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Is the Universe a Hologram?Scientists Answer the Most Provocative Questions$

Adolfo Plasencia

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262036016

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262036016.001.0001

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(p.xvii) How This Book Came About

(p.xvii) How This Book Came About

Is the Universe a Hologram?

Adolfo Plasencia

Tim O’Reilly

The MIT Press

“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

The first of many apparently naïve questions that Alice poses in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is really a veiled criticism of the type of teaching common during Lewis Carroll’s time. The methods Carroll opposed ignored the example of great teachers such as Plato and Rousseau, who considered dialogue to be essential for a sound education. This book takes seriously Alice’s desired formula as foundational for education and ultimately for science. It brings dialogue and images together to explore the frontiers of thought as practiced by some of the leading researchers at work today.

Today’s scientific landscape teems with conversations. The cutting edge of new knowledge is the product of collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries. It emerges from places where researchers from diverse backgrounds come together to solve problems. Knowledge and its practical applications arise from intense dialogue across fields and the formation of new intersections among them.

This book offers a brief, subjective, and far from comprehensive inventory of what these collaborations are achieving. The answers come from practitioners in fields ranging from physics to the arts, computing, and biology. The book tries to parse some of the conversations going on in the humanities and sciences today and to convey the still contested and competing views that are emerging.

How do new and transformative ideas arise?

Recently I visited an astronomical observatory to learn about the Eagle Nebula, home to the singular gas formations that have been called the Pillars of Creation.1 Today, thanks to several famous images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope, these gas clouds form part of the general iconography of (p.xviii) the universe. With its generative gas and dust activity, the Eagle Nebula is now understood to be a major birthplace for new stars. As of now, we don’t know why the giant clouds of the Eagle Nebula produce so many new stars, only that they do.

The creation of new stars is a useful metaphor to call on when discussing how new ideas arise. Where do they come from? How are they created, and why? Who will be capable of bringing them to light?

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, told me that entrepreneurship is not an algorithm, and neither, apparently, is success. With this in mind, I questioned the computer scientist Ricardo Baeza-Yates about creative process mechanisms in his field. He replied that it was impossible to say, as we cannot imagine how something new and previously unimagined arises from what we already know. There is no single method or mechanism for the production of new knowledge.

It is clear that certain people are capable of innovating thanks to a comprehensive vision that allows them to connect disparate ideas and subjects. This type of vision is far from universal; not everyone has it. Ricardo Baeza-Yates cites the example of artistic creation: the artist makes something new by bringing a singular vision to bear on her medium and realizing this vision through exceptional craft and skill, precisely because others did not see or execute it in the same way before.

My method in this book has been to establish certain connections between the different dialogues presented. What the scientists I conversed with share is this comprehensive vision and the craft of invention. They are alchemists of new knowledge, each exceptional in his or her field and each in different circumstances. For this reason, I have not attempted to label, group, or divide the texts in this book according to some canonical classification that would capture all the twists and nuances, or even to provide a framework into which all the different disciplinary quadrivia would fit.2 As Ricardo says, complexity arises from diversity. My hope is that the heterodox diversity of the creators’ visions will itself stimulate and generate new thought.

What is the book about?

Every scientist, creator, or inventor who makes a significant advance in his or her field has struggled to come up with the right questions. Following Plato, for whom good questions were always much more valuable than answers, I have attempted to structure this book around key questions and (p.xix) ideas, a list of which appears after the prologue. The thinkers conversed with for this book offer specific observations on these questions. They also engage the wider frameworks of thought that inform these subjects.

Pablo Picasso noted that technique and technology are no match for the grand questions of the human condition. The artist who subverted the art of the twentieth century recognized that understanding has its limits as well as its possibilities. This book similarly shows that creative discoveries, especially those with a high degree of subversion, do not produce greater certainties but greater uncertainties. From those uncertainties more questions arise, and it is precisely such questions that drive further inquiry. Just as young stars emerge from the Eagle Nebula, unexpected ideas shed new light on the universe we thought we knew, subverting old beliefs and revealing new avenues of inquiry.

