Readability test scores for this post are as follows:
Flesch Reading Ease: 68.30
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.00
Automated Readability Index: 7.00
For more info about readability tests, check out my post about those here.
the first few paragraphs basically describe the place where the event happened, as well as the events that took place before the Nobel laureate presentation as well as how I express how geeky/nerdy I can be. The real meat of the weblog post starts after the title The Nobel laureate presentation
This post is about my recent attendance (just a few hours ago actually, before noon and before I had lunch) on a talk/presentation from a Nobel laureate for Physics. I must say that the feeling of being there, as well as the atmosphere of the event, felt better (and queerer) than any movie premiere I’ve ever been in. It was, in a word…cool.
I happened to be among the audience seated with professionals, students, and distinguished guests (local and foreign) in the academe for the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) to professor David Jonathan Gross, 2004 Nobel Laureate for Physics. The conferment was bestowed upon prof. Gross by the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, in line with UP’s centennial celebration and the year long centennial lecture series. I consider myself very lucky to have witnessed the talk, and to have been a part of the ceremony itself.
The event started with the walk of the UP’s officials and a number of its brightest minds. After that was the singing of the country’s national anthem, followed by the performance of the world renowned UP Singing Ambassadors (UPSA). It was not the first time that I watched the performance of the UPSA, but unfortunately their performance then wasn’t the best I’ve seen/heard.
I must admit that the event appealed to me in a very geeky(slash)nerdy kind of way. The feeling that you get when you learn of the Emperor’s plans on the planet Tatooine, the feeling you get when youl learn of Saruman’s cunning plans and how he’s been duped as well, the feeling that you get when you finish prof. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and you understand most (if not all) the concepts, the feeling you get when you understand the profound implications Albert Einstein brought with him in his theory of relativity, freeing time from its prison and redefining how we look at the physical world, that’s how it felt. At least, to me. Whew.
Anyway, the main point of this weblog post is about the talk given by prof. Gross and the questions afterwards, so I’ll get onto it now.
The Nobel laureate presentation
The talk (on the list of events) was supposed to be on The Coming Revolutions on Fundamental Physics, but prof. Gross changed it, saying that he used up 1.5 hours on that presentation when he presented it in Thailand. He changed it to (sorry I forgot the exact title) a more general presentation regarding science in the 21st century, how far we’ve come, as well as the highlights on biology, medicine, etc. most notably of course, Physics. One of his jokes is about the fact that everything (social sciences, biology, chemistry, economics) basically boils down into Physics, then the audience bursts into laughter. His slides about global warming reminded me of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
Prof. Gross’ Nobel prize award together with 2 other colleagues, was for their contribution to the knowledge of the quantumly small. They introduced the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), which is a major contribution to the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model (SM) essentially describes (and has been experimentally verified a number of times over) the 3 out of the 4 fundamental interactions between elementary particles which makes all matter, including ourselves. These 3 are the strong nuclear force (the force that binds the particles in the atomic nucleus), the weak nuclear force (related to radioactive decay), and electromagnetism. So far only the interactions between those three have been understood and experimentally verified, while the fourth and seemingly elusive one (though probably not to us since we consciously/unconsciously interact with it in our scale of living) is gravity. So far those 4 have not been successfully unified in a single theory of everything. One of the highlights of prof. Gross and his colleagues’ work on QCD is the discovery that quarks (one of the 2 basic constituents of matter, the other one is the lepton) attract each other less when they’re drawn closer together, and attract (or pull if you will) all the more when moved apart from each other. That’s why no quark has been found floating by itself anywhere in the known universe, an aha! moment if you like. And yes it sounds weird and counterintuitive, but believe me it’s nothing compared to the other more weird interactions and predictions in the quantum mechanical world.
Overall, the presentation was as good as I expected it: it was humorous at times, touching not only on Physics but on poverty as well, global warming, what his country (the U.S.) and us in the scientific community and human beings as a whole can do to help our planet.
Another part of the lecture which really got my attention and interest was the part where the audience could ask questions. The questions came from students and professionals from different disciplines, and I must confess however that I think not all of them where well thought of. Or rather, their intentions for asking the question were good and well meant. It was just that they couldn’t formulate their questions in a better way, probably because of the time constraint and the pressure (after all, the respondent is a Nobel laureate nonetheless). It was also obvious that some of the questions were really prepared for well before the presentation, since they were quoting from famous books and ideas. I had also prepared a question and a back-up question, the night before the event. The following are the questions that were asked which excited, intrigued, and perhaps mesmerized me the most.
The first question that sparked my interest was the question on intelligent design (ID). The question was from (I think) a student and was either a skeptic theist, an agnostic, or an atheist (yey!). I actually didn’t think of asking such a question to prof. Gross since it was not directly related to his talk and his field of work, but I’m glad somebody did. Prof. Gross answered by saying that ID can mean a lot of things, but he defined ID as the presumption that the universe and everything in it (including life) seem to have been crafted and guided by an external (supernatural) agent to become as it is today. He further answered the question that if we look and somehow understand (or at least try to do so) the intricacies, results and descriptions of different bodies of sciences, and how far they’ve gone in terms of removing the mist/shroud of mystery in our world, an external agent would be superfluous. Another thing he pointed out that if we were to sort of blame or hold responsible for the magnificence of our reality, an external agent, it would even be tantamount to even more unanswerable and absurd questions such as where did the external agent come from, etc etc. He ended his answer by saying that he finds it hard to believe in something that cannot be verified by logic, by science, by experimental data and that which is not reproducible (even in the mind, at the least).
