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

Doctor Robert Piccioni thinks deeply about the subjects he is interested in. When I heard that he had a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Caltech, and a Ph.D. in High Energy Physics from Stanford, I wondered if we would be able to have an intelligible conversation that made sense to my readers. I think he actually made more sense than I did. Robert performs guest lectures and writes books with a singular goal in mind, to translate advanced theoretical physics into plain English. What’s most surprising is the fact that he’s capable of doing it without using awkward analogies or distorting the original meaning behind the theories. Read on to see a brilliant mind in action.

The Interview

I’d like to thank you for interviewing with me Robert.

Thank you, Carter, for inviting me. It’s my pleasure to be on Trending Sideways.

Glad to hear it.

So, you like to try to describe modern science in a way that is easy to understand, but not dumbed down. This is a goal I couldn’t agree with more, considering that I recently saw a “documentary” on the History channel claiming that there could be a black hole in the Bermuda Triangle. Of course, we’re here to talk about some of the more startling, yet well established, facts of the universe. So I’m going to jump right in and ask you what fascinates you the most about existence.

The vast diversity of size and variety, the delicacy and the unimaginable violence, and the intricacy with which everything large and small is interconnected are all fascinating, Carter, more astounding than the most creative science fiction. But what awes me more than anything else is LIFE and how we fit into the cosmic drama.

We are the most fantastic phenomenon in the entire universe.

I have to agree with you there. What really interests me about life is its ability to sustain itself and, at least on a local scale, fight against the tide of entropy. Some people argue that if the universe exists solely of matter, time, and space, that this means we are nothing more than robots. I take issue with that, because machines don’t self-assemble, self-replicate, self-sustain, or adapt. Machines are linear. Life is anything but.

I’m glad you mentioned entropy. I usually avoid that topic in discussions with general audiences because I haven’t yet figured out how to explain it properly in simple English. The usual descriptions order/disorder are imprecise, and the precise definition is too mathematical. But entropy is a vital consideration, and I believe it provides a good definition of Life.

I’ve never heard a perfect definition of what Life is, other than, like pornography, we all know it when we see it. But a good definition might be; “Entities that can consistently circumvent the Second Law of Thermodynamics are alive.” We eat not just to gain energy, but also to gain order (low entropy material).

That sounds like a good definition to me. Now, your most recent book, Can Life Be Merely an Accident? is about all of the conditions that were necessary for life to exist in the universe. You say that science can’t answer the question, “Was life created by accident or by God?” a position that I happen to agree with. That said, the book is definitely written to point out just how striking it is that life exists in this universe.

To me, God is that force you bump up against when you keep asking why. It’s not so much a person or an entity as a force that says, “Because it is so.” When I ask, why does 1+1=2, “Because it is so,” is the only answer that really exists. To me, that is God. It is the fundamental truths that reality necessarily springs from. How would you respond to this position?

Carter, you just elegantly expressed your own profound belief, and I would not contest a single word. No one can definitively prove or disprove the existence of God or the ultimate Truth of our universe. Each person’s beliefs are just as valid as everyone else’s. As a scientist, it’s not my proper role to tell people what to believe, whom to vote for, or how to raise their kids.

The best I can contribute is to help the public understand well-established scientific discoveries. After that, I am confident that people will be more comfortable helping make the critical decisions our society faces, and that they will be happier with the results.

The public is exposed to too much bad science and outright deception from scoundrels promoting their own self-interests. I am particularly offended by scientists who falsely represent their personal beliefs as scientific fact. Scientists who promote book sales by saying: “There is no God” or “God is Unnecessary” are betraying science and doing a great disservice to society.

Discussions of God, either “for” or “against,” are sure to spark sales. That’s for sure. You’re right, of course. I think this is part of the reason why so many people have grown distrustful of “intellectuals.” It is distracting from the more fundamental issue, which is that our beliefs ought to be flexible enough to adapt to new empirical data. That’s how I see it, anyway.