The way of creating new knowledge is changing, especially in science, where nothing lasts forever. We can see this without looking further than CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), the largest scientific laboratory ever built by man, whose philosophy, vision, and human and technical machinery José Bernabéu describes in this book. A recently published paper offers CERN’s findings concerning a new type of particle, the pentaquark.3 This paper credits 724 authors. A more recent publication on research work at CERN also exists, which attempted to make a more precise estimation of the Higgs boson mass. It was the first joint publication by the two teams operating ATLAS and CMS, the two huge detectors in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. It was published in Physical Review Letters in May 2016 and broke the record for the number of researchers participating in the same publication to date. The paper was signed by a total of 5,154 authors!4 Nowadays, in these cases the nationality of these individual researchers is irrelevant. What matters is that they got together at the giant Large Hadron Collider tunnel to collaborate on the largest machine ever built. It is safe to say that their discovery would not have been realized without a collaboration at this scale. The image of the lonely scientist working away on his or her own in a laboratory is increasingly distant from the reality of scientific discovery. Research today is fast-moving, intellectually hybrid, and scientifically promiscuous, producing findings that often can be shared instantly.

The conversations in this book can be read in any order. The researchers profiled here share many concerns, questions, and methods of analysis. Despite a lack of disciplinary orthodoxy in their work, and in contemporary science more generally, common themes emerge. I leave it to the reader to draw out the full implications of these overlaps and connections. (p.xx) My aim is stimulate thought and, if possible, to provide some synthesis along the way.

How did the content and diversity of this book originate?

These dialogues (and many more that I could not include) took place over quite a few years as part of my professional life. They include a number of conversations with researchers and professors at MIT. They also include talks with scientists, technologists, and humanists who share their country of origin with me; I was born and live in Spain. Many of these researchers have changed their nationalities as a consequence of where they currently live and work. Language and nationality were not the determining factors in my choice to include them in the book. Their scientific achievements or success in the humanities provided the rationale for their inclusion.

That said, it did help to share country of origin with some of these participants, whose scientific careers I follow closely. I have spent years writing science and technology articles for magazines and newspapers in Spanish and once directed a television program on science and technology that was broadcast and seen throughout the Spanish-speaking world. All of that, plus attendance at international conferences, gave me access to technologists and scientists from all over the world, particularly those of interest to a global, Spanish-speaking audience.

In 2000, with my colleague Douglas Morgenstern, I cofounded a pioneering project called MITUPV Exchange, which operated for twelve years in Spanish. Thousands of MIT and Spanish university students from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), as well as students from several Latin American universities, participated.5 That project required me to make annual visits to MIT to collaborate in classes and meetings and greatly informed my knowledge of the MIT ecosystem, along with the wider sphere of university scientific research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have been fortunate to view the U.S. research environment, which includes scientists and technologists from all over the world, through this exceptional window. The conversations in this book were selected to provide a similar window on the ideas, visions, and questions that inform current science. Such a selection can never be comprehensive; at best, it can evoke a dynamic landscape at a particular moment in time.

As with any birth, the genesis of the book was neither simple nor easy. Through questions and answers, my collaborators and I have tried to describe what the physicist Bernabéu points out in his conversation: the (p.xxi) desperately slow expansion of our island of knowledge within the vast ocean of our ignorance.

The order in which the dialogues appear is intended only to provide a general framework for reading and enjoying them. The book begins with “The Physical World,” followed by sections titled “Information,” “Intelligence,” and a final epilogue that closes with a critical reflection on the connections between science, technology, and the humanities through art. Preceding each section is a brief introduction to the specific themes and ideas that arise in the immediately following conversations.

What is explored in this book?

Achieving this final arrangement of the book has been both easy and difficult: easy because many of the participants would be content to have their dialogue in any section. The work that each does transcends the simple labels applied to these sections. The questions I posed were designed to elicit connections among their dialogues, despite the diversity of the respondents. Progress in science is difficult, in part because each step forward by a research community raises the level of complexity for everyone else. Complexity comes precisely from increasing diversity, which helps to explain some of the uncertainty we live with today.

Progress also requires an assertive and positive vision of the future that awaits us, as Hiroshi Ishii asserts in his conversation. “I really savor divergence or difference of viewpoints about the future. For me, it’s entirely natural. I also think it’s healthy that there should be variety in the different versions of the future that people predict.”

The book seeks to challenge a number of highly qualified minds from science, the humanities, and technology to weigh in on topics outside their own particular field. Many participants accepted the challenge and crossed over the line of their own disciplinary specialization.

