The Big Picture

A Conversation with Cosmologist Sean Carroll

By Gerald Alper

He does physics in the sunshine. One way or another, he finds the sweet spot in science. Psychologists will say that's because "his happiness set point" — his natural state of hedonic well-being — must be high. But such earnest joy, such surefootedness on even the slippery slopes of speculative cosmology, can't be a matter of simple biological luck. There has to be more. There has to be passion. There has to be resolve. Above all, there has to be imagination.

Whatever it takes, Sean Carroll has the right stuff to be a cosmologist. He's in New York to promote his new book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, published by Dutton. This is what he says about it:

"This book is a combination of things I've been thinking about for a long time. I've loved physics from a young age, but I've also been interested in all sorts of big questions, from philosophy to evolution and neuroscience. And what those separate fields have in common is they all aim to capture certain aspects of the same underlying universe... Science isn't just about solving this or that puzzle, it's about understanding how the world works. The whole world from the vastness of the cosmos to the particularity of an individual human life. It's worth thinking about how all the different ways we have to talk about the world managed to fit together."

A cursory catalogue of what Carroll characterizes as "fun ideas" would include "conservation of momentum and information, emergent purpose and causality, Bayesian inference, skepticism, planets of belief, effective field theory, the Core Theory, the origin of the universe, the relationship between entropy and complexity, free energy and the purpose of life… the fine- tuning argument, consciousness and philosophical zombies… And the finitude our lives."

The place I pick to meet — an iconic Manhattan bar restaurant called P.J. Clarke's — is less than 10 feet from the hotel in which he staying. Although I've seen him numerous times on video and YouTube, it's always a surprise to meet someone for the first time. He is tall (6'1"), lanky, blond, boyish in a California way and brimming with goodwill and good cheer in a Sean Carroll way.

We take a corner table, in the most quiet part of an already quiet restaurant. I'm relieved to see that he is undonnish, nonthreatening, unpretentious and genuinely curious to meet another person.

"Have you ever been here before?" he asks.

"Once, 30 years ago, when I was single."

He nods his understanding. He asked the question, I'm beginning to realize, that every interviewee wants to have answered: Who exactly are you, what is this about, and what is the real purpose of your request to meet?

"Well, I'm not a journalist. This isn't an interview, really. I have conversations with people I like about books I love. Writing an article is my way I do it."

"I think it's good to do something you love," he says.

"I know writers are always excited to publish their books," I tell him. "But I don't think I've ever seen a writer so happy. It seems to mean so much to you. Could you say what this means to you?"

"I think it's important that science doesn't just stay within narrow boundaries. People don't realize how many aspects of their lives, of our lives, are touched in one way or another by not just the discoveries, the technical breakthroughs, but the process of science. I just think it's important that people understand how wonderfully this all fits together. There are lots of problems, there are mysteries of course, but there is also an underlying, unifying big picture. It's something I've always wanted to write about and help people understand."

I tell him that I've been reading everything he's written, since From Eternity to Here, all his books and blogs except Space-Time Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity (which I at least tried).

Pleased and amused, he says, "That's good," as though to say, keep going. I tell him how surprised I was at how broadly, unabashedly philosophical The Big Picture is. He says he was "very frustrated" when a famous physicist favorably reviewed his book as though it was just a physics book. "That entirely misses my point."

To cheer him up, I tell him my recent telephone conversation with his publicist.

"I commented on how happy and excited she sounded, just like you. She laughed and said, 'We are excited. Do you know that nobody has an unkind word to say about Sean?' 'That doesn't surprise me,' I said. 'I know no one can predict, but is there a feeling this might be a best-seller?' 'That's the hope,' she whispered."

He seems pleased, but adds, "Listen, I did not write this book to be a best-seller. Not at all. Now that it's written, I want it to be the best seller it can be."

I'm reminded of Carlo Rovelli's international bestseller Seven Brief Lessons in Physics. Brief though it was the book was a compact jewel: a beautifully written page-turner simultaneously conveying the profundity and complexity of the universe. I wonder aloud if it might give Carroll some useful tips on how to market the Big Picture.

"Well, I haven't read it, but it is on my desk," he says. "Did you know my wife reviewed that book?" That would be Jennifer Ouellette, first-rate science journalist, originator of the salon-like blog Cocktail Party Physics, author of four popular physics books.

"Yes, in the New York Times. It was a very good review. She hit all the main points, as I remember, and had only positive things to say."

