Thursday, September 04, 2008

Brian Greene's public lecture

Yesterday evening I went to Brian Greene's PI public lecture "Black Holes and a Myth of Icarus". The lecture was sold out, the place was crammed and suffered from a severe lack of oxygen. I just love going to the public lectures. It's such a nice experience to see how much interest there is in our work. Not to mention going straight to the first row and sitting down on a seat with a sign 'Reserved'.

Brian started with a quite bizarre story of how he just accidentally mistook the shower gel for mouth wash. Seemed to me like the kind of warm-up joke you learn in a seminar. Anyway, the lecture considerably improved after that. Brian spoke about his latest book "Icarus at the Edge of Time" that was just published this week. It is a fiction story about a teenager on a spaceship who is intrigued by a black hole in the vicinity of the spaceship's path. In the story of that boy there is embedded quite a bit of black hole physics.

Brian then explained some aspects of classical black hole physics with a lot of well-done animations, from Newton to Einstein and space-time curvature, what a horizon is, how time slows down close by the black hole, what observations have told us about black holes and so on. He didn't mention quantum effects, nor did he say anything about string theory - except in the question session: Somebody asked what space is made of, upon which he simply said "I don't know" and that people are still discussing the matter. Some think it's all strings, other's like e.g. Lee Smolin and colleagues at PI, he added, have other theories. The question is open and no conclusion so far. All together, it was a very engaging and well done lecture. I was most impressed that he was indeed able to understand what the questions meant and to answer them. I always have large problems figuring out what people are actually asking for. In other public lectures I've noticed that the speakers often solve the problem by replying to questions that were not asked, but Greene actually understood the questions (after which I understood what had been asked.)

He also said that the reason for him writing a fiction book is that science sadly too often is communicated in a rather boring way, and not as the exciting story of discovery that it really is. He later also added that the educational system brings kids up to the scientific status of 1688, but leaves out most of modern science. I'm not entirely sure what he was referring to there, I roughly agree on the sense but at least we learned Special Relativity and some basics of quantum mechanics in high school.

As far as I am concerned, embedding science into stories has always annoyed me. I'd have appreciated less clutter and a more precise formulation in class as well as in textbooks (see also the discussion of my post Text + Equations = Clarity?). I found it quite interesting to read about recent research results that show real world examples are not particularly helpful to illustrate mathematical concepts. Indeed, the task to translate "word problems" into equations is most often the hardest part - still in my research today.

Anyway, I am sure the audience liked Brian Greene's performance. And no, I won't buy the book.

25 comments:

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

So, according to your description, the lecture by one of “our great scientists” contained nothing new or simply interesting, so that the most exciting feature was the lecturer's ability to understand oral questions from the public somehow complementing your own difficulty with it. Thank you for an honest account, but further questions appear. Like, is it what the taxpayer's money for science and your/other young lifes are spent for, in the world's best places for doing science? It's true that large public can be so easily duped and manipulated, in science and beyond, but time goes away irreversibly and with it all the fantastic opportunities to have something much better than that “officially great” emptiness, something like consistent answers to those “difficult” questions (real, reality-based problem solutions), instead of never-ending, fruitless play with evidently broken abstract models having nothing to do with reality... But why bother if one is comfortably paid for this latter kind of “research” and can spend a “nice evening” in a “nice company”, for nothing? And then spend even more time for describing that nothingness to others (spending their time for reading and discussing it and maybe even buying and reading further books about it)... And then why not spending one's whole life like that, in that “nice” fashion, playing on words, for nothing? And then it makes up the “intellectual life”, “professional research” and thus finally the development of a whole “developed” country and civilisation suffering so much from unsolved problems and unanswered questions. And then those “scientists” cannot guess the true nature of time they spend for nothing, despite “very special”, “ambitious” and expensive programmes devoted even to that particular issue, just in order they could have more of “nice” time filled up with nothingness and therefore remaining absolutely mysterious. Does it still go there, in your high places of science or has it stopped a hundred years ago (because nothing has changed essentially since then)?! Only stupid clock hands are making their mechanical, senseless circles around meaningless abstractions in a clockwork reality... And the public is forced to follow and support fruitless descriptions of perverted “mathematical universes”, as everything else is thoroughly excluded from official science support. No answers, no meaning, no life, only questions, difficult to understand. Exciting, that official science universe...

