According to Fermilab’s Bonnie Fleming, the pursuit of scientific understanding is “daunting in an inspiring way.” What makes it daunting? The seemingly infinite number of questions, with their potentially inaccessible answers.
In this episode of Dispatches from The Well, host Kmele Foster tours the grounds of America’s legendary particle accelerator to discover how exploring the mysteries at the heart of particle physics help us better understand some of the most profound mysteries of our universe.
Dispatches from The Well, Episode 2:
- A couple thousand years ago, Democritus was speculating that there isn't anything but atoms and empty space, and it's not quite right. Apparently inside the atom, as we now know, there's a lot of other stuff. We are here at Fermilab, the country's premier particle accelerator lab, to talk to some of the particle physicists who are curious about what that stuff is and the role that it plays in explaining everything in the cosmos.
Oh, look, bison. Actually, there's two of them. Oh, the herd is here. We should stop. We should go up to the fence. Can we do that? It just came out, Jason.
- It's just a baby right there.
- You can see the placenta all over the damn bison. This is amazing. It's the magic, the miracle of birth. Up on all fours for the first time. Whoa. There's something really cool about this being a place where we study the constituent parts of reality to the best of our knowledge, the smallest fundamental elements of it, and here, we're seeing the moment of birth. The best part is they said that they would name the bison after me, and yeah, it's an honor.
The bison herd, which has been a fixture of Fermilab since the 1960s, is intended to remind people that science is a frontier. And as we'll learn in this episode, it's a frontier that is still being pushed each and every day. Chicago has a long history of messing around with the constituent parts of matter. It was here at the University of Chicago that a group of scientists led by Enrico Firmi created the first controlled and self-sustaining nuclear reaction. The rest is history. Today, I've come here to find out what kind of people turn up on a rainy Saturday morning for a lecture on particle physics.
- Good morning everyone. Welcome back. It's great to see you. Next year I'm going to be a postdoc in Notre Dame there, so I was driving around to see where I might want to live, and of course I was also visiting the university and they asked me to give a talk about my work on Thursday. I just can't stop talking about physics, but I wouldn't want to.
- It turns out it's not University of Chicago students, but this group, which includes retired teachers, artists, machinists, and even local church leaders, are students just the same. They're here seeking answers to some of life's biggest mysteries.
- The big questions that we want to ask is how did we go from this homogeneous uniform hot, dense plasma to what we see today? That's where we're going over the next couple lectures.
- When I look at some of these people, I see a little bit of myself here. I make a mental note. In the future, I probably ought to retire someplace close to a major university.
- And when postdoc fellow, Seth Corin ends his hour long lecture, people are far from ready to leave.
- How do they say that the farther one are moving faster?
- I certainly appreciate that this is a difficult sort of thing to get your mind around.
- And even though Seth has fielded a litany of questions from the audience, they're still hungry for more.
- That was my question.
- Yeah, so the point is again, that we have this expansion of the universe. So if the universe were static, then indeed-
- I think the sentence is actually saying that the galaxies have a mass that is larger than [inaudible]. That space itself is expanding and things are speeding away from one another. You have the two combinations.
People have a lot of questions. They've even flashed the lights once, which I suspect was a not so subtle indication, "That this is over. You should probably go home." But people are having a good time. Talk a bit about the lecture, debate intensely, the material being discussed, because there's just an intense interest in these topics. I suppose that doesn't go away with age.
There was something very familiar about being in the room. For me, I grew up in a relatively small church, and I can remember sitting in rooms not much bigger than that one, where someone is upfront at the lectern giving a speech about the most mysterious attributes of the universe, and afterwards people would descend on the presenter and try to get some additional insight, offer their own perspectives. Is that something that just strikes you as someone who has this background that is a little less formally scientific, rigidly scientific?
- I have a rather unusual background. I was in fact raised in some sense in opposition to science. There wasn't even the possibility that you could understand how human bodies work, how cells work, much less how protons or something work. It wasn't until my teenage years when I fell in fact mysteriously ill, that I was in some sense forced to think beyond this perspective. I eventually was able to get my parents to take me to a medical doctor, for the first time in my life, shortly before age 18, who in contrast to all of these alternative healthcare practitioners, very quickly determined that I had two brain tumors. To my shame, it would be nice to say that I just was such an independent thinker that I figured it all out myself, but really it wasn't until I was pushed by my own struggles with my health that I was able to fully pull myself out of the view I had been raised with.
