Interview With an Astrophysics Professor: Dr. Michael L. Allen

I was fortunate enough to interview Dr. Michael L. Allen, a very talented professor of special relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, and more at Washington State University. Given the subjects that he teaches, I was expecting to talk more about the universe than the people in it.

Dr. Allen is full of surprises.

While we did touch on a few interesting things about the way the universe works, I discovered that Dr. Allen’s true interest is in human beings, and that he enjoys teaching even more than the subject matter itself.

The Interview

Talk to me about about Project ASTRO, and some of the things that you have done for the group.

I was originally hired at WSU on grant money, that is to say, temporary funding.  Project ASTRO had the goal of bringing teachers and astronomers together as partners in learning; this statement is word-for-word from Project ASTRO propaganda.  It is, however, an idea that I subscribe to.  Teachers are experts in teaching, and astronomers are experts in astronomy, so the two together should be a formidable pair.

My job was to find the teachers, find the astronomers, and then make the partnership work.  I led workshops to both members of each team I created, on what one might do in a classroom.  I would give a demonstration, then break down the demonstration and explain why it works as a teaching tool.

The second aspect of Project ASTRO that comes right out of the propaganda is that all Project ASTRO activities must be hands on for the kids.

We ran here at WSU for 3 or 4 years, after which we were forced to disband.  We lacked funding, and we lacked a record of success that must have been present for us to justify further funding.  We had trouble finding teachers who were interested.  I do not know why.  Perhaps teachers are inundated with opportunity for professional development and we failed to appeal to them strongly.  Perhaps Earth and space science has too low a profile in the curriculum.  Perhaps the two main selling points of Project ASTRO were not selling points locally.  I do not know. Other Project ASTRO sites are going strong, and have been for years.

One of the pairs I put together is still going strong, 8 years later. I am happy, almost proud of that.

How do you teach students critical thinking skills, and how are you testing its effectiveness?

Long answer here.  I was only at WSU for a few weeks, maybe months, when I received in my mailbox a form letter asking about my interest in the WSU-CT project.  I joined.  I met the PIs.  I went to every seminar and event that I could.  I had a paper published on the results.

I was motivated, at the time, to improve the quality of the lab component of Astr 135.  I recall quite clearly sitting in the lab room and watching the students work.  Two girls were working quite hard, punching on a calculator and comparing their results with scrawlings on a paper.  At one point, one of them got excited and said, “we did it!” and she high-fived her partner.  Her partner asked, “what did we do?”. The first girl said, “I don’t know.”  They both got a good laugh out of it, but I took the conversation at face value and decided that, if nothing else, my lab exercises would communicate the goal of each exercise.

I re-wrote the whole lab book, putting into it everything I learned from the WSU-CT project.  I read, informally, student lab reports.  I decided that they knew the goal better than previously, but overall I have not tested my students in a way that is demonstrably accurate.

I began formal testing about one year ago, using a standardized testing instrument.  This instrument tests, sadly, recall, and not critical thinking.  CT is difficult to test for.  The best available test is the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST), but it has a price tag attached to it that I will not, at present, pay.  The instrument I use is freely available, and I currently have a graduate student working on defining the recall content that my students can perform.

Eventually I would like to move on to perform better research into teaching and learning.  I do not yet see how, but I have a set of criteria in mind that, when realized, will enable me to begin.  This set was almost realized at the end of last year, but the funding agency we applied to turned us down.

What other interesting work have you been involved in?

I find people to be the most interesting aspect of my work. This has always been true, I suppose, but I have come to realize it only recently.  My friends all tell me that they knew this about me years before I did.  In any case, I like teaching more than any other work that I have done, and I am becoming interested in measuring exactly what it is that my students know, and how I can better communicate what I think is important to communicate.

What is the most interesting thing to you about how the universe works?

The universe works the same way, everywhere.  What makes it unique is the life in it.  I justify my interest in people by saying that the laws of physics are the same everywhere and will operate whether we know them or not.  However, humans are unique.  If I write music, that music will exist nowhere else but here.  Who could not be interested in this uniqueness?  Is it egotistical?  Maybe.  Our modern age is one of self-realization, and perhaps selfishness is a necessary symptom of that.  Another symptom is mediocrity.  We live in a very mediocre age. In an earlier age, say 2 or 3 centuries ago, fantastic things were performed by people who had a lot of knowledge and discipline.  But today, modern analysis has given us tools to wring the blood out of almost anything; by that, I mean that art is reduced to recognition and repetition of patterns.  Modern artists are so confined by the results of analysis that they can no longer produce anything original.  Having said this. I would never live in an earlier era, because science has produced medicine and other things that I would not want to live without. I take the good with the bad.

So, what is it that I find most interesting about how the universe works?  In a word, paradox.  Nothing can live with paradox in this universe except human beings, as I describe in the above paragraph.

Paradox.  We’re surrounded by it.

Paradox. It defines us.

I find your fascination with paradox especially intriguing. There is something about the human mind that seems to be okay with paradox, even if the universe isn’t. Your response to analysis in society is also interesting to me. I too have mixed feelings about the age we live in. I’m told there have been psychological studies showing that our intuition tends to make better predictions than our conscious thought processes. Our brains seem to be good at making predictions based on correlations instead of cause and effect.

