Fields pointed out that the brain structure of geniuses differs from the norm. Rex Jung, also a neuroscientist, noted that creative ability is not the same thing as raw intelligence, and this difference can be discerned in brain structure (see Templeton Report, 7/14/2010). Brains of creative geniuses actually have less matter to work with than the super-intelligent, he said, which probably allows their thinking to be more free.
Indeed, said Broadway choreographer Julie Taymor, if you want to succeed as an artist, “you have to be simultaneously inside and outside of what you’re doing: receptive, rebellious, able to go into place you’re scared to go.”
Another Big Ideas panel—this one an all-physicist bunch—fearlessly ventured into “the dark side of the universe”—that is, into the mysterious worlds of dark energy and dark matter, invisible realities that constitute 96 percent of the cosmos. How do we know things we can’t see are really there? What are they, anyway?
We don’t really know, to be honest, and we have no direct evidence of either, though scientists have detected their fingerprints in many places. They remain theories, though theories supported by ample evidence. Without the tenebrous twins, though, it would be impossible to explain fundamental facts about the universe.
Dark energy—called “the energy of nothing… the seething of the quantum vacuum” by panelist Michael Turner, the University of Chicago cosmologist who invented the term—accounts for the increasingly fast expansion of the universe. And the University of Michigan’s Katherine Freese said, “Without dark matter, you wouldn’t be here today. We couldn’t have galaxies. We’d have nothing.”
Panelists agreed that we will likely have evidence for both phenomena within a decade or two, but Turner speculated that solving the two profound mysteries could take a century or more. Can string theory and the concept of multiple universes help? Columbia physicist and WSF co-founder Brian Greene said yes, but co-panelist Turner suggested that string theory and the multiverse concept may both soon be discredited.
“If this proves that string theory is wrong, I’d be thrilled,” riposted Greene, who is one of string theory’s most famous proponents. “I’m not invested in any one theory. I just want to be on the path to truth, I don’t care what that truth is.”
Spoken like a scientist unafraid to ask nasty questions.
In addition to the panels on the holographic principle, dark energy and dark matter, and genius, the Foundation sponsored an expert discussion about risk and randomness, and one on mathematical mysteries.
Turing Centenary Preparations
British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing (1912-1954) was one of the 20th century’s most consequential geniuses. During the Second World War, Turing’s insights were key to breaking German codes. He also was the father of computer science, which would later revolutionize modern life. Turing also laid the groundwork for the contemporary field of artificial intelligence.
Next year—the centenary of Turing’s birth—has been declared Alan Turing Year. Thanks to Sir John Templeton’s deep interest in exploring the nature of genius, and how young geniuses can be identified and supported, the Foundation is preparing to join the worldwide celebration of Turing’s life and achievements. Among its Turing-related initiatives, JTF is supporting “Celebrating Turing: Mind, Mechanism, and Mathematics,” set for June 22-25, 2012, in Manchester, Turing’s hometown. The Manchester conference will include a Young Scholars competition intended to inspire contemporary Turings to do visionary research.