- You used the word shame a moment ago. I don't think there's any shame in being within the philosophical milieu that you're reared in. And I was raised in a very evangelical household, perhaps a little less rigidly skeptical of certain aspects of modern science, but nonetheless, at a very particular perspective on creation, for example. My own story would probably be that I was someone who was pretty well steeped in apologetics and finding ways to reason my way back to conclusions that I already knew to be true.
- And the fact that you're not doing real science when you do that, that you're simply indulging your own biases is something that you might not be aware of. It's easy to fool ourselves.
There's a long history of science posing a challenge to people's deeply held beliefs. When Galileo turned his telescope towards the sky, he upended the popular belief that the sun, moon and stars revolved around the earth. In the hundreds of years since, scientific discoveries have continued to consign many of our most romantic explanations for the phenomenon in the world around us to the realm of superstition. But all of these scientific revelations don't make the world any less extraordinary.
We no longer believe that ether is necessary to transmit light throughout the universe, but the way that light does travel is no less amazing. There's a lot of room for awe and wonder in figuring out just how the world actually works. It all comes down to the frame through which you choose to look at it. Your point of view.
In the case of the scientist at Fermilab, that point of view is subatomic. I'm someone who has always had this intense interest in the stars, the largest structures in the universe. It's not hard to imagine that all of that up there has something to do with us down here. What can sometimes be a little harder to grok is how is it that by scrutinizing the smallest things in the universe, we can actually make sense out of all the things that matter to us. But in a way, that's what the people who work here at Fermilab are doing. Oh, there it is. A very formidable building. It kind of looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
- Fermilab's mission is to uncover the mysteries of matter, energy, space, and time. We use enormous particle accelerators to send subatomic particles hurdling into targets at nearly the speed of light, and we build gigantic particle detectors to study the properties of those particles.
- Particle accelerators are essentially high-tech racetracks built for slamming protons and neutrons into targets like carbon or metal in order to flush out even smaller particles that are normally hidden from view.
Now, I fully get that the people at Fermilab, they do science. If you look at the experiments they're involved in, read their press releases or watch the videos they produce, you're not going to find a lot of emotional language there. They're not prone to exaggeration. But I'm curious about how their work makes them feel about the world around them. It has to influence the way they think about their own sense of meaning and purpose, right? For my own part, I think trying to explore the smallest parts of matter is pretty amazing and mind-bending, and I suspect that some of the people at Fermilab are thinking the same things, and I'm intent on finding out. Where better to start than at the top? Bonnie Fleming is Fermilab's Deputy Director of Science and Technology.
I'm a little bit in awe. This space is really cool.
- Where are we standing? What is this building?
- We're in the Fermilab atrium of the high-rise. We call it the high-rise. And it is where many scientists and engineers and the mission and the mission support side of the lab work.
- There are a number of particle accelerators. Where does-
There are a number of particle accelerators. Where does Fermilab sit in the hierarchy?
- Well, in the US we are the Center of US Particle Physics. We are the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, so the high energy physics that we do that's based on US soil is done here.
- You all are studying protons here and the various parts of the proton.
- We're studying the building blocks of matter. Proton is one part of that. Quarks make up the proton. And there's six quarks, which are six of the 12 building blocks of matter. There's another six building blocks, which include the electron family, let's say, including the neutrinos. And it's those 12 building blocks of matter and how they talk to each other that we're studying.
- What Bonnie's talking about here is what's known as the standard model. It's our current best theory to describe the building blocks of the universe, which is to say it is subject to change. Scientists here at Fermilab are constantly looking for subatomic particles that maybe complicate our picture of the universe that don't seem to follow the rules we expect. Can you talk to me a little bit about some of the discoveries that have been made here over the years?
