The following is a conversation with Sean Carroll, Part 2, the second time we’ve spoken
on the podcast.
You can get the link to the first time in the description.
This time we focus on quantum mechanics and the many worlds interpretation that he details
elegantly in his new book titled Something Deeply Hidden.
I own and enjoy both the eBook and audiobook versions of it.
Listening to Sean read about entanglement, complementarity, and the emergence of space
time reminds me of Bob Ross teaching the world how to paint on his old television show.
If you don’t know who Bob Ross is, you’re truly missing out.
Look him up.
He’ll make you fall in love with painting.
Sean Carroll is the Bob Ross of theoretical physics.
He’s the author of several popular books, a host of a great podcast called Mindscape,
and is a theoretical physicist at Caltech and the Santa Fe Institute, specializing in
quantum mechanics, arrow of time, cosmology, and gravitation.
This is the Artificial Intelligence Podcast.
If you enjoy it, subscribe on YouTube, give it five stars on iTunes, support it on Patreon,
or simply connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman, spelled F R I D M A N.
And now here’s my conversation with Sean Carroll.
Isaac Newton developed what we now call classical mechanics that you describe very nicely in
your new book, as you do with a lot of basic concepts in physics.
So with classical mechanics, I can throw a rock and can predict the trajectory of that
But if we could put ourselves back into Newton’s time, his theories work to predict things,
but as I understand, he himself thought that they were, their interpretations of those
predictions were absurd.
Perhaps he just said it for religious reasons and so on, but in particular, sort of a world
of interaction without contact, so action at a distance.
It didn’t make sense to him on a sort of a human interpretation level.
Does it make sense to you that things can affect other things at a distance?
It does, but that was one of Newton’s worries.
You’re actually right in a slightly different way about the religious worries.
He was smart enough, this is off the topic but still fascinating, Newton almost invented
chaos theory as soon as he invented classical mechanics.
He realized that in the solar system, so he was able to explain how planets move around
the Sun, but typically you would describe the orbit of the Earth ignoring the effects
of Jupiter and Saturn and so forth, just doing the Earth and the Sun.
He kind of knew, even though he couldn’t do the math, that if you included the effects
of Jupiter and Saturn and the other planets, the solar system would be unstable, like the
orbits of the planets would get out of whack.
So he thought that God would intervene occasionally to sort of move the planets back into orbit,
which is the only way you could explain how they were there presumably forever.
But the worries about classical mechanics were a little bit different, the worry about
gravity in particular.
It wasn’t a worry about classical mechanics, it was a worry about gravity.
How in the world does the Earth know that there’s something called the Sun, 93 million
miles away, that is exerting gravitational force on it?
And he literally said, you know, I leave that for future generations to think about because
I don’t know what the answer is.
And in fact, people under emphasized this, but future generations figured it out.
Pierre Simone Laplace in circa 1800 showed that you could rewrite Newtonian gravity as
a field theory.
So instead of just talking about the force due to gravity, you can talk about the gravitational
field or the gravitational potential field, and then there’s no action at a distance.
It’s exactly the same theory empirically, it makes exactly the same predictions.
But what’s happening is instead of the Sun just reaching out across the void, there is
a gravitational field in between the Sun and the Earth that obeys an equation, Laplace’s
equation, cleverly enough, and that tells us exactly what the field does.
So even in Newtonian gravity, you don’t need action at a distance.
Now what many people say is that Einstein solved this problem because he invented general
And in general relativity, there’s certainly a field in between the Earth and the Sun.
But also there’s the speed of light as a limit.
In Laplace’s theory, which was exactly Newton’s theory, just in a different mathematical language,
there could still be instantaneous action across the universe, whereas in general relativity,
if you shake something here, its gravitational impulse radiates out at the speed of light
and we call that a gravitational wave and we can detect those.
So but I really, it rubs me the wrong way to think that we should presume the answer
should look one way or the other.
Like if it turned out that there was action at a distance in physics and that was the
best way to describe things, then I would do it that way.
It’s actually a very deep question because when we don’t know what the right laws of
physics are, when we’re guessing at them, when we’re hypothesizing at what they might
be, we are often guided by our intuitions about what they should be.
I mean, Einstein famously was very guided by his intuitions and he did not like the
idea of action at a distance.
We don’t know whether he was right or not.
It depends on your interpretation of quantum mechanics and it depends on even how you talk
about quantum mechanics within any one interpretation.
So if you see every force as a field or any other interpretation of action at a distance,
just stepping back to sort of caveman thinking, like do you really, can you really sort of
understand what it means for a force to be a field that’s everywhere?
So if you look at gravity, like what do you think about?
I think so.
Is this something that you’ve been conditioned by society to think that, to map the fact
that science is extremely well predictive of something to believing that you actually
Like you can intuitively, the degree that human beings can understand anything that
you actually understand it.
Or are you just trusting the beauty and the power of the predictive power of science?
That depends on what you mean by this idea of truly understanding something, right?
You know, I mean, can I truly understand Fermat’s last theorem?
You know, it’s easy to state it, but do I really appreciate what it means for incredibly
large numbers, right?
I think yes, I think I do understand it, but like if you want to just push people on well,
but your intuition doesn’t go to the places where Andrew Wiles needed to go to prove Fermat’s
last theorem, then I can say fine, but I still think I understand the theorem.
And likewise, I think that I do have a pretty good intuitive understanding of fields pervading
space time, whether it’s the gravitational field or the electromagnetic field or whatever,
the Higgs field.
Of course, one’s intuition gets worse and worse as you get trickier in the quantum field
theory and all sorts of new phenomena that come up in quantum field theory.
So our intuitions aren’t perfect, but I think it’s also okay to say that our intuitions
get trained, right?
Like, you know, I have different intuitions now than I had when I was a baby.
That’s not, an intuition is not necessarily intrinsic to who we are.
We can train it a little bit.
So that’s where I’m going to bring in Noam Chomsky for a second, who thinks that our
cognitive abilities are sort of evolved through time, and so they’re biologically constrained.
And so there’s a clear limit, as he puts it, to our cognitive abilities, and it’s a very
But you actually kind of said something interesting in nature versus nurture thing here, is we
can train our intuitions to sort of build up the cognitive muscles to be able to understand
some of these tricky concepts.
So do you think there’s limits to our understanding that’s deeply rooted, hardcoded into our biology
that we can’t overcome?
There could be limits to things like our ability to visualize, okay?
But when someone like Ed Witten proves a theorem about, you know, 100 dimensional mathematical
spaces, he’s not visualizing it.
He’s doing the math.
That doesn’t stop him from understanding the result.
I think, and I would love to understand this better, but my rough feeling, which is not
very educated, is that, you know, there’s some threshold that one crosses in abstraction
when one becomes kind of like a Turing machine, right?
One has the ability to contain in one’s brain logical, formal, symbolic structures and manipulate
And that’s a leap that we can make as human beings that dogs and cats haven’t made.
And once you get there, I’m not sure that there are any limits to our ability to understand
the scientific world at all.
Maybe there are.
There’s certainly limits in our ability to calculate things, right?
You know, people are not very good at taking cube roots of million digit numbers in their
But that’s not an element of understanding.
It’s certainly not a limit in principle.
So of course, as a human, you would say there doesn’t feel to be limits to our understanding.
But sort of, have you thought that the universe is actually a lot simpler than it appears
And we just will never be able to, like, it’s outside of our, okay.
So us, our cognitive abilities combined with our mathematical prowess and whatever kind
of experimental simulation devices we can put together, is there limits to that?
Is it possible there’s limits to that?
