Citizen Action Monitor

“What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?” asks UK physicist Brian Cox

A human being, says Cox, is a collection of atoms that can think and bring meaning to the universe and meaning to one’s place in the universe.

No 2617 Posted by fw, April 23, 2020 —

“I think there’s only one interesting question I’ve come to believe, which is, “What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?” That’s my view. I think the universe is not going anywhere. It’s globally meaningless. But, self-evidently, it means something to us, and that I think is not a question that you answer only with science. Science provides a necessary framework but you’re not going to find meaning through the end of a telescope, right. You need to think in a way – and that’s where the arts and philosophy merge together. And that’s what I tried to do [with the show].”Brian Cox, UK physicist

Brian Edward Cox, OBE, FRS, is an English physicist, and professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester. But he is best known to the public as the presenter of entertaining science programmes, and as the author/co-author of over 950 scientific publications.

My April 21 repost, featuring a 1955 essay by Nobel prize-winner Richard Feynman, was actually prompted by CBC’s Tom Power’s 2019 interview with English physicist, Brian Cox, who was in Ottawa as a stop on a world tour, to present his extravaganza show, Universal: Adventures in Time and Space. At the very beginning of the interview, Cox paid tribute to Feynman’s 1995 essay, The Value of Science.

Today’s repost, below, includes — an embedded video of the interview, my transcript of a selection of Cox’s comments, my added subheadings and text highlighting, added hyperlinks, and related images.

Here’s a selection of the big ideas Brian Cox raises in the interview –

  • Cosmology and astronomy provide a conceptual framework for addressing questions about what it means to be human
  • Knowing one’s place in the universe is necessary if you’re asking “What does it mean to exist?”
  • A human being is a collection of atoms that can think and bring meaning to the universe and meaning to one’s place in the universe
  • Although humans are physically insignificant, only humans can bring meaning to all of this
  • The significance of the epic sci-fi film “Interstellar”, black holes, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity
  • The recent, first photo of a black hole “opens the channel” to move beyond Einstein’s theory
  • Think about it – a black hole, larger than our solar system, so large it took a telescope the size of Earth to see it
  • Science is an emotional reaction to nature
  • What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?”
  • To recognize what nature is telling us … is an important skill that we have to learn

Tom Power began the interview with a question about Brian’s extravaganza show, which advertised — “This live show will take audiences to the edge of our current understanding about the origin and evolution of our Solar System and the Universe.”

Alternatively, to watch You Tube’s 16:39-minute interview, without my chronologically indexed transcript and other added features, click on the following linked title.

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Did physicist Brian Cox always want to be a pop star, CBC’s Tom Power interviews Brian Cox, q on CBC / You Tube, May 27, 2019 (16:39 minutes)

Physicist Richard Feynman’s influence on Cox

1:13 min from the start – The show begins with a quote from the great Nobel Prize wining physicist Richard Feynman actually. He, in an essay in 1955, called The Value of Science, wrote – there’s a passage where he says “What is the meaning of it all? What is the meaning of existence?” It’s a wonderful statement, actually. He says ultimately we have to admit that we do not know. But in admitting that we may have found “the open channel”*, which I think is a beautiful quote. [*a way forward to answer perplexing questions]

Cosmology and astronomy provide a conceptual framework for addressing questions about what it means to be human

And so the show is about cosmology, which is the large-scale structure of the universe, the origin and evolution of the universe, the origin of life. Also black holes, because they’re part of our understanding of our universe, and actually, the edge of our knowledge, in the spirit of Feynman. That’s where our understanding breaks down. But also, I argue throughout the show that cosmology and astronomy I think provide a necessary – in scientific language – a necessary but not sufficient framework to try and address those questions about “What does it mean to be human?” And as I say at the beginning of the show, if you want to know that – What is the place, what is my place in the universe, you need to know where we are in the universe. When we are. And how we came to be here. So I argue that these discoveries that we’ve made about the size and scale and age of the universe, any human being who wants to explore these deeper questions for themselves at least needs some knowledge of what we’ve discovered.