- Absolutely. The top quark was discovered here. That was hugely important. It helped us finalize the six quarks that constitute half of our 12 building blocks of matter. The tau neutrino was discovered here. That's the third of the three neutrinos that, again, help solidify our understanding of the building blocks of matter. We knew it was there, by the way.
- When you say you knew it was there, is that because we had the standard model and it predicted that these other things would be there?
- Yes. We had a theory for the standard model that predicted a certain class of particles, and we'd seen in detectors all of them except the tau neutrino.
- The predictions Bonnie is describing essentially come down to basic mathematics, simple arithmetic. After a series of particle collision experiments in the 1970s, scientists noticed that some energy had basically gone missing; it couldn't be accounted for. This suggested the existence of previously unknown particles. But it was only through years of some atopic detective work that scientists were finally able to balance the books, so to speak.
- Right now we're walking through the accelerator directorate on our way to where it all starts, which literally is a can of hydrogen that has protons that you spray across an accelerated gap. They start from velocity zero and are accelerated up to near the speed of light. The protons start there at the proton source and they travel through the Linac, the linear accelerator, which is along this hallway. And that's below grade. And beam is running, so it's in a running tunnel. Right now, the beam starts in there, basically. Hard to see it, but it starts in the beginning of the Linac tunnel.
- Are you all running experiments 24/7?
- Yeah. Interesting.
- When the beam is on, the experiments are on. What would be the point?
- Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
- These are all the support equipment that we need to be able to power the Linac so the Linac can accelerate particles on the first of their path around the particle accelerator complex to get to near the speed of light.
- I'd love for you to talk a little bit about the diversity of research that takes place at a place like Fermilab.
- There's lots of different ways you can do particle physics, by the energy frontier, the highest energy beams, by the intensity frontier, very intense beams where you use things like neutrinos and muons to probe the standard model, by cosmic experiments where you look up at the sky in a variety of different ways to figure out the myriad of things we don't know about the universe, including dark energy and dark matter and the 4% of the universe that is described by the standard model; relatively small compared to all the stuff that we don't know, and therefore things at the smallest scales and things at the biggest scales across the universe.
- I think a lot about my daughter, and for her, I know more than anyone else in the universe. She has an expectation that I can answer all of the questions. And when I give her, "I don't know," there's profound dissatisfaction and sometimes it seems like she's a little disappointed. And it's just her perspective seems to be just use your phone, it'll tell you what's going on. And there's a sense in which a lot of science education in public school, when I think back on my own experience, was the dissemination of information. Here's all the things that we know about the world, and the fact that this is a body of knowledge that is constantly evolving, that there are things that will be challenged and overturned and new things that we will learn, it may have been something that was said, but it certainly didn't feel that way given the kind of rote way that my education happened.
- Know exactly what you're talking about. When you take a physics class, intro physics 101 in college, you're solving problems that were solved a long time ago. And you're reading it from a book that's maybe even on its fifth edition or 10th edition. And you have to learn, in my case, the language of physics to be able to do physics. But we have to be able to not just tell young people and the public in general how little we know or how many open questions there are out there, but also teach them as early as possible about what it really means to be a scientist. A scientist is not answering questions in a book where the questions are already solved. It's much different than that. Research, there's no manual. You have to go into a lab and figure out what to do. And my own education felt very rote until I started doing research and I realized, oh, nobody knows the answers to all these questions and nobody even knows how to answer them. You have to make it up as you go. And that's what inspired me to be a scientist.
- That sounds like an invitation to do something.
- Yes. There's a whole bunch of stuff to do, and it's really interesting and we make it up as we go in a positive way. But what you're trying to do is answer the unanswered questions, and there's a ton of them.
- Go big or go home might be Fermilab's intellectual motto. Our focus is on the big unanswered questions of science, questions like why is there something rather than nothing?
- Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermilab. He's also the host of hundreds of Fermilab videos on everything from dark matter to quantum foam.
- Atoms, like the ones you see here, make up all of ordinary matter.
- And he's part of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson, the last missing piece of the standard model. Since Fermilab sits on 6,800 acres, I thought it might provide a good opportunity for some stargazing so I dragged on and this incredible new telescope that I got from the folks at Unistellar out to a structure known as the proton pagoda.
