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Science Book Club Episode 5


Mun Keat Looi and Colin Stuart are two of the authors of ‘The Big Questions in Science’ along with Hayley Birch.

When we thought about the topic of what are the big questions in science, you can answer it in many different ways.

On the most asked questions

MKL – I think the most we spent…so when we were coming up with the idea for the book we spent a whole day in a cafe actually debating what we thought were the biggest questions.  And it’s funny when you think…there’s always, I think, about maybe five or six things that roll off the tongue so, what makes us human, how did life begin, those kind of things.  But then as you unravel there’s actually quite a lot of questions which you think, actually, these are things that scientists are still looking at which are fascinating us to this day, some of which would’ve been around since time began, almost, and I think as we found more and more it became quite difficult then to pick just twenty that we wanted to do, especially if you’re trying to cover the range of scientific topics. 

CS – Yeah, I’m quite lucky I think that I have a kind of market research waiting for me ‘cause I talk to thousands and thousands of school kids and public every year in the planetarium and so people always come and ask me questions.  So I kind of always knew what the real big ones that people care about are…such as aliens, for example, always aliens, are there, you know, what do you think? You work in this area, are there aliens out there?  So that’s definitely had to go in the book.  Kids particularly seem fascinated by the idea of other universes, you know, is our universe it or are there other universes? That comes up on a weekly basis.

On finding new answers

CS – So some of them aren’t gonna be answered any time soon I don’t think, so that’s OK, but the ones that are most likely to be answered, one of them is: why is there stuff?  And by stuff we mean matter, why is there matter?  There seems to be this imbalance in the universe between matter, the stuff that makes us up, and antimatter, its mirror counterpart.  And in theory they should be the same: you should get matter and antimatter coming together, annihilating into energy and leaving the universe flooded with energy and no stuff to make people or planets or stars from.  Clearly that hasn’t happened because we’re here and so there’s a discrepancy between matter and antimatter and places like CERN have been making inroads into that.  So, actually, when the LHC boots up again in the future, for instance – it undergoes its upgrade – that should start to come out, so maybe that question’s got a couple of years on it.

Whereas things like how did life begin, no one’s ever gonna have a definite answer to that question; I think you can have speculation, but it’s not a concrete answer. The black hole’s one; you said about singularity earlier, that’s exactly what the chapter does actually, it says, look, general relativity says there should be a singularity at the bottom of a black hole.  But singularities are…you should not be comfortable with singularities because you get…infinities creep in.  And if you see an infinity in your equations, your equations are wrong.

So, actually, something’s gotta give, it’s either general relativity or it’s quantum mechanics. In the chapter the story is, really, we could understand what happens at the bottom of a black hole if we could merge these two theories together.  If we can bump them together we may get an explanation and replace the singularity as to what happens at the bottom of a black hole.  Trouble is, these two theories, they don’t speak to each other very well; they’re written in a different language and so when people try and bump these two theories together they’ve had difficulty, and the only way it’s really successfully been done – I say successfully – is String Theory, the idea that there are multiple dimensions and actually if you can invoke an 11-dimensional universe then actually you can make these two theories talk to each other and describe what happens at the bottom of a black hole.  The trouble is, there’s absolutely no evidence that String Theory is the correct view of the universe. It actually predicts more than 10 with 500 zeroes after it possible configurations of the strings and there’s just no experiment you can currently do to work out which combination is the one in our universe which you would need if you were to try and use that theory to describe the bottom of black holes.

That was a particular challenge for the book because you’ve gotta…for someone that’s maybe not encountered relativity or quantum physics – two of the biggest, hardest things in physics – you have to describe those theories, and how they’re being put together, in fewer than 2,500 words.  So that was a challenge; that was probably one of the chapters that underwent the most revision, passing it back between these guys because they don’t have a physics background, passing it to my long suffering partner – she doesn’t work in science at all – you know, that one really took some polishing ‘cause it’s really meaty stuff and you can’t…you’ve gotta explain it in such a way that is accessible to someone that hasn’t taken a course in physics before.

MKL – I think it happened a few times where with things…as you say, science never stops and so then obviously when you’re trying to write something, new discoveries come up and I think, surprisingly, with some of the larger physics questions, there were actually updates within the few months that we were actually writing our chapters.  And also things happen like, you know, we would…one of the questions is what’s at the bottom of the ocean and it just so happened that within that time, James Cameron announced that he was gonna go on a big undersea mission as well…sort of, like, OK, well maybe we have to tweak this slightly about what’s happening right there and then, but most of them I think were alright.  I think we would’ve been pretty unlucky if the question of alien life had been answered in the space of us writing this book.

CS – But the dark matter and dark energy, that was the funny one because when we started writing the book the amount of dark matter and dark energy in the universe was 4% atoms, and then 70-odd, 72% dark energy and 27% dark matter, something like that, but actually the Planck results came out in March and our final deadline for getting the book manuscript was sort of the end of March, beginning of April, so I had to fire off a quick email to the publishers and say, look, the constitution of the universe has changed: it’s now 5% atoms, 68% dark energy, and so actually that single handedly changed not the chapter but we had to change the facts, ‘cause very quickly they would’ve been out of date.  And I think actually that Plank result…I can’t remember a single scientific result that changed in one announcement what we tell people on a daily basis when talking to people about astronomy because it changed the age of the universe, you know, or our knowledge of the age of the universe and what it’s made of, and these values so, actually, yeah.