I like the following analogy: We see better because we have two eyes that view the world from slightly different perspectives. Science and Faith are two sincere efforts, from different perspectives, to seek Truth. It would be smart to keep both eyes open.

I suppose we could all benefit from having faith in something, whatever that might be. Speaking of conflating beliefs with science, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on the subject of string theory. I was drawn in by popular science books on the subject, and learned quite a bit about relativity and quantum mechanics from them. Unfortunately, it took quite some time for me to realize that string theory hasn’t even reached the point of becoming an empirically testable theory, unless of course Lee Smolin is taking me for a ride of his own.

I am a great admirer of Lee Smolin. I think he is far more creative and insightful than the vast majority of theoretical physicists.

String theory is an interesting concept that has produced some beautiful new mathematics, but has achieved almost nothing in terms of physics. I know of NO unique predictions of string theory that could even in principle be testable. As my Caltech Professor and family friend Richard Feynman once said: “The basis of science is its ability to predict.”

Leo Susskind, who claims to be the world’s leading string theorist, says string theory will NEVER predict anything because it predicts EVERYTHING—it predicts with equal confidence all possible answers to any question. That’s useless in science.

But, the most unfortunate thing about string theory is that string theorists have become a mafia. They control faculty hiring and funding to such a degree that it is virtually impossible for a young theorist to get a job unless he joins that mafia. Many of our brightest young theorists with independent ideas (and isn’t that what we want) have been shunted to back water jobs, and excluded from the major university tenure track. Examples of this are: Lee Smolin, Carlo Rovelli, and Garret Lisi.

First off, it’s awesome that you knew Richard Feynman. It’s too bad that string theorists seem to have co-opted the direction of theoretical physics, a behavior that can only stunt innovation. So, getting back to your book, why is it that random chemical reactions aren’t a satisfactory explanation for the emergence of life? To me it does sound unlikely, but the fact that mainstream cosmologists predict a universe of infinite size seems to bring the probability back up to 100 percent. What do you think?

They key point is the immense complexity of life.

For 50+ years scientists have claimed that Life began when the right molecules banged into one another in just the right way, and poof—there was DNA, or RNA, or some self-reproducing something. Fifty years ago, we didn’t know enough to do a proper mathematical analysis to see if this made sense—now we do. We know the age and size of our universe, how much carbon it contains, how DNA works, and what is the least amount of DNA that can sustain even the simplest life.

Even in the most optimistic possible scenario, the odds of forming even the simplest DNA, even just once in the vast age and expanse of our universe, are less than drawing the ace of spades 119,000 times in a row. And, by most optimistic, I mean assuming: (1) every carbon atom in the observable universe is devoted to making nucleotide base-pairs; (2) every base-pair exists in a perfectly habitable environment; (3) each interacts with all others one billion times per second; and (4) those interactions started at the instant of the Big Bang and continue to the present day. All these assumptions are clearly wildly optimistic. But even then, accidental life is mathematically absurd, based on known science.

That’s a pretty compelling argument, and one that I’ve never heard before. It definitely does shed light on the fact that we don’t actually know how the chemicals for life came into existence. I do feel the need here to draw attention to the difference between evolution and the origins of life. Evolution is a heavily tested theory, not a belief. But what you’re saying about the origins of life is very different.

As you mentioned, Carter, some cosmologists say: “There are an infinite number of universes, so it has to happen at least once.” That is their BELIEF, and there isn’t a shred of scientific evidence to prove or disprove their belief. Scientific integrity demands that such people clearly identify this as a belief, not a fact. I think most of these people have fallen far short in this regard.

Good point. Actually, I was referring to the idea that this universe is infinite in size, a conclusion that many cosmologists reached after analyzing the background radiation. Of course, infinities are, by definition, empirically untestable. I guess the difference between an infinite universe and an infinite number of universes isn’t all that great, although at least I’m not arguing that there are an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of variations on the laws of physics in each of them.