Knowing one’s place in the universe is necessary if you’re asking “What does it mean to exist?”  

3:00 – The show begins with a survey of our place in the universe. And so we have discovered it’s only in the last century that we’ve discovered that our galaxy has around 200 billion stars. We’ve discovered most of those have planetary systems. So there’s an estimate that there are around 20 billion potentially Earth-like planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. We’ve discovered that there are two trillion galaxies in the path of the universe we can see – it’s called the observable universe – and we strongly suspect the universe extends far beyond that, and may actually be infinite in all directions. So that is necessary if you’re asking “What does it mean to exist?” this scale of all there is – of what exists – it is necessary to feed into your thinking. And I say this in the show that I think cosmology is terrifying, literally, even to cosmologists and astronomers, when you comprehend, to even consider the scale of the universe.

A human being is a collection of atoms that can think and bring meaning to the universe and meaning to one’s place in the universe

It’s clear that we’re physically insignificant. But then I go on to argue that if you think about what we are – again in the words of Richard Feynman, we are atoms that contemplate atoms. That’s what a human being is. A collection of atoms, a temporary pattern of atoms that can think, and in a sense, bring meaning to the universe – in a strict sense that the universe means something to me. So obviously meaning exists as some kind of property of matter. But probably a very rare property of matter. I find it almost impossible – almost impossible – to imagine. But this is what happened. That a load of hydrogen atoms that were around at the start of the universe 13.8 billion years ago, somehow through processing in generations of stars and so on, and collapsing, and the influence of gravity, came to be me — for awhile. To me that’s quite a very uplifting and remarkable thought, notwithstanding the fact that we’re physically insignificant.

Although humans are physically insignificant, only humans can bring meaning to all of this

5:29 – I genuinely feel that the fact that we exist at all is a remarkable thing. And that’s the challenge in any consideration of cosmology. As I said earlier, it’s part of the framework that modern science gives us – that we have to reconcile two ideas that seem initially irreconcilable. One is that we’re physically insignificant, but a second one is that we’re also valuable. And I think that that’s the most interesting questions, I think, exist in that collision of ideas that are irreconcilable. To be philosophical about it, I think [Immanuel] Kant called them ‘antinomies’* — those ideas where, [in] his words, an omnipotent, omniscient God and Free Will, for example. But I think that the modern version, the scientific version, is that the universe is vast and possibly infinite, and yet, certainly in small regions, like this, they’re extremely valuable structures — in that case, human beings. [*antinomies – A contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are in themselves reasonable; a paradox.]

[CBC host Tom Power asks Brian Cox about his extravaganza show Adventures in Time and Space, which he brought to Ottawa during his 2019 world tour. A 53:33-minute video sample of the show, from the performance at the Singapore Science Centre Omni-Theatre on March 6, 2019, is on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tei-HYiG4hY. The video does not do justice to the giant screen original].

The interview shifts to the epic film “Interstellar”, black holes, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity

7:28 – It’s a challenge. It’s a question of balance because also there are people who come to the show who know a lot. So in the show the explanation of black holes we have is quite an advanced way of thinking about relativity that you’d teach probably to post-graduate students. But, the black hole – I was very lucky that I got introduced to the graphics company DNEG who did [the 2014 epic sci-fi film] Interstellar. And if you’ve seen Interstellar, the black hole in that film is not an artist’s rendition of a black hole, it’s a simulation. They went to the trouble – this is Chris Nolan, the director – he went to the trouble of coding Einstein’s theory of general relativity, in collaboration with a great physicist, Kip Thorne. They coded the whole thing into the graphic software. So that black hole you see in Interstellar is what we thought – as best we understand it – what black holes would look like. About three weeks ago we confirmed that that’s what they like, because, unbelievably to me, we managed to get an image of one in a galaxy 55 million lightyears away. Which is a tremendous technical achievement. And it looked like the black hole predicted by Einstein’s theory, which was written down over 100 years ago.

