There’s a growing, bewildering movement of folks who reject the most basic learnings of science in favour of conspiracy theories and hocus pocus — as a science journalist, I regularly get emails from people who firmly believe the Earth is flat, as shocking as that may seem.
I recently chatted with Brian Cox, host of BBC science show and podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage and a physics professor at University of Manchester, about the emergence of these alarming ideas and other trends in science. I also asked him about some slightly silly things, such as how we know that ghosts aren’t real.
Ryan F. Mandelbaum: Why do you think it’s important that the public talks about physics?
Brian Cox: Our civilisation is built on science. As Carl Sagan famously pointed out, in democracies we ask people to make decisions. These decisions are about things unrelated to science, but also about things with a scientific component, like public health, climate policy and energy policy.
If you have a civilisation where very few people understand the foundation and this mode of thinking in particular, then you have a failure in your democracy. Not only are people not equipped to make informed decisions about who to vote for and what policies to pursue, but they don’t even know what reliable knowledge is, knowledge that’s been tested at some level, that’s not just invented.
It’s clear that there’s knowledge that we can rely on. We understand the fact that aerodynamics engineers, pilots and air traffic controllers can get a plane safely from one city to another. At some level in our lives, we expect that there are experts and knowledge to rely on.
But in parts of the US and Europe, we find the population is unwilling or unable to extend the idea of people being worth listening to into other areas, particularly political areas.
RFM: Sounds a bit like the Flat Earth conspiracy theorists we sometimes deal with. What would you need to get fundamentally wrong to believe in that?
BC: Everything. You need to go all the way back to the foundations of modern physics. It follows from [Isaac] Newton’s laws that there’s a size of a massive object beyond which it becomes spherical. You’d have to reject Newton’s laws and [Albert] Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Why do storms spin? Why do artillery guns have an adjustment for the latitude? There are all these consequences of the fact that we live on a thing that spins. There are “fictitious” forces that cause storm systems to spin (Editor’s note: These are forces that we experience only because we live on a spinning globe.). It goes on and on. You have to reject literally everything.
Something else is going on. Conspiracy theories cannot be understood in isolation. It’s something significantly deeper — a mistrust in institutions and authority… There’s no justification for thinking that the Earth is flat. It’s idiotic at every conceivable level. But it’s indicative of a deeper problem.
RFM: Are we better off today than we used to be?
BC: It’s strange. There is more information out there, and I think people can name scientists now, like Stephen Hawking and Einstein. I wonder how many people could have named Newton in his lifetime or after.
At one level, scientists and science are very much a part of popular culture. People know about the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station. They know the names of astronauts.
At the same time, there’s a vocal minority who, while using the benefits of science every day, like antibiotics, mobile phones or GPS navigation (which, if you think the Earth is flat, how does GPS work?), want to ignore all of knowledge since the Renaissance. It seems to be part of how they identify as a person.
There’s more awareness and distrust at the same time, which is probably not a problem confined only to science. You see it in politics as well. There’s more awareness and discussion, but it has led to more fragmentation of the public into little communities where their prejudices are reinforced.
I think mistrust of scientists is a good example of this phenomenon. The Moon landing is a good example. The fact that people think the Apollo program is a vast conspiracy is fundamentally illogical. The number of people involved in the conspiracy has to be enormous.
There’s a paper that looks at how big a group of people can keep a secret — the bigger the group, the less time they can keep a secret. The Apollo programs must have had hundreds of thousands of people, now for over 50 or 60 years. That’s impossible for a conspiracy to be there.
This is a new phenomenon of the current moment. It’s not just that there are some Flat Earthers and some 9/11 deniers and some Apollo theorists. You can’t analyse it as a single conspiracy — it should be considered one phenomenon where people are suspicious of even the most basic facts about our planet and science.
RFM: People have been taking a second look at the unsavoury views of past scientists, like Einstein’s racist comments. What would you say about that, especially given how homogeneous physics continues to be today?
BC: Science is a human pursuit. Scientists very often reflect the society that they’re in. If you look back through time, there were enormous problems. We’ve made great progress with racism and sexism in the past 50 years, but you see it reflected in the scientists of the time, like in the 1950s.
We hold scientists to a higher standard, perhaps rightly. I think that’s right. I think we should expect more of scientists.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that you find unpalatable views and unpalatable behaviour when you look at scientists operating back in the 1950s. It’s changing for the better along with our society, but the problems that we have in our society are reflected in the sciences at every discipline. We can’t be complacent. There are still people who behave in atrocious ways… we have to watch, as with any other perspective.
And when you talk about scientists, you’re talking about education systems as well — universities and even high schools. I’m in favour of us holding ourselves to the highest standards.