As you said, Carter, in terms of the probability of an accidental origin of Life, there isn’t much difference between our universe being infinite in spatial extent versus there being an infinite number of other universes. And, as you said, neither of these is testable.

Personally, and this is probably a minority opinion, I think an infinite number of separate universes is more likely than our universe being infinite. The problem with the later is: How does an infinite universe come into existence?

The most plausible scientific explanations for how our universe began involve Quantum Fluctuations, borrowing energy on a short term loan from the Bank of Heisenberg. The more one borrows from Heisenberg, the sooner the repayment must be; an infinite loan must be repaid in zero time. In my view, that restricts the original universe to a finite size. And, since our theories don’t allow infinite expansion rates, the universe at any finite age must remain finite in size.

It’s vitally important that scientists fully acknowledge that as of right now, we have NO CLUE how life began. They should stop proselytizing and go back to researching. Only that way, can they ever hope to find an answer.

You make a very good point. Using infinities is something of a cop out. It’s certainly not a scientific model in any traditional sense of the word. I guess it’s not even falsifiable.

In any case, I’d like to spend some time talking to you about the way the universe works, and relativity is one of the most important discoveries that took place during the twentieth century. Let me see if I can sum it up in a few words.

The way I understand it, special relatively essentially works like this. The laws of physics and experimental evidence have proven that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames. If I drive 60 miles per hour next to a train driving 100 miles per hour, the train is moving 40 miles per hour relative to me. But light doesn’t behave this way. I could be traveling 99% the speed of light, but I could turn on a flashlight and it would still be moving at the speed of light relative to me. The only way this is possible is for time to be running slow in my reference frame.

What I’ve wondered about this is what it says about the nature of space and time. Does it mean that the speed of light is actually more fundamental than space or time? Does it mean that the speed of light actually determines how much distance exists between two points, and how much time exists between two events? What actually stays the same if time and space are relative? Is it the “distance” between two points in space-time?

Carter, scientific “proof” is not the same as mathematical “proof.” 2500 years ago, Euclid proved the angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees—we never have to prove that again. It will be true for eternity, but that theorem applies only to idealized triangles; all real triangles on Earth’s surface have more than 180 degrees.

In science, we really don’t “prove” anything in that sense. It’s better to say we validate mental models of real objects and processes to a certain level of precision within a certain range of conditions. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity is perhaps the most exhaustively tested and best validated notion that mankind ever had. It’s been confirmed by tens of thousands of experiments to as many as 18 decimal digits. I can’t think of anything humanity is more certain of.

You’re right. Proof doesn’t really exist in science, because theories can always be thrown into chaos by new empirical data. That’s the nature of inductive reasoning. It’s better to say that the theories we currently use are highly accurate when tested against reality. But that is a bit of a mouthful.

As you said, Carter, the speed of light is truly unique in nature—it is always the same relative to every observer. And, as you said, it is the ultimate definition of distance and of time. If I could draw a little picture for you, it would be easy to show why time slows down at high velocities and also in strong gravitational fields.

What stays the same, is “invariant” we say, is the “interval” in four-dimensional space-time. This is the square of the distance in space MINUS the square of the difference in time. That MINUS is the root of all the unusual effects of relativity. Regarding what is more fundamental, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity tells us that space, time, mass, and energy (which includes light) are really all intimately connected—none can exist without the other.

That is some truly mind-bending stuff to think about. So any two events will have the same “interval” between them in four-dimensional space-time, but they will have different distances and different times separating them from each other, depending on the observer. And the definitions of space, time, energy, and mass are so reliant on each other that you can’t have one without the rest.

Examine one of the most beautiful creations of human thought: G=8πT

Einstein’s Field Equations of General Relativity have only five symbols, yet they say so much. G is the geometry of space-time. T is mass-energy. Professor John Archibald Wheeler of Princeton read this as: Mass and energy tell space-time how to curve, and space-time tells mass and energy how to move.

