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Sci Tech    H2'ed 12/20/21

Questions for S- (A Professor of Physics at Brown University)

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from John Hawkins

Recently, I contacted a well-known professor of physics at Brown university; his focus is on theoretical cosmology, quantum gravity and particle physics. According to the website Big Think, "He is on the Board of Directors for the Network for the Improvement of World Healthcare, an action-driven organization that forges global partnerships to address local health challenges. He also plays jazz saxophone and sees improvisation as an extension of his scholarship." Interesting cat. I wanted to interview him, so I reached out; here's some correspondence between us.


Fri, Nov 5

Dear Professor A-

I am interested in an interview with you to talk about features of physics of interest to the lay, educated public.

Recently, New Scientist published a piece on the quantum make-believe of reality. This reminded me of some old work I did as a philosophy of science grad at RPI -- specifically, Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle.

Also, recently, Facebook announced plans to change its name to Meta. Obviously, this has serious philosophical implications worth considering.

I am intrigued by your Theory Lab, especially its broader implications.

I am an American freelance journalist currently residing in Australia. My interests are far-reaching and include science, culture and literature. I am a regular contributor to OpEd News and C- magazine, progressive independent journals which would welcome your thoughts on some of the transformative issues in science and culture.

We could meet on Zoom or I could send questions (say 10).

I hope you will be for it.


John Hawkins


Fri, Nov 5

hi john

happy to zoom.. pete will find a time.. feel free to remind us.




Fri, Nov 5

Hi S- and P-

Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed. I look forward to it.

I am GMT+7 (Western Australia). I propose an early morning Zoom, say 9 or 10 AM Brown time (9 or 10 PM my time) early next week, say Tuesday. How's that fit? Counter offer?


Mon, Nov 15

Hi S- and P-

This is a reminder, as requested, to set up an interview with you. I would like for it to be this week, at your convenience. Have you had a look at the subject areas around which I will build interview questions?

Hope to hear from you soon.



Dec 18, 2021

Hi S-and P-

It's been almost three weeks since I sent my questions to you before our anticipated and agreed to Zoom interview. I know you are busy S-, so I thought the questions ahead of time would allow you to polish an answer (with Zoom leaving room for more dialectical communication). My follow-ups by email and by phone calls to you Pete have progressed my request no further. Could you please tell me -- yeah or nay -- whether you are still interested in either returning the questions answered or in delivering a response to them by Zoom.



Finally A Definitive RESPONSE



(1.) S-, can you summarize the work you're engaged in these days? In other words, what bliss are you following? What are you working on? Any new books aching to get out?

(2.) Noam Chomsky has observed that education is the key to solving our human issues in general, and our current crises specifically. One goal of such an education would be to develop the innate capacity to think critically (this is even part of his linguistic theory) and to consequently avoid becoming prey to manufactured consent and, thus, manufactured reality.

I note, S-, that you are keenly interested in interdisciplinary studies. Given the growing complexity of everyday life, how would you describe the role of future education? What's key?

(3.) Following from (2.), we are about to irreversibly on-ramp up to The Quantum Highway. Already the competition is furious -- between Google's Deep Mind and IBM's universal quantum, and between America and China. Can you describe what's at stake? And how does the ordinary person catch, understand, and benefit?

(4.) Your Jazz of Modern Physics reminds me of a course offered at my alma mater years back called Physics for Poets. That was a word connection. But your jazz course goes back to some ancient ideas, as you explained in a number of places, such as in your TED talk. I hear Holst's Planets. The Lost Chord. Music of the Spheres. Do you listen to Sun Ra and his Arkestra? What jazz number would be a good one to catch the spirit of the jazz-physics vibe? Me. I like Pharoah Sanders, the classic "The Creator Has A Master Plan." I picture your TED Talk depiction of the Big Bang and the universing chilling. Check out the sax.

(5.) Someone once wrote a book that described the Higgs-Boson Particle discovery as a "fake"? Is it a fake? Or, a la Heisenberg, did it become real when nobody was looking? Can you give us the low-down on the high-up snooty particles?

(6.) Just what is Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle as applied to "reality"? Lay terms please. And why is she referencing Jeff Bezos' shlong logo? If ever anything had uncertainty built into it...

(7.) Just what is it you want to say about Virtual Reality, S-? If you had to blurb, say, Fear of a Black Universe: An Outsider's Guide to the Future of Physics, a recent book on the topic, what might that blurb blurb if it were in a blurbing kind of mood? When I hear fear of a Black universe -- I picture Blazing Saddles... but also, Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder smoking jays and sorting it all out, like you and your teacher Gabe Kaplan. Right?

(8.) Carl Sagan of Cosmos famously once said that we are "star stuff" -- literally. Was he just high on Vangelis juice? What would you have told Carl in response? Are we still star stuff, or did something happen that they aren't telling us about? And who are 'they'? And who are 'we'?

(9.) Personally, I'm terrified of the Paradigm(s) shift(s) ahead. Thomas Kuhn must have had rocks in his head disrupting our comfort zones that way. Now, S-, all I can see are paradigms out the yin-yang and rolling pearlharbors ahead. Can we keep up with such changes without becoming the accelerated machines promised by the Singularity? Or are we on the verge of a new kind of neurosis that will make us speak in high-speed auction English, and come-and-go at each other like flashing duckrabbits in conversation?

(10.) The Internet Hivemind ahead. Can you provide some salient pros and cons? Would you recommend regular off-grid days? I myself am making a run for it.

(11.) We've been spending a lot of money and research on AIs recently and they're beginning to encroach on our secret human business. Frankly, I'm beginning to get a bit unnerved. The other day I tried out an app where I wrote the first five lines of free verse and the app finished the poem. S-, the app wrote better poetry than me, and we'd just met. For a moment, I felt like Gary Kasparov, a mere pawn in their game. Another time, I yelled out to someone's voice in another room, "Go f*ck yourself!" and my mobile phone next to me lit up and a pretty female voice came out of it that said: "Please don't talk to me like that." Will such moments of pushing us out of ourselves become regular as the fascists in ourselves take over?

In other words, what are some practical challenges ahead of sharing AIs with our ordinary everyday lives? Will there be mayhem? Do you have similar anecdotes to share?

Well, then, like previous promises broken by the Nietzsche scholar who promised an interview but chickened out, and the journalism professor who promised an interview but yellowed out, this would-be interview (or Q and A) has turned into an engagement again with the reader. You. Make believe I've proffered the above questions to your keened mind. Are you willing to go on that journey with me? Hmmm? Surely there is a happy ending in it for someone. Over the rainbow.

I'll be checking the Comments section, foot tapping.

(Article changed on Dec 22, 2021 at 5:21 AM EST)

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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