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Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

A thrilling cosmological detective story of how the universe evolved and what made our very existence possible.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall on the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library), which I recently reviewed for The New York Times — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Art by Soyeon Kim for You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

One of the book’s central threads is the essential capacity for uncertainty that science requires of its practitioners. The same impulse that gave rise to religion — to do away with doubt and rest into certainty — is also present in science, for it is a profoundly human impulse and science is a profoundly human endeavor. Throughout the history of scientific breakthroughs that Randall chronicles, new theories are consistently met with opposition by scientists who have grown attached to older models. But therein lies the premier forte of the scientific method as a tool for advancing humanity’s conquest of truth — in the face of sufficient evidence, even staunch supporters of older models begin to doubt them and eventually accept the newer ones.

Randall captures this succinctly, perhaps with an eye to the rest of contemporary culture where opinions are formed with little consideration and opposition is dismissed on principle — in a sentiment that calls to mind Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, she writes:

Only when existing scientific ideas fail where more daring ones succeed do new ideas get firmly established.

For this reason controversy can be a good thing for science when considering a (literally) outlandish theory. Although those who simply avoid examining the evidence won’t facilitate scientific progress, strong adherents to the reigning viewpoint who raise reasonable objections elevate the standards for introducing a new idea into the scientific pantheon. Forcing those with new hypotheses — especially radical ones — to confront their opponents prevents crazy or simply wrong ideas from taking hold. Resistance encourages the proposers to up their game to show why the objections aren’t valid and to find as much support as possible for their ideas.

Dark matter itself is a supreme example of this ethos. Although scientists have confirmed its existence, they don’t actually know what it is and believe that it’s made of a new elementary particle that doesn’t obey the forces that drive ordinary matter interactions. But the very search for dark matter is predicated on the leap of faith that despite being invisible, it has interactions, however weak, that human tools made of ordinary matter will eventually detect. Randall — who has previously written beautifully about the crucial difference in how science and religion explain the world — notes that this assumption is “based partially on wishful thinking.” But in that partiality lies the supremacy of science over truth-seeking ideologies built solely on wishfulness. Where humans hope and fear, experiments prove and rule out.

One of the most scintillating parts of the book illustrates this aspect of science in action. Randall tells the story of the unlikely and slow-burning revolution that led to our present understanding of how the dinosaurs perished — a riveting global detective story thirty years in the making, beginning in 1973, when a geochemist proposed that a meteoroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, only to be dismissed by the scientific community.

Art by Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen from the coloring book Evolution

The notion remained radical until a geologist named Walter Alvarez — whose dramatically titled book T-Rex and the Crater of Doom inspired Randall’s speculative work — embarked upon an investigative adventure that began in the hills of Italy and ended in one of the greatest breakthroughs in planetary science. The story is also a supreme testament to both the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the humanity central to science — Alvarez worked with his father, the Nobel-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, to solve the mystery.

The duo detected an unusually high concentration of iridium — a rare metal put to such mundane uses as fountain pen nibs — in the clay deposit separating two differently colored limestone layers. Because Earth is intrinsically low in iridium, they suspected that an extraterrestrial impactor was responsible for this perplexing quantity. After a team of nuclear chemists confirmed the anomaly, Walter and Luis Alvarez proposed that a giant meteoroid had hit the Earth and unleashed a downpour of rare metals, including iridium.

But rather than the end of the story, this was merely the beginning, sparking a worldwide scientific scavenger hunt for the actual site of the impact. Since craters are typically twenty times the size of the impactor and Alvarez estimated that the meteoroid was about ten kilometers in diameter, scientists set out to find a crater nearly 125 miles wide. Despite the enormity of the target, the odds of finding it were slim — if the meteoroid had hit the ocean, which covers three quarters of Earth’s surface, the crater would be both unreachable and smoothed over by sixty-six million years of tides; had it hit the land, erosion, sedimentation, and tectonic shifts may have still covered its traces completely. And yet, in a remarkable example of what Randall calls the “human ingenuity and stubbornness” driving the scientific endeavor, scientists did uncover it, aided by an eclectic global cast of oil industry workers, international geologists, three crucial beads of glass, and one inquisitive reporter who connected all the dots.

The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)
The Chicxulub crater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the site of the impact that decimated the dinosaurs.(Illustration: Detlev van Ravenswaay / National Geographic)

In 1991, NASA announced the discovery of the crater in the Yucatan plane of the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn’t until March of 2010 — exactly thirty years after Walter Alvarez had first put forth his theory — that a collective of forty-one elite international scientists reviewed all the evidence that the meteoroid killed the dinosaurs and deemed it conclusive.

