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Einstein as a Cultural Figure – Interview with Physicists

On Saturday, January 21, Einstein on the Beach composer Philip Glass will join a panel of special guests to ponder the cultural significance of Albert Einstein at Saturday Morning Physics. We asked guests Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist from the California Institute of Technology who has been featured on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, and Michael Turner, a University of Chicago cosmology scholar who co-authored The Early Universe, a few questions.

UMS Lobby: This winter we’re presenting a series which focuses on performing arts “renegades” and examines thought-leaders, game-changers, and history-makers in the performing arts. Could you talk a bit about what it means to be a “renegade” in the sciences?

Sean Carroll: Being a renegade is very easy — being a successful renegade is very hard.  In science, there are things we are quite sure are true; things that we believe are very likely to be true; and things we’re just guessing about.  A successful renegade has to accept what is really true, while throwing out just those things that we mistakenly believe are true. It’s a difficult balancing act.

Lobby: How did Albert Einstein fit into this idea of ‘renegade’?

SC: Einstein was in many ways a renegade, able to discard precious beliefs that other physicists held on to; but he was also a true expert, who understood the established physics of his time as well as anyone. He had strong philosophical intuitions about how the world works, which can be a curse as well as a blessing. When the world really does line up with your intuitions, you can see further than anybody; when it doesn’t, you can find yourself wandering down a blind alley. Einstein experienced both alternatives in his career.

Michael Turner: I think it is harder to be a renegade in the hard sciences (I don’t like using the word renegade), particularly theoretical physics, since our rules are well-defined:  our goal is to describe reality with mathematics, and if we are lucky to use these mathematics to make predictions about the physical world in regimes we have yet to experience.  Nonetheless, there is still room for creativity and game changers, Einstein was certainly one of them.  (There is an analogy here to chess, where there are fixed rules, but creativity plays a big role.  I know less about music, but there are rules and there are rule-changers.)  Our game changers cause us to look at the physical world in a different way, still with equations, and by doing so to achieve a deeper understanding and to predict things that haven’t been discovered yet.  In Einstein’s case, he changed how we describe space, time and gravity — and of course he played a key role in helping to formulate quantum mechanics.  Einstein did so in such a fundamental way that is possible to summarize his contributions in one sentence:  He taught us that time warps, space is flexible and god plays dice!  But he did so with equations — and his equations reduce to the old equations — Newton’s and Galileo’s — in physical situations where things move slowly and gravity is not strong.  His general relativity predicts new phenomena including black holes, gravitational waves and repulsive, but it also reduces to Newton’s theory in more familiar realms (e.g., our solar system).  Creativity in the world of science is constrained by what we already know and what we can learn about the physical world.  I think constrained creativity is actually much more challenging and produces more interesting results.

Lobby: How has the concept of “renegade” evolved since Einstein’s time?

MT: Physics in particular and science in general has always attracted interesting characters (notice I am refusing to use the word renegade) — Dirac, Schroedinger, Feynman, Hawking to mention but a few.  Thinking Different (to borrow from Steve Jobs) is often the key to a new insight or formulation.  All of our game changers have had in common the ability to look at what we know and view it (or formulate it) in a new way or to ask a new question.  Because science basically tells us what our place in the Universe and the rules that we have to follow, the thought leaders often attract the public’s attention.  Few have achieved the stature of Einstein (Time’s Man of the Century if I remember correctly).   For Einstein, there was a convergence of big paradigm shift, interesting character, and fundamental change in the center of science, with the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics, a shift from 200+ years of British domination to Europe.  Then of course, Einstein helped to lead the exodus of European scientists to the US which resulted in our dominance of science over the past half century.  To return to your original question, I am not sure renegade has evolved much.

SC: It is arguably more difficult to become a successful renegade now than during Einstein’s time. We know more, for one thing, but we also have a larger and more competitive scientific workplace. There is tremendous pressure on young people to produce productive work very quickly, which is very difficult if you want to buck the prevailing trends. True genius nevertheless usually wins out.

Lobby: In your view, is there an intersection between “renegades” in the humanities and the sciences? If not, what’s different? If yes, what is it?