Well, of course it’s possible that there are limits to that.
Is there any good reason to think that we’re anywhere close to the limits is a harder question.
Look, imagine asking this question 500 years ago to the world’s greatest thinkers, right?
Like are we approaching the limits of our ability to understand the natural world?
And by definition, there are questions about the natural world that are most interesting
to us that are the ones we don’t quite yet understand, right?
So there’s always, we’re always faced with these puzzles we don’t yet know.
And I don’t know what they would have said 500 years ago, but they didn’t even know about
classical mechanics, much less quantum mechanics.
So we know that they were nowhere close to how well they could do, right?
They could do enormously better than they were doing at the time.
I see no reason why the same thing isn’t true for us today.
So of all the worries that keep me awake at night, the human mind’s inability to rationally
comprehend the world is low on the list.
So one interesting philosophical point that quantum mechanics bring up is the, that you
talk about the distinction between the world as it is and the world as we observe it.
So staying at the human level for a second, how big is the gap between what our perception
system allows us to see and the world as it is outside our mind’s eye sort of, sort of
not at the quantum mechanical level, but as just our, these particular tools we have,
which is the few senses and cognitive abilities to process those senses.
Well, that last phrase, having the cognitive abilities to process them carries a lot, right?
I mean, there is our sort of intuitive understanding of the world.
You don’t need to teach people about gravity for them to know that apples fall from trees,
That’s something that we figure out pretty quickly.
Project permanence, things like that, the three dimensionality of space, even if we
don’t have the mathematical language to say that, we kind of know that it’s true.
On the other hand, no one opens their eyes and sees atoms, right?
Or molecules or cells for that matter, forget about quantum mechanics.
So but we got there, we got to understanding that there are atoms and cells using the combination
of our senses and our cognitive capacities.
So adding the ability of our cognitive capacities to our senses is adding an enormous amount
and I don’t think it is a hard and fast boundary.
You know, if you believe in cells, if you believe that we understand those, then there’s
no reason you believe we can’t believe in quantum mechanics just as well.
What to you is the most beautiful idea in physics?
Conservation of momentum.
Can you elaborate?
So if you were Aristotle, when Aristotle wrote his book on physics, he made the following
very obvious point.
We’re on video here, right?
So people can see this.
So if I push the bottle, let me cover this bottle so we do not have a mess, but okay.
So I push the bottle, it moves, and if I stop pushing, it stops moving.
And this kind of thing is repeated a large number of times all over the place.
If you don’t keep pushing things, they stop moving.
This is an indisputably true fact about our everyday environment, okay?
And for Aristotle, this blew up into a whole picture of the world in which things had natures
and teleologies, and they had places they wanted to be, and when you were pushing them,
you were moving them away from where they wanted to be, and they would return and stuff
And it took a thousand years or 1500 years for people to say, actually, if it weren’t
for things like dissipation and air resistance and friction and so forth, the natural thing
is for things to move forever in a straight line, there’s a constant velocity, right?
Conservation of momentum.
And the reason why I think that’s the most beautiful idea in physics is because it shifts
us from a view of natures and teleology to a view of patterns in the world.
So when you were Aristotle, you needed to talk a vocabulary of why is this happening,
what’s the purpose of it, what’s the cause, etc., because, you know, it’s nature does
or does not want to do that, whereas once you believe in conservation of momentum, things
They just follow the pattern.
You give me, you have Laplace’s demon, ultimately, right?
You give me the state of the world today, I can predict what it’s going to do in the
future, I can predict where it was in the past.
It’s impersonal, and it’s also instantaneous.
It’s not directed toward any future goals, it’s just doing what it does given the current
state of the universe.
I think even more than either classical mechanics or quantum mechanics, that is the profound
deep insight that gets modern science off the ground.
You don’t need natures and purposes and goals, you just need some patterns.
So it’s the first moment in our understanding of the way the universe works where you branch
from the intuitive physical space to kind of the space of ideas.
And also the other point you said, which is, conveniently, most of the interesting ideas
are acting in the moment.
You don’t need to know the history of time or the future.
And of course, this took a long time to get there, right?
I mean, the conservation of momentum itself took hundreds of years.
It’s weird, because like, someone would say something interesting, and then the next interesting
thing would be said like 150 or 200 years later, right?
They weren’t even talking to each other, they were reading each other’s books.
And probably the first person to directly say that in outer space, in the vacuum, a
projectile would move at a constant velocity was Avicenna, Ibn Sina in the Persian Golden
Age, circa 1000.
And he didn’t like the idea.
He used that, just like Schrodinger used Schrodinger’s cat to say, surely you don’t believe that,
Ibn Sina was saying, surely you don’t believe there really is a vacuum, because if there
was a really vacuum, things could keep moving forever, right?
But still, he got right the idea that there was this conservation of something impetus
or mile, he would call it.
And that’s 500 years, 600 years before classical mechanics and Isaac Newton.
So Galileo played a big role in this, but he didn’t exactly get it right.
And so it just takes a long time for this to sink in, because it is so against our everyday
Do you think it was a big leap, a brave or a difficult leap of sort of math and science
to be able to say that momentum is conserved?
You know, I think it’s an example of human reason in action.
You know, even Aristotle knew that his theory had issues, because you could fire an arrow
and it would go a long way before it stopped.
So if his theory was things just automatically stop, what’s going on?
And he had this elaborate story.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the story, but the arrow would push the air in front of it
away and the molecules of air would run around to the back of the arrow and push it again.
And anyone reading this is going like, really, that’s what you thought?
But it was that kind of thought experiment that ultimately got people to say like, actually,
no, if it weren’t for the air molecules at all, the arrow would just go on by itself.
And it’s always this give and take between thought and experience, back and forth, right?
Theory and experiment, we would say today.
Another big question that I think comes up, certainly with quantum mechanics, is what’s
the difference between math and physics to you?
To me, you know, very, very roughly, math is about the logical structure of all possible
worlds and physics is about our actual world.
And it just feels like our actual world is a gray area when you start talking about interpretations
of quantum mechanics, or no?
I’m certainly using the word world in the broadest sense, all of reality.
So I think that reality is specific.
I don’t think that there’s every possible thing going on in reality.
I think that there are rules, whether it’s the Schrodinger equation or whatever.
So I think that there’s a sensible notion of the set of all possible worlds and we live
in one of them.
The world that we’re talking about might be a multiverse, might be many worlds of quantum
mechanics, might be much bigger than the world of our everyday experience, but it’s still
one physically contiguous world in some sense.
But so if you look at the overlap of math and physics, it feels like when physics tries
to reach for understanding of our world, it uses the tools of math to sort of reach beyond
the limit of our current understanding.
What do you make of that process of sort of using math to, so you start maybe with intuition
or you might start with the math and then build up an intuition or, but this kind of
reaching into the darkness, into the mystery of the world with math.
Well, I think I would put it a little bit differently.
I think we have theories, theories of the physical world, which we then extrapolate
and ask, you know, what do we conclude if we take these seriously well beyond where
we’ve actually tested them?
It is separately true that math is really, really useful when we construct physical theories
and you know, famously Eugene Wigner asked about the unreasonable success of mathematics
I think that’s a little bit wrong because anything that could happen, any other theory
of physics that wasn’t the real world, but some other world, you could always describe
It’s just that it might be a mess.
The surprising thing is not that math works, but that the math is so simple and easy that
you can write it down on a t shirt, right?
I mean, that’s what is amazing.
That’s an enormous compression of information that seems to be valid in the real world.
So that’s an interesting fact about our world, which maybe we could hope to explain or just
take as a brute fact.
