sean carroll

Life, The Universe and Everything (Scientific)

Physicist Sean Carroll is one of my favourite living humans. He currently teaches at CalTech where he has the desk which belonged to (the legendary) Richard Feynman, one of my favourite dead humans. He gave a talk at The Royal Institution in the UK about his latest book, The Big Picture

One of the greatest things to happen in the past ten years was YouTube's removal of the 10-minute time limit on videos. Now entire talks like this one are available to view world-wide for free in quality comparable to your television. The amount of learning that's now possible for people who don't want to spend weeks sitting through courses that aren't connected with their jobs is unbelievable.

I think that's important because the progress of science has been so fast. Many things that are now well-established facts were, a generation ago, unanswerable mysteries. So those subjects needed to be treated with polite agnosticism. I love Sean's ability to gently but firmly articulate what we do and don't know about those deep once-mysterious questions. It turns out we do know how our species got here, what happens when we die and whether or not you can bend spoons with your mind or talk to the dead.  

Enjoy The BIg Picture:


There's also a short Q&A which follows his talk which was posted separately.

And this is not the first time I've shared a talk from The Royal Institution. A pair of free tickets to the first person who can identify the historical significance of that oddly shaped desk Sean is standing behind in the video in the comments.

My new favourite phrase

My favourite word of 2015 was the verb to poof, which essentially means to magic something into existence. For 2016, I think it definitely has to be brain boners.

I've posted a review of Sean Carroll's fantastic book, The Big Picture previously. This compilation of some of his more powerful and profound comments is well-deserving of the term:

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll's most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I've read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith. 9780525954828

It's a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it's been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don't know just how much we actually know about the universe. It's very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from "I don't know" to "nobody knows" without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called "tolerance". But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It's gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They're only magical when they're poorly understood, so it's nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It's a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don't want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that's worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn't go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.