I don’t know if Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek often reminds people of British comedian John Cleese but, for me at least, he did today as he opened FQXi’s “Exploring the Universe of Possibilities” meeting with a discussion of why foundational questions are vitally important. This was largely due to the fact that on my flight out to Grand Cayman where the meeting is being held, I watched...
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I don’t know if Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek
often reminds people of British comedian John Cleese
but, for me at least, he did today as he opened FQXi’s “Exploring the Universe of Possibilities” meeting with a discussion of why foundational questions are vitally important. This was largely due to the fact that on my flight out to Grand Cayman where the meeting is being held, I watched the 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still
”--a movie featuring Cleese that has an unexpected resonance with Wilczek’s talk and the themes of the conference.
|Frank Wilczek (photo by Andrei Linde)|
In the movie (without spoiling it too much for those who haven’t seen it, I hope), an alien from a superior species visits Earth and must decide whether to exterminate the human race to stop the damage it is causing to the planet. Things look bleak after the alien (played by Keanu Reeves) is met with hostility by politicians. It’s left to a Nobel Laureate theoretical physicist (Cleese) to persuade the alien that humanity is worth saving, by showing him that we are capable of wisdom, imaginative thought, and profound growth--as long as we keep striving to answer important scientific puzzles.
Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at MIT, didn’t need to save the world from imminent destruction by aliens, but he did want to inspire his audience about the puzzles in foundational physics that still need answering, and he kicked off the meeting by listing some of these open questions. (You can view a pdf of Wilczek's slides here
First, there’s the familiar cosmic accountancy problem--physicists still need to explain the nature of the vast majority of what makes up the universe (the dark matter and dark energy puzzles that have earned conferences of their own
, as blogged by Niayesh Afshordi).
He also brought up the question of alien life: If anyone is out there, why haven’t we heard from them yet?
. (Avi Loeb talks about how to search out ET in this article
by Steve Nadis.) This led Wilczek's MIT colleague Seth Lloyd to whimsically suggest that “dark matter could be alien life hiding itself.”
Next up was the topic of the inflationary universe and whether physicists can pin down the mechanism that caused the universe to inflate. (See William Orem’s article on the work of FQXi members Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh's attempts to do that using string theory
Then came a topic that Wilczek described as so dastardly that it’s rarely brought up at conferences, “like the daft aunt in the attic that no-one wants to talk about”: Why do particles fall into particular groups, or families, with the lighter particles being particularly well-suited for the formation of life? (Anil Ananthaswamy’s article describes work by Tevian Dray to address this puzzle using 8-D math
But Wilczek’s talk really set the room alight when he came to one of his last questions:
|Why can't we all just get along? (Battlestar Galactica)|
Can we make engineering more life-like? He pointed out that computer engineering looks very different to nature’s engineering (oranges, people…) Can we ever produce self-assembling, self-reproducing engineered life? (Has he never seen Battlestar Galactica
? That sort of thing never ends well.)
Wilczek argued that, in principle, there is no fundamental limitation to stop us engineering a mind, there’s “just our lack of imagination and skill.” But one of the big challenges will be to engineer computers that can learn from the external world the way that humans do.
In closing, he described physicists (and science in general) as providing the world with “hope and inspiration.” “Think of what life was like a 1000 years ago, 100 years ago, or even now for most people in the world. The difference is not made by the machinations of politics, but by science.” A rousing thought indeed. I bet if Keanu Reeves’ alien was in the room listening, he’d be inspired to save humanity.
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