I don’t know.
But once you have that, you know, there’s this indelible relationship between math and
physics, but philosophically I do want to separate them.
What we extrapolate, we don’t extrapolate math because there’s a whole bunch of wrong
math, you know, that doesn’t apply to our world, right?
We extrapolate the physical theory that we best think explains our world.
Again, an unanswerable question.
Why do you think our world is so easily compressible into beautiful equations?
I mean, like I just hinted at, I don’t know if there’s an answer to that question.
There could be.
What would an answer look like?
Well, an answer could look like if you showed that there was something about our world that
You know, the mean of the simplicity and the powerfulness of the laws of physics or, you
know, maybe we’re just generic.
Maybe in the set of all possible worlds, this is what the world would look like, right?
Like I don’t really know.
I tend to think not.
I tend to think that there is something specific and rock bottom about the facts of our world
that don’t have further explanation.
Like the fact of the world exists at all.
And furthermore, the specific laws of physics that we have.
I think that in some sense, we’re just going to, at some level, we’re going to say, and
that’s how it is.
And, you know, we can’t explain anything more.
I don’t know how, if we’re anywhere close to that right now, but that seems plausible
And speaking of rock bottom, one of the things sort of your book kind of reminded me or revealed
to me is that what’s fundamental and what’s emergent, it just feels like I don’t even
know anymore what’s fundamental in physics, if there’s anything.
It feels like everything, especially with quantum mechanics, is revealing to us is that
most interesting things that I would, as a limited human would think are fundamental
can actually be explained as emergent from the more deeper laws.
I mean, we don’t know, of course.
You had to get that on the table.
We don’t know what is fundamental.
We do have reasons to say that certain things are more fundamental than others, right?
Atoms and molecules are more fundamental than cells and organs.
Quantum fields are more fundamental than atoms and molecules.
We don’t know if that ever bottoms out.
I do think that there’s sensible ways to think about this.
If you describe something like this table as a table, it has a height and a width and
it’s made of a certain material and it has a certain solidity and weight and so forth.
That’s a very useful description as far as it goes.
There’s a whole other description of this table in terms of a whole collection of atoms
strung together in certain ways.
The language of the atoms is more comprehensive than the language of the table.
You could break apart the table, smash it to pieces, still talk about it as atoms, but
you could no longer talk about it as a table, right?
So I think that this comprehensiveness, the domain of validity of a theory gets broader
and broader as the theory gets more and more fundamental.
So what do you think Newton would say?
Maybe right in the book review, if you read your latest book on quantum mechanics, something
It would take a long time for him to think that any of this was making any sense.
You catch him up pretty quick in the beginning.
You give him a shout out in the beginning.
He is the man.
I’m happy to say that Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived.
He invented calculus in his spare time, which would have made him the greatest mathematician
just all by himself, all by that one thing.
But of course, it’s funny because Newton was in some sense still a pre modern thinker.
Rocky Kolb, who is a cosmologist at the University of Chicago said that Galileo, even though
he came before Newton, was a more modern thinker than Newton was.
If you got Galileo and brought him to the present day, it would take him six months
to catch up and then he’d be in your office telling you why your most recent paper was
Whereas Newton just thought in this kind of more mystical way.
He wrote a lot more about the Bible and alchemy than he ever did about physics, but he was
also more brilliant than anybody else and way more mathematically astute than Galileo.
So I really don’t know.
He might have, he might just, yeah, say like, give me the textbooks, leave me alone for
a few months and then be caught up.
But he might have had mental blocks against seeing the world in this way.
I really don’t know.
Or perhaps find an interesting mystical interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Is there any other scientists or philosophers through history that you would like to know
their opinion of your book?
That’s a, that’s a good question.
I mean, Einstein is the obvious one, right?
We all, I mean, he was not that long ago, but I even speculated at the end of my book
about what his opinion would be.
I am curious as to, you know, what about older philosophers like Hume or Kant, right?
Like what would they have thought?
Or Aristotle, you know, what would they have thought about modern physics?
Because they do in philosophy, your predilections end up playing a much bigger role in your
ultimate conclusions because you’re not as tied down by what the data is in physics.
You know, physics is lucky because we can’t stray too far off the reservation as long
as we’re trying to explain the world that we actually see in our telescopes and microscopes.
But it’s just not fair to play that game because the people we’re thinking about didn’t know
a whole bunch of things that we know, right?
Like we lived through a lot that they didn’t live through.
So by the time we got them caught up, they’d be different people.
So let me ask a bunch of basic questions.
I think it would be interesting, useful for people who are not familiar, but even for
people who are extremely well familiar.
Let’s start with what is quantum mechanics?
Quantum mechanics is the paradigm of physics that came into being in the early part of
the 20th century that replaced classical mechanics, and it replaced classical mechanics in a weird
way that we’re still coming to terms with.
So in classical mechanics, you have an object, it has a location, it has a velocity, and
if you know the location and velocity of everything in the world, you can say what everything’s
going to do.
Quantum mechanics has an aspect of it that is kind of on the same lines.
There’s something called the quantum state or the wave function.
And there’s an equation governing what the quantum state does.
So it’s very much like classical mechanics.
The wave function is different.
It’s sort of a wave.
It’s a vector in a huge dimensional vector space rather than a position and a velocity,
but okay, that’s a detail.
The equation is the Schrodinger equation, not Newton’s laws, but okay, again, a detail.
Where quantum mechanics really becomes weird and different is that there’s a whole other
set of rules in our textbook formulation of quantum mechanics in addition to saying that
there’s a quantum state and it evolves in time.
And all these new rules have to do with what happens when you look at the system, when
you observe it, when you measure it.
In classical mechanics, there were no rules about observing.
You just look at it and you see what’s going on.
That was it, right?
In quantum mechanics, the way we teach it, there’s something profoundly fundamental about
the act of measurement or observation, and the system dramatically changes its state.
Even though it has a wave function, like the electron in an atom is not orbiting in a circle,
it’s sort of spread out in a cloud, when you look at it, you don’t see that cloud.
When you look at it, it looks like a particle with a location.
So it dramatically changes its state right away, and the effects of that change can be
instantly seen in what the electron does next.
So again, we need to be careful because we don’t agree on what quantum mechanics says.
That’s why I need to say like in the textbook view, et cetera, right?
But in the textbook view, quantum mechanics, unlike any other theory of physics, gives
a fundamental role to the act of measurement.
So maybe even more basic, what is an atom and what is an electron?
This all came together in a few years around the turn of the last century, right?
Around the year 1900.
Atoms predated then, of course, the word atom goes back to the ancient Greeks, but it was
the chemists in the 1800s that really first got experimental evidence for atoms.
They realized that there were two different types of tin oxide.
And in these two different types of tin oxide, there was exactly twice as much oxygen in
one type as the other.
And like, why is that?
Why is it never 1.5 times as much, right?
And so Dalton said, well, it’s because there are tin atoms and oxygen atoms, and one form
of tin oxide is one atom of tin and one atom of oxygen, and the other is one atom of tin
and two atoms of oxygen.
And on the basis of this, you know, a speculation, a theory, right, a hypothesis, but then on
the basis of that, you make other predictions, and the chemists became quickly convinced
that atoms were real.
The physicists took a lot longer to catch on, but eventually they did.
And I mean, Boltzmann, who believed in atoms, had a really tough time his whole life because
he worked in Germany where atoms were not popular.
They were popular in England, but not in Germany.
And there, in general, the idea of atoms is, it’s the most, the smallest building block
of the universe for them.
