Today’s guest is Dr. Brian Keating. Brian is a Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of physics at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He’s also a public speaker, inventor, and an expert in the study of the universe’s oldest light, the cosmic microwave background (CMB). We dive into a fascinating conversation about space, time, aliens, time travel and all kind of other things that make my head explode. Buckle up!
On being an astrophysicist:
“I was but I didn’t even think it was possible to be an astrophysicist. I thought it was like being a wizard or being an ice cream taster, jobs that people you won’t pay you for. It turns out they will pay me for this, not terribly well but I’m a state employee at the University of California. Just don’t tell the governor I would do it for free! It’s the most fun job in the world, punctuated sometimes by sheer frustration. But mostly it is incredibly fun. I get to study the universe and think about how did the universe come to be? Where is it heading? How is it evolving? What is the ultimate fate? Not just humankind but the whole universe. It really is the most thrilling thing I can think of doing.”
On what he does:
“I try to think about things how they would relate to an ordinary person. Part of the problem is that most people don’t think about it that much. I think that’s cultivated by science done by specialist people operating in a specialized environment that people can’t understand. But then we ask people for money so we can fund our research. I think it’s a vicious cycle that needs to come to an end. I am trying to demystify science and the biggest concepts in the universe. Not by dumbing it down, I never do that. Instead, I want to take people on a journey in a language that they can understand, and deconstruct these massive concepts. So for example, I will ask you Chris, what is your favourite day of the year?”
Chris: I’ll go with Christmas.
“So what is Christmas? It commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. Although I am Jewish, but he is still a pretty good Jew. It’s not just the beginning of his life, but the entire beginning of Christianity, which benefits millions of people around the world. So it’s an origin. For me, I think about my birthday, anniversary, my kid’s birthday and think what is that? It’s an origin. If it’s your origin, you didn’t see yourself born, you have to rely on the testimony of others.”
On his early love of space:
“So what about the origin of time? From an early age I was fascinated by origin stories. How did the Earth come to be and the Moon? Eventually how did the Universe come to be? It’s a work in progress that I’m still grappling with to this day. But the more you learn, the more fascinating it gets. As an astronomer, I encountered a telescope at age 12 and it really set the course in motion for my career. My mission in life is to get every kid on Earth a telescope. Maybe one day I will have my own brand. Wherever you are in the World, you can see the same Moon craters and rings of Saturn. You can recreate the psychological emotion and feeling that Galileo had in 1609, looked at the moon and went ‘Wait. The moon has craters?’ My one takeaway is get your kids a telescope. It can inspire a career or just inspire an evening.”
On it being a daunting task:
“Yeah. Well there are all sorts of reasons that it gives me hope. You see, science, unlike The Emmys behind you Chris, or a Nobel Prize, it is not a finite gain. You won an Emmy and someone lost an Emmy. That is a finite gain and a zero sum gain in a sense. Science does have those, such as getting into a good college or winning a Nobel Prize. But at the same token, it’s an infinite gain. You can never win science and go, yeah I did it, I got it. The way I think about it is that you are on an island, and that island represents knowledge. The island can grow and get bigger, but the boundary where it encounters the ocean of ignorance gets bigger too. But the line is much bigger than the area of the island. You make progress and you win. Mother nature is receding, but sometimes she will let you see a little bit of her secret. I think those moments of discovery where no human being on Earth knew what I knew now, that is the object of a scientist. We love that kind of state of uncertainty. Because uncertainty means opportunity.”
How old the universe is:
“We have a very accurate analysis of the Earth’s composition, what it’s made of, how many galaxies there are and how many stars there are. It has come so far in the 21 years since I was a graduate student. When I was a graduate student, we didn’t know the age of the universe, it was uncertain. It could have been 10 billion years old or 20 billion years old. There were certain objects in the universe, very old stars, whose age we knew very accurately to be, say 11 billion years. People were saying “Well that’s kind of weird, there’s a star that is older than the age of the universe?” It’s like if you were older than your dad, you would be asking mom some questions. In this case now, we know that the universe is 13,798,000,000 years old, with an uncertainty of less than a percent. In other words, it’s like I can guess your age, but imagine I guess your age, I guess the day you were born, the hour you are born, the minute you’re born, as opposed to, well, you could have been born in 1990. Or you could have been born in 1960. Like, that’s crazy. Now we know it incredibly precisely, along with a host of other cosmological fascinating properties of our universe, including what’s likely to happen to it billions of years from now.”