Hopefully some of the chapters will stand the test of time but others maybe in a couple of years will be superseded.

MKL – Although we definitely wrote it with a view that it would be valid for at least a few years!

On learning from each other

CS – I really liked reading that chapter [on consciousness] actually because I didn’t know a lot about it, my background is not biology at all.  I mean, GCSE biology is about the best I can muster and, um, there’s an experiment about which you write in the chapter where there’s a lady who for all intents and purposes is in a vegetative state and yet they…you can correct me if I’m wrong here but, um, she was asked a series of questions and if the answer was yes, she was asked to imagine playing tennis and if the answer was no, then she was asked to imagine doing the housework.  And actually they could tell by looking at her brain function that she was answering these questions and yet there was nothing in any other standard test that would define her as being conscious.  And so, actually, in those sorts of situations, you know, a family might end up pulling the plug on that patient because the doctors are telling you well, actually, you know, she’s effectively brain dead and yet she clearly wasn’t.  So I didn’t realise that that had been done and I thought it was an amazing experiment.

On giving concrete answers

MKL – The one where it kind of feels like it should be answerable is the question of what’s at the bottom of the ocean.  Actually, you feel like you know, we should be able to get fully down there and obviously there have been more missions, as I say, James Cameron has obviously brought a lot of publicity to it through his voyages down there.  But it’s the kind of thing that you kind of think that if we…there are obviously more pressing matters and there’s only a limited amount of funding to go round generally for science but I think that’s for me one of the ones that I thought, actually yeah, we could probably see a bit more of this.  I mean, they have made their way down quite deep into the Mariana Trench, one of the deepest areas in the world, and we’ve seen some of the things down there and the fact that, as I say, then opens up a whole other bunch of possibilities such as, you know, finding possible new antibiotics  from the bacterial life that’s down there.  This is another thing where a lot of the chapters cross over with each other because inevitably the big questions do have a lot of overlap.  Actually, that’s just reminded me of one of the questions that I think if we were able to do more I would’ve liked to have done one about, like, will we ever get to the centre of the earth; will a human ever actually be able to get down there or can we get a camera down there to actually see what the core of the earth would look like.  I’m sure…I would’ve loved to have talked to some geologists about that and see whether that’s feasible or not.

On the question of the origin of life

MKL – Well, I think when we’re approaching each of these questions, especially for an audience that…we’re expecting a lot of people who will pick up this book will be people who don’t know how you would even start to approach that question in a rational manner.  They’re so big, it’s quite hard to grasp.  So what we tried to do, and we’ve done it, and it varies between the chapters depending on what fits and what fits to the narrative…the story that we’re trying to put across.  I think we wanted to get across for some questions, why is it that that question has been so difficult to answer, then, how do you get hold on a question that’s hard to answer like, for example, how did life begin, I mean, how do we get a handle on that when there’s no way of time travelling back to see that?

CS – You say that…no, actually, you are right, it’s a whole chapter. You couldn’t go back to a time before a time machine was invented, so yes you couldn’t go back to… 

MKL – That was one of the topics that we had an argument about in the cafe, we went through a lot of detail about this.  But, yeah, it’s that and also, some of the questions, like for example the question of how we beat bacteria, of antibiotic resistance, that one has a very fascinating history of science story about it.  It’s also very contemporary and some questions are like that, and the question of whether we can ever beat cancer, another chapter, those questions, we wanted to kind of impart why it’s difficult to answer but also why it’s really important that we answer it, things like cancer I think are obvious but some of the other questions, it’s a bit harder to see why we are so fascinated by this.

CS – Yeah, I think we tried to get a mix of…there’s the big philosophical questions like, are we alone in the universe and where did life come from, but we’ve tried consciously to put in some practical things for the modern world, so there are chapters in there like, where are we gonna put all the carbon and what are we gonna do about the population problem, the growing population of the world.  So these are things which, you know, obviously affect us on a day to day basis…beat bacteria, for example, we’ve got a big problem with bacteria right now and resistance to antibiotics, so we wanted that good balance between really big sort of pie in the sky questions but actually some real practical ones.  I think another one was how do we get more energy out of the sun.   Obviously we’ve got big energy problems right now, or we certainly will if we use all our fossil fuels up.  What techniques…what are people doing right now, what’s going on in labs around the world to try and get more energy, stable energy, for the future.

MKL – Again, that’s one of the things when you say…when we thought about the topic of what are the big questions in science, you can answer it in many different ways.  What are the big questions that fundamentally, as I say, are the five or six that all of us have wondered at one time or another; then there’s the ones that scientists themselves are grappling with that they know are the bigger questions, some of which we couldn’t pick in the end because they’re quite…they are extremely technical and we had trouble working out what exactly they were talking about and trying to translate that to a more general audience.  But there are ones, as I say, the important ones in between as well so I think with that good mix you get a good mix of the pie in the sky questions – the how did life begin, what is consciousness kind of stuff – alongside things about the population problems, things about antibiotic resistance that people will have heard about quite a lot in the news, especially recently, and hopefully they want to find out some of the answers.  With the ideas that are coming out from this, you will have a good idea of how science is really trying to answer these questions and where we’re at right now, hopefully to last for the next few years.

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