That’s the kind of how they thought it was.
That was the Greek idea, but the chemists in the 1800s jumped the gun a little bit.
So these days, an atom is the smallest building block of a chemical element, right?
Hydrogen, tin, oxygen, carbon, whatever, but we know that atoms can be broken up further
That’s what physicists discovered in the early 1900s, Rutherford, especially, and his colleagues.
So the atom that we think about now, the cartoon, is that picture you’ve always seen of a little
nucleus and then electrons orbiting it like a little solar system.
And we now know the nucleus is made of protons and neutrons.
So the weight of the atom, the mass, is almost all in its nucleus.
Protons and neutrons are something like 1800 times as heavy as electrons are.
Protons are much lighter, but because they’re lighter, they give all the life to the atoms.
So when atoms get together, combine chemically, when electricity flows through a system, it’s
all the electrons that are doing all the work.
And where quantum mechanics steps in, as you mentioned, with the position of velocity with
classical mechanics and quantum mechanics is modeling the behavior of the electron.
I mean, you can model the behavior of anything, but the electron, because that’s where the
The electron was the biggest challenge right from the start.
So what’s a wave function?
You said it’s an interesting detail, but in any interpretation, what is the wave function
in quantum mechanics?
Well, you know, we had this idea from Rutherford that atoms look like little solar systems,
but people very quickly realize that can’t possibly be right because if an electron is
orbiting in a circle, it will give off light.
All the light that we have in this room comes from electrons zooming up and down and wiggling.
That’s what electromagnetic waves are.
And you can calculate how long would it take for the electron just to spiral into the nucleus?
And the answer is 10 to the minus 11 seconds, okay, 100 billionth of a second.
So that’s not right.
Meanwhile, people had realized that light, which we understood from the 1800s was a wave,
had properties that were similar to that of particles, right?
This is Einstein and Planck and stuff like that.
So if something that we agree was a wave had particle like properties, then maybe something
we think is a particle, the electron has wave like properties, right?
And so a bunch of people eventually came to the conclusion, don’t think about the electron
as a little point particle orbiting like a solar system.
Think of it as a wave that is spread out.
They cleverly gave this the name the wave function, which is the dopiest name in the
world for one of the most profound things in the universe.
There’s literally a number at every point in space, which is the value of the electron’s
wave function at that point.
And there’s only one wave function.
Yeah, they eventually figured that out.
That took longer.
But when you have two electrons, you do not have a wave function for electron one and
a wave function for electron two.
You have one combined wave function for both of them.
And indeed, as you say, there’s only one wave function for the entire universe at once.
And that’s where this beautiful dance, can you say what is entanglement?
It seems one of the most fundamental ideas of quantum mechanics.
Well, let’s temporarily buy into the textbook interpretation of quantum mechanics.
And what that says is that this wave function, so it’s very small outside the atom, very
big in the atom, basically the wave function, you take it and you square it, you square
the number that gives you the probability of observing the system at that location.
So if you say that for two electrons, there’s only one wave function, and that wave function
gives you the probability of observing both electrons at once doing something, okay?
So maybe the electron can be here or here, here, here, and the other electron can also
But we have a wave function set up where we don’t know where either electron is going
to be seen.
But we know they’ll both be seen in the same place, okay?
So we don’t know exactly what we’re going to see for either electron, but there’s entanglement
between the two of them.
There’s a sort of conditional statement.
If we see one in one location, then we know the other one’s going to be doing a certain
So that’s a feature of quantum mechanics that is nowhere to be found in classical mechanics.
In classical mechanics, there’s no way I can say, well, I don’t know where either one of
these particles is, but if I know, if I find out where this one is, then I know where the
other one is.
That just never happens.
They’re truly separate.
I don’t know, it feels like, if you think of a wave function like as a dance floor,
it seems like entanglement is strongest between things that are dancing together closest.
So there’s a closeness that’s important.
Well, that’s another step.
We have to be careful here because in principle, if you’re talking about the entanglement of
two electrons, for example, they can be totally entangled or totally unentangled no matter
where they are in the universe.
There’s no relationship between the amount of entanglement and the distance between two
But we now know that the reality of our best way of understanding the world is through
quantum fields, not through particles.
So even the electron, not just gravity and electromagnetism, but even the electron and
the quarks and so forth are really vibrations in quantum fields.
So even empty space is full of vibrating quantum fields.
And those quantum fields in empty space are entangled with each other in exactly the way
you just said.
If they’re nearby, if you have like two vibrating quantum fields that are nearby, then they’ll
be highly entangled.
If they’re far away, they will not be entangled.
So what do quantum fields in a vacuum look like?
Just like empty space.
It’s as empty as it can be.
But there’s still a field.
It’s just, what does nothing look like?
Just like right here, this location in space, there’s a gravitational field, which I can
detect by dropping something.
I don’t see it, but there it is.
So we got a little bit of an idea of entanglement.
Now, what is Hilbert space and Euclidean space?
Yeah, you know, I think that people are very welcome to go through their lives not knowing
what Hilbert space is.
But if you dig into a little bit more into quantum mechanics, it becomes necessary.
You know, the English language was invented long before quantum mechanics, or various
forms of higher mathematics were invented.
So we use the word space to mean different things.
Of course, most of us think of space as this three dimensional world in which we live,
I mean, some of us just think of it as outer space.
Okay, but space around us gives us the three dimensional location of things and objects.
But mathematicians use any generic abstract collection of elements as a space, okay?
A space of possibilities, you know, momentum space, etc.
So Hilbert space is the space of all possible quantum wave functions, either for the universe
or for some specific system.
And it could be an infinite dimensional space, or it could be just really, really large dimensional
We don’t know because we don’t know the final theory of everything.
But this abstract Hilbert space is really, really, really big and has no immediate connection
to the three dimensional space in which we live.
What do dimensions in Hilbert space mean?
You know, it’s just a way of mathematically representing how much information is contained
in the state of the system.
How many numbers do you have to give me to specify what the thing is doing?
So in classical mechanics, I give you the location of something by giving you three
Up, down, left, X, Y, Z coordinates.
But then I might want to give you its entire state, physical state, which means both its
position and also its velocity.
The velocity also has three components.
So its state lives in something called phase space, which is six dimensional, three dimensions
of position, three dimensions of velocity.
And then if it also has an orientation in space, that’s another three dimensions and
So as you describe more and more information about the system, you have an abstract mathematical
space that has more and more numbers that you need to give.
And each one of those numbers corresponds to a dimension in that space.
So in terms of the amount of information, what is entropy?
This mystical word that’s overused in math and physics, but has a very specific meaning
in this context.
Sadly, it has more than one very specific meeting.
This is the reason why it is hard.
Entropy means different things even to different physicists.
But one way of thinking about it is a measure of how much we don’t know about the state
of a system.
So if I have a bottle of water molecules, and I know that, OK, there’s a certain number
of water molecules.
I could weigh it and figure out.
I know the volume of it, and I know the temperature and pressure and things like that.
I certainly don’t know the exact position and velocity of every water molecule.
So there’s a certain amount of information I know, a certain amount that I don’t know
that is part of the complete state of the system.
And that’s what the entropy characterizes, how much unknown information there is, the
difference between what I do know about the system and its full exact microscopic state.
So when we try to describe a quantum mechanical system, is it infinite or finite but very
Yeah, we don’t know.
That depends on the system.
You know, it’s easy to mathematically write down a system that would have a potentially
infinite entropy, an infinite dimensional Hilbert space.
So let’s go back a little bit.
We said that the Hilbert space was the space in which quantum wave functions lived for
different systems that will be different sizes.