On if other life out there:
“Well, it’s very, very, very fascinating to me. Because we have no evidence of life on other planets or even within our solar system as of yet. We may have hints and there’s possibilities, and there’s water and there’s carbon and oh, well, water and carbon, given enough time, it’ll make you know about, you know, bacteria pop out. Now, that’s not really as well understood as people would think. So actually, just the sheer possibility. Imagine you say, well, America is really big, right? So there’s got to be people everywhere in America, but if you’ve ever been to the desert, there’s nobody out there. If you go 20 miles from LA, and you can be somewhere and there’s nobody around. So yeah, just the sheer potential for life doesn’t by no means guarantee the existence of life. And I have some thoughts about what it would mean if we definitively found the existence of alternative life in the universe, including intelligent life. And I don’t think humans really are capable of understanding how we would react because even scientists don’t know how we would react in terms of what a mysterious phenomena like UFO is. We don’t have any unified approach to that the way we do about how particles are formed, or how galaxies are formed. It’s much more open to kind of broad speculation, even at this point.”
On the odds being high on life out there:
“Yeah. So that’s a very, very often spoken of analogy, and I think there’s some merit to it. But again, imagine there were just like three things that you needed to make to make this conversation happen. Sure, you needed a universe to come into existence. That universe had to produce certain types of elements like hydrogen and helium that comprise the very first stars that ignited in the universe. Those then grew and made heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, all the things that we need for life for DNA. And then imagine that the DNA, the chemicals, just pure chemicals, assembled into molecules. Those molecules eventually were like amino acids and then proteins and DNA and then those evolved. So let’s say there’s five or six, let’s say let’s call 10 different steps…
The universe started, first stars form. Then they die and second stars form, they form elements, elements form molecules, molecules form amino acids, amino acids form proteins, and this is very simplified. Then that evolves to nonsense. Then oh, by the way, the first thing is that formed were kind of like fish, and then they’re like dinosaurs. And then an asteroid had to come and kill the dinosaurs for us to really become prolific as mammals on Earth, let’s say there’s 10 of those things. Each one has a one in 1000 chance of happening by random fluctuation, natural selection, and whatever. So that’s 10, that’s 1/1000 to the 10th power, that’s smaller than that than the total number, that’s larger than the number of stars in the observable universe by a very large amount. So even though you might, there are many, many stars in the universe, there’s by no means all the conditions necessary as as input conditions like I just outlined. By the way, there’s probably like 10,000 different properties, each one with a probability of one in a million of happening by random. So we just are not equipped to handle those kinds of analyses. And so we just kind of default to, well. that’s a lot or that’s a little and that’s where we get our emotions from.”
On alternate universes:
“It’s so interesting that there are scientists now for the first time and in my understanding in human history, who say, not only is there a multiverse, like multiple universes. But for us to speak about a universe is prejudiced and biased. In other words, the natural state should be multiple universes, just like the natural state is multiple planets, multiple stars, etc. So because of that, they say no, you have to prove it’s a universe not a multiverse.”
On The Matrix being real:
There are people that have done a great amount of research and books about this. There are equally people that think about, well, let’s say that that is true, and they make what’s called a reductio ad absurdum, like a logical extrapolation. So they’ll say “Well, if that’s true, then there was somebody that could simulate that civilization.” It could be something to a matrix on a matrix on a matrix, it just matrix ad infinitum. And then at some point, you run out of particles in the universe, like, are you going to make a computer out of every single particle in the universe? Use a particle of light and a particle of matter, and it becomes absurd. So for those reasons we look at it. I should say that it’s not quite true that computers can grow, you know, exponentially, right? We only have so much material on Earth. We only have so much in this galaxy, in terms of energy. So it can’t go infinite. Like we think about this thing like a singularity, but there’s actually no physical object known to science that has an infinite Liebig value, or an infinitely small value. In other words, negative infinity or you know, zero, even a particle has some width and length to it, and so too does, the universe. It does not have any place where there’s infinite temperature, infinite density, infinite pressure, those things don’t exist, except in the human brain. In other words, if you try to type in the number one divided by zero, which is fun to do on your smartphone. I won’t ask Siri “”What’s one divided by zero?” But it’s pretty fun to hear what Siri says.
On time travel being possible:
“So in terms of physical time travel, it’s very hard to resolve these various paradoxes that come up. When you talk about time travel, the famous one is, let’s say, you go back in time Chris, and you go back 80 years ago, and you kill your great, great, great grandfather. So would you be born? Who knows? Well, maybe you would. But maybe you wouldn’t, maybe you would be totally different. So then how did you go back in time if you were killed and you never existed? So there are all these paradoxes that come up with time travel that involve what’s called causality. How does a cause lead to an effect to take place? And without knowledge of how that could be really obtained, we’re left with kind of real speculation as to whether or not it’s possible. So right now we can talk about teleportation, we can teleport certain things in space, and they can arrive, and they can have certain properties that are almost like travelling at the speed of light. So some people say, well, it’s just kind of a small jump from taking a proton and getting all of its properties, and then transmitting the 10s of trillions of trillions of trillions of protons that you’re made of and teleporting all of them. But I think we’re a long way away from being able to understand that.”
