Cliff Pickover on the Beauty of Our Universe

I’m routinely surprised by how little interest most people seem to have in the fundamental forces of the universe. Perhaps it’s because textbooks suck all the life out of the subject matter, or because of a fundamental flaw in the educational system. To me, few things are more interesting.

Dr. Clifford Pickover shares this enthusiasm. He has written no less than 40 books and earned a strong reputation as a science writer. While he holds a PhD in molecular biology from Yale, not to mention 80 patents in computer tech, he believes in melding creativity with science and practices both Shaolin Kung Fu and the piano.

Pickover is clearly anything but average.

I had the opportunity to discuss his latest book with him, aptly named The Physics Book. As you’ll see, he knows how to bring the subject to life.

The Interview

It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Cliff.

Thank you. I’m a big fan of your TrendingSideways blog and your interest in unexpected directions and connections.

You’re welcome, and thanks for taking an interest.

So you’re a very prolific writer, Cliff. With over 40 books under your belt, you’ve delved into everything from physics to computer science to art. I remember that I loved reading Black Holes: a Traveler’s Guide as a teenager. Your latest, The Physics Book, summarizes 250 scientific concepts. There’s no shortage of popular science books about relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and other physics concepts on the market. What makes your book unique?

All images from The Physics Book, Used With Permission

My goal in writing The Physics Book is to provide a wide audience with a brief guide to important physics ideas and thinkers, with entries short enough to digest in a few minutes. Most entries are ones that interested me personally. Although I don’t shy away from the deepest theoretical topics in physics, some entries are practical and even fun, involving topics that range from pulleys, dynamite, and lasers to integrated circuits, boomerangs, and Silly Putty. Occasionally, I include several strange or even wild-sounding philosophical concepts or oddities that are nonetheless significant for thinking about the universe, such as the quantum immortality, the anthropic principle, or tachyons.

Also, the book overflows with large color photos. Because I personally learn and remember most easily using visual representations, along with art to stimulate creative thinking, The Physics Book was a real challenge and treat for me to assemble.

I like that approach. It’s the kind of book you could open up to any page and learn something interesting. You could sit down and read it for five minutes or five hours and enjoy it just as much either way.

A lot of people think of physics as one of the driest sciences. Subjects like biology, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology seem more colorful to a lot of people. Physics, by contrast, is more about the nuts and bolts of the universe. Why is physics interesting to you? Do you think it is inherently interesting, or is it something that only a gifted writer can “make” interesting?

To me, physics is the least dry of subjects! Physics allows readers to think about the far future and ponder topics that, today, may sound close to science-fiction, such as time travel, parallel universes, hypothetical alien technologies, and more. Physicists study the universe from immense galactic superclusters to miniscule quarks. Indeed, today physicists roam far and wide, studying an awesome variety of topics and fundamental laws in order to understand the behavior of nature, the universe, and the very fabric of reality. The discoveries of physicists often lead to new technologies and even change our philosophies and the way we look at the world. For example, for many scientists, the Heisenberg Uncertain Principle means that the physical universe literally does not exist in a determinist form but is rather a mysterious collection of probabilities. Advances in the understanding of electromagnetism led to the invention of the radio, television, and computers. Understanding of thermodynamics led to the invention of the car.

Physicists often delve into some of the most profound and mind-boggling concepts that humans have ever contemplated…from relativity and quantum mechanics to string theory and the nature of the Big Bang…

Physicists often delve into some of the most profound and mind-boggling concepts that humans have ever contemplated—topics ranging from relativity and quantum mechanics to string theory and the nature of the Big Bang from which the universe evolved. Quantum mechanics gives us a glimpse of a world that is so strangely counterintuitive that it raises questions about space, time, information, and cause and effect. However, despite the seemingly mysterious results of quantum mechanics, this field of study is applied in numerous fields and in technologies that include the laser, the transistor, the microchip, and magnetic resonance imaging.

For the record, I absolutely agree with you. The more you learn about the universe, the more you start to realize just how bizarre and amazing it is. While some of the concepts, like string theory, are out there on the fringe, even some of the most established theories, like quantum mechanics and relativity, are extremely strange and intriguing.

Continuing that thread, some people are actually put off by the idea that things can be explained, even in principle. Physics assumes a universe consisting entirely of simple parts that obey predictable laws. Some think that this poses a threat to the idea of free will. How do you respond to this view?

Because humans will never have access to the totality of reality, our explanations of the universe will continue to morph through the centuries as we access more of the universe. As far as the idea of free will is concerned, readers may appreciate the entry on Laplace’s Demon. In 1814, French mathematician Pierre Laplace described an entity, later called Laplace’s Demon, that was capable of calculating and determining all future events, provided that the demon was given the positions, masses, and velocities of every atom in the universe and the various known formulae of motion. In a universe with Laplace’s Demon, would free will become an illusion?

Later developments such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory appear to make Laplace’s demon an impossibility. According to chaos theory, even miniscule inaccuracies in measurement at some initial time may lead to vast differences between a predicted outcome and an actual outcome. This means that Laplace’s demon would have to know the position and motion of every particle to infinite precision, thus making the demon more complex than the universe itself. Even if this demon existed outside the universe, the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us that infinitely precise measurements of the type required are impossible.

Right. The idea that the universe is entirely predictable, even in principle, seems to be obsolete. This is one of the things that some people have trouble grasping, that a universe which can be explained by mathematics isn’t necessarily mechanistic, predictable, or empty. Ours certainly doesn’t appear to be.

The reality of the universe has a way of surprising us. While science is continually offering us more accurate models of the universe, it keeps surprising us with concepts that seem ever more counterintuitive. Do you believe that this process will ever come to an end? Do you want it to?

I believe that studying physics through the telescope of history has profound value for students and anyone curious about the evolution of thought, the limits of mind, and the vastness of human ingenuity. Knowledge moves in an ever-expanding, upward-pointing funnel. From the rim, we look down and see previous knowledge from a new perspective as new theories are formed. Today’s conjectures mutate, new theories evolve, and yesterday’s impossibilities become part of everyday life.

I tend to agree, in spirit, with Isaac Asimov when he wrote, “I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties, that no matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just an infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.” In fact, our brains, which evolved to make us run from lions on the African savanna, may not be constructed to penetrate the infinite veil of reality. We may need mathematics, physics, computers, brain augmentation, and even literature, art, and poetry to help us tear away the veils. For those of your readers who are about to embark on reading The Physics Book from cover to cover, look for the connections, gaze in awe at the evolution of ideas, and sail on the shoreless sea of imagination.

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in this post about the theory of relativity for kids, even if you’re an adult.

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