This is a cosmic waltz of an ever changing universe. Newton said space and time were a fixed stage on which the drama of the universe was played out. Einstein said the stage is dynamic, constantly moving, and an equal partner in this drama.

Such equations are the poetry of physics.

It’s clear that you are truly in love with the subject matter.

Okay, everybody seems to like talking about black holes, so I’ve got a question about them. As something falls into a black hole, time gets slower and slower for that object to an outside observer. I could watch an object fall into a black hole but it would supposedly never fall in.

If this is true, how can a black hole form in the first place? Wouldn’t the star be frozen right on the edge of becoming a black hole? Is it possible that what we call black holes are really just stars right on the verge of becoming black holes, but never quite getting there? Is it possible that there is no such thing as an event horizon? This seems more compelling considering that Hawking predicts black holes evaporate, meaning they ought to evaporate before they actually collapse.

The key here, Carter, is that TIME is relative, not absolute. There is no reference frame that can claim to have the TRUE TIME. TIME is different in different frames. From our frame, outside the event horizon, viewing an astronaut falling toward a black hole, we would see his clock run slower and slower as he got closer and closer to the event horizon.

Not only would his clock run slower, but his heart would beat slower, his fingernails would grow slower, and all by exactly the same amount. Actually, what we see is his TIME running slowly. We see him come to a complete stop on the event horizon; frozen for eternity, neither alive nor dead, but ever unchanging, since NO TIME = NO CHANGE. We see his image rapidly redden and fade. In seconds, it will be too red and too faint for us to detect, but it will never totally disappear.

But in his frame, TIME continues normally; he sees himself falling ever faster toward the singularity at the black hole’s center. He sees himself pass through the event horizon as if it weren’t even there (in fact, there is nothing physically there, similar to horizons on Earth) to be consumed by the singularity. The difference is due to our TIME being different from his.

So what you are saying is that, from its own perspective, the star will collapse into a black hole in a very short period of time. But from the perspective of the rest of the universe, the star never quite collapses.


Very interesting.

One thing I’m interested in finding out is how you are able to separate the concepts of theoretical physics from the math. I suspect that sometimes the analogies used by popular science are so simplistic that they break down when analyzed with common sense. As an example, describing gravity as being a bowling ball sitting on a trampoline always struck me as a bit…off. Envisioning it as a warped graph of space and time, which produces curved lines, which implies acceleration, is a more satisfying answer to me. I had to come up with that analogy on my own. How do you describe advanced scientific concepts without distorting the meaning behind them?

Carter, that is the greatest challenge I face. Scientists are taught to think and communicate in the complex math and jargon of their own specialty. They are rewarded for knowing absolutely everything about almost nothing—being the world’s expert in a very narrow niche.

The last thing most leading scientists want to do is “waste” time teaching people who will probably not enter their field. Basically, we’re taught to not talk English and not talk to the public. My father was a world famous scientist, and to my knowledge, he never had a friend who wasn’t a world-leading expert in the same field.

I retired quite young and had time to pursue whatever interested me. I didn’t have to fight for tenure or compete for government funding. I didn’t have to please some academic committee. Beyond traveling, scuba-diving, and playing with my grandkids, I enjoy studying many areas of science, mostly outside my original specialty, and sharing the excitement with non-scientists.

I got hooked on the later when my brother invited me to guest lecture to his high school physics students. At first I was perfectly awful—the stereotype scientist who spoke jargon and filled blackboards with hideous equations. But, the kids didn’t let me get away with that. They made me translate into English and draw pictures, and little by little I got better and started seeing glimmers in some eyes when they suddenly understood something stupendous—that was addictive.

For six years, I flew from LA to Seattle once a year to do that again. Every year, I was a little better, with better explanations and better graphics. I try very hard to focus on the key ideas and search diligently for the best words. Sometimes the magic words that resonant have taken me ten years to discover. But when you have those words, it truly is magic.

And that’s why I do it.

Frank Abernathy on the Evolution of the Eukaryotic Cell, the Origin of All Complex Life