My thoughts were: My goodness! Finally, somebody who openly talks about what I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. But I would also think that, as is my personal opinion, being someone who understands real academic science, if anything comes up in the support of ID (which I doubt), he still leaves a bit of skepticism for that. After all, similar to what he said, science is all about skepticism.
The second question that caught my attention was the question from a professor about the so called theory of everything (ToE). Such a theory, in contrast to the Standard model of particle physics, aims to unify the 4 interactions mentioned previously. So far, nobody has been successful, since gravity has still remained un-unifiable with the rest of the 3 forces. The question was if we’ll ever find the theory, and which among the 3 predictions of prof. Stephen Hawking in one of his lectures (back in the 80s) prof. Gross agrees more. The 3 predictions of prof. Hawking on the discovery of the ToE are as follows :
1) There is a complete unified theory.
2) There is no ultimate theory, but there is an infinite series of theories which are such that any particular class of observations can be predicted by taking a theory sufficiently far down the chain.
3) There is no theory. Observations cannot be described or predicted beyond a certain point but are just arbitrary.
The professor who asked the question must’ve really prepared, since if I recall correctly, he asked his question with the exact words I used above (which I got from my book Stephen Hawking’s Universe: An introduction to the most remarkable scientist of our time by John Boslough which has as an appendix the lecture of prof. Hawking). Prof. Gross’ reply was that he’s an agnostic (at this point I wasn’t sure if he was agnostic in prof. Hawking’s predictions, or agnostic as a whole especially in terms of the belief in a supernatural deity, but I’m thinking it’s the former). He continued (wonderfully in my opinion) by first talking about explorers of the planet. At first he said that everybody thought the world was flat, and went on and on infinitely far (hmm…but some thought that we would fall of the edge if we get too far, anyway). Then people found out that when they explored further and further, they just came back to their starting point (you get the idea), and so the theory of geography that the Earth was spherical was finally laid into its firm place. People simply ran out of places in the planet to explore (in a sense), besides the fact that we can have measurements of the spheroidal shape of the planet, not to mention view it from space. His point was that we’ll know if we’re close to the ToE if we ourselves (or physicists at the least) run out of questions to ask. He continued by saying that nowadays, there is still a large space for questions to pop out of. So I would think that he’s implying we’re still not that close yet to the ToE. In the end, I don’t remember him saying he believes there really is a ToE, but I would think, given his optimism on the power of science, if there is one, we will find it.
At this point, I was feeling ambivalent: I was a bit sad that I didn’t get to ask a question (because of time constraints and the number of people asking questions, damn) but I’m far happier since the questions I was supposed to ask got asked by other people anyway. My backup question was supposed to be this:
could you please share your thoughts on the profound implications on physics, and science in general, as well as humanity as a whole, once the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is hopefully completed this year?
Although there was one slide in prof. Gross’ presentation showing the LHC, it was only briefly mentioned. Too bad nobody inquired more about it. I really wanted to hear an expert’s thoughts on the LHC, especially since it’s inline with prof. Gross’ expertise.
One of the most memorable quotes he said/presented was that the best (if not one of the best) gifts of knowledge (which is the by-product of science he says) is ignorance. Counter-intuitive? You bet. Cool? indeed. What he was trying to mean was that the more we know and learn about our reality, the more we see that we still have a lot to know. Ignorance, as stated by him, in this case is academic ignorance; knowing the limits of one’s knowledge and accepting it. He is a firm believer of the power of science, and even made predictions at first, 50-100 years from now, then 100-1000 years from now. He said that he usually doesn’t like to make predictions, but since it’s the business of science, he might as well try.
50-100 years from now, he predicts that human lifespan will not only double, but even be 10 times longer. Better medicine, better health care. Of course, he said that longer lifespans will mean newer obstacles to face in human culture, demand and supply, etc. He made a few more predictions here, but you’ll have to forgive me if I wasn’t able to list them all down, nor to store them all in my memory data banks.
100-1000 years from now, he said, is a bit harder to predict. But he said that we would probably conquer galaxies. He said that we probably won’t be sending humans in other galaxies (probably because of the hazards of space travel on humans, I’m thinking, though he didn’t say more on that), but we will be sending mini-robots and possibly transform some planets into habitable ones (i.e. terraforming).
Prof. Gross also mentioned his prediction about speciation. I forgot which among the 2 groups (50-100 or 100-1000) he mentioned speciation, but what he means by that is that since we’ll be able to manipulate our genes, we’ll be creating new species of homo sapiens, faster than evolution would have wanted it. Probably similar to homo superior i.e. mutants. Cool.
Lastly, the presentation was a dream come true for a science-student/fan, science fiction-student/fan, and probably for a nerd/geek as well, though I may be alone on this last one. Only downside was that the open forum for questions was too short (around an hour or even less). If I get a copy of the video, I’ll upload it asap. Otherwise, if anybody finds it first, please please please tell me!
Comments, suggestions, reactions, corrections, clarifications and questions are always welcome!