On the possibility of teleportation:
“I say we already have a good means of teleportation, would you like to know what it is? So they’re called children. So children, whether or not their biological, adopted, ideological, are the only known methods that I can think about, or writing and stuff like that, where you can teleport. You can transmit your ideas, your essence, your values, even to the future, you can’t go back in time, you can go forward in time. But you can’t go, that’s the catch, you’re not able to go. Because 100 years from now, maybe medical science will advance and you can go, but most likely, it can’t. But you can teleport your values, and you can influence people as mentors. You’re doing this with millions, you know, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people are being influenced by you, and this will carry on digitally, into the future forever. So that’s why it’s very important to think about the influence that people have. And you’re saying you’re insignificant, no, you’re very significant, you’re able to influence the future, what else could you want?”
On losing a Nobel Prize:
“So we had made for the first time in history this detector, this telescope, which would be able to observe the earliest epoch in the universe’s history period of time called the Big Bang. So if the universe began at a single instant, then we would be essentially seeing shrapnel and the aftershocks. That’s not technically correct, but just as a way of saying kind of colloquially, that process could be witnessed for the first time by a telescope of the kind that I invented. And that telescope would not only see the beginning of the universe, but everything that’s happened in the universe since that time. What it’s made of, when it’s made, how it’s evolving and really demonstrates for the first time how the universe began. For that reason, we were told even from the very beginning, that we would win the highest honour equivalent to an Oscar in science called the Nobel Prize. That was like an idol to me and was something that I worshipped as a younger person. More people have been to space in the last year than have won the Nobel Prize over the last five years. It’s just unbelievably prestigious, and yet, it’s created by a single guy, Alfred Nobel, over 120 years ago. And it was his thought that he would make it to inspire people to create inventions that would improve the human condition and make humankind better.”
“Along the way, it’s kind of taken on this other role, like more like the Oscars are to incentivize. It was created to reward stuff not to incentivize stuff. It’s becoming not just a reward mechanism, but an incentivization mechanism. So I wanted to kind of talk about that in the book really. My publishers were kind enough to put these three chapters that talk about the Nobel Prize. It’s kind of like a choose your own adventure. If you don’t care about the Nobel Prize and you just want to learn about cosmology, telescopes and stuff, you can read it. So I was happy about that. So we built this telescope at the South Pole, Antarctica. So the very bottom of the world we had to travel to for reasons I talked about here, to observe this flash of creation. We claimed that we did do it, but then we had to retract it, because we actually made a type of error. When we analysed the results, we didn’t leave the lens cap on or get our thumb in the picture. Instead, it was that we interpreted a signal as being attributed to the beginning of time. But actually, it was caused by something much more prosaic in the universe, literally, this dust that fills our cosmos. “
“We had to basically kind of eat humble pie and retract that claim. It was a remarkable story immediately, headlines in New York Times, CNN, everything all around the world. And then eventually, we had to retract it and rewind it. And so I want to tell the story of why it was so important, how it touches these notions of origins and creation myths and stories. And also, what does it like to be an experimental scientist, not a theoretical scientist like Stephen Hawking, or Albert Einstein.”
On his new book: Think Like A Nobel Prize Winner:
“So that book started really because of the pandemic. If the pandemic had any positive side effects amidst all the tragedy of cause, it’s that we’re kind of locked in and scientists couldn’t really travel. A lot of them had books and things coming out. I had always been interested in the life of the mind as a scholar’s intellectual, interviewing as many people as I can, and kind of downloading their knowledge into my brain. A book is like a total hack to do years and years of worth of wisdom and experience into a couple hours to read. I interviewed nine Nobel Prize winners in the course of the last year. I decided I would take all those and this and edit the conversations, add some supplementary materials, some custom drawings, and really make it into something that you could digest at your own leisure. With a podcast you kind of listen linearly, you can’t randomly access stuff. This was like, you want to learn about how mentors influence people? Or how does the imposter syndrome, which features really heavily in this book, asks how does that, you know, affect my career as a car salesman in Nebraska? I’m not a scientist. So I wrote it, and especially not for scientists and some of the early readers that have been reading it and saying I didn’t think I would understand it.”
“But there’s no science in it, just you know, description of why they won it. But what I want to do is take what we call science, which in Latin means knowledge, it doesn’t mean wisdom. I feel like wisdom is much, much rarer, much, much less common than knowledge. And Wikipedia has a lot of knowledge, but I’m not going to ask it like, what do I do when my kid wants to, you know, drop out of college. So in that case, what I wanted to do is distil their wisdom. This book is out and its intent is to really demystify scientists and the process of science show sciences as human beings producing working in collaboration. Even though they might be rivals, competitors, fight, and warring to win this finite game prize. But at the same time they’re also battling this infinite game to understand our universe, and how we fit into it in the limited amount of time that we all have.”
On what he is grateful for:
“My health, to be in America and getting fired. Because I could then get a new job and I eventually met my wife and had children.”
The Kindle version of Brian Keating’s new book, Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner, is available for just 99¢ this week only here.
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Featured image: Jordan Harbinger