They could be infinite or finite.
So that’s the number of numbers, the number of pieces of information you could potentially
give me about the system.
So the bigger Hilbert space is, the bigger the entropy of that system could be, depending
on what I know about it.
If I don’t know anything about it, then it has a huge entropy, right, but only up to
the size of its Hilbert space.
So we don’t know in the real physical world whether or not, you know, this region of space
that contains that water bottle has potentially an infinite entropy or just a finite entropy.
We have different arguments on different sides.
So if it’s infinite, how do you think about infinity?
Is this something you can, your cognitive abilities are able to process or is it just
a mathematical tool?
It’s somewhere in between, right?
I mean, we can say things about it.
We can use mathematical tools to manipulate infinity very, very accurately.
We can define what we mean.
You know, for any number n, there’s a number bigger than it.
So there’s no biggest number, right?
So there’s something called the total number of all numbers.
But it is hard to wrap your brain around that, and I think that gives people pause because
we talk about infinity as if it’s a number, but it has plenty of properties that real
numbers don’t have.
You know, if you multiply infinity by two, you get infinity again, right?
That’s a little bit different than what we’re used to.
But are you comfortable with the idea that in thinking of what the real world actually
is that infinity could be part of that world?
Are you comfortable that a world in some dimension, in some aspect?
I’m comfortable with lots of things.
I mean, you know, I don’t want my level of comfort to affect what I think about the world.
You know, I’m pretty open minded about what the world could be at the fundamental level.
Yeah, but infinity is a tricky one.
It’s not almost a question of comfort.
It’s a question of, is it an overreach of our intuition?
Sort of, it could be a convenient, almost like when you add a constant to an equation
just because it’ll help, it just feels like it’s useful to at least be able to imagine
a concept, not directly, but in some kind of way that this feels like it’s a description
of the real world.
Think of it this way.
There’s only three numbers that are simple.
There’s zero, there’s one, and there’s infinity.
A number like 318 is just bizarre.
You need a lot of bits to give me what that number is.
But zero and one and infinity, like once you have 300 things, you might as well have infinity
Otherwise, you have to say when to stop making the things, right?
So there’s a sense in which infinity is a very natural number of things to exist.
I was never comfortable with infinity because it’s just such a, it was too good to be true.
Because in math, it just helps make things work out.
When things get very large, close to infinity, things seem to work out nicely.
It’s kind of like, because my deepest passion is probably psychology.
And I’m uncomfortable how in the average, the beauty of how much we vary is lost.
In that same kind of sense, infinity seems like a convenient way to erase the details.
But the thing about infinity is it seems to pop up whether we like it or not, right?
Like you’re trying to be a computer scientist, you ask yourself, well, how long will it take
this program to run?
And you realize, well, for some of them, the answer is infinitely long.
It’s not because you tried to get there.
You wrote a five line computer program, it doesn’t halt.
So coming back to the textbook definition of quantum mechanics, this idea that I don’t
think we talked about, can you, this one of the most interesting philosophical points,
we talked at the human level, but at the physics level, that at least the textbook definition
of quantum mechanics separates what is observed and what is real.
One, how does that make you feel?
And two, what does it then mean to observe something and why is it different than what
Yeah, you know, my personal feeling, such as it is, is that things like measurement
and observers and stuff like that are not going to play a fundamental role in the ultimate
laws of physics.
But my feeling that way is because so far, that’s where all the evidence has been pointing.
I could be wrong.
And there’s certainly a sense in which it would be infinitely cool if somehow observation
or mental cogitation did play a fundamental role in the nature of reality.
But I don’t think so.
And again, I don’t see any evidence for it.
So I’m not spending a lot of time worrying about that possibility.
So what do you do about the fact that in the textbook interpretation of quantum mechanics,
this idea of measurement or looking at things seems to play an important role?
Well, you come up with better interpretations of quantum mechanics and there are several
My favorite is the many worlds interpretation, which says two things.
Number one, you, the observer, are just a quantum system like anything else.
There’s nothing special about you.
Don’t get so proud of yourself, you know, you’re just a bunch of atoms.
You have a wave function, you obey the Schrodinger equation like everything else.
And number two, when you think you’re measuring something or observing something, what’s really
happening is you’re becoming entangled with that thing.
So when you think there’s a wave function for the electron, it’s all spread out.
But you look at it and you only see it in one location.
What’s really happening is that there’s still the wave function for the electron in all
But now it’s entangled with the wave function of you in the following way.
There’s part of the wave function that says the electron was here and you think you saw
The electron was there and you think you saw it there.
The electron was over there and you think you saw it there, etc.
So in all of those different parts of the wave function, once they come into being,
no longer talk to each other.
They no longer interact or influence each other.
It’s as if they are separate worlds.
So this was the invention of Hugh Everett III, who was a graduate student at Princeton
in the 1950s.
And he said, basically, look, you don’t need all these extra rules about looking at things.
Just listen to what the Schrodinger equation is telling you.
It’s telling you that you have a wave function, that you become entangled, and that the different
versions of you no longer talk to each other.
So just accept it.
It’s just he did therapy more than anything else.
He said, like, it’s okay.
You don’t need all these extra rules.
All you need to do is believe the Schrodinger equation.
The cost is there’s a whole bunch of extra worlds out there.
So are the worlds being created whether there’s an observer or not?
The worlds are created any time a quantum system that’s in a superposition becomes entangled
with the outside world.
What’s the outside world?
Let’s back up.
Whatever it really says, what his theory is, is there’s a wave function of the universe
and it obeys the Schrodinger equation all the time.
That’s the full theory right there.
The question, all of the work is how in the world do you map that theory onto reality,
onto what we observe?
So part of it is carving up the wave function into these separate worlds, saying, look,
it describes a whole bunch of things that don’t interact with each other.
Let’s call them separate worlds.
Another part is distinguishing between systems and their environments.
The environment is basically all the degrees of freedom, all the things going on in the
world that you don’t keep track of.
So again, in the bottle of water, I might keep track of the total amount of water and
I don’t keep track of the individual positions and velocities.
I don’t keep track of all the photons or the air molecules in this room.
So that’s the outside world.
The outside world is all the parts of the universe that you’re not keeping track of
when you’re asking about the behavior of subsystem of it.
So how many worlds are there?
Yeah, we don’t know that one either.
There could be an infinite number.
There could be only a finite number, but it’s a big number one way or the other.
It’s just a very, very big number.
In one of the talks, somebody asked, well, if it’s finite.
So actually I’m not sure exactly the logic you used to derive this, but is there going
to be overlap, a duplicate world that you return to?
So you’ve mentioned, and I’d love if you can elaborate on sort of idea that it’s possible
that there’s some kind of equilibrium that these splitting worlds arrive at and then
maybe over time, maybe somehow connected to entropy, you get a large number of worlds
that are very similar to each other.
So this question of whether or not Hilbert space is finite or infinite dimensional is
actually secretly connected to gravity and cosmology.
This is the part that we’re still struggling to understand right now, but we discovered
back in 1998 that our universe is accelerating and what that means if it continues, which
we think it probably will, but we’re not sure.
But if it does, that means there’s a horizon around us.
Because the universe is not only expanding, but expanding faster and faster, things can
get so far away from us that from our perspective, it looks like they’re moving away faster in
the speed of light.
We will never see them again.
So there’s literally a horizon around us and that horizon approaches some fixed distance
away from us.
And you can then argue that within that horizon, there’s only a finite number of things that
can possibly happen, the finite dimensional Hilbert space.
In fact, we even have a guess for what the dimensionality is.