Don, thank you so much for agreeing to come up here to actually do a little bit of stargazing. Then maybe you could tell me a little bit more about the facility. You're the face of the place in a lot of respects. You're like the guy who I know from YouTube.
- Here I am in the middle of outer space.
- Has anyone ever drug you up here to do stargazing before?
- Not up here, no, no.
- What is this facility?
- Well, this particular facility used to be the control room for our beam lines. The original accelerator would accelerate the beam in a circle and then shoot it out like a sling to a number of targets. And this would control the beam. Now it's just a pretty... Not archeological, but architectural feature. And maybe archeological too because it's pretty old.
Some of the history of this is Bob Wilson was the original director of the lab, and while he was a truly magnificent accelerator designer and scientist, he was also an artist. So many scientific facilities can be really industrial, but he insisted that there was no reason that Fermilab could not have a aesthetic component. And so a lot of the facilities you see around here do have some sort of beauty to them simply because science doesn't have to be ugly.
- Yeah. All right, I'm going to get this can out before it gets too dark and I can't actually manipulate it. Don, I wonder if you could talk to me, considering we're messing with the telescope here, about the connection between astronomy and particle physics.
- The connections between astronomy, particle physics, and in the astronomical things, mostly cosmology, is truly profound because what we do here in colliding our beans together, we are actually able to recreate the conditions of the universe a very small fraction of a second after the Big Bang. We're essentially understanding how the whole thing came to be. We can't do that out there. We can see what the big bang has turned into, but here we can really turn back the clock and see what it was like right after it happened.
- One of the frameworks that may help us understand the behavior of particles in the early universe is quantum mechanics. Now, the quantum world can be hard to wrap your head around. Even Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, a pioneer in the field, had this to say.
- There was a time when the newspaper said that only 12 men understood the theory of relativity. I don't believe there ever was such a time. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
- I talked to Doga Kurkcuoglu, a theoretical physicist working in quantum here at Fermilab. Do you feel like anyone really understands quantum mechanics?
- You don't understand quantum makers, you just get used to it. And then that's actually happening to me.
- You always interested in math?
- Yes. I actually first wanted to be a mathematician. However, I decided not to do that because if you do something wrong in mathematics, you are stupid. If you do something wrong in physics, you can say that my theory did not agree with the-
... do something wrong in physics, you can say that, "My theory did not agree with the experiment. I am going to think more."
- So, talk to me about just a conventional day for you here. What do you do exactly? What does it look like?
- Since I'm a theoretician, first I try to solve some equations on pen and paper for a physical phenomena that I am trying to solve. And then try to see if the pen and paper calculations match with the actual toy model that I'm creating on a computer.
- What do you think that means? The fact that mathematics can so accurately represent the world around us, it just feels so tangible and absolute. It's purely conceptual.
- Well, that means basically, mathematics is a language to understand nature. I don't know what else to say about this, because I don't want to go into real philosophical discussions.
- But you get to see and think about all of the really unusual elements of reality on a regular basis. I'm curious about how it makes you see the world.
- I mean, it is really a kind of difficult question to answer.
- But do you think that the work that you do gives you a different kind of appreciation for the mystery of all there is? Or at some point, is it just... It's work. It's a job. I'm curious about it.
- I really don't know how to answer that, sir.
- But it's funny, even when I'm talking to you now, I think about talking to my daughter about stuff. And she'll ask me these questions, and it's like, "But why? But why? But why?"
- Exactly. Exactly.
- In a very real sense, it feels like that's what you guys are doing. I keep running into this thing where people are like, "Well, I mean, I don't want to get theological. I don't mean to get theological. I'm just genuinely curious. Why do there have to be rules? And why are those, the particular-
- I don't know. I really do not want to go into that.
- All right. I think we've gotta run.
- Thank you.
- Thank you so much for your time.
- Thank you.
- I appreciate you.
- Thank you, again.
- Thank you.
- Thank you.
- Considering the accelerator lab's longstanding embrace of art and design, I thought, perhaps, an artist might be a little more on my wavelength. Ricardo Mondragon is Fermilab's artist in residence. He's a sculptor who finds inspiration for his work in the discoveries made at Fermilab.