It depends upon the type of decision; use intuition when appropriate, use explicit info when appropriate.  The human mind is good at finding patterns, even when patterns do not exist (think: constellations). There is no doubt that, when dealing with other human beings, a little experience and intuition go a long way.

It seems to me like Einstein was able to come up with relativity because he wanted to genuinely understand how light works, and that is something that seems to be missing today. I know you’re not a certified expert in this subject, but what does your experience with students tell you about how society could be improved in this regard? (Or do you believe in “improving” society in the first place?)

I am not sure that there is any improvement to be made.  We cannot all be Einstein.  Having said that, I think that as long as we keep our minds on the fundamental questions, we will continue to learn more.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about quantum mechanics, relativity, astrophysics, and all your other subjects of interest?

Too numerous to mention. I have misconceptions that I am not even aware of.

Here is one: it disappoints me that people think science will solve our problems.  It will not.  Ethics solves problems, not science.  But, people are too lazy to think about ethics.

You say that science will not solve our problems, and that ethics will. I believe this to be true, but I think there’s a missing piece of the puzzle, what you might call a science of ethics. Part of knowing whether something is or isn’t the right thing to do is knowing how actions will affect others, or how societal conditions will affect behavior. This is one reason why I have such an interest in subjects like behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology. Do you agree that this is part of the problem, or do you think that there are bigger problems at work? (Not exactly an either or proposition, of course.)

“Science of ethics,” and not “ethics of science?”  We already have the scientific method, which applies to ethics.  The problem is how to define ethics.  It was Kant who said that the fundamental idea of ethics was to maximize good.  So, how do we define good?  Is the Golden Rule enough?  How do we balance personal vs societal good?  I cannot answer these questions, although I do think that the Golden Rule goes a long way.  I fear that when we teach something – anything – then we systematize it.  Having said that, I think it would be a good thing if everyone were to have some exposure to ethics, to ethical ideas, and ethical conduct.  I also think that leadership comes from the top, so I try to conduct myself in an ethical manner.

What are some well established counterintuitive aspects of the universe?

Pass. If you spend long enough studying anything, you gain an intuitive
sense of it.

What are some more speculative subjects that you are interested in?

Intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The theory of multiple intelligences.
Futuristic medicine.

I’d like to hear about the theory of multiple intelligences. What does this refer to?

The wikipedia article gives a broad definition.  The first time I saw it was via Howard Gardner’s theory.  Gardner has 7 (possibly orthogonal) skills that he claims people have in some degree.  For example, interpersonal intelligence is one, and we all recognize someone who has social grace, so I kind-of agree with putting this in its own category. Music, surprisingly, is another intelligence worthy of its own category in Gardner’s theory, but in this case I wonder is this is being too specific.  In any case, the lesson for me is that different people learn in different ways and so must be taught in different ways.  I would dislike teaching every idea in seven different ways; I do not think I could sing about quantum mechanics.

With regards to the existence or nonexistence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, I think this is closely tied to the question of the size of the universe. It’s my understanding that the most widely accepted prediction is we live in a universe of infinite space and time (with a finite amount of that time having passed so far). Statistically speaking, this implies not only extraterrestrial intelligence, but even such strange things as an infinite number of copies of our own planet and civilization, and an infinite number of variations on them as well. Obviously, we don’t (and can’t) know for sure, but what does your gut tell you about this prediction?

I would say that the amount of variety is also infinite, and therefore any one thing in the universe is unique.

In the twin paradox, why is it that the rocket ship ages slowly, instead of the earth?

The rocket ship experiences acceleration, whilst the Earth does not. The rocket ship can therefore be identified uniquely from the Earth, and thus the principle of the equivalence of inertial frames is not applicable.

When thinking about what a quantum is, I tend to think of it as a wave that consists of distinct units of energy, rather than thinking of them as particles. Is this an accurate assessment?

I think more about probability than energy, although thinking about energy generally leads us correctly.

Do you think that the collapse of the wave function corresponds to anything physical?

It corresponds to measurement, yes.  It is difficult to believe that a discontinuous process occurs from before to after the measurement is made.  All of our experiments suggest that a discontinuous process occurs.  By ‘discontinuous process’ I refer to any function for which the first derivative is undefined.

I want to thank you again very much for the help. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been able to have a genuine academic discussion, and this is very refreshing for me.

No problem. I’m enjoying it. You’ve made me think carefully and consider words carefully.

Dr. Robert Piccioni Talks About Life, God, Time Warps, and Black Holes

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  • http://denisebowles.com Denise Bowles

    I found the interview very interesting and thought provoking. I also find it very
    exciting to see the love that you both have for the subject and the psychology of
    how the subject interacts with the students.

  • morton kaplan

    I’m a retired professor of literature, living in Mexico. I’m looking for someone to answer some basic questions in special relativity, not answered in the books I’ve read. I’d be happy to pay a fee for the answers. Regards, Mort Kaplan