Hearing about the Big Bang for the First Time – Scientific American


My girlfriend, who has taken it upon herself to keep me abreast of cool culture, has gotten me hooked on the hit YouTube show “TwinsthenewTrend,” also called “First Time Hearing.” Tim and Fred Williams, twin brothers who live in Gary, Ind., react with infectious enthusiasm to songs they’ve never heard before. I never really appreciated Phil Collins or Dolly Parton until I watched these young Black men grooving on “In the Air Tonight” and “Jolene.” Watching Tim and Fred makes me feel like I’m hearing these old songs for the first time too. The twins cut through my habituation and put a smile on my face.

The show got me wondering: Could there be a scientific equivalent of “First Time Hearing”? A way for us to get excited about scientific theories, like the big bang, as if encountering them for the first time? This turns out to be a complicated question for me.

I became a science journalist decades ago because I found science thrilling—and especially pure science, the quest to understand, well, everything. As an English major, I took only a few science and math courses, and they didn’t blow me away. What drew me to science were popular works like The Mind’s I by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra and profiles of scientists by Jeremy Bernstein in the New Yorker.

I wanted to convey to nonscientists what scientists are discovering about the universe, life, us. I wanted to celebrate the discoverers, too. I admired journalists like James Gleick, Dennis Overbye, Mike Lemonick and Sharon Begley (R.I.P.), who excelled at reporting from the frontiers of physics, biology and other fields and wrote with literary flair. Natalie Angier of the New York Times could even make chemistry sexy!

Eventually I veered away from celebratory science writing. I decided that I could better serve readers by critiquing and even debunking scientific claims, which are often exaggerated, incoherent or wrong. Science, I persuaded myself, needs tough, informed criticism more than “gee-whiz” journalism, which in unskilled hands resembles mere marketing.

The trouble was, I felt myself becoming jaded, losing the sense of wonder that lured me into science journalism in the first place. We’re all subject to habituation, perhaps for reasons related to evolution. Our brains weren’t designed to keep us in a state of slack-jawed awe before the weirdness of existence; that wouldn’t be very adaptive. The world leaves us wonderstruck now and then, but that feeling is probably a spandrel, an epiphenomenal side effect of our perceptual-cognitive apparatus.

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Yes, natural selection instilled curiosity in us. We want to know how nature works, and how to manipulate it for our ends, because such knowledge can help us survive and propagate our genes. But we have a strong predisposition toward what might be called instrumentalism, in which all that matters is accomplishing tasks on our to-do lists, with as little cognitive expenditure as possible.

Ideally, education should counter our tendency toward instrumentalism, and habituation, but too often it has the opposite effect. In fact, habituation is arguably the goal of STEM courses. Students are trained to learn formulas and techniques so thoroughly that they can apply them unthinkingly, like automatons.

Within quantum physics, this pragmatic attitude is summed up by the command “Shut up and calculate.” (Richard Feynman often gets credit for this exhortation, but it originated with David Mermin, who was deploring the just-calculate mindset.) That is, don’t worry about what quantum mechanics means. Just learn the Schrödinger equation and other formulas well enough to pass your exams and, if you are fortunate enough to do real research, to invent something useful.

As part of my ongoing quantum experiment, I’ve been talking to physicists and philosophers trying to solve the measurement problem and other quantum paradoxes. Many tell me they became obsessed with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics in spite of their formal education, not because of it.

Ironically, teaching has helped me overcome my habituation. I started teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology in 2005 because I needed money to supplement my freelance income. At first, I felt awkward in the classroom. I’m a dilettante, I kept thinking, not an expert in anything. I don’t have a doctorate, only a master’s in journalism. (When I confessed my insecurity to a friend, nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, he replied, Lots of us professors suffer from impostor syndrome, but in your case it might be justified.)

Over time, I relaxed in the classroom. I decided that my primary responsibility should be to enjoy myself. If I’m having fun, I reasoned, my students are more likely to have fun, too. And if they don’t, at least someone will. I stopped worrying about what I should teach my students and focused on topics that I care and write about (which come to the same thing). Fortunately, my courses—especially freshman humanities courses, which cover big ideas, from Socrates to Darwin—give me plenty of leeway.

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I discovered that I like telling students about science’s greatest hits. A personal favorite is the big bang theory, which is easy to explain. I start by asking, “How many of you know how the universe began?” A few tentative hands go up. Then I ask, “How many of you care how the universe began?” Often, fewer hands rise. I yell, “Come on, you should care! We should all care about why we exist!”

Then I tell them about the big bang, emphasizing that the theory is less than a century old, and based on three pieces of evidence: the shift of light from galaxies toward the red end of the spectrum, which indicates that the galaxies are hurtling away from us; the proportions of hydrogen, helium and other light elements observed throughout the cosmos, which match theorists’ predictions of what would be forged in the big bang; and a faint microwave buzz that bathes the earth, which is thought to be the big bang’s afterglow. I like saying “afterglow of the big bang” while wriggling my fingers evocatively.

Many of my students are engineering majors who grew up in New Jersey, where Stevens Tech is located. I inform them that the cosmic afterglow was discovered accidentally in the 1960s right here in New Jersey by physicists at Bell Labs testing microwave receivers. Cool, huh? I might throw in a story about the maverick astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who coined the phrase “big bang” but never accepted the theory; and about Stephen Hawking, whom I once held in my arms. (Even my most clueless students have usually heard of Hawking.)

I emphasize that, although the big bang theory tells us a lot about our cosmic origins, it doesn’t explain why the big bang happened in the first place, or what, if anything, preceded it. Scientists have proposed lots of theories, some of which say our cosmos is just one of many, like a tiny bubble in a vast, foamy sea. But no one really knows why our universe exploded into existence, or why it took a form that allowed for our eventual appearance.

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Depending on my reading of the room, I might then delve into other big mysteries, like the origin of life and the mind-body problem, which asks, what are we, really? We, these weird, apish creatures capable of pondering their own origins, are the biggest mystery of all, I say.

My goal is not just to get students to ooh and ahh over the directed-panspermia hypothesis of life’s origin, which says that aliens might have planted the seeds of life here on earth; or integrated information theory, a conjecture about how matter makes minds; or the fractal, chaotic, eternally self-reproducing inflationary model of our cosmic origin. My primary goal is to get my students to appreciate the mysteries that these dubious theories purport to solve.

My reward, if I’m lucky, is that some students—not all, but at least a few, usually—will perk up. Their eyes will narrow, their brows furrow. They might even ask me questions. Perhaps they want to get my thoughts on string theory, the many-worlds hypothesis, the simulation hypothesis or some other far-out conjecture they’ve heard of.

Here’s why I enjoy these exchanges so much—and this outcome should be generalizable to conversations outside of classrooms. Talking to young people about scientific mysteries and theories helps me rediscover them, see them anew. When I write about string theory or the many-worlds hypothesis, I’m usually disparaging them, pointing out their inadequacies.

But telling my students about the theories, I’m overcome by scientists’ audacity, their wild ambition and imagination. If I’m lucky, my jadedness fades, and for a moment I feel as though I’m seeing science, the world and my own benighted, noble species for the first time.

Further Reading and Listening:

I talk about teaching in my recent books Pay Attention: Sex, Death, and Science and Mind-Body Problems.

I’ve recently discussed quantum mechanics on my podcast “Mind-Body Problems” (part of Meaningoflife.tv) with physics writers Michael Brooks, George Musser, Amanda Gefter and Adam Becker.



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