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Leonard Susskind

     ... physicist. In The Cosmic Landscape:  String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design, Dr. Susskind offers non-specialists access to ideas he (and, independently, two others) discovered in 1969. Dr. Susskind's further contributions to theoretical physics span over 40 years, from quantum optics, elementary-particle physics, condensed-matter physics and cosmology to gravitation, from quark confinement to baryogenesis, and from the Principle of Black Hole Complementarity to the Holographic Principle. Before studying engineering at City College of New York and earning his PhD at Cornell, he was a plumber and steam fitter in his native South Bronx. Since 1978, he has been Professor of Physics at Stanford.


Science is full of controversy and full of excitement, according to physicist Leonard Susskind. All of his life, Dr. Susskind has partaken in full measure of both.  He is considered one of the fathers of "string theory" and the originator of the "halographic principle." And after decades of professional disagreement, he has finally found something on which he can agree with Stephen Hawking.

Presently, Dr. Susskind says, there is a great, contentious debate about the nature of the universe. How big is it? How diverse? How different is it in different places or is it all the same everywhere? Are the laws of physics different in some places than in others? String theory, he says, begins to have answers to these questions, answers which sometimes string theorists themselves don't like.

For historical and linguistic reasons, Dr. Susskind chooses to use a term other physicists have used to express themselves even though that term is too often misunderstood -- the "anthropic principle." He is, Dr. Susskind makes perfectly clear, definitely not talking about the religious version of this term (that somehow an intelligent designer designed the universe so we could be here.) In fact, he says, that religious idea is exactly the opposite of the view toward which physics is moving.

Instead, anthropic ideas suggest a way of thinking about physics, about constraints, about what the "right" kind of theory is. What IS "right"? Dr. Susskind proposes that it is theory that permits enormous diversity. He also reminds us that "theory" in science is a very finely-tuned, specific concept that has little or nothing in common with the everyday dismissive use of the word, a connotation that has no place in a scientific discussion.

In light of the fact that the universe has proven to be very, very big, Dr. Susskind eagerly gets down to a bare-bones scientific question: Is the universe all homogeneous and the same everywhere, or is it a kind of patchwork quilt? This, he says, seems to be a real question. While it's one for which at the moment we have no proof one way or the other, he is confident that things are leaning toward the idea that the universe is varied from place to place.  

Here's where "excitement" comes in. When the Large Hadron Collider comes on-stream in the mid-decade, Dr. Susskind is confident of major steps. Physicists and cosmologists have different theories with which, as he puts it, they put 2 and 2 together and see a pattern. But since nobody's really sure of their answers, everybody's waiting for the experimental evidence the Collider will provide. Sitting on the edges of their seats. Jumping up and down!

For now, physicists can only write equations about alternate universes. The real data gleaned from genuine experiments performed in a big laboratory with a big accelerator will be about particle physics. As Dr. Susskind puts it, we can expect the exciting new information to tell us more about our own little region of the cosmic landscape.

[This Program was recorded February 17, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Science is always full of controversy, Dr. Leonard Susskind tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. He calls Stephen Hawking heroic, both for his brilliant questions and his willingness to say he was wrong.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:34

Conversation 2

Comparing cosmologists and physicists, Dr. Susskind explains how string theory helped bring the two subjects together to answer questions generating great, contentious debate about the nature of the universe.  Exploring the Anthropic Principle, Dr. Susskind describes one version -- to which he does not subscribe -- in which an intelligent designer is involved, then moves on to other, scientific, perspectives. Multiverses and megaverses and black holes are considered.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:31

Conversation 3

Dr. Susskind uses the cartoons of Rube Goldberg in considering if the universe is elegant. Offering analogies to evolutionary biology, Dr. Susskind reminds us what Einstein taught us about time and puts that concept to work. Confident that anthropic ideas are not tautologies and do suggest a way to think, Dr. Susskind uses a bare-bones scientific question to suggest why the right kind of theory should permit diversity. People are totally accidental, he insists, but it is not an accident that we live in a place that we can live, calling on historical and linguistic reasons to explain why he uses "anthropic."

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:11

Conversation 4

Ms. Ryan speaks to the consequences of policies which permit the documented murders committed by "Other Government Agencies" (the CIA) and the subsequent failure of various U.S. agencies. She describes the Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum and how it has brought Human Rights Defenders together with high-ranking elected and Very big questions are the domain of string theory, Dr. Susskind says and summarizes them. He addresses "dark energy," then puts inconceivably big numbers and uncertainty to work, together. Biologists actually have to contend with even larger numbers than physicists do he points out and amplifies. He describes what he believes are limits in this patch of the universe, guessing that life is rather rare, points out where he and Steven Hawking agree, and explains how scientists eventually shake "truth" out from cultural and linguistic constraints. figures in Washington, D.C. She presents "dialogue" as an antidote to both entrenched "group-think" and aggressive ideologies.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:12

Conversation 5

Because Americans are responsible for governing themselves, the information generated by human rights advocates -- not an elite's ideology -- is key to guiding good decisions. Ms. Ryan addresses what's wrong with today's governmental processes that encourage "group-think," regardless of party affiliation, at the expense of the fresh air offered by those with moral influence. It's time for the kind of humility that can make a nation truly great, she says.  The idea of "group-think" is expanded to include the mediaScientific evidence is always circumstantial, Dr. Susskind insists, using examples from biology and physics. He contrasts how scientists and the general public use the word "theory." He shows how the very, very small and the very, very large are related, then offers a number of reasons why. Evolution itself could be different in different regions of the universe, he says, and expands. He gives examples of alternatives to the anthropic principle and outlines why there is a tremendous sense of excitement in contemporary science.

Conversation 6

Anything that starts you thinking is likely to go somewhere, Dr. Susskind says, if you yourself are open to new ideas. He gives examples of what he believes we will learn from the Large Hadron Collider in the very near future, plus his hopes for confirming string theory.


Dr. Susskind is as charming as he is intelligent and we thank him for bringing both stellar qualities to this Conversation.

Related Links:

The Cosmic Landscape is published by Little Brown.

Alan Guth is one of the creators of inflation theory which connects the initial "big bang" to the universe as we see it today.  He tells the story of his discovery in The Inflationary Universe.

Brian Greene is a physicist who studies string theory and teaches at Columbia University.  He is the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Frederick Ferré is a philosopher  whose work is intentionally consistent with an evolving universe.  He is the author of a trilogy summarizing western philosophy and offering his own extensions consistent with what we now know about the universe and about the human role in it:  Being and Value (on metaphysics), Knowing and Value (on epistemology), and Living and Value (on ethics).

The late Danish physicist Per Bak was a condensed matter physicist whose work addressed with many of the issues raised in Dr. Susskind's research and thinking.

Poet Kurt Brown has edited two works "The Measured Word: On Poetry and Science and Verse & Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics" which explore the relationships between science-and-math and art.

Biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that, if humans are to continue to flourish on this planet, a hundred and fifty thousand years (±) of adolescence is enough and that it's time for us to "grow up" as a species.

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