The story, which Randall tells with palpable reverence and exhilaration, brings home one of her central points — science, at its best, methodically applies the known tools at our disposal to reach into the unknown with systematic audacity. She writes:

The beauty of the scientific method is that it allows us to think about crazy-seeming concepts, but with an eye to identifying the small, logical consequences with which to test them.

17th-century paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

There is a necessary observation to be made about the book that might seem banal to point out, but as artist Louise Bourgeois once resolved in her diary, “never depart from the truth even though it seems banal at first”: Randall is one of a handful of scientists at the leading edge of physics born with two X chromosomes, and perhaps one of a dozen women in the entire history of science to have reached this caliber of influence. It’s rather heartening and perhaps uncoincidental that, throughout her riveting tour of the scientific discoveries that laid the foundation of our present understanding of the universe, she takes care to name the many women who overcame imposing odds in male-dominated fields to make major breakthroughs — trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin, who confirmed the existence of dark matter; nuclear chemist Helen Michel, who confirmed the high level of iridium that became the first clue that a meteoroid wiped out the dinosaurs; astronomer Wendy Freedman, who first measure the Hubble constant; geologist Joanne Bourgeois, who pinpointed the area where the deadly meteoroid struck; Julia Heisler, a Princeton undergraduate who quantified the degree of uncertainty that still makes predictions of periodicity reliable.

Lisa Randall (Photograph: Phil Knott)

Randall touches on her own experience as a female scientist only once, only obliquely, but rather tellingly: She mentions that people sometimes mistake her job title for “cosmetologist” — and even this remark is made not gratuitously but solely in the service of advancing knowledge as she traces the etymology of the word “cosmos” to the Greek kosmos, meaning “good order” or “orderly arrangement,” noting that both the universe and the standards of human beauty are undergirded by the art-science of order.

darkmatterandthedinosaurs_randall_cover

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Although Randall points out that there are “no shortcuts to scientific knowledge,” she covers an impressive amount of material and connects a vast constellation of dots with captivating clarity — a formidable feat of bridging our solipsistic and short-sighted human vantage point with the expansive 13.8-billion-year history of the universe.

BP

Carl Sagan on Humility, Science as a Tool of Democracy, and the Value of Uncertainty

“Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge… It can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.”

“Without science, democracy is impossible,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his foundational 1926 treatise on education and the good life. Three generations later, Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) — another one of our civilization’s most inspired minds and greatest champions of reason — picked up where Russell left off to make an elegant case for the humanizing power of science, its vitality to democracy, and how applying the scientific way of thinking to everyday life refines our intellectual and moral integrity.

In his 1995 masterwork The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the source of his indispensable Baloney Detection Kit — Sagan writes:

Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves… Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The true power of science, Sagan suggests, lies not in feeding into our culture’s addiction to simplistic and ready-made answers but in its methodical dedication to asking what Hannah Arendt called the “unanswerable questions” that make us human, then devising tools for testing their proposed answers:

There is much that science doesn’t understand, many mysteries still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light-years across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the case forever.

[…]

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

The scientific way of thinking, Sagan asserts, counters our perilous compulsion for certainty with systematic assurance that uncertainty is the only arrow of progress and error the only catalyst of growth:

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.

We will always be mired in error. The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is a pervasive, visible self-assessment of the reliability of our knowledge.

In this continual self-assessment, Sagan argues, lies the singular potency of science as a tool for advancing society:

The reason science works so well is partly that built-in error-correcting machinery. There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the most rigorous, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august, or beloved you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend — substantively and in depth.

[…]

Science is part and parcel humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take seriously what they find. We are aware that revered scientists have been wrong. We understand human imperfection. We insist on independent and — to the extent possible — quantitative verification of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs.

Embracing this ethos is an exercise in willingly refining our intellectual and ideological imperfections. Sagan captures this with elegant simplicity:

Valid criticism does you a favor.

He returns to the greatest promise of science as fertilizer for intellectual and spiritual growth, a democratic tool of social change, and a framework for civilizational advancement:

Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.

[…]

Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us.

Complement the enduringly elevating The Demon-Haunted World with Sagan on science and spirituality, the vital balance between skepticism and openness, his reading list, and this wonderful animated adaptation of his famous Pale Blue Dot monologue, then revisit cosmologist Lisa Randall on the crucial difference in how art, religion, and science explain the universe and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s touching remembrance of Sagan.

BP

Galileo on Critical Thinking and the Folly of Believing Our Preconceptions

“To divine that wonderful arts lie hid behind trivial and childish things is a conception for superhuman talents.”

Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642) was born into a world without clocks, telescopes, or microscopes, where superstition and anthropocentrism moored the human mind in tyrannical dogma — a world that saw itself as the center of the universe. By the end of his lifetime, over the course of which he pioneered modern observational astronomy, invented timekeeping, and even inspired Shakespeare, Galileo’s work had seeded the most significant scientific revolution in human history.

In 1632, nearly two decades after he defended truth in the face of ignorance in his spectacular letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Galileo penned an impressive book titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican (public library), which he dedicated to his patron, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Structured as a series of conversations between a layman and two philosophers, it is at heart a timeless manifesto for critical thinking.

Galileo Galilei (Courtesy of Wellcome Library)

Galileo writes:

To apply oneself to great inventions, starting from the smallest beginnings, is no task for ordinary minds; to divine that wonderful arts lie hid behind trivial and childish things is a conception for superhuman talents.

In the foreword to the modern edition of this intellectual masterwork, Albert Einstein calls it “a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the Western world and its influence upon economic and political development,” and writes:

A man is here revealed who possesses the passionate will, the intelligence, and the courage to stand up as the representative of rational thinking against the host of those who, relying on the ignorance of the people and the indolence of the teachers in priest’s and scholar’s garb, maintain and defend their positions of authority. His unusual literary gift enables him to address the educated men of his age in such clear and impressive language as to overcome the anthropocentric and mythical thinking of his contemporaries.

Indeed, nearly half a millennium before Carl Sagan crafted his Baloney Detection Kit, Galileo established himself as humanity’s premier nonsense-buster and made it his chief mission to counter ignorance and indolence with critical thinking — something crisply articulated in the words of one of the book’s fictional protagonists:

In the long run my observations have convinced me that some men, reasoning preposterously, first establish some conclusion in their minds which, either because of its being their own or because of their having received it from some person who has their entire confidence, impresses them so deeply that one finds it impossible ever to get it out of their heads. Such arguments in support of their fixed idea as they hit upon themselves or hear set forth by others, no matter how simple and stupid these may be, gain their instant acceptance and applause. On the other hand whatever is brought forward against it, however ingenious and conclusive, they receive with disdain or with hot rage — if indeed it does not make them ill. Beside themselves with passion, some of them would not be backward even about scheming to suppress and silence their adversaries.

Many centuries later, trailblazing physicist and chemist Michael Faraday issued an equally impassioned clarion call for countering our propensity for self-deception — a propensity powered by what modern psychologists have termed “the backfire effect.”

Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems brims with a wealth more of Galileo’s enduring legacy of critical thinking. Complement it with I, Galileo — a marvelous picture-book about the life of the great scientist — then revisit John Dewey on the art of reflection in the age of instant opinions and Malcolm Gladwell on the importance of changing your mind.

BP

Michael Faraday on Mental Discipline and How to Cure Our Propensity for Self-Deception

“That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all.”

Michael Faraday on Mental Discipline and How to Cure Our Propensity for Self-Deception

The pioneering English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (September 22, 1791–August 25, 1867) planted the seed for the study of electromagnetism — a cornerstone of our present understanding of the universe, without which Einstein wouldn’t have been able to link space and time in his seminal theory of special relativity. But Faraday, like many great scientists before the dawn of psychology, was also a man of enormous insight into the human psyche and its pathologies. On May 6, 1854, he delivered a lecture at the Royal Institution on the subject of “mental discipline,” later included in his volume Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics (public library | public domain).

faraday

Two centuries before modern psychologists coined “the backfire effect” — the root of why we have such a hard time changing our minds — Faraday captures our profoundly human propensity for self-deception when it comes to confirming our convictions and indulging our desires:

Among those points of self-education which take up the form of mental discipline, there is one of great importance, and, moreover, difficult to deal with, because it involves an internal conflict, and equally touches our vanity and our ease. It consists in the tendency to deceive ourselves regarding all we wish for, and the necessity of resistance to these desires. It is impossible for any one who has not been constrained, by the course of his occupation and thoughts, to a habit of continual self-correction, to be aware of the amount of error in relation to judgment arising from this tendency. The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.

More than two hundred years before the term “confirmation bias” entered the popular lexicon, Faraday extols the essential self-discipline of continually questioning even our most dearly held beliefs and probing whether what we desire to be true is actually true:

The inclination we exhibit in respect of any report or opinion that harmonizes with our preconceived notions, can only be compared in degree with the incredulity we entertain towards everything that opposes them… It is my firm persuasion that no man can examine himself in the most common things, having any reference to him personally, or to any person, thought or matter related to him, without being soon made aware of the temptation and the difficulty of opposing it… That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department of daily life.

Complement with Carl Sagan’s indispensable Baloney Detection Kit and Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means.

BP

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