Thursday, April 9, 2009

You're No Physicist

If you're not a science nerd read no further...

I just returned from Lockheed's annual tech fellows conference. This is where the corporation invites all the senior technical people in the company to a 3 day conference to discuss the goings-on in the corporation. This year, they decided to invite a "cross-generational" contingency to spice things up a little bit and I was one of the fortunate few to get a ticket.

On Monday night they brought in Brian Greene as a guest speaker. Just google him if you don't know who he is. He gave us the 50 cent lecture on string theory which, although at one time novel, can now be had in any PBS special (with better graphics) or any of several popular science books. Not to take away from what he's contributed to the general public understanding of modern physics, just to say that I was already familiar with the basic layman's description of string theory. Still, he's a very entertaining speaker.

But the interesting part was the Q&A session. As you may or may not have guessed, there were several physicists in a room full of 400 LM engineers, and certainly at least a few of them were quite familiar with the minutia of string theory. After a few questions that were way over my head, someone asked the big one... "So, does God exist?"

Now, I have read critical reviews of very intelligent scientists copping out of that question, but to see it in person was quite something. I will not be able to remember his exact quotes, but I believe I will represent his point of view adequately, at least as he described it during this particular session. He started by mentioning that he had recently spoken to a gathering that had included Richard Dawkins, and that he perceived Mr. Dawkins' views to be just as dogmatic (he didn't say who the target of the comparison was, but I presume he meant the religious that insist God does exist). He also took a quick survey on how many in the room believed in God. The hands were raised & lowered too quickly for me to get a feel for the numbers, but he commented that there were more believers than he expected.

Next he explained that he only believes that which he as evidence for. For example, the moon may be made of cheese, but since he hasn't been there he can't say for sure, although we do have testimony from the men that did go [insert funny joke about the moon landing skeptics]. His point being that he cannot believe that God exists because he has no evidence, to which someone broke the polite format of the Q&A and shouted "like string theory."

Dr. Greene quickly pounced on that particular attack and forcefully argued that that was correct, he did not "believe" in string theory either, for the same reasons. He hoped to have more data on string theory if/when the LHC comes online. He concluded by saying that he was not sure whether God existed, and explained to us that lack of evidence is not the same as proving the negative... well, duh.

Now this was the curious part. After concluding that there is no evidence that God exists, but that that's not the same as saying he does not exist, the audience applauded. Since I can't believe that in a room full of professional engineers and scientists that anyone thought this was some kind of profound conclusion, I'm left to assume that the applause was because he had, at least in my view, completely dismissed the question while maintaining the appearance of respecting the view of those who do believe in God. My point is not so much to question Dr. Greene's sincerity in his remarks, but only to ponder the peculiar reaction of the audience.

On a side note, I greatly regret not speaking up during another portion of this lecture. In response to a question, he was explaining how the many-worlds hypothesis, if true, may do away with the question of why the universe appears so finely tuned for life. He expained how the anthropic principle makes the question of fine tuning irrelevant- since in a cosmos of infinite universes, one of them is bound to have the properties of ours, and we must be in it because otherwise we wouldn't be here to wonder about it. Continuing his argument, if there are infinite universes, then there may be no fundamental reason why ours has the properties it does. The question came to me immediately but I did not speak up- "can design be a fundamental cause?" In a cosmos with infinite universes perhaps you don't need design, but the question still stands on its own. Should an archeologist travel to a far off land and uncover seemingly ancient rubble in the loose shape of a square, and then find potshards and utensils inside, he should hardly conclude that in a cosmos of infinte universes there was bound to be one where the forces of erosion deposited the stones and formed the utensils out of rock. He would not conclude that there is no fundamental reason the rocks were the way they were, he would assume someone had designed them to be that way. I should have liked to hear Dr. Greene's response to that question.

Okay, it's late and I'm tired. Our taxes our done and by some random quantum fluctuation we are getting money back. I'd be interested in any comments on my story.