Physics On The Edge

34:22 minutes

Debris field of an exploded star
Image of a supernova remnant captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Courtesy NASA

100 years after Einstein predicted gravitational waves based on his Theory of General Relativity, astrophysicists at LIGO proved their existence. But a year later, many questions that physicists still have about the universe remain unresolved. What is the most fundamental particle of matter? Are we living in a simulation? Could gravity have quantum properties? What exactly is empty space…and does it have a physics all its own? And when will CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the instrument that found the Higgs boson in 2015, discover the particles to prove the mathematically beautiful idea of supersymmetry?

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Physicists are working on the answers to these questions on fronts that include theory and experiments, particle colliders and astronomical observatories. Ira’s guests, particle physicists Sarah Demers at Yale and Daniel Whiteson at the University of California-Irvine, plus science historian Jimena Canales, explain the unknowns and the process by which we’ve explored them…plus what might come next in the quest to understand the universe.

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Segment Guests

Jimena Canales

Jimena Canales is a professor of History of Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a research affiliate of MIT. She’s based in Champaign, Illinois.

Daniel Whiteson

Daniel Whiteson is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California-Irvine in Irvine, California.

Sarah Demers

Sarah Demers is a professor of Physics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. You know, scientists are likely to be the first people to tell you that there’s a lot they don’t know. After all, their life’s work is to answer questions, and without questions, why look for the answers? But in physics, the questions can get mind-boggling at times. Why can’t we move around in time, that fourth dimension, as easily as we do in the other three dimensions? And what is space, the empty stuff? What is it made of? And is it really empty after all? Is the universe made up of some kind of matter, one kind of matter, all kinds of matter, how many kinds of matter? These are all questions we don’t know the answers to yet.

That’s before you even get to the more mind-boggling questions about quarks, quantum gravity, and dark energy. How about supersymmetry? I bet that’s something you wonder about daily, right? But my guest would say, therein lies the thrill. The chase can be the most fun part of physics. And here to explore those questions at the frontiers of physics with me today, and help us appreciate the confounding, often wonderful world of physics are my guests.

Jimena Canales is a science historian at the Graduate School University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She’s the author of The Physicist and the Philosopher, Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed our Understanding of Time. Welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Canales.

JIMENA CANALES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah Demers is associate professor of physics at Yale University, and experimental physicist at CERN. Welcome to Science Friday.

SARAH DEMERS: Great. Thanks to be here. Nice to be here.

IRA FLATOW: It’s nice to have you. And Daniel Whiteson is professor of experimental physics at the University of California at Irvine. He’s also a researcher at CERN and the author of We Have No Idea, A Guide to the Unknown Universe. And if you have no idea, out in the audience, and you have questions, we’d love to hear from you. What about the nature of time, the end of the universe, all kinds of stuff. Give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, and as always, you can tweet us @scifri.

Let me begin with you, Dr. Whiteson. Your book gives us 17 big questions about the universe that we don’t have the answer for. Can you give us just a few of those, maybe?

DANIEL WHITESON: Sure. Thanks very much for having us on. I think that what you said is correct that the excitement in science lies in the unknown. And so in our book we try to capture some of that. And some of these questions we ask as scientists, they’re also the same kind of questions I think everybody asks about the universe. Questions like what is time, what is space, how big is the universe, how did the universe begin, how will the universe end. The kind of things that as a human being, you wonder about the environment you find yourself in. You don’t need a deep science background to understand why these questions are interesting, why they are exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Demers, would you add something to that list and leave anything out, something you’d like to talk about?

SARAH DEMERS: Boy, there’s a tremendous amount that we don’t know. Daniel’s book is really fantastic. I worry about things in a couple of categories. We have some observations of the universe that just don’t match our current understanding and theories. So accelerating expansion of the universe through dark energy, dark matter is in that category. And then there are many things about our theories that we have aesthetic challenges with, where we have sets of rules that seem to match what nature is, but we don’t really understand why the rules are the way they are. They’re very strange to us. So yeah, we have categories of categories of things that we don’t understand.

IRA FLATOW: Jimena, you’re an historian and you think about this a little differently, don’t you?

JIMENA CANALES: Yes, I do. One of the wonderful things about studying the history of science is that you attest to this great progress that has been made and all these new questions and new measurements and new technologies, but at the same time, that when we start knowing something new and figure something out, there’s a bit of a piece of the puzzle that ends up missing. And sometimes that doesn’t matter for a while. It takes years, even decades, for this anomaly to stand out and become bothersome enough that scientists start to question if they need to completely change the way that they’ve been thinking about the universe. I think we’re in one of those moments.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I was going to ask about one of those moments. Can you compare us to another point in history that we were at a crossroads like we are now?