In case the era of specialization in science might seem to have ended, I offer this anecdote from a recent conference. I had the good fortune to hear an outstanding paper by a scientist, whose name I won’t mention. As I hadn’t foreseen talking to him and had not prepared any question, I asked, “What scientific subject can I ask you about?” Without hesitation, he replied, “Ask me about chromosome 22. I’ve dedicated my life to chromosome 22. I can speak for months about it. Ask me anything you like about it, but don’t ask me anything else.”

Specialization remains because it works, despite what we may say about the need to contemplate the vast panoply of human knowledge as a whole. (p.xxii) The advance of new knowledge demands robust collaboration among specialists from different realms, so as to advance toward the horizon of discovery in a more informed and accelerated way. On the other hand, the complexity that gives rise to those advances comes from growing diversity. The new and sophisticated instruments created by super-specialization allow us to access scenarios that we have neither explored nor observed before, whether these are the deep universe and its exoplanets or the frontier of the nanometer. In the space between the most immense and the most diminutive things we begin to glimpse our reality, that nature is infinitely more complex than we ever imagined.

What is this book like inside?

In a certain sense, this set of texts is indebted to the vision of the literary agent John Brockman and his book, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. Like that book, this one aims to take a modest step away from the two cultures that C. P. Snow famously described.6

Nearly fifty years later, we are faced with a persistent paradox: in a world of unprecedented access to information, a world propelled by the urgency for the new, many of the most decisive questions remain, year after year, untouched. These seem oblivious to the obsolescence that seems to affect everything else as a result of digital development and its Moore’s law. The list of questions that opens this book suggests the many important problems and issues are far from being resolved. Rather than becoming obsolete, they have come to appear timeless amid the acceleration of everything else around us. Not all such problems can be covered here, but I believe the questions my respondents have engaged are significant ones, worthy of investment and attention.

Why this dialogue model?

Almost all cutting-edge scientific disciplines today are hybrids. Their hybridization has accelerated the process of knowledge discovery and creation. A number of these conquests of knowledge will endure as genuine and timeless advances. If I have been able to document any of these timeless ideas, it is because I have had the remarkable fortune to converse with—if not everyone I would have liked to meet—many relevant scientists. In this book, I have tried to present something like the ideal dinner party—a rich seam of ideas that interact with one another.

A goal of this book is to provoke some cross-fertilization between different lines of thought. One strategy was to use parts of the replies from some (p.xxiii) dialogue questions for other respondents. Another was to ask those interviewed to give opinions on matters outside the scope of their specialty. The result, I believe, is something unusual: thinkers in a particular field have been drawn into reflecting on the same concept or powerful idea from very different perspectives. To the extent that this can be done in a mutually enriching way, the result is a panorama of ideas on questions such as, for example, what is intelligence. Replies come from the cutting edge of neuroscience, neurophysiology, computation, artificial intelligence, and the humanities and converge to illuminate the question from multiple angles.

Before ending, I would like to express my gratitude to all the respondents for devoting so much of their precious time and many ideas to this book, and for their all-important endeavor to help me achieve my main aim, which is simply to provide a worthwhile and fascinating experience for the reader.



(1.) An image of the Eagle Nebula (catalogued as Messier 16 or M16, and as NGC 6611), taken from the La Silla Observatory, Chile, is available on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eagle_Nebula#/media/File:Eagle_Nebula_from_ESO.jpg).

(2.) The quadrivium (plural: quadrivia) comprised arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, advanced subjects taught from the Classical period through the medieval period.

(3.) A pentaquark is a subatomic particle consisting of four quarks and one antiquark bound together.

(4.) G. Aad et al. (ATLAS and CMS Collaboration), “Combined Measurement of the Higgs Boson Mass in pp Collisions at s√=7 and 8 TeV with the ATLAS and CMS Experiments,” Physical Review Letters 114, no. 19 (May 14, 2015), doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.114.191803.

(5.) Douglas Morgenstern, Adolfo Plasencia, and Rafael Seiz, “Students as Designers and Content Creators: An Online Multimedia Exchange between the U.S. and Spain,” Campus Technology, September 29, 2003, http://campustechnology.com/articles/2003/09/students-as-designers-and-content-creators-an-online-multimedia-exchange-between-the-us-and-spain.aspx.

(6.) John Brockman, The Third Culture (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959). (p.xxiv)