Andrew Thomas said...

Brian Greene is sooo billiant and such a good communicator. Makes you sick!

Bee said: "As far as I am concerned, embedding science into stories has always annoyed me. I'd have appreciated less clutter and a more precise formulation in class as well as in textbooks". I would tend to agree, but I know a lot of people (OK, men) who worship Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov and other sci-fi writers who try to include bits of science. As you say, Bee, the end result is so watered-down that it's just a pale imitation of science. I can't help suspecting that wormholes were invented just for sci-fi writers!

Bee said...

Hi Andrei,

I've worked on black hole physics for more than a decade. Brian Greene's lecture didn't tell me anything new in this regard, and indeed for me his abilities as a speaker were the most impressing.

In this regard however I am hardly representative for the audience. From the questions following the lecture it was pretty clear that many people are still trying to grasp the physics of classical black holes, and my own experience confirms that. Brian did a very good job communicating that.

As for the rest of your comment, you apparently haven't understood what science is all about. Discussing theories is an essential part of research. That might seem to people outside the community as describing nothing or arguing about empty concepts because the relevance isn't clear to them, but such discussion is a central part of progress. And yes, I do actually think that the possibility for such intellectual life is part of what our civilizations strive for. It is a great luxury, but one that serves a very elementary need: finding our place in this universe.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Andrew,

Sure, I guess it differs greatly from one person to the next which approach they consider most useful. Much like some people do well with visualizations, and others better with derivations. I've never had a problem making a 'story' out of an equation myself, so I'd rather not be bothered with other people's stories, I tend not to like them. There is also a danger in many of these stories, that is that people take them too literally and try to use them as a mind-construct for concepts that don't fit into the story's constraint, at which point, without equations, you'll get lost or come to simply wrong conclusions (the thing with the pair-production in Hawking radiation is a very sad example for that. It seems that a whole lawsuit was eventually based on that...read comments to this post, if you have the patience). Best,

B.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

thanks for the report, sounds as if I've missed a very interesting talk...

About 1688, I guess Brian Greene refers to the publication of Newton's Principia around that time, but most kids probably also have heard about some physics 150 years younger, the famous three Ohm's laws (U = RI, I = U/R, R = U/I) of electricity ;-).

Anyway, I think he's right that physics classes in school are often not very inspiring, and completely skip more exciting or more modern (say, 20th century onwards) stuff. So, I find this idea of a book for young teenagers with serious content about black holes packed in a catchy story quite intriging.

Cheers, Stefan

Steve said...

Bee, I know this is against comments policy, but your willingness to talk about LHC safety concerns without being dismissive to us worriers is unusual in your profession. The question is: did you notice R Plaga's August Arxiv paper in which he speculated that there may be a mechanism by which mini black holes could be a planetary danger after all? I have read Mangano's rebuttal (also on Arxiv) but have trouble following where the mistake in Plaga's argument is. Any comment would be welcome, 'cos it seems to me to be a bad look when someone with apparent credibility like Plaga is still raising safety arguments just a month before the thing starts operating.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I’m Greene with envy as this is one of the few PI lectures I couldn’t attend:-) I logged on to get a ticket about 20 minutes after the opening time on Monday, delayed because of issues at work making that the first chance I got and they were already all taken. I even considered showing up anyway in hopes to get in by way of the cancellation process and yet something that couldn’t wait came up so that was out. Brian Green for me represents the best of the current generation of science writers and there is no doubt he is also a accomplish scientist. Although I have never been all that impressed with string theory what Greene brings to his readers in terms of overall physics understanding is certainly first rate and I’m sure it has been helpful and inspiring for many novices and pros. Well I guess I’ll have to wait until PI has it up on their Web site and yet it is never quite the same thing as when it’s delivered live.

And yes Greene is correct to say that the basic education system inspires few people to learn to appreciate let alone become inspired with science. For me it was the libraries and the endeavors of those first astronauts that caught my attention in this regard and agree with him that science has to be shown as being an exciting journey of discovery and wonder which it truly is for those that practice or simply follow it.

