Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bill Nye, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Lawrence Krauss have a brilliant little discussion on the limitations of mathematics, and its importance and relevance to humanity

Math lovers and aficionados will find the following discourse both entertaining and informative.

Below you will find the video and partial transcript of Arizona State University’s Origins Project’s Q&A segment from their ‘The Storytelling of Science’ panel discussion, featuring “well-known science educator Bill Nye, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, popular science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, executive director of the World Science Festival Tracy Day, and Origins Project director Lawrence Krauss.”

The first question asked of the panel was:
Q: “If you could give us all a one word piece of advice for our own science storytelling, what would it be?”
Bill Nye was the first to reply with, “Algebra, learn algebra.” Neil deGrasse Tyson follows with, ‘Ambition’. Lawrence Krauss with, ‘Passion’. Neal Stephenson with, ‘Empathize’. Richard Dawkins states that since empathize has already been taken, he will choose ‘Poetry’. While Ira Flatow states that ”you should be able to tell it so that your mother can understand it.”

The second question asked by the audience is what kicks off the fireworks:
Q: “I’ve always wanted to be an astronautical engineer, but I am horrible at math, but I’ve got lots of passion. Can this dream ever be a reality and where do I start?”
The dialogue of the panelists was as follows:
Lawrence Krauss: “As Bill said, math is the language of science, and I think you have to be able to be adept at it.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: [interrupting Krauss] “Math is the language of the universe.”

Lawrence Krauss: “Yes, You’re right, I agree with you there.”

…audience applauds and cheers…

Lawrence Krauss: “I agree, but let me just finish. Too many people think that you have to be a mathematical wizard… you don’t have to be the best mathematician in your class, you don’t have to be a wiz. It takes all type to do science, and any stereotype just doesn’t work. If you’re interested, do it.”…

Bill Nye: “But the other thing, I would say, you say you’re bad at math, I bet you’re not that bad. And I just want to remind you that when it comes to math there is no substitute for practice. It sucked for me, it sucks for everyone. You just have to practice. So when you come to me and say ‘I’m bad at math’, I am open minded of course but skeptical. I bet you can do it whoever you are.”

Lawrence Krauss: “You know, that’s an important point. We were talking about it last night too… I like science museums because they show science as fun but science is hard work like anything, like music, like anything else to do it well, and it takes a lot of work. And if you don’t enjoy it you can’t do the work, but just enjoyment alone isn’t enough, you really got to be willing to work at it.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I think what’s going on here is, people presume that if the math is not coming easy that therefore you’ll never learn it. And I meant it literally that math is the language of the universe, and it’s like any other language, especially a language that does not share the Roman alphabet. So, for example, if you wanted to study Chinese, it looks completely intractable at first… and you can ask the question, ‘how long does it take one to become fluent in Chinese, if you’re not Chinese yourself?’ …it can take… almost 10 years, if you never go to China. If you go to China, maybe 5 years of intensive exposure - and you’ve never done that with math - imagine that level of exposure to math, what kind of fluency you would have at the other end of that pipeline. So at least give yourself the opportunity that any person learning a foreign language would give themselves before you turn around and say you’re not good at math.”

…audience applauds and cheers…

Brian Greene: [addressing Neil deGrasse Tyson] “The question that comes to mind for me is, how do you know that math is the language of the universe?”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The universe told me.”…

Bill Nye: “It’s a first approximation”…

Brian Greene: “I was wondering, I have a question about this, could you imagine that one day far into the future we encounter some alien civilization and they say, ‘hey, show us what you’ve done to understand the universe’, and we bring out our math books with all our theorems in physics and they turn to us and say, ‘Math! We tried that, it takes you just so far! And the real way to do it is like this!’

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I would say, that whatever that real way is it’s not manifest to us at this moment, and until that day happens where an alien tells us how backwards we are, all I can say is that the math that we did invent out of our human brain - as you [pointing to Brian Greene] surely know Eugene Wigner said the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the universe - the fact that it works at all is sufficient enough for me.”

…a little chaos ensues…

Lawrence Krauss: “I want to go on record, and this is a momentous occasion, I want to go on record as agreeing with Brian. In a sense that it is fascinating if you’re a theoretical physicist to wonder when you find something fascinating - some mathematical formula that’s fascinating - whether it’s a property of our brains or whether it’s a property of the universe, and we just don’t know I think is the answer….”

Brian Greene: “Right, but let me answer your question. I find it slightly confusing because, Neil, you describe math as something that we create, so why is it the thing that we create is somehow intrinsic to the universe?...”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I don’t lose sleep over that, I celebrate it.”

Brian Greene: “It’s a good thing, I celebrate it too.”

Lawrence Krauss: “But it is the question, there may be limitations of our understanding of the universe because of the way our brains work…”

Neil deGrasse Tyson: “That’s surely the case. That’s surely the case.”…

Lawrence Krauss: “But seriously that’s an interesting question and we really have to wonder about that, and again, as some of us are on the forefront of physics, you wonder at some point when it’s going to end.”…

Bill Nye: “But, to the questioner’s question, I wouldn’t worry about the possibility that mathematics is going to turn out to be ineffective in describing the universe and use that as a reason to not keep practicing. Press on.”

…audience applauds and cheers…
The above dialogue and more takes place in the first few minutes of the following video embedded below.

Q&A Segment - The Great Debate: THE STORYTELLING OF SCIENCE (Part 2/2)



Part one of ‘The Storytelling of Science’ follows and is well worth the watch as well.

The Great Debate: THE STORYTELLING OF SCIENCE (Part 1/2)

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