Monday, September 19, 2011

Lisa Randall on physics and scientific thinking

The last 15 minutes of Charlie Rose' recent interview with Lisa Randall focuses on the value of the way scientists think as applied in other aspects of life. Thus she emphasizes that scientists consider it important to not only recognize the uncertainty in their observations but also to try to quantify that uncertainty. Politicians tend to hide uncertainty regarding it as a point of weakness while scientists recognize the recognition of uncertainty as a point of strength.

The interview was occasioned by the publication of her new book, Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. If I understood her correctly, the purpose of the book is to help people understand the nature of scientific thinking as a process, hoping that they will emulate scientists in the future by responding to assertions of importance by asking questions such as "how did the speaker arrive at that assertion?". "what is the basis of that assertion?", "what is the evidence in support of that assertion?", and "how credible is that  assertion?". A distinguished physicist, Randall draws on her own work and on modern theories from physics to motivate and move forward the discussion, in the process showing how different the world is in the mind of a physicist than it is in the mind of the average, middle American.

Randall talks about the most important questions in science today, and answers in terms of her own research interests, asking about the fundamental nature of space and time, why subatomic particles have mass and why they have the mass that the do, etc. A scientist interested in the neurobiological basis of consciousness and thought might have given a different response from his/her research interests, focusing on the complexity of the brain and the emergent nature of the mind.

I was thinking about a colleague who said that he seldom had time to focus on the important stuff because he always had too much urgent stuff he had to focus on immediately. A fundamental understanding of space and time may be of huge importance, but I kind of feel that mankind can wait a little longer for its development. On the other hand, it would be very nice now to have a cure for HIV/AIDS, effective and affordable vaccines for malaria and HIV, and a solution to anthropogenic global warming.

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