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

It makes sense to me that one might feel this way having been dealing with the technicalities of the subject in regard to blackholes, but as you say, this is a good connection for others that are being introduced.

I like knowing these scientist beyond what they do, as to their professions or trade. To see them involved in a greater mystery that they themself become part of, and give intrigue and beauty too. Blogging perhaps?:)

Even, with all these technicalities built into them, the patience and virtue of getting others up to speed, provides for others on the same playing field.

These are the seasoned vets who have worked life and recognized that this gift may be imparted to it's youth. To encourage them to carry on the work of science.

To see this "mothering/teaching aspect" of one's child/student is no less a wonderful attribute, then to say that we will introduce our young children with "story time" and get them to wonder about life( we are imparting all kinds of information while dressing up the story.)

Sometimes such myths are purposely constructed to pass on information to the lineage of families, cultures, so that one does not forget their heritage. Art as well in some cubist form.

So inclusive then, from the principals of Newton that maybe, Newton himself saw other things in relation, while he worked the principals of science, yet, their is a whole culture of scientists who dealt with fact, and had their own flavours.

So Cantor moved to prove who Bacon was? It was a time of diversion for facing the upheavals of the math.

I think this is what is lost on our youth, that while there is all this colouring going on, they forget there is an defensible position that the vets know, is recognized in everyone's life of science. Yet, some like to paint, or play music. It's a choice of medium with which to endeavour one's principals? Speak a language from one's deepest reserves.

Best,

Tom O'Bulls said...

Re the comments at the end about "using real-world examples to teach mathematics": I found this article rather funny. If a student tells me that he understands the abstract mathematics but cannot apply it concretely, I simply conclude that he has been deluding himself --- he didn't really *understand* it in the first place. Translating word problems into mathematics is not just a way of *learning* mathematics --- it is what it is all about. Without it, mathematics is just another meaningless game like chess. That's why this "translation" is so hard: you can't do it until you really understand mathematics deeply, and until you learn that mathematics is not just the mindless application of algorithms.

Plato said...

One might think I had made a mistake of posting this here under this new blog post entry?

This comparison also reveals a difference between the positivist and interpretive, or hermeneutic approach to the interpretation of myths. Positivists read myths literally and find them false and foolish; interpretivists read them metaphorically or allegorically and find them true and profound.

The phrase "turtles all the way down", or sometimes simply "a turtle problem" are often used to describe other infinite regressions.


Language to mathematical content is still a distillation process, just as it is in interpretive examinations of the psychology of ourselves. We learn something about ourselves as we go along. It's just the nature of things.:)

Luis Sanchez said...

So you learn elements of QM and special relativity at german high schools? Well, you are certainly ahead of the curve, at Mexico the average course only covers newtonian dynamics in a really boring way...

Bee said...

Steve: I saw the paper, I also saw Gidding's reply, but I didn't come around to reading either. If you're following this blog you know a) I'm not actually working on the topic anymore and b) I've been very busy the last months. Since my conference is starting Monday and I have to go on another trip after that, it is also very unlikely I will come around to reading the papers any time soon. However, should I manage to, I'll let you know. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Luis,

To be more precise, I should maybe say we 'learned'. I have honestly no clue what they teach the kids today in Germany. But I guess, as Stefan said, you learn some basics of electrodynamics as well? Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: We had some kids from Poland or Russia via exchange programs. They were typically way ahead of all of us.

Bee said...

Hi Tom,

Abstract mathematics doesn't necessarily connect to the real world. Also, it is two different shoes translating 'word problems' into maths for the use of learning the maths, and applying learned maths to solve problems. I was talking about the learning and meant to express that the additional complication of extracting the math from a story only distracts from the really important concepts. I think you were saying instead that one also has to learn how to apply maths. I'd agree on that, but that's a different point. Best,

B.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Bee said: “Discussing theories is an essential part of research. That might seem to people outside the community as describing nothing or arguing about empty concepts because the relevance isn't clear to them, but such discussion is a central part of progress. And yes, I do actually think that the possibility for such intellectual life is part of what our civilizations strive for. It is a great luxury, but one that serves a very elementary need: finding our place in this universe.”