SC: I think there is a difference, because science has a greater background of established wisdom that must be incorporated rather than overthrown. This acts as a constraint on useful forms one’s rebellion might take; Einstein invented a theory of gravity that supplanted that of Isaac Newton, but his theory had to reduce to Newton’s in an appropriate regime. So the arts and humanities have greater freedom, which can be both good and bad. Sometimes constraints are useful.

MT: I think the common theme that game changers in any creative endeavor is the ability to comprehend and understand what has come before and then re-imagine it, view it in a new way and from that to go to somewhere new.  I like the way Charlie Parker put it:  first you learn your sax, then you learn your music, then you just play.  (Reverse the order and you just have noise.)

Lobby: Sean, as someone interested in a unified theory of time, have you gained any insights about what it means to look at such unifying questions, and especially to question such fundamental experiences as the arrow of time?

SC: Time is an interesting case, because it’s a familiar everyday concept as well as a central object in our scientific theories. As a result, even many professional physicists find it very difficult to look at how time works in its own right, without being affected by the way it is manifested in our personal experience. I have found it very useful to look at the problem from different perspectives as possible.

Lobby: Michael, As someone who focuses on the earliest moments of the universe’s creation, have you gained any insights about moments of creation or creativity in general?

MT: My experience is that moments of creativity are always unplanned and usually a surprise.  They usually follow a struggle to comprehend and confusion; then pop!  A new insight.

Lobby: Why were you interested in pursuing this area of research?

MT: What is wonderful about science is the diversity of ways you can contribute and how the different ways attract different people.  I am a big picture guy.  I like to try to understand the grand scheme.  Cosmology and the birth of the Universe is a natural for me.  Others, like to be able to understand every little detail how how something works — e.g., how stars evolve and explode and produce the chemical elements we are made of.  Both the big picture and the small details are fascinating and important — and breakthroughs come from both.

SC: I became interested in cosmology at a very young age, about ten years old. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came to understand the connection between cosmology and the arrow of time.  Once I did, I thought that this was an area that deserved more attention from working cosmologists. That’s still true!

Lobby:  Michael, In one of your lectures, you discuss the “beautiful ideas” in physics, and the way most such “beautiful ideas” are not often the right ones.  In fact, there is a grave yard of beautiful ideas murdered by “ugly facts” in theoretical physics. How do you think Einstein’s theories and cultural impact fit within this framework?

MT: Mathematicians and theoretical physicists are both motivated by beauty and simplicity.  In physics, I believe we are motivated largely by experience:  For some odd reason the rules that govern the Universe seem to be very simple and elegant, and thus we often use simplicity and beauty as a guide when exploring the unknown.  But, unlike mathematics where beauty can be enough, in physics nature gets the last word:  we are after all trying to find the mathematics that describes our universe, not an imaginary one more beautiful and interesting one.  The most beautiful theory of cosmology was Fred Hoyle’s steady state model — but it was so simple and predictive that it was “murdered” almost instantly by hard experimental facts.  Electroweak theory — the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces which won Weinberg, Salam and Glashow a Nobel Prize — was viewed by many theoretical physicists as so inelegant that it couldn’t be correct (it is and we slowly learned to appreciate its beauty as well as look for the “grander” theory that encompasses it).

Lobby: What are some other culturally significant figures who inspire your work?

SC: I’m inspired by anyone who thinks deeply and clearly about how the world works.  Galileo is an obvious hero, but for me it goes back to Lucretius, a poet and philosopher from ancient Rome. He was a naturalist and an atomist, who worked hard to understand the world in terms of matter obeying the laws of nature.  We’re still working to finish his project.

Sean Carroll is a physicist and author.  He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1993, and is now on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology, where his research focuses on fundamental physics and cosmology.  Carroll is the author of “From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time,” and “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity.”  He has written for Scientific American, New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, and is a columnist for Discover magazine.  He blogs at Cosmic Variance, and has been featured on television shows such as The Colbert Report, National Geographic’s Known Universe, and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman.

–Michael S. Turner is a theoretical astrophysicist and the Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.  He is also Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at Chicago, which he helped to establish. Turner was elected to the Presidential-line of the American Physical Society in 2010 and will serve as its President in 2013.

Inspired? What do you think it means to be a “renegade”?