Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Podcast with Lisa Randall on inflation, Higgs, LHC, DM, awe

I want to offer you a yesterday's 30-minute podcast of Huffington Post's David Freeman with Lisa Randall of Harvard
Podcast with Randall (audio over there)
The audio format is thanks to RobinHoodRadio.COM.

They talk about inflation, the BICEP2 discovery, the Higgs boson vs the Higgs field, the LHC, its tunnels, and the risk that the collider would create deadly black holes.

I think her comments are great, I agree with virtually everything, including the tone.

Well, I am not sure what she means by the early inflationary models' looking contrived but that's just half a sentence of a minor disagreement – which may become a major one, of course, if some people focus on this topic.

She is asked about the difference between the Big Bang and inflation, the Higgs boson vs. the Higgs field (who gives masses to other particles). The host asks about the size of the LHC; it is sort of bizarre because the photographs of the LHC have been everywhere in the media and they're very accessible so why would one ask about the size of the tunnel again?

The host also said that there would be "concerns" that the LHC would have created a hungry black hole that would devour our blue, not green planet. I liked Lisa's combative reply: the comment had to be corrected. There were concerns but only among the people who didn't have a clue. The actual calculations of safety – something that scientists are sort of obliged to perform before they do an experiment – end up with the result that we're safe as the rate of such accidents is lower than "one per the age of the universe". It's actually much lower than that but even that should be enough.

They also talk about the multiverse. Lisa says that she's not among those who are greatly interested in the multiverse ideas – she's more focused on things we can measure – but of course that there may be other universes. Just because we haven't see them doesn't mean that they don't exist. (She loves to point the same idea when it comes to dark matter.)

What comes at the end of the universe? She explains that the compact space – a balloon is free of troubles. The host says the usual thing that the laymen always do. The balloon is expanding into something, some preexisting space. But in the case of the universe, there is simply nothing outside it, Lisa warns. The balloon is the whole story. I have some minor understanding for this problem of the laymen because when I was 8, I also had the inclination to imagine that the curved spacetime of general relativity (from the popular articles and TV shows) had to be embedded into some larger, flat one. But this temptation went away a year later or so. The Riemannian geometry is meant to describe "all of space" and it allows curvature. To embed the space into a higher-dimensional flat one is a way (and not the only way) to visualize the curvature but these extra "crutches" are not necessarily physical. And in fact, they are not physical in our real universe.

Now, is dark matter the same thing as antimatter? Based on the frequency at which I have heard this question, I believe that every third layman must be asking the very same question. So Lisa has to say that antimatter is charged and qualitatively behaves just like ordinary matter – and they annihilate – while dark matter has to be new. Is dark matter made of black holes? Every 10th layman has this idea. It's actually an a priori viable one that needs some discussion. One has to look for "small astrophysical objects as dark matter". They would cause some gravitational lensing which is not seen.

So what is dark energy? It's something that is not localizable "stuff". Dark energy is smoothly spread everywhere. Absolute energy matters, Einstein found out. And the C.C. accelerates the expansion of the universe. Can the experiments find dark energy and dark matter? Not dark energy but possibly dark matter. It could be a bigger deal than the Higgs boson.

LHC is upgrading and will be reopened for collision business in 1 year. No one believes that the Higgs boson is everything there is but it is not clear that the other things are achievable by the LHC.

Lisa is now working on dark matter. Lots of theoretical ideas. Dark matter with a more strongly interacting component.

What is it good for? The electron seemed to be useless, too. So there may be unexpected applications. But applications are not the main motivation. She is also asked about being religious. She is not religious and for her, science isn't about the "sense of awe". So she is not religious even in the most general sense. Ultimately, science wants to understand things that clarify the "awe", that make the magnificent things look accessible. It is about solving puzzles and the satisfaction arises from the understanding, from the feeling that things fit together.

The host says that because she writes popular books, she must present the "sense of wonder". Lisa protests again. My books are about science, not the awe! :-) There is clearly a widespread feeling among the laymen that scientists are obliged to lick the buttocks of the stupid laymen in some particular ways. To constantly "admit" (more precisely, to constantly lie) that science knows nothing and spread religious feelings. But scientists are not obliged to do any of these things and in fact, they shouldn't do these things. A good popular book is one that attracts the reader into genuine science – the organized process of learning the truth about Nature – and that communicates some correct science (principles, methods, or results) to the readers. If science implies that the people who are afraid of the destruction of the world by the LHC are imbeciles, and be sure that science does imply that, a good popular scientific book must nicely articulate this point. A good popular scientific book is not one that reinforces the reader's spiritual or even anti-scientific preconceptions (although the book that does reinforce them may be generously praised by the stupid readers and critics).