JIMENA CANALES: Absolutely. I think this period now resembles quite a bit the time in which Einstein’s theory became famous and established. And for the greatest time since the time of Newton, even Galileo, we have made a lot of great progress with mechanics, celestial mechanics. And there were wonderful models about how the solar system worked, and some scientists at the time thought that basically all their problems have been solved.

But suddenly there came these anomalies. The perihelion of Mercury, and phenomena having to do with electricity and quantum mechanics. And those started to have a [INAUDIBLE] and Einstein came with a really wonderful solution. But that wonderful solution comes with a historical legacy and it came with some problems as well. So I think we’re in a very similar period now.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Whiteson, you’re an experimentalist, right? You have to go out and do an experiment to prove what the theoretical physicists are saying. But some of the questions we’re talking about seem completely untestable, like how many dimensions are there? Why aren’t we made of anti-matter? Where do these answers to these kinds of questions come from? How do you do that?

DANIEL WHITESON: That’s a great question. But I would take issue with your characterization of experimentalists as going out to check what theorists are thinking. I think as experimentalists we have another opportunity, which is not just to validate or deny theoretical ideas, but to explore the universe. One of our great tools in terms of science is just looking out there to see what’s there. Every time we turn on a new device that looks out to the universe, we find something crazy, something mind-blowing, because the universe is full of crazy stuff. And so as experimentalists, I think one of our opportunities, one of our obligations, is to go out there with an open mind and try to find something new, some tiny little clue, which when we pull on it, will unravel an entire mystery.

All of those excellent examples that were just mentioned, the photoelectric effect, the perihelion of Mercury, those are great examples of moments in history when we thought maybe we had almost everything figured out, and then discovered, in fact, we understand almost nothing. And at this moment in history, we’re lucky enough to know that we know very little about the universe. We’ve measured very precisely the fraction of the universe that we understand almost anything about, and it is about 5%. Which means we’re at this era of precision ignorance, where we know very well that we know very little about the universe, which hopefully means exciting discoveries are ahead of us.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Demers, so what I hear Daniel saying is don’t wait for the theoretical physicist to tell you what to find, you find something and have them explain it, the other way around.

SARAH DEMERS: It’s a combination of things, I think. So one thing that we can do is test very well the theories that we have in front of us that appear to be more established. So we have a Standard Model framework that we can explore and test at higher and higher precision. Given what we understand about what we’re missing, the extent of it, we’re looking for cracks in these theories. So one thing you can always do is run that experiment again.

And we have a newly discovered particle, the Higgs boson, that is something that we hope will be a key to us to try to understand some of these missing pieces. So we’re diving into the current theories that we have, we’re certainly paying attention to what theorists are saying about ideas for how we might make progress, we can go chasing after those ideas, and then, I agree very much with Professor Whiteson. We have to try to form our experiments in ways that we’re open to surprises so that whatever is out there, we’re not going to be missing it because we think we know what we’re doing.

IRA FLATOW: Let me give out a number. 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. Dr. Whiteson, here’s a question that I wasn’t expecting, and that is, what is space? You mean empty space? And doesn’t it turn out to mean, also, that there really is no such thing as really empty space?

DANIEL WHITESON: It’s an amazing and baffling, yet simple question. What is space? And most of your listeners and most people probably think, oh, space is emptiness. It’s the backdrop of the universe, right? But we’ve only recently discovered that space can do things that emptiness can’t do. Space can ripple. Those are gravitational waves. Space can expand. That’s dark energy. Space can bend. That’s gravity. And emptiness certainly can’t do any of those things.

So we don’t know what space is, but we know it has these bizarre properties. And since we’ve only recently started to figure this stuff out, it means it could have other properties. Space could have phases. Imagine you were a fish scientist and you’ve been swimming around in water for 1,000 years and just ignoring it because it just feels like the backdrop to everything else and not important or relevant. And then one day somebody shows you, oh, there’s a place where the water ends and water can do things like bubble and steam.

We don’t know what space it is and so we don’t know. How big is it? What is the shape of it? How does it connect to itself? And we have incredible discoveries ahead. I think in 1,000 years, people will look back at our view of the universe the way we look at cavemen and cavewomen who looked up at the stars and had no idea what they were looking at or even really which questions to ask. So I think we’re at the very beginning of this era of discovery.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Rock. In Long Island. Hi, Rock, welcome to Science Friday.