It's an impressive combination of “good” generalities but having unfortunately nothing to do with today's concrete situation in science. It's the same as you would say about any profession “working is an essential part of success”. Sure, success has many essential parts. But the most essential one is still real results, the expected, promised ones, rather than only formal work (“discussion”) and never-ending promise to find problem solutions. Champagne is also a luxury, but it's something quite real too and even something very strictly defined. The “luxury” of modern science is like champagne producers taking your money, but when you open a bottle, there is only water in it, accompanied by the promise that they are doing their best to find problem solution. “Discussion is a central part of progress”, right, except that there is no real progress in fundamental science today, the one measured by real, well-known problem solutions. Not only the “old” (century-old!) “mysteries” preserve their “supernatural” status (within an allegedly “objective” and “rigorous” kind of knowledge!), but the new, ever more “global” puzzles emerge at a catastrophic rate. And in such a situation, you are saying “calm down, we're in the process of discussion, progress will follow” (but during the previous hundred years it didn't and we have now evident degradation instead). It follows that when you buy a bottle of champagne, it's only for the “luxurious” label and bottle, not the content. Well, and me, I like the content! This is my understanding of science (and everything else) opposed to its popular “post-modern” flavour just emphasising the “process”, so much that finally the “result” becomes even undesirable (because it sort of stops the process!). In reality this post-modern attitude is but recognition of very serious, “unsolvable” problems, the global dead end, so that all that remains is to talk “about possible solutions” instead of proposing real, consistent ones.

One could add many details, e.g. about basic irrelevance of the whole black-hole stuff to major problem solution, as well as very serious doubts of many professionals about reality of black holes such as they are specified in the official version (the only supported one), as opposed to simply “very massive” galaxy centres, etc. But after all, it's only particular manifestations of the general attitude: if we are here just to “discuss” (rather than to “solve”), then why not to discuss also this “interesting possibility”, doesn't matter how real may it be. Even though it's not fair with respect to champagne producers (and all other productive work), one could say as you do, let it be, after all, it's just another luxury in over-producing society and maybe even not the worst one... But ask yourself why (fundamental) physics has become almost the least popular profession, after being close to the most popular, truly exciting one fifty or forty years ago. This is a real choice of younger generations in an otherwise very educated and “scientifically rich” civilisation, which cannot deceive anybody...

“...a very elementary need: finding our place in this universe”. So, did you find yours, at least on this planet? Apparently not, according to your web page... And how could anyone ever find “our place in this universe” by dealing with over-simplified, absolutely abstract models having nothing to do with real, complex-dynamical and life-bearing universe?! But something tells me that your place “in this universe” will finally be closer to science-related fiction, in the Brian Greene direction, so to say, who also evolves from fruitless abstractions to quite potentially fruitful fiction writing (isn't it another sign of the same “end” of this particular science doctrine, now being abandoned even by its most devoted servants?). And then this your forthcoming conference “about science”: we are discussing the more and more science as such, the “process”, rather than its subjects of study... “Will physics turn into philosophy?” The official one already did, you know that, if not, why asking? It's the end, Sabine, “our place in the universe” is completely lost, at least for those who tend to rigidly follow the scholar science doctrine... They are at risk of becoming fiction writers, in the best case, which is not surprising after all because what all those “models” actually are if not pure and absolute fiction? Bonne chance anyway and ... have a nice drink!

darek said...

That’s quite the anti-science screed there, andrei.

On your web page you call yourself a senior researcher, which is funny because you seem to expect science to come up with instant results without 'wasting' time on actual research.

amused said...

I don't think there are any criticisms of science today that didn't also apply at various earlier periods, e.g., to the pursuit of alchemy by Newton and other leading figures of his day. Science continued to advance in the past in spite of this though, so we can be optimistic that genuine progress will also continue in the future despite the distractions from various modern day alchemies (if that's what they turn out to be).

Anonymous said...

Steve wrote:
"I have read Mangano's rebuttal (also on Arxiv) but have trouble following where the mistake in Plaga's argument is."