- I feel that art and science, it's just a matter of perspective. You can talk about color, in the sense of a painting. But if you go deep enough, it becomes a science. My dad studied a post-doctorate in molecular biology, and he works with electromagnetic fields. So, part of some waveform generators I have in my studio, my dad has in his studio. So, that was sort of an early introduction to physics.
- What about physics is most intriguing to you?
- For me, I think physics is the closest we've ever been, to understand a little bit of whatever we can understand of the universe.
- It is kind of interesting. I mean, you have the universe where you have all of this energy, these waves. Eventually you find, you end up at matter.
- And then the matter starts walking around, thinking thoughts.
- Exactly. Exactly.
- Then you're making art about waves and music.
- It's sort of like the scientist. It's like a bunch of cells looking at each other in the microscope. It's just sort of a reflection.
- It's kind of wild.
- It is.
- See, you get it. I get it. Sometimes when I talk to some of the researchers, it's like, "Yeah, isn't that wild? Isn't it weird?" "Yeah."
- It's just so normal to them.
I can understand how proximity to the extraordinary can actually make something seem ordinary.
But Rachel Pfaff comes at particle physics from a totally different angle. She actually started out shoveling walks at Fermilab, and now works as a technician in its neutrino division. For her, being part of the science here is still a thrill. With one small exception.
- Rachel, do you have anything that you need to, are you...
- I have a meeting at 2:00, but it's a Zoom meeting, so I don't want to go anyway.
- I mean, I'll be honest.
- Does anyone want to go to those?
- Okay. I was going to turn it on and work while it was on, and hope that they didn't call my name.
- How do you describe your job to people when you meet them?
- It would depend if I wanted to impress someone, or if I wanted to just play it down. Because if I wanted to play it down, I'd be like, "It's kind of like Homer Simpson, but with a particle accelerator." And then, yeah, if I wanted to impress someone, I'd be like, "Well, I drive a particle accelerator."
- Is this something that you would've ever expected, like 15-odd years ago?
- Absolutely not. Yeah. I certainly didn't plan this career path. It just sort of happened. I had been past the control room before, when I would shovel the walk. And so, when I applied, I just went there, and I was like, "Hey, I want to work with you guys." And I guess that left a good impression, and they decided to hire me.
It's such a cool job in operations, because you get to learn all about the accelerator, the whole complex, the experiments, just how things work here. And so, it gives you this really cool overview, and it's also being in school again.
And sometimes I'm going to have to watch a YouTube video to figure out what I'm doing. But it's nice, because I don't know if it's just working in science, but there's this feeling that everyone's working together. And so, if you don't understand something, someone else will be like, "Oh, you could do it this way." Everyone's just trying to figure it out.
- So, there's a real sense in which all of the work that you've done here, it's the stuff that makes all of this research even possible. Do you ever think about the role that you're playing, in this research that's happening?
- I mean, sometimes I do.
- Knowing that I'm putting my hands on stuff that this accelerated beam goes through, I really just like being part of it. I can look back and say, "Okay, I am not the physicist or whatever, but I was part of this huge experiment, that all these people from all over the world are part of." That's pretty cool. I can feel good about that.
- I was building and turning wrenches while I was pregnant with my daughter. So I've got before and after pictures, like me pregnant with the modulator, and then I brought my daughter in, and took her picture with the modulator. Then I did the same thing for both of my sons.
- Do you find that at all strange? It's such an extraordinary effort being made to study what might be the smallest bits of everything there is.
- It is. It is crazy that you have to do something so big, to understand something so small. And I don't know...
- Unimaginably. Unimaginably small.
- When I talked to my dad about it, he is like, "Those particles are all just pretend."
- Is he joking or is he serious?
- I don't know. That's the thing with the old guy. But it is hard to... Because you can't see it. You can't point at it. Yeah, you do this whole effort just to prove that this stuff exists. I don't know. I think it's cool, though. I mean, someday, maybe 50 years from now, we'll understand things about the world that we didn't understand before. And it'll be a direct result of the stuff we're doing here.
One of Fermilab's projects that may change the way we see the world is called DUNE, or the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.