ROCK: Good afternoon.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead

ROCK: I’m calling because I’ve heard of studies where they’ll do an experiment and get a result and record that. And then if somebody is observing it, like in the room with the same experiment, that that changes the results. It knows it’s being observed. I think you’ve spoke of it on the show, too.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s see if we can get anything. Good question. Who’d like to answer them?




JIMENA CANALES: I can talk a little bit about the history of that problem, and we usually trace the realization that consciousness, looking into an experiment changes the phenomena under observation, to the discovery of quantum mechanics, and in particular it’s this experiment known as the double slit experiment. So when you shine light, and you have a filter with two slits, it depends on how you measure light, if you see light behaving as a particle or if you see it behaving as a wave. And that depends on what you put– if you let light pass through both slits or let it pass through only one slit.

And it’s one of those key experiments that has immense philosophical repercussions, but I think that it is important to, when we talk about these big issues, to go back and say, well, who discovered this and when did it happen and what’s the actual experiment or event that made us re-think our general relation between reality and consciousness.

IRA FLATOW: So weird as– here you have our listeners are thinking about things we talk about. They’re keeping track of what’s going on, and now you’re tracing, Jimena, the history of science for us, but science used to be called natural philosophy before we call it science. Where does philosophy fit into this?

JIMENA CANALES: That’s a good question, and I think that it’s always been up for debate. Quantum mechanics, and precisely the double slit experiment that the person who called in referred to, is one of the instances in which the very understanding of the experiment itself has been very philosophical. We really don’t care that much about shining a beam of light into a filter that has two slits or one, right? But the importance of it becomes philosophical.

And the way that I look at it is it’s often a fight between philosophers and physicists, between– there’s been a great moment in science that started with Einstein at the beginning of the 20th century, that tried to push philosophy away, tried to push metaphysics away from science, but I think that this is one of the periods in which what I’m seeing as an historian, as an outsider, is that whenever scientists start discussing these big questions, they always bring in a philosophy, sometimes an implicit philosophy.

Very frequently this philosophy is just a mechanistic philosophy that can be traced back to the philosophy of Descartes, back in the 17th century.

IRA FLATOW: All right, got to break in and remind everybody that–

JIMENA CANALES: But I think it’s up for debate.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Sorry about that. Let’s–

DANIEL WHITESON: I think that your comment about physics and philosophy is fascinating. I think that there’s a friendly interplay between physics and philosophy. But there’s also, I think, sometimes you need to draw a bright line for, in my view, ideas that can be tested, that can be validated, that can be experimentally confirmed. Those fall in the line of physics. So we can do these tests, these quantum mechanical studies that you mentioned, and we can prove the universe works in this weird quantum mechanical way, no matter how little sense it makes to us.

Other things, even though they sound scientific, like ideas of the multiverse, multiple universes out there that we can’t interact with, to me that’s in the realm of philosophy or speculation because there’s no experiment that we could do to prove it or test it or to actually demonstrate that it’s real. But the fascinating thing is that this line between physics and philosophy is changing. As we develop more powerful tools, we develop the ability to test things that we could never test before.

We build a new space telescope, build a new particle accelerator, build a new kind of device, you can do experiments to probe reality at a level we could never do before, which pushes back the boundary between physics and philosophy.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Demers, but when do you give up on an idea? For example, supersymmetry. We’re looking for supersymmetry at the Hadron Collider. We didn’t find it. How long do you look for it? There’s string theory. We can’t test that out very well.

SARAH DEMERS: Yeah, I mean that gets back to the question of how well-motivated are things. Some of the ideas that we’ve been pursuing, they come from trying to solve some questions that we have. So supersymmetry is a theory, something that people are really excited about at the Large Hadron Collider. It would allow us to make a step toward a unification of the forces that we know about. It would answer some of our aesthetic questions. Maybe it would provide a dark matter candidate for us.

The thing that makes it such an attractive theory is that it could potentially answer a number of our questions in a way that a lot of people see as elegant. But at the same time, we’re not interested in it if it’s not what reality is. So that’s, again, where I think the interplay between experimentalists and theorists is incredibly important.