(To watch a 5:16-minute clip of the Black Hole scene in Interstellar, click on this You Tube link — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REa6C9KrgYw )

The recent, first photo of a black hole “opens the channel” to move beyond Einstein’s theory

9:11 – The thing is, we’ve never seen one [a black hole]. We’ve seen the effects of them colliding together, remarkably, by detecting the ripples in the fabric of the universe. Those collisions make gravitational waves. We knew they existed, but exactly what they look like – it’s very important to check your theories. And Einstein’s theory is model of the way that nature behaves in these very extreme conditions. We’re talking about objects that have collapsed to a point, as far as we can see. But they’re a million times the mass of the Sun. It’s absolutely extreme. So, to see that behaviour was very important. And although if you’ve seen the image, it’s quite blurry. It’s got enough detail to check some quite subtle predictions of Einstein’s theory.  Einstein’s theory came through.

black hole (from MIT article)

But what that really tells us now is we can start to refine those techniques. And what we really want to do – this is what, going back to Feynman again, when I said this quote that “the open channel” is to admit that we don’t know. And what we really want to do is break Einstein’s theory. We don’t want to keep confirming it because we actually know that it’s not the ultimate word on everything. It does break down at the centre of black holes. We need a better theory. So we want to see in these measurements, behaviour that’s not quite what we would expect.

Think about it – a black hole, larger than our solar system, so large it took a telescope the size of Earth to see it

[When I first saw that photo] I was awestruck. I mean if you think about what it is, that image is quite large in human terms. The black hole itself, the so-called event horizon, which is the black bits of the black hole, from which light can’t escape, is larger than our solar system, which is mind-blowing – but not much larger. And the fact that something in the centre of a galaxy, 55 million lightyears away – think about what that means. The light began its journey 55 million years ago. And it travelled 186,000 miles a second, 300,000 kilometres per second, and took 55 million years to reach us. So it is not close by. And the fact that you can see structures that are smaller than a solar system is an unbelievable achievement.

We had to use telescopes networked together around the whole earth. There’s one in the Antarctic and in North America and Europe and Asia and so on. And that effectively gives you a telescope the size of the earth. And that’s what you need to see his thing because it’s so tiny and so far away.

11:52 – Tom Power asks Brian Cox about his brief career as a pop musician, and how that episode is now related to his Extravaganza Big Show. [I omitted the music part of the interview from my transcript]

“Science is an emotional reaction to nature”

14:13 – I’ve always liked to think about what the science means in a storytelling sense. I think science is an emotional reaction to nature, ultimately. You notice there’s something wonderful that you would like to explain. But you’ve got to notice first. I think in that sense science and the arts and music, the visual arts and so on have a common foundation or a common motivation.

What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?

That question, “What does it mean to be human?” There’s only, I think there’s only one interesting question I’ve come to believe, which is, “What does it mean to live a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?” That’s my view. I think the universe is not going anywhere. It’s globally meaningless. But, self-evidently, it means something to us, and that I think is not a question that you answer only with science. Science provides a necessary framework but you’re not going to find meaning through the end of a telescope, right. You need to think in a way – and that’s where the arts and philosophy merge together. And that’s what I tried to do.

“To recognize what nature is telling us … is an important skill that we have to learn”

15:45 — I think [the show] demonstrates there are things we discover that are – nature doesn’t care about your opinion. That’s a key point. And it can make us uncomfortable at times. Climate change is a good example. It’s something that nobody would like to be the case. But that’s the way that nature is behaving, given the way that we are behaving. And so, I think that just showing the power of science — which is just simply the exploration of nature — is very necessary for our civilization and for our societies at the moment. To recognize what nature is telling us, and then how we would develop public policy, or how we would we should feel about those discoveries. I think that’s an important skill that we have to learn.

16:39 END OF INTERVIEW

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