- DUNE is a best-in-class neutrino experiment that's addressing some of the most fundamental questions in particle physics, and I would say, physics today.
- Neutrinos, first discovered in 1956, are nearly massless particles. Trillions of them are passing through your body every second, leaving no trace, because they so rarely interact with other matter. That's how small they are.
When DUNE comes online in 2028, Fermilab scientists will fire neutrinos from Latvia through more than 800 miles of rock, towards the detector built in South Dakota. The goal?
To figure out if neutrinos are part of the reason that matter exists. Or, why there is something, rather than nothing.
- Something happened in the early universe. So, we ended up with a tiny little bit extra matter, some asymmetry. Which is good, because that's what we're made of. Us, all the stars, everything we see in the universe, that's comprised of standard model particles, is the matter-dominated universe.
We don't know what happened in the early universe to cause us to live in this matter-dominated universe. But DUNE is a project that will address, in short, I really like to say it, our neutrino is the reason we exist.
I've been talking about this project, and involved in this project for a long time. And every time I talk about it, I get really excited about it, because it's sort of astonishing to talk about these huge, really hard things that we're doing, and we're doing them. We're building the experiment to be able to uncover the mysteries of the neutrino, and therefore, we hope the mysteries of the universe.
- Yeah. I get a very clear sense of the extraordinary effort that goes into a project like this. And all of it being directed at answering these really fundamental questions that, in a way, humans have always wrestled with.
Has your perspective on the universe, broadly, on the nature of the big questions that we ask, and why we ask them, has that changed much at all?
- It has in the sense that I am more humbled than I ever have been. I think about what a tiny spec we are, in space and in time, and how little we know, and I become quite humbled. And I feel lucky that I can work with people here, people in the international community, to build huge projects that can try to help us understand a little bit more.
Projects that can try to help us understand a little bit more about the universe.
- What about the role of physics in terms of the way it interacts with philosophy broadly? Is there a role to be played there?
- I think our job here is the physics side, and first of all, that's what we're supported for.
- And for me, that's sort of the way I think. I talked before about asking, are neutrinos the reason we exist? That's a very fundamental question.
- If I ask more philosophically about why neutrinos are the reason we exist, I feel like that's out of my purview. I hope that's not a disappointing answer.
- No, it's not at all. No. Do you have to make a choice with respect to questions that are that big as to whether that is going to be something that inspires you to keep going or it's kind of depressing and disheartening in some respects because you know that there'll always be another question?
- Oh, it's never disheartening.
- It's true. You answer one question and you create many more. I've never found it disheartening, it's the opposite. I find it inspiring. Maybe it's daunting, but it's always daunting in an inspiring way. There's always more to learn, and the important thing is to think of the next right question to be able to advance down the road.
- But federally funded multi-billion dollar projects aren't the only way to better understand our place in the vast mysterious cosmos. You can actually get a long way with quality company and a nice telescope when the clouds aren't conspiring against you. In order to get this thing going, the first thing I have to do is find a star, which I just finally acquired one, and it's orienting.
- It's extraordinary that we just see the one.
- Yeah. We got the thing set up. We're going to see what we can see.
- And it's already starting to, yeah, there's a couple of extra stars on it. Great. Well, Don, I'm curious. When did you first know that you were going to become a scientist, and did you have any sensibility about what kind of scientific investigation you wanted to do at that point?
- Hey, like most kids when I was six, I was going to be a paleontologist because dinosaurs are just freaking cool.
- They are very cool. Mm-hmm.
- But then I really started getting interested in these existential questions, these big questions, the questions of life and death and creation and the universe. And by the time I was a teenager or so, I was really sort of hooked on physics because there were really mind-blowing things. I mean quantum mechanics and special relativity. And then I started learning about things like the big bag and things. And so these really big bizarre questions hooked me, and there was no question I was going to do science.
- Do those same questions still drive you today?
- Yes. Oh, God. I wouldn't do this if I wasn't still fascinated by precisely those questions. I would love to know the answers.
- Has your work informed your perspective?
- I mean, I'm a scientist because I was big interested in what you call the existential questions, the big questions, questions that were originally theological and then philosophical, but are now becoming scientific.