What’s been happening as we’ve been taking data, doing our experiments, and looking for supersymmetry, is, yeah, we have no evidence for it at this point. Theorists are looking at ways that it can be modified. OK, maybe you’ve missed it over here. Maybe you’ve missed it over there. And I think as long as there is space for that, I think we go down that road, but we make sure that it’s not the only thing that we’re exploring. We don’t want our biases of what we think might be the best ideas, because maybe they’re just the ones that we’ve had, the ideas we thought of, we don’t want that to dictate the only thing that we do.

So I think we keep chasing after supersymmetry, as long as it’s not the only thing that we’re doing.

– $ I’m talking with Jimena Canales, Sarah Demers, and Daniel Whiteson about physics, supersymmetry, all kinds of other questions and challenges in the world of physics. Our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. We’ll take a break and talk lots more right after this break. Stay with us.

Hi, I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday. Joining me today is my guest physicist Dr. Leonard Hofstadter to talk about all of the exciting research they’re doing at Caltech.

LEONARD HOFSTADTER: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the next big thing going to be?

LEONARD HOFSTADTER: Wow, that’s hard to say. There’s so much going on. We’ve been collecting tons of data that could revolutionize the way we understand the universe. For instance, there’s a particle called a squark, which could prove supersymmetry.

IRA FLATOW: That is interesting. Have you found it?

LEONARD HOFSTADTER: What, the squark?


LEONARD HOFSTADTER: No, no. Wouldn’t that be exciting?


We’re also looking for the selectron, the gluino, and the neutralino.

IRA FLATOW: And have you found that?



IRA FLATOW: So what have you found?

LEONARD HOFSTADTER: Nothing, actually. But I remain confident. We’ve got the best equipment and the best minds all working on it. Although, some days I’m like, ugh, we’ve spent so much money. Why haven’t we found anything? What are we doing?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, there is nothing wrong with your radio. Sometimes life can imitate art imitating life, like this recent episode of The Big Bang Theory, where a physicist Leonard Hofstadter hints that perhaps there are a few too many unsolved mysteries still out there. Perhaps physics has hit a dead end in solving some of them, which is part of what we’re discussing this hour, the frontiers of research in physics, questions that excite researchers, and the ones that bedevil them.

What is space and time? Will the Large Hadron Collider ever produce evidence of supersymmetry? Just what is supersymmetry? Anyhow, we’re talking about that with my guests Jimena Nagales, professor at– Canales, a science historian at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Sarah Demers, associate professor of physics at Yale University, experimental physicist at CERN, and Daniel Whiteson, professor of experimental physics at the University of California in Irvine, author of We Have No Idea, A Guide to the Unknown Universe.

Daniel, was Leonard being a little too harsh on physics there in that little clip?

DANIEL WHITESON: No, he’s not too harsh but there’s an element I think of that discussion which is missing. When you turn on a big new device like the Large Hadron Collider. Sure you have ideas for what you might see and you hope to discover something, but there’s always an element of possible surprise, of a revolutionary new discovery. And these things don’t happen on schedule. Right? The whole idea behind basic research is exploration. And when you know you land a probe on a new planet you don’t know if it’s going to be all dust and rocks and rubble or crazy little aliens waiting to meet you. And that’s why we explore, because we don’t know around which corner is the crazy new discovery. And Sarah was saying before the break, and I think she’s right, that we have a good reason to look for supersymmetry. It’s well-motivated.

And let’s remember the theoretical community has a lot of credibility here because they predicted for 50 years that we would find the Higgs-Boson and that idea came just out of aesthetics. It came out of looking at mathematical patterns and saying, boy this whole thing would fit together so much more nicely if we had this other piece. And that’s the same kind of argument they’re making with supersymmetry. The whole idea would be so much cleaner and simpler and make more sense and be prettier, more aesthetically appealing if supersymmetry existed. So certainly worth looking at.

But when you land on a new planet, you don’t just look for brown cats, you keep a wide open mind for something totally new which could shock you. And my personal scientific fantasy is to do that, is to find something crazy, something bizarre, something strange. In our data at the Large Hadron Collider, which makes the theoretical community go, what? That’s impossible. There’s no way that could be. But if nature tells us, here’s the way it works, then we have to resolve it.

IRA FLATOW: Do you see yet any strange particles coming out of work at any of the colliders? At the Large Hadron Collider or anywhere else that are making physicists scratch their heads and say, hey what is this? How does it fit in anywhere? Has it happened?


IRA FLATOW: Not yet.