Is it possible to convey the science without maths? Lisa tends to answer Yes because she appreciates classical music although she has never studied it. But she could still learn something about it from the books, although less than the professional musicians. So it doesn't have to be "all or nothing". People still learn some science even if they don't learn everything. And readers of her book, she believes, may come from many layers and learn the content to various degrees of depth and detail.

There's lots of talk about America's falling behind in STEM fields. LOL, exactly, there is a lot of talk, Lisa replies. 50 years ago, people were inspired by the space research. But the host tries to suggest that there is nothing inspiring in physics or science now or something like that. Lisa says that there are tons of awe-inspiring things – perhaps too many.

What is the most awe-inspiring fact, Lisa is asked? She answers that it's the body and size of all the things we understood in a recent century or so. Nebulae used to be galaxies, the host is amazed. Lisa talks about such cosmological insights for a while.

Incidentally, on Sunday, we finally went to Pilsner Techmania's 3D planetarium. We watched the Astronaut 3D program (trailed above: a movie about all the training that astronauts undergo and dangers awaiting them during the spaceflight) plus a Czech program on the spring sky above Pilsen (constellations and some ancient stories about them: I was never into it much and I am still shaking my head whenever someone looks at 9/15 stars/dots and not only determines that it is a human but also that its gender is female and even that she has never had sex before – that was the Virgo constellation, if you couldn't tell). Technically, I was totally impressed how Techmania has tripled or quadrupled (with the planetarium) in the last 6 months. The 3D glasses look robust and cool although they're based on a passive color system only. Things suddenly look very clean and modern (a year ago, Techmania would still slightly resemble the collapsing Škoda construction halls in Jules Verne's Steel City after a global nuclear war LOL).

On the other hand, I am not quite sure whether the richness of the spiritual charge of the content fully matches the generous superficial appearance (which can't hide that lots of money has clearly gone into it). There were many touch-sensitive tabletop displays in Techmania (e.g. one where you could move photographs of the Milky Way, a woman, and a few more from one side – X-ray spectrum – to the other side – radio waves – and see what it looks like), the "science on sphere" projection system, and a few other things (like a model of a rocket which can shoot something up; a gyroscope with many degrees of freedom for young astronauts to learn how to vomit; scales where you can see how much you weigh on the Moon and all the planets of the Solar System, including fake models of steel weights with apparently varying weights). I haven't seen the interiors of the expanded Techmania proper yet (there is a cool simple sundial before you enter the reception). Also, I think that the projectors in the 3D fulldome could be much stronger (more intense), the pictures were pretty dark relatively to how I remember cinemas. The 3D cosmos-oriented science movies will never be just like Titanic – one can't invest billions into things with limited audiences – but I still hope that they will make some progress because to some extent, these short programs looked like a "proof of a concept" rather than a full-fledged complete experience that should compete with regular movie theaters, among other sources of (less scientific) entertainment. I suppose that many more 3D fulldomes have to be built before the market with the truly impressive programs becomes significant.


  1. Just from reading this TRF article, I think Lisa Randall must be an angel of patience ... ;-)

    I would have exploded hearing all these same old stupid questions and confusions once again (In fact I just complained to my nice office mat about them ;-) ...), in particular the one concerning the LHC, earth, and black holes is really out now :-(0)

    People like the host who claim that there is nothing inspiring in physics should never get in any positions where they can decide about funding, but in the US they obviously do ... :-/

  2. LOL, she's patient but so are many others, including me, in similar situations. The patience is just expected as a part of one's giving such interviews and talks. It doesn't apply to the blogs where it's the blog owners who defines the rules! ;-)

    The host is still meant to be one of the most science-loving men on Huffington Post - and in the media.

  3. Hey Lubos, sry for off-topic, but I heard(in some german article) that the BICEPS discoveries were only due to a supernova explosion or something, and the hype is over now, is that true?? Greets

  4. Hi Jonny, for an English story, see e.g.


  5. --nothing wrong with "awe", Lisa. I am in awe of the explanations and the beautiful mathematical structures. Einstein called himself "a religious non-believer ".
    Awe is only bad if it leads directly to
    faith, skipping the curiosity and explanatory part.

  6. Ok, thanks for reply ! :)

  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3HzLYxpdCo