- Well, this is interesting, Tom. One of the things I've been most interested in is talking to people like yourself who work on these big questions about the way their perspectives have been informed by the work that they do. And some of your colleagues are less inclined to talk about this kind of stuff than others. Yes.
- Yes, of course. Well, they want to be taken seriously as scientists, don't speculate. But I can tell you, I grew up open-minded about such things, which is why I did study philosophy and theology and so forth in college.
- I have minor degrees in those. But as time went on, I became disenchanted. What I've grown to understand is the importance of skepticism and confirmation, because it's very easy to have an idea, and it's very easy to find something that validates your idea.
- And you're the easiest person to fool. The hard thing, and this drives people around me, friends, nuts, that I don't believe something right off the bat. I have to sort of show that it's true from several different directions. The scientific method has really been important for me, I mean not just in science, but in all things. Because when I believe something, I want to have a reason to believe it, not just because it feels good.
- And now I have to be critical. Well, for one thing, what you learn dealing with other scientists is if you're not critical, they will be.
- You don't want to look like a fool in front of them. When you show them something, you want to be right.
- Is there still room for awe and wonder?
- Oh, certainly.
- Certainly. I am constantly amazed by the fact that we're here. I mean, the universe didn't have to be this way. I mean, it could have been the laws of nature. It didn't allow for atoms, it didn't allow for us. Stars could have burned too fast, and then we wouldn't exist. I mean, it's amazing that everything we see has to work just right for us to be here. If matter didn't exist, we wouldn't exist.
- It kind of has to be true that because we're in a universe that we're in, the laws have to allow for us to exist.
- But nonetheless, the intricacies of how this all happens, Carl Sagan's famous we're all star stuff.
- I mean, we are the debris of stars that lived and died billions of years ago. There's a certain majesty in that.
- But then there's also the Stephen Hawking quote about us just kind of being chemical scum. Which I suspect he was trying to allude to the kind of vastness of the cosmos and the get us away from an anthropocentric perspective. But at the same time, there's just a little less romance in that sentiment than I'd like.
- Yes, it's true. If you're really cynical, humanity is not crucial to the universe. If earth disappeared tomorrow, the universe would continue, other stars are burned, galaxies would form. We are not the center of true creation. We're the center of our creation, and that's important to us. But in that sense, I would agree with Hawking. I suspect that the universe is full of life. In fact, I think I could argue reasonably well that life exists out there. Intelligent life is probably rare, but it must exist. And so out there somewhere, there's other eyes or something similar looking at us and probably asking exactly the same questions.
- Yeah. Well, I suppose until then we kind of keep looking up, keep contemplating, keep finding reasons to be amazed by the happy coincidence that we are here, whether or not we're able to figure out exactly why we're here.
- Yeah. I think it's important that everybody should once in a while go out and look up at a clear, midnight sky and wonder.
- A little clearer than tonight.
- But we see the moon and the moon is pretty too.
- Yeah. And I'm grateful for the company and the conversation. Thank you very much, Tom.
- I've had a wonderful time. Thank you.
- I came to Chicago to try and better understand what studying the building blocks of matter could tell us about the lives we live each and every day. I met people who devote their waking hours to trying to figure out some of the many unsolved mysteries of our universe. How these physicists look at things is a lot different than how I look at them. And at times, I wish they'd share my excitement about the weirdness of all of it at the grandest scale. But what I've come to realize is that they find awe and wonder, and with it, meaning and purpose in realms that people like you and I, we don't often think about. Sometimes it takes a little work, or in the case of particle physicists, a lot of work to shift your perspective to try and understand what someone's on about. But doing so can be incredibly valuable. If we can find ways to integrate these perspectives and ideas into our own outlook, then we stand to really make the most of our time here on this planet.
We hauled the telescope out, brought it all the way to Chicago. As it turns out, there's quite a bit of cloud cover tonight. What I'm really grateful for is the fact that so many people are determined to keep searching for answers to really daunting questions that have always been of great importance. Who are we? Where are we going? What are all the things made of? And why can't I find a clear sky to use this telescope?
- Cool. Yeah.
- Take it off the stand. That'll do it. There you go. All right.