DANIEL WHITESON: Not yet, we have a lot of searching left to do, there’s a lot of territory left uncovered. And so far we’ve devoted a lot of our resources to checking these ideas that the theorists have, which is worthwhile. And in my opinion not enough energy in looking under rocks for strange ideas, ideas that nobody’s had before. Particles we thought were impossible, but nobody checked to see if they might exist. So there’s a lot of that work left to do. So some people say the LHC is a dead end, or disappointing, but in my view it’s just the beginning of exploring what this data could reveal.

IRA FLATOW: I mean there is this concept of mathematical beauty in physics too. But what if the real answers are messy. Instead of beautiful? What do you think about that? Jimena?

JIMENA CANALES: Yes, and so two things. I mean going back to the question of how long should we wait before we discard the theory. The historical record shows that’s an incredibly painful thing to do, you know there are careers invested, people don’t want to change the ideas that they have. Supersymmetry seems to me to be one of those right now. There’s this great saying by the physicist Max Planck that science advances funeral by funeral. So it really sometimes takes a whole generation to die off before they can try completely different theory and test it out.

And one of the criterion for determining if that’s theory is good or bad, some of it is experimental, but there are many times in which the same experiment can be explained away by two radically different theories, with radically different philosophical attachments to those. So the experiment itself could not distinguish between the one theory or the other. And in those cases, aesthetic considerations play a preponderant role in convincing certain scientists to side with one or the other. And in some sense the different people have different tastes. So Einstein, for example, is very convinced– was always very, very convinced that he needed to find unity in nature and his theories were always very sparse and very beautiful. Very– they explained a lot by very little. They were very parsimonious. And in that respect he had certain philosophers that have used that as a criterion for reality. So, yes aesthetics and beauty and personal taste play– have played in history a very important role in determining what the theories get accepted and which ones get discarded.

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones to Arete in Oakland. Hi, Arete, welcome to Science Friday.

ARETE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I’ll try to make this short and sweet. It’s about I guess philosophy of language, and its limits. So if language is constructed by a certain logic, and we use language to both make theories and also formulate observations, to make observations, is it possible that that logic might not work when we get further along the lines of exploring and understanding more of the universe? Is there a limit to what we are even able to understand? And does that ever a factor into how people think about these things?

IRA FLATOW: Sarah? Got any–

ARETE: [INAUDIBLE] to respond.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you.

SARAH DEMERS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say in science our language is really mathematics. And we’ve had many instances where new math has needed to be invented in order for us to discover or understand or characterize something. I think we’re absolutely at one of those places where– that’s one reason that it’s so important for theorists and mathematicians to be continuing to work in directions that aren’t always tied directly to experiment, right? There are some of us who are looking at the data and are thinking only about the natural world. And there are people exploring off in other realms. And so I think absolutely we’re at a point where our language of mathematics may need to evolve and continue to expand and improve in order for us to make the next discovery.

IRA FLATOW: Do we not need to find a way, either mathematically or some other way, to unite the different forces of nature? And I mean trying to get gravity united with the quantum world, finding quantum gravity, things like that. Is that not a major stumbling block to moving forward?

SARAH DEMERS: In the mind of a particle physicist, it is. We have four forces that we know about in the universe right now, and gravity is the only one where we don’t have a quantum theory. And at the very basic level of this, the question is how does it work? How does the moon know that the Earth is there, how do two objects that are interacting gravitationally know about the other ones existence. We have right now general relativity gives us gravitational waves. We have evidence for that. So these gravitational waves are moving through space. That’s energy released because of gravity. But the question is, is that quantized. Is there a particle there that’s actually doing the communicating of that force. So quantum gravity means we have that communicating particle, the mediating particle, that is basically carrying that information. We really optimistically named it the graviton but we do not have evidence for it yet.

IRA FLATOW: Do we know how to search for it?

SARAH DEMERS: That– that’s tricky. I’ll take a stab at that and then maybe see if others have ideas. We do know that if there are large extra dimensions, we may have evidence for gravitons if we’re producing them at the Large Hadron Collider. So there’s a tiny bit of phase space for us here to actually be making them and finding them, and some theorists have been working very hard on helping us understand what would it look like in our detectors if we produced gravitons. What would the signature be, so that we could, you know, say that we’d actually found them. So that’s one area that we’re exploring.

IRA FLATOW: Daniel would you be able to know a graviton if you saw one?

