Hugely encouraging, given how scientifically illiterate so many of our nation's citizens are (I'm talking about you, global warming skeptics, evolution deniers, and anti-vaccine fanatics)...
Smith Auditorium was almost completely filled for Brian Greene's talk at Willamette University tonight.
Greene is one of the most gifted popularizers of science, today's Carl Sagan in many ways. He also is a highly respected scientist in his own right, being a theoretical physicist and string theorist.
My wife and I had seen him on television numerous times. I've read all of his books. But seeing him in person made us realize what a Wow! guy he is. Energetic. Humorous. Entertaining. Personable.
Greene is a great salesman for science.
He makes science sound wonderfully exciting, a never-ending adventure into the unknown. I loved how he began his talk by giving examples of how scientists just go for it, dare to dream new ideas, explore fresh territory.
I already was familiar with much of what he talked about, science-wise.
Newton's laws of motion that modeled how gravity works. Einstein's relativity theory that modeled both how and why gravity works. Discoveries of a universe that not only is expanding, but accelerating. Black holes. Big bang inflationary expansion. Multiverse theories of continual big bangs fashioning countless other universes.
But Greene explained this stuff so clearly, it was like hearing about it for the first time. And when the Q&A session came, how Greene handled questions from students young and older was even more impressive.
I had some questions of my own. I was sitting in an aisle seat.
However, I could see that everybody lined up at the microphone near the stage on my side of the auditorium was about half my height and 1/6 my age. The math didn't look good for me. I feared that I'd look like an old man taking question-line space that could have been filled by the cute science-literate elementary school girls who wanted to ask Greene something.
So I sat in my seat and listened. Good choice. Because several of the girls got Greene to talk about issues that were close to what I was wondering.
If the universe is accelerating, with galaxies moving farther and farther apart at greater than the speed of light (expanding space can do this), which means that billions of years from now scientists of the future will only be aware of a few "island" galaxies near them, missing the reality of the thickly populated universe we know about, why should we feel that how we see things now isn't also a misguided cosmic viewpoint -- slanted by a similar time-bound perspective?
Greene's answer, basically, was that we can't be sure we are seeing reality clearly. All we can do is seek the truth as forcefully as possible. His optimism was palpable. I have no doubt that he deeply inspired the aspiring scientists in the auditorium.
Yet my wife and I, along with two friends who also came to the lecture, stood on the State Street sidewalk after his talk and came up with some skeptical questions that we dearly wished it had been possible to ask of Greene.
We wondered whether the laws of physics are truly as objectively real as Greene implied. Meaning, he gave example after example of how mathematical formulas are able to mirror observations of the universe. Einstein's relativity theory precisely predicted how light bends around a massive object, the sun.
But the mathematics and the observations are both products of the human brain/mind. So even though most mathematicians view the equations that describe laws of nature to exist in some sort of objective Platonic realm of reality, I wondered how beings (like space aliens) with a very different form of consciousness would look upon the cosmos.
Here we get into quasi-Matrix notions.
What if the amazing match between sensory observations of the cosmos, and mathematical descriptions of it, is partly (or completely) caused by both the observations and mathematical descriptions being the product of human brains/minds?
I admit this sounds weird.
Yet Greene encouraged us to think outside the box. My philosophical problem with modern-day, or any-day, science doesn't concern its ability to discern truths about reality. It is whether these truths exist objectively "out there" in the universe, or reflect the "in here" of human consciousness.
Probably there is no way to tell -- until we can communicate either with an advanced alien civilization, or a super-smart artificial intelligence. Would these other forms of consciousness, who had their own understanding of reality, agree with our scientific truths, our descriptions of the laws of nature?
This question doesn't really bear upon the validity of modern science, which is far superior to other ways of trying to comprehend reality, such as religion. But I love the fact that it can be asked. Nothing is sacred in science. Not even the scientific method. Or the most widely accepted scientific knowledge.
Which is why Brian Greene's talk was so inspiring. He urged us to pursue a truth-seeking journey, not a destination. A fluid ever-questioning process, not answers set in illusory stone.