The Origins of the Big Bang

From 6 to 8:30 PM today, I attended a talk at the Berkeley Institute called “The Origins of the Big Bang”. The speaker, Karl van Bibber (head of the Nuclear Engineering Department at Berkeley), did an extraordinary job of telling the story of how the big bang theory came to be. He started with Newton (and although he didn’t say it, the entire scientific revolution), and ended with the state of science today. He brought up some thought provoking ideas that had already been on my mind for some time:

  • Bibber split physics up into two parts: the experimental and the theoretical. He said that true physics (and science) falls somewhere between these two. The extremely theoretical, regardless of its beauty and consistency, may not be true, often is not falsifiable, and therefore cannot be considered true physics. On the other hand, too much experimentation can produce results we don’t know how to use, and provides no deeper insight into the nature of reality. Bibber was much more concerned with the former.
  • I asked how an ordinary person, a “non-practitioner”, should decide what science is reliable and what is not. He had never heard this question before, and said that there is a lot of confusion and disagreement within the scientific community itself on the question of what is reliable work. He said that if you had to draw a hard line, it would be the line that separates experimental from theoretical science. Experimental science reveals to us truths we can know to be true. There may be (and likely are) many truths we cannot know to be true. Perhaps the true nature of a human thought or emotion falls into this group. Theoretical science may describe some of these unverifiable truths, but we cannot say with certainty whether they do.
  • Bibber is religious, and suggested that he agreed with the notion that religion should answer questions that ask what we should do, and science should answer questions that ask what is. The split between experimental and theoretical science came up again. Bibber said that he asked some String Theorists what it would take for them not to believe in String Theory, and they were unable to answer. He recounted, “I said, then you are more religious than I am.” Another person in the audience explained that because String Theory does not claim to predict anything, it is not falsifiable and therefore not a trustworthy claim on the true nature of reality.

Great speakers, teachers, and artists are able not only to introduce new ideas to their audiences, but give structure to and renew the ideas already floating around in the minds of their students. These ideas start out either confused and laden with contradictions or honed too intensely, with little room for new ideas. Speakers help audiences’ escape these conditions by providing context, simplifying complex ideas, and encouraging humility. Bibber did a wonderful job at that today.