It’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 122.
That’s a very large number.
Just to compare, the age of the universe is something like 10 to the 14 seconds, 10 to
the 17 or 18 seconds maybe.
The number of particles in the universe is 10 to the 88th.
But the number of dimensions of Hilbert space is 10 to the 10 to the 122.
So that’s just crazy big.
If that story is right, that in our observable horizon, there’s only a finite dimensional
Hilbert space, then this idea of branching of the wave function of the universe into
multiple distinct separate branches has to reach a limit at some time.
Once you branch that many times, you’ve run out of room in Hilbert space.
And roughly speaking, that corresponds to the universe just expanding and emptying out
and cooling off and entering a phase where it’s just empty space, literally forever.
What’s the difference between splitting and copying, do you think?
In terms of, a lot of this is an interpretation that helps us sort of model the world.
So perhaps shouldn’t be thought of as like, you know, philosophically or metaphysically.
But in even at the physics level, do you see a difference between generating new copies
of the world or splitting?
I think it’s better to think of in quantum mechanics in many worlds, the universe splits
rather than new copies, because people otherwise worry about things like energy conservation.
And no one who understands quantum mechanics worries about energy conservation, because
the equation is perfectly clear.
But if all you know is that someone told you the universe duplicates, then you have a reasonable
worry about where all the energy for that came from.
So a pre existing universe splitting into two skinnier universes is a better way of
thinking about it.
And mathematically, it’s just like, you know, if you draw an x and y axis, and you draw
a vector of length one, 45 degree angle, you know that you can write that vector of length
one as the sum of two vectors pointing along x and y of length one over the square root
Okay, so I write one arrow as the sum of two arrows.
But there’s a conservation of arrowness, right?
Like there’s now two arrows, but the length is the same, I just I’m describing it in a
And that’s exactly what happens when the universe branches, the the wave function of the universe
is a big old vector.
So to somebody who brings up a question of saying, doesn’t this violate the conservation
Can you give further elaboration?
So let’s just be super duper perfectly clear.
There’s zero question about whether or not many worlds violates conservation of energy.
Yes, it does not.
And I say this definitively, because there are other questions that I think there’s answers
to, but they’re legitimate questions, right about, you know, where does probability come
from and things like that, this conservation of energy question, we know the answer to
And the answer to it is that energy is conserved.
All of the effort goes into how best to translate what the equation unambiguously says into
plain English, right?
So this idea that there’s a universe that has that that the universe comes equipped
with a thickness, and it sort of divides up into thinner pieces, but the total amount
of universe is is conserved over time, is a reasonably good way of putting English words
to the underlying mathematics.
So one of my favorite things about many worlds is, I mean, I love that there’s something
controversial in science.
And for some reason, it makes people actually not like upset, but just get excited.
Why do you think it is a controversial idea?
So there’s a lot of, it’s actually one of the cleanest ways to think about quantum mechanics.
So why do you think there’s a discomfort a little bit among certain people?
Well, I draw the distinction in my book between two different kinds of simplicity in a physical
There’s simplicity in the theory itself, right?
How we describe what’s going on according to the theory by its own rights.
But then, you know, theory is just some sort of abstract mathematical formalism, you have
to map it onto the world somehow, right?
And sometimes, like for Newtonian physics, it’s pretty obvious, like, okay, here is a
bottle and has a center of mass and things like that.
Sometimes it’s a little bit harder with general relativity, curvature of space time is a little
bit harder to grasp.
quantum mechanics is very hard to map what you’re the language you’re talking in a wave
functions and things like that on to reality.
And many worlds is the version of quantum mechanics where it is hardest to map on the
underlying formalism to reality.
So that’s where the lack of simplicity comes in, not in the theory, but in how we use the
theory to map on to reality.
In fact, all of the work in sort of elaborating many worlds quantum mechanics is in the this
effort to map it on to the world that we see.
So it’s perfectly legitimate to be bugged by that, right?
To say like, well, no, that’s just too far away from my experience, I am therefore intrinsically
skeptical of it.
Of course, you should give up on that skepticism if there are no alternatives.
And this theory always keeps working, then eventually you should overcome your skepticism.
But right now there are alternatives that are that, you know, people work to make alternatives
that are by their nature closer to what we observe directly.
Can you describe the alternatives?
I don’t think we touched on it, sort of the Copenhagen interpretation and the many worlds.
Maybe there’s a difference between the Everettian many worlds and many worlds as it is now,
like has the idea sort of developed and so on.
And just in general, what is the space of promising contenders?
We have democratic debates now, there’s a bunch of candidates.
12 candidates on stage.
What are the quantum mechanical candidates on stage for the debate?
So if you had a debate between quantum mechanical contenders, there’d be no problem getting
12 people up there on stage, but there would still be only three front runners.
And right now the front runners would be Everett, hidden variable theories are another one.
So the hidden variable theories say that the wave function is real, but there’s something
in addition to the wave function.
The wave function is not everything, it’s part of reality, but it’s not everything.
What else is there?
We’re not sure, but in the simplest version of the theory, there are literally particles.
So many worlds says that quantum systems are sometimes are wave like in some ways and particle
like in another because they really, really are waves, but under certain observational
circumstances they look like particles.
Whereas hidden variable says they look like waves and particles because there are both
waves and particles involved in the dynamics.
And that’s easy to do if your particles are just non relativistic Newtonian particles
They get pushed around by the wave function roughly.
It becomes much harder when you take quantum field theory or quantum gravity into account.
The other big contender are spontaneous collapse theories.
So in the conventional textbook interpretation, we say when you look at a quantum system,
its wave function collapses and you see it in one location, a spontaneous collapse theory
says that every particle has a chance per second of having its wave function spontaneously
The chance is very small for a typical particle, it will take hundreds of millions of years
before it happens even once, but in a table or some macroscopic object, there are way
more than a hundred million particles and they’re all entangled with each other.
So when one of them collapses, it brings everything else along with it.
There’s a slight variation of this.
That’s a spontaneous collapse theory.
There are also induced collapse theories like Roger Penrose thinks that when the gravitational
difference between two parts of the wave function becomes too large, the wave function collapses
So those are basically in my mind, the three big alternatives, many worlds, which is just
there’s a wave function and always obeys the Schrodinger equation, hidden variables.
There’s a wave function that always obeys the Schrodinger equation, but there are also
new variables or collapse theories, which the wave function sometimes obeys the Schrodinger
equation and sometimes it collapses.
So you can see that the alternatives are more complicated in their formalism than many worlds
is, but they are closer to our experience.
So just this moment of collapse, do you think of it as a wave function, fundamentally sort
of a probabilistic description of the world and this collapse sort of reducing that part
of the world into something deterministic, where again, you can now describe the position
and the velocity in this simple classical model?
Well there is…
Is that how you think about collapse?
There is a fourth category, there’s a fourth contender, there’s a mayor Pete of quantum
mechanical interpretations, which are called epistemic interpretations.
And what they say is all the wave function is, is a way of making predictions for experimental
It’s not mapping onto an element of reality in any real sense.
And in fact, two different people might have two different wave functions for the same
physical system because they know different things about it, right?
The wave function is really just a prediction mechanism.
And then the problem with those epistemic interpretations is if you say, okay, but it’s
predicting about what, like what is the thing that is being predicted?
And they say, no, no, no, that’s not what we’re here for.
We’re just here to tell you what the observational outcomes are going to be.
But the other, the other interpretations kind of think that the wave function is real.
Yes, that’s right.