As a psychodynamic psychotherapist few things are more interesting to me than interpersonal relationships. So I venture to tell him that recently while surfing YouTube I was surprised to come upon a 12-minute clip of an interview of his wifer by the contrarian Scotsman Craig Ferguson. Right from the start, it was different. Introduced as "Jennifer Omelet" while exchanging greeting with her host, she seemed to whisper something in his ear. Glancing at his card and recognizing his mistake, Ferguson addressed the audience, "That's Jennifer Ouellette."

"No, actually it was Craig Ferguson who whispered to Jennifer, 'Did I mispronounce that?'" Carroll says.

"Oh, did you watch it?"

"I was in the audience!"

"I thought she did great. I mean he can be difficult to deal with. If he finds a celebrity boring, he's not afraid to show it. But he's nevertheless quite an unusual, interesting character. I think Jennifer won him over. By the end he plainly liked her."

"It was twelve minutes he gave her. That's a lot, and you're right, he is an interesting character."

I tell him I first saw her on Moving Naturalism Forward, a video of a three-day, 15-hour conference of great minds (Nobelist Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, etc.) he organized, and was impressed by her poise. She was very deferential to the assembled great minds, but not intimidated. She maintained a clear sense of herself. I also heard her interview Janna Levin on a podcast about her new book, Black Hole Blues, which I thought was great.

The mention of black holes brings up LIGO, the Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, a joint project of Caltech, where Sean is, and MIT. LIGO brings up theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, who was at Caltech with Sean until 2009.

"He could get a Nobel Prize," Sean says, noting his "deep understanding of how things fit together" coupled with his "incredible ability to stay with one idea." He says that's something he could "never do," and never want to do. I ask him if, being a polymath, he sometimes wonders if he has not always used his time wisely.

"Yeah, well… maybe sometimes."

"Would you say you are in your prime now as a theoretical physicist?"

"Uh… I don't know about that."

"Do you have aspirations? Do you want to make a major breakthrough?"

He looks wistful and sighs. "No, not now. Maybe when I was younger. Right now I want to work on this book."

"How is your serious theoretical work in physics received by other physicists?"

I can see he is struggling with the answer.

"Well, there is a lot of variability in the physics community. I can't really tell, and I don't want to focus on it. There is, of course, some interest in the arrow of time," one of his chief areas of research, "but I don't know…"

I ask him about Nima Arkani-Hamed, the theoretical physicist famous for proclaiming, "Space-time is doomed." He means that the classical Einsteinian conception of space-time will be seen to be an approximation of an underlying quantum discreteness. On February 11, physicists made the spectacular announcement that gravity waves had finally been detected. By strengthening the case for general relativity, did their success perhaps earn a temporary stay of execution for general relativity?

Carroll, who himself is fond of saying, "General relativity is wrong" (at certain energy levels, as Einstein himself was the first to reveal), is quick to reply. "No. Nothing has changed. We knew all along that gravity waves existed. In fact we predicted they would be discovered."

"What about the detection of two large black holes, the first time that has been done? What about the fact that Einstein's prediction for the first time was verified at higher energies than ever before? Doesn't that strengthen the case for general relativity?"

"Not really. It doesn't change anything."

I want to say that the elephant in the room, in my humble opinion, is the unacknowledged embarrassment of the particle physicists and quantum cosmologists. Forever proclaiming the death of classical gravity, they are unable to come up with a quantum theory of gravity of their own that has earned an iota of experimental verification. At the same time, they have to stand on the sidelines and watch the ongoing celebration for a lone man, who one hundred year ago produced a series of equations of curved space-time that has triumphantly survived the most spectacular, most rigorous technological development. A feat that no less than Rainer Weiss, on the short list for a Nobel prize for his pioneering contribution to LIGO, has likened to "a miracle."

I am wise enough not to, however. Instead, folding my theoretical cards, I ask about the geniuses Carroll must have encountered in his journey to the top of his profession.

"I don't like the word. I don't divide people into those who are geniuses and those are not. The word is overused. Very, very few physicists are geniuses."

Then he brightens and, leaning over the table as though he is about to reveal a secret, says, "Nima Arkani-Hamed, he's a genius."

"You think so?"

"Oh yes. And Roger Penrose, he's a genius. He completely revolutionized cosmology in the 1960s."

I'm delighted. I am soon going to be interviewing Arkani-Hamed at Princeton, and Penrose, the physicist and philosopher of science who shared the Wolf Prize with Stephen Hawking, is one of my all-time favorites.

It's time for Carroll to go back to his hotel room and get ready for the lecture he's giving this evening at the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn, launching The Big Picture.

Published May 16th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.