RFM: Let’s move on to some sillier questions. One time you said that the Large Hadron Collider disproves the existence of ghosts. But what if ghosts were made out of dark matter, like axions?
BC: It’s missing the point. In order to have a ghost, there must be some thing that interacts with the matter in your body. Whatever that thing is constructed out of, then it has to interact strongly with matter at the energies with which we observe the world now — room temperature. Axions wouldn’t do that at this energy. A classical ghost, or a soul, would have to interact strongly with the body.
We have a very precise understanding of how matter interacts and we see no evidence at these energies of matter interacting with the Standard Model. I’m sure there will be new interactions, but they will be very subtle and visible at the highest energies. But that doesn’t help you when it comes to your body, or a ghost floating through your bedroom.
RFM: Does quantum mechanics allow for a multiverse? Is there a multiverse?
BC: The theory of inflation, our best theory of what happened before the Big Bang, may be pointing towards the idea that there are multiple Big Bangs and multiple universes that are created.
Is that scientific? It’s a suggestion of a theory. It’s not a prediction, but it’s something that fits with the theory. Can you test it scientifically? People look for bubble universes early in the history of our universe, and perhaps suggestions that we can see it in the cold spots that would make them detectable.
It isn’t the case yet, but maybe there could be a theory that describes the early universe as requiring a multiverse. I would say it’s scientific if you had a theory that works well and makes viable predictions. That was the case we were at with gravitational waves before we detected them — we really thought they were there, otherwise we wouldn’t have built LIGO [the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory].
RFM: Why should we look for extraterrestrial intelligence? Do you think it’s there?
BC: We should look for it because it’s one of the deepest questions we could ask. I would not be surprised if we don’t hear anything, but if you talk to astronomers they’re quite optimistic. We’ve discovered over 3000 exoplanets. There are a lot of places for life to have emerged and evolved.
But if you speak to biologists, they point to the history of life early on and say, well, it took four billion years from the origin of life to intelligent civilisation, and only in the last 200,000 years that Homo sapiens exist on the planet. There’s no sign that any other organisms have been capable of building civilisations. Dolphins can’t do it — they can’t build electrical devices underwater!
And most of life has been single-celled organisms, not even multicellular life. Most of the time, at least 3.5 billion years on Earth, there was nothing capable of thinking. I had a friend who’s a professor of biology in Manchester. He said if you look at the Milky Way, the best you would see is slime, single-celled things.
I wouldn’t be surprised if slime were on Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. I’d be delighted, but it wouldn’t surprise me. If you showed me an extraterrestrial signal from a civilisation, I would be surprised. But that doesn’t mean we don’t look.
RFM: A lot of our readers are big science fiction fans. What have you been into?
BC: Recently, Interstellar was a superb film because Kip Thorne had a hand in writing it. The book, The Science of Interstellar, was fantastic. It’s based on a previous book he wrote called Black Holes and Time Warps that’s really fantastic. It’s perhaps the best popular book on gravity you can get.
I think Westworld is brilliant at the moment. I’m watching the second season of that… It’s nice to see a big-budget TV series exploring the ideas of artificial intelligence.
RFM: What’s next for you?
BC: Next year I’m touring the world doing a huge show in which I’m working with the people that did the graphics for Interstellar, using the same code they used to generate the black hole to build out graphics for a huge live show on space, time, life in the universe, and our place in the stars. That’s going to start in February.
I’m also working on a big TV series called The Planets.
RFM: And finally, what do you think are the most important outstanding mysteries in physics?
BC: The LHC hasn’t taken nearly as much data as it can, and it’s also being upgraded to get many more collisions. It will be a big surprise if all [we find] is the Standard Model Higgs particle. People were expecting we’d see supersymmetry that would have given us an idea of what dark matter is.
One of the biggest discrepancies in particle physics at the moment is the g-2 experiment. It’s a measurement of the way the muon behaves in a magnetic field. The experiment shows a significant discrepancy with the Standard Model that’s getting more significant with time.
It’s a low-profile experiment, but it’s extremely sensitive to new physics. It’s still running, but if I were to put my money on something that would signal new physics, it’s the g-2 experiment at Fermilab. I think it’s really fascinating.
The other thing is gravitational waves. The point was not to discover gravitational waves — everyone was pretty sure they existed. The point is that we now have an observatory that can watch the collisions of black holes and neutron stars.
Thinking that LIGO was built to discover gravitational waves is like saying we build telescopes to look at one star. Of course not. It completely revolutionised astronomy.
Cox’s new book, The Infinite Monkey Cage: How to Build a Universe, is available now.