So that’s an ontic interpretation of the wave function, ontology being the study of what
is real, what exists, as opposed to an epistemic interpretation of the wave function, epistemology
being the study of what we know.
That would actually just love to see that debate on stage.
There was a version of it on stage at the world science festival a few years ago that
you can look up online.
It’s on YouTube.
I’ll link it and watch it.
I don’t know, there was no vote, there was no vote, but those there’s Brian Green was
the moderator and David Albert stood up for a spontaneous collapse and Shelley Goldstein
was there for hidden variables and Rüdiger Schock was there for epistemic approaches.
Why do you, I think you mentioned it, but just to elaborate, why do you find many worlds
Well, there’s two reasons actually.
One is, like I said, it is the simplest, right?
It’s like the most bare bones, austere, pure version of quantum mechanics.
And I am someone who is very willing to put a lot of work into mapping the formalism onto
I’m less willing to complicate the formalism itself.
But the other big reason is that there’s something called modern physics with quantum fields
and quantum gravity and holography and space time doing things like that.
And when you take any of the other versions of quantum theory, they bring along classical
baggage, all of the other versions of quantum mechanics, prejudice or privilege some version
of classical reality like locations in space, okay?
And I think that that’s a barrier to doing better at understanding the theory of everything
and understanding quantum gravity and the emergence of space time.
Whenever if you change your theory from, you know, here’s a harmonic oscillator, oh, there’s
a spin, here’s an electromagnetic field, in hidden variable theories or dynamical collapse
You have to start from scratch.
You have to say like, well, what are the hidden variables for this theory or how does it collapse
Whereas many worlds is plug and play.
You tell me the theory and I can give you as many worlds version.
So when we have a situation like we have with gravity and space time, where the classical
description seems to break down in a dramatic way, then I think you should start from the
most quantum theory that you have, which is really many worlds.
So start with the quantum theory and try to build up a model of space time, the emergence
of space time.
So I thought space time was fundamental.
Yeah, I know.
So this sort of dream that Einstein had that everybody had and everybody has of, you know,
the theory of everything.
So how do we build up from many worlds from quantum mechanics, a model of space time model
Well, yeah, I mean, let me first mention very quickly why we think it’s necessary.
You know, we’ve had gravity in the form that Einstein bequeathed it to us for over a hundred
years now, like 1915 or 1916, he put general relativity in the final form.
So gravity is the curvature of space time and there’s a field that pervades all the
universe that tells us how curved space time is.
And that’s a fundamentally classical.
That’s totally classical.
But we also have a formalism, an algorithm for taking a classical theory and quantizing
This is how we get quantum electrodynamics, for example.
And it could be tricky.
I mean, you think you’re quantizing something, so that means taking a classical theory and
promoting it to a quantum mechanical theory.
But you can run into problems.
So they ran into problems and they did that with electromagnetism, namely that certain
quantities were infinity and you don’t like infinity, right?
So Feynman and Tominaga and Schwinger won the Nobel Prize for teaching us how to deal
with the infinities.
And then Ken Wilson won another Nobel Prize for saying you shouldn’t have been worried
about those infinities after all.
But still, that was the, it’s always the thought that that’s how you will make a good quantum
You’ll start with a classical theory and quantize it.
So if we have a classical theory, general relativity, we can quantize it or we can try
to, but we run into even bigger problems with gravity than we ran into with electromagnetism.
And so far, those problems are insurmountable.
We’ve not been able to get a successful theory of gravity, quantum gravity, by starting with
classical general relativity and quantizing it.
And there’s evidence that, there’s a good reason why this is true, that whatever the
quantum theory of gravity is, it’s not a field theory.
It’s something that has weird nonlocal features built into it somehow that we don’t understand.
We get this idea from black holes and Hawking radiation and information conservation and
a whole bunch of other ideas I talk about in the book.
So if that’s true, if the fundamental theory isn’t even local in the sense that an ordinary
quantum field theory would be, then we just don’t know where to start in terms of getting
a classical precursor and quantizing it.
So the only sensible thing, or at least the next obvious sensible thing to me would be
to say, okay, let’s just start intrinsically quantum and work backwards, see if we can
find a classical limit.
So the idea of locality, the fact that locality is not fundamental to the nature of our existence,
I guess in that sense, modeling everything as a field makes sense to me.
Stuff that’s close by interacts, stuff that’s far away doesn’t.
So what’s locality and why is it not fundamental?
And how is that even possible?
I mean, locality is the answer to the question that Isaac Newton was worried about back in
the beginning of our conversation, right?
I mean, how can the earth know what the gravitational field of the sun is?
And the answer as spelled out by Laplace and Einstein and others is that there’s a field
And the way a field works is that what’s happening to the field at this point in space only depends
directly on what’s happening at points right next to it.
But what’s happening at those points depends on what’s happening right next to those, right?
And so you can build up an influence across space through only local interactions.
That’s what locality means.
What happens here is only affected by what’s happening right next to it.
The idea of locality is built into every field theory, including general relativity as a
It seems to break down when we talk about black holes and, you know, Hawking taught
us in the 1970s that black holes radiate, they give off, they eventually evaporate away.
They’re not completely black once we take quantum mechanics into account.
And we think, we don’t know for sure, but most of us think that if you make a black
hole out of certain stuff, then like Laplace’s demon taught us, you should be able to predict
what that black hole will turn into if it’s just obeying the Schrodinger equation.
And if that’s true, there are good arguments that can’t happen while preserving locality
at the same time.
It’s just that the information seems to be spread out nonlocally in interesting ways.
And people should, you talk about holography with the Leonard Susskind on your Mindscape
Oh yes, I have a podcast.
I didn’t even mention that.
This is terrible.
No, I’m going to, I’m going to ask you questions about that too, and I’ve been not shutting
up about it.
It’s my favorite science podcast.
So, or not, it’s a, it’s not even a science podcast.
It’s like, it’s a scientist doing a podcast.
That’s what it is.
So holography is this idea when you have a black hole and black hole is a region of space
inside of which gravity is so strong that you can’t escape.
And there’s this weird feature of black holes that, again, it’s totally a thought experiment
feature because we haven’t gone and probed any yet.
But there seems to be one way of thinking about what happens inside a black hole as
seen by an observer who’s falling in, which is actually pretty normal.
Like everything looks pretty normal until you hit the singularity and you die.
But from the point of view of the outside observer, it seems like all the information
that fell in is actually smeared over the horizon in a nonlocal way.
And that’s puzzling and that’s, so holography because that’s a two dimensional surface that
is encapsulating the whole three dimensional thing inside, right?
Still trying to deal with that.
Still trying to figure out how to get there.
But it’s an indication that we need to think a little bit more subtly when we quantize
And because you can describe everything that’s going on in the three dimensional space by
looking at the two dimensional projection of it, it means that locality doesn’t, it’s
Well, it means that somehow it’s only a good approximation.
It’s not really what’s going on.
How are we supposed to feel about that?
We’re supposed to feel liberated.
You know, space is just a good approximation and this was always going to be true once
you started quantizing gravity.
So we’re just beginning now to face up to the dramatic implications of quantizing gravity.
Is there other weird stuff that happens to quantum mechanics in black hole?
I don’t think that anything weird has happened with quantum mechanics.
I think weird things happen with space time.
I mean, that’s what it is.
Like quantum mechanics is still just quantum mechanics, but our ordinary notions of space
time don’t really quite work.
And there’s a principle that goes hand in hand with holography called complementarity,
which says that there’s no one unique way to describe what’s going on inside a black
Different observers will have different descriptions, both of which are accurate, but sound completely
incompatible with each other.
