We are the Olive in the Martini…

Jon Shock put me onto this video where Sean Carroll of CalTech gave a rollicking talk at the Yearly Kos Conference and it’s great fun. (You can find his weblog at Cosmic Variance.) He’s a terrifically engaging speaker, and especially excellent for this particular audience. There isn’t a moment that lags. Here’s just a taste of it:

The interesting fact about this story is that it puts us in our place. We live in a universe where only five percent of the stuff in the universe is the same kind of stuff that we are made of. We are not what the universe is about. We are the olive in the martini, which is not what the martini is about. We are the blinking lights on the Christmas Tree. We are not the substance of what is going on.

So this is an interesting fact about the universe that we never would have been led to had we just sat around and thought. This is a story that is forced on us by going out there, collecting data and dealing with it.

And I want to contrast that way of thinking … A movie, you may be familiar with, called _What the Bleep do we Know?_ … Someone had the bright idea of making a movie about quantum mechanics, so I applaud them for their chutzba when it comes to that. But the problem is that the movie is full of nonsense. The movie tries to get across the message, that what quantum mechanics teaches us, is that we can change the nature of physical reality just by thinking about it – that by putting ourselves in the right mental state, we can make the real world what we want it to be. And after the movie came out, the filmmakers were all given high ranking jobs in the Bush administration.

David Albert is a Philosopher of Science at Columbia University, and he appeared in the movie and he’s an extremely sensible person who knows what’s going on. Basically, he was snookered into appearing in the movie where they interviewed him for four hours and took ten second snippets out of that where he says “oh yes, that’s very interesting”. When the movie came out, he was outraged at how he was portrayed in the movie and he went around giving talks to people who liked this movie. He tried to explain to them what was going on.

David would basically say this: Look, when you’re trying to understand the world, there are two approaches you can have. One kind of approach is that when you try to look at the world, you come with a precondition – you come with a set of demands that the world tell a story that is flattering to you. The other thing you could do is come with an authentically open mind and open heart and expend many different hypotheses, and compare them to the evidence and accept what the evidence tells you, discard the hypotheses that don’t fit the evidence and believe in the hypotheses that do. That second method is called Science. I would like to say that it’s more than that. That second method is called honesty and it probably is a good method to use in all sorts of fields of human endeavor. Science is one of them, but there are probably others that you can also think of.

Check out: Cosmology at YearlyKos Science Panel, Part 1 and Cosmology at YearlyKos Science Panel, Part 2.

Read more about this speech on his post on the Cosmic Variance weblog.

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