DANIEL WHITESON: Absolutely. We have a dedicated research program at the Large Hadron Collider to look for gravitons. We have a good theory for what they might look like, and how they would behave in the detector. So far, no hints. As Sarah mentioned, if we did find them, it would be incredible, because not only because we could potentially unify general relativity and quantum mechanics, the two foundational pillars of modern science that we’ve never been able to put together, we could also reveal crazy things about the universe like additional dimensions of space. You know, more than the three that we’re familiar with.

But if I may, I would like to comment on another issue that your caller raised, which is are we capable of understanding the universe with our language. As Sarah said, it’s mathematical, and we’re continually inventing new kinds of math to understand the universe, and bringing in old math that we didn’t realize was physically relevant. But there’s no guarantee that human intelligence is sufficient to understand the universe. To me, philosophically, it’s already mind blowing that the universe can be understood. That it can be simplified and reduced to these spare and elegant theories, where simplicity and beauty are actually a guide. To me it’s incredible that’s even possible, and I wonder if humanity has the intelligence necessary to contemplate the universe at its lowest level. Imagine if aliens came and visited and shared with us some deep theory of everything. We might just be flummoxed by their level of mathematics, and incapable of understanding it. To me that would be the greatest tragedy.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. If I remember my Einstein quotes correctly, didn’t Einstein once say that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible? What do you think, Jimena? Did he– is it comprehensible? We’ve been talking–

JIMENA CANALES: That is a huge question. But it’s incredibly interesting to think about the function of rationality more generally. And obviously we– one of the hallmarks of science is that it’s tied to thinking and to rationality, and that we’re making progress and finding things and getting it progressively better. But every once in a while, there is– that optimistic point of view is called into question. And I don’t think that we’re there, I think that’s still very strange, to not believe in the power of our rational minds to understand the universe. But there have certainly been philosophers who have had that nihilistic view.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think the public understands? Do you think the public understands the limits that science has? That physics has to understanding things? And how physics works and about how the need to find testable answers for a question to be relevant in science? Does the public get any of this? Daniel, what do you think?

DANIEL WHITESON: I think the public shares an appreciation for the questions and their importance. I think when I talk to people about science, I tell them about the kind of questions we’re asking, and they want to know the answers. What is the universe made of? All this stuff. And I think they are very optimistic about the power of science. I think they conceive of science as the thing that brings all this amazing technology into our world, and everybody sees how much it’s revolutionized the way we live and the quality of life in all of this stuff. So I don’t think that the public is afraid of the limitations of science in that way. I think there’s sometimes a disconnect though that a lot of times people think of science too much as technology driven. You know as indicated as, let’s go solve this one specific problem. Whereas most of the amazing revolutions in science and in technology have come instead from pouring resources into basic research. As Sarah said, not targeting anything specific, just going out and exploring and asking basic questions. And that’s when we stumble across amazing answers and crazy revelations. And so in my view, we’re not doing nearly enough of that in this society.

IRA FLATOW: Sarah? Do you agree?

SARAH DEMERS: Yeah. Absolutely. I do. I mean, I also I hope that the public has some sense of what we’re doing, because they own this data. It’s only through public support that we’re able to do this research. So it’s really on us as scientists to make sure that we’re communicating. And it does become more difficult as things get very technical. It’s not only the technical language in the mathematics, it’s just that that nature appears to be so strange. It’s hard to talk about quantum mechanics. We’re not used to things you know only appearing when they’re measured, and only having some probability of existing somewhere. So even our basic analogies can fail us when we try to communicate what it is that we’re doing. Even in our own mind, sometimes all you can do is write down the equations and look at the data. So in that way it’s really thrilling as a scientist, because what we’re working with is so far beyond our comprehension in our normal everyday lives in some ways. But it does make it a challenge to communicate.

IRA FLATOW: All right, one of the– that’s a great way to wrap it up. Thank you Sarah Demers, professor– associate professor of physics at Yale, an experimental physicist at CERN. Jimena Canales, a science historian, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Daniel Whiteson, professor of experimental physics at UC Irvine, author of We Have No Idea, Guide To The Unknown Universe. Thank you all for joining me, such a fascinating discussion today.

SARAH DEMERS: Thanks very much.

JIMENA CANALES: Thank you, Ira.

DANIEL WHITESON: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Have a great holiday weekend. One last thing before we go. Do you know awesome educator? We are accepting applications for the Science Friday Educator Collaborative. Participants work with our Sci-Fri staff to develop free classroom resources based on the stories that you hear each week. And if you’re interested, you can find an application and more information at sciencefriday.com/educator, Science Friday Educator Collaborative, sciencefriday.com/educator.

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Meet the Producer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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