Giddings and Mangano spell out in detail the mistake in Plaga's argument. Read the paragraph in their paper beginning:
"Where did [1] go wrong?" ([1] is the Plaga paper). You only need to read that one paragraph to understand exactly why Plaga is wrong.

I feel real sympathy for Giddings, who is one of the world's true experts on quantum black holes, and who had to take time away from his own research program to write a rebuttal to a trivially wrong paper by someone with no prior record of work on black hole radiance. Sadly, I expect to see more of this in the future, with active research scientists having to take time from their own research programs to debunk alarmist nonsense on the web.

Bee said...

Hi Andrei,

Your comment is quite interesting in several regards.

For one, you are completely misconstruing my opinion. I am far from saying that science as it is run today works optimally. In fact, my concerns about the inefficiency in its operation is reason for the conference that starts tomorrow. I myself am very critical about many aspects of academic research that I have written about in earlier posts (you seem to have read at least Will Physics turn into Philosophy? , I also recommend We have only ourselves to judge on each other ). These are problems that are larger the more abstract the topic of research and the higher the competitive pressure. Both of which unfortunately is the case in fundamental research in theoretical physics today.

but the new, ever more “global” puzzles emerge at a catastrophic rate. And in such a situation, you are saying “calm down, we're in the process of discussion, progress will follow”

Second, I agree with you that mankind has a lot of other problems that we should work on really hard, and we better start doing that yesterday. That again is a reason for the conference. I don't think science can make a good contribution to addressing these challenges as long as it isn't working well itself. For me, the global scientific community is a key to these problems (I have lost faith in politics to take care of the situation). For the big picture, see here .

Yes, I will always be the one who tells others to "calm down" because if people get scared, they will either deny the existance of a problem, or talk themselves into believing that the ingenuity of mankind will inevitably come to save the day. In both cases, nobody will do anything.

there is no real progress in fundamental science today, the one measured by real, well-known problem solutions

How do you measure progress?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Amused,

Though I agree with you that similar criticism could have applied to earlier times, I am always suspicious about arguments saying something will continue to work because it has previously worked. This is simply a wrong extrapolation in very many cases that I don't trust.

Our society has without doubt undergone a lot of changes in the last century, and especially the last decade has been very rapid. This has resulted in many changes for the scientific community that need to be addressed. It might very well be that 'on the long run' progress will continue, but I personally don't want to live in a period of stagnation or regress because we don't pay attention to adapting our institutions to change. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Our society has without doubt undergone a lot of changes in the last century, and especially the last decade has been very rapid. This has resulted in many changes for the scientific community that need to be addressed.”

Do you feel that the extent to which science needs to be changed should be limited to its organization and priorities or does this also extend to the methodology which it incorporates? Is our current methodology to be considered as being carved in stone or should it also be reactant and compliant with change as defined and necessitated by progress. Is falsification through physical test to remain the corner stone as it has been or will falsification through logic manifest of reason be allowed to serve an expanded role? It seems to me that we may go through a long period where our technical abilities to test may be somewhat limited and thus does this mean that science must suffer the same? This is not meant as an argument for any position, just simply a question.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

An interesting question. I will give you an answer, but you might find it unsatisfactory: That's not up to me to decide. What I want is a system that operates such that it can adapt to change, reconsider priorities and methodologies if it becomes necessary. Carving things in stone isn't a good thing to do on a dynamical background.

As to my own opinion however, I think there's nothing wrong with the present methodology, if one can speak of such at all. What is wrong with the present system is the interaction in the community that should lead to a feedback optimizing these procedures. That doesn't work because too many people are too busy sprucing up their CVs and don't care what's happening to science. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“That doesn't work because too many people are too busy sprucing up their CVs and don't care what's happening to science.”

I find nothing unsatisfactory in your answer for I would agree that science is becoming considered as to be not much more then an occupation rather then being a discipline. I would also agree that CV’s are becoming to be simply resumes reactant to those that cultivate the talent being little more then head hunters. Perhaps it’s better to have it first returned as being a discipline before we are concerned with the methodology since what does it matter if it is not taken seriously to begin with.

Best,

Phil

pipi said...

for one thing, Brian looks way better than Bee would in ages :p