So depends on how you look at it.
The word complementarity in this context is borrowed from Niels Bohr, who points out you
can measure the position or you can measure the momentum.
You can’t measure both at the same time in quantum mechanics.
So a couple of questions on many worlds.
How does many worlds help us understand our particular branch of reality?
So okay, that’s fine and good that is everything is splitting, but we’re just traveling down
a single branch of it.
So how does it help us understand our little unique branch?
Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question.
But that’s the point is that we didn’t invent many worlds because we thought it was cool
to have a whole bunch of worlds, right?
We invented it because we were trying to account for what we observe here in our world.
And what we observe here in our world are wave functions collapsing, okay?
We do have a position, a situation where the electron seems to be spread out.
But then when we look at it, we don’t see it spread out.
We see it located somewhere.
So what’s going on?
That’s the measurement problem of quantum mechanics.
That’s what we have to face up to.
So many worlds is just a proposed solution to that problem.
And the answer is nothing special is happening.
It’s still just the Schrodinger equation, but you have a wave function too.
And that’s a different answer than would be given in hidden variables or dynamical collapse
theories or whatever.
So the entire point of many worlds is to explain what we observe, but it tries to explain what
we already have observed, right?
It’s not trying to be different from what we’ve observed because that would be something
other than quantum mechanics.
But you know, the idea that there’s worlds that we didn’t observe that keep branching
off is kind of, it’s stimulating to the imagination.
So is it possible to hop from, you mentioned the branches are independent.
Is it possible to hop from one to the other?
So it’s a physical limit.
The theory says it’s impossible.
There’s already a copy of you in the other world, don’t worry.
Leave them alone.
No, but there’s a fear of missing out, FOMO, that I feel like immediately start to wonder
if that other copy is having more or less fun.
Well, the downside to many worlds is that you’re missing out on an enormous amount.
And that’s always what it’s going to be like.
And I mean, there’s a certain stage of acceptance in that.
In terms of rewinding, do you think we can rewind the system back, sort of the nice thing
about many worlds, I guess, is it really emphasizes the, maybe you can correct me, but the deterministic
nature of a branch and it feels like it could be rewound back.
Is it, do you see it as something that could be perfectly rewound back, rewinding back?
If you’re at a fancy French restaurant and there’s a nice linen white tablecloth and
you have your glass of Bordeaux and you knock it over and the wine spills across the tablecloth.
If the world were classical, okay, it would be possible that if you just lifted the wine
glass up, you’d be lucky enough that every molecule of wine would hop back into the glass,
But guess what?
It’s not going to happen in the real world.
And the quantum wave function is exactly the same way.
It is possible in principle to rewind everything if you start from perfect knowledge of the
entire wave function of the universe.
In practice, it’s never going to happen.
So time travel, not possible.
At least quantum mechanics has no help.
What about memory?
Does the universe have a memory of itself where we could, in, in, so not time travel,
but peek back in time and do a little like replay?
Well, it’s exactly the same in quantum mechanics as classical mechanics.
So whatever you want to say about that, you know, the fundamental laws of physics in either
many worlds, quantum mechanics or Newtonian physics conserve information.
So if you have all the information about the quantum state of the world right now, your
Laplace is demon like in your knowledge and calculational capacity, you can wind the clock
But none of us is.
And, you know, so in practice you can never do that.
You can do experiments over and over again, starting from the same initial conditions
for small systems.
But once things get to be large, Avogadro’s number of particles, right?
Bigger than a cell, no chance.
We we’ve talked a little bit about arrow of time last time, but in many worlds that there
is a kind of implied arrow of time, right?
So you’ve talked about the arrow of time that has to do with the second law of thermodynamics.
That’s the arrow of time that’s emergent or fundamental.
We don’t know, I guess.
No, it’s emergent.
Is that, does everyone agree on that?
Well, nobody agrees with everything.
So that arrow of time, is that different than the arrow of time that’s implied by many worlds?
It’s not different, actually, no.
In both cases, you have fundamental laws of physics that are completely reversible.
If you give me the state of the universe at one moment in time, I can run the clock forward
or backward equally well.
There’s no arrow of time built into the laws of physics at the most fundamental level.
But what we do have are special initial conditions 14 billion years ago near the Big Bang.
In thermodynamics, those special initial conditions take the form of things were low entropy and
entropy has been increasing ever since, making the universe more disorganized and chaotic
and that’s the arrow of time.
In quantum mechanics, the special initial conditions take the form of there was only
one branch of the wave function and the universe has been branching more and more ever since.
Okay, so if time is emergent, so it seems like our human cognitive capacity likes to
take things that are emergent and assume and feel like they’re fundamental.
So what, so if time is emergent and locality, like is space emergent?
But I didn’t say time was emergent, I said the arrow of time was emergent.
Those are different.
What’s the difference between the arrow of time and time?
Are you using arrow of time to simply mean this, they’re synonymous with the second law
No, but the arrow of time is the difference between the past and future.
So there’s space, but there’s no arrow of space.
You don’t feel that space has to have an arrow, right?
You could live in thermodynamic equilibrium, there’d be no arrow of time, but there’d still
There’d still be a difference between now and the future or whatever.
So if nothing changes, there’s still time.
Well things could even change, like if the whole universe consisted of the earth going
around the sun, it would just go in circles or ellipses, right?
Things would change, but it’s not increasing entropy, there’s no arrow.
If you took a movie of that and I played you the movie backward, you would never know.
So the arrow of time can theoretically point in the other direction for briefly.
To the extent that it points in different directions, it’s not a very good arrow.
I mean, the arrow of time in the macroscopic world is so powerful that there’s just no
chance of going back.
When you get down to tiny systems with only three or four moving parts, then entropy can
fluctuate up and down.
What does it mean for space to be an emergent phenomenon?
It means that the fundamental description of the world does not include the word space.
It’ll be something like a vector in Hilbert space, right, and you have to say, well why
is there a good approximate description which involves three dimensional space and stuff
Okay, so time and space are emergent.
We kind of mentioned in the beginning, can you elaborate, what do you feel hope is fundamental
in our universe?
A wave function living in Hilbert space.
A wave function in Hilbert space that we can’t intellectualize or visualize really.
We can’t visualize it, we can intellectualize it very easily.
Like how do you think about?
It’s a vector in a 10 to the 10 to the 122 dimensional vector space.
It’s a complex vector, unit norm, it evolves according to the Schrodinger equation.
When you put it that way.
What’s so hard, really?
It’s like, yep, quantum computers, there’s some excitement, actually a lot of excitement
with people that it will allow us to simulate quantum mechanical systems.
What kind of questions do you about quantum mechanics, about the things we’ve been talking
about, do you think, do you hope we can answer through quantum simulation?
Well I think that there are, there’s a whole fascinating frontier of things you can do
with quantum computers.
Both sort of practical things with cryptography or money, privacy eavesdropping, sorting things,
simulating quantum systems, right?
So it’s a broader question maybe even outside of quantum computers.
Some of the theories that we’ve been talking about, what’s your hope, what’s most promising
to test these theories?
What are kind of experiments we can conduct, whether in simulation or in the physical world
that would validate or disprove or expand these theories?
Well I think for, there’s two parts of that question.
One is many worlds and the other one is sort of emergent space time.
For many worlds, you know, there are experiments ongoing to test whether or not wave functions
And if they do, then that rules out many worlds and that would be falsified.
If there are hidden variables, there’s a theorem that seems to indicate that the predictions
will always be the same as many worlds.
I’m a little skeptical of this theorem.
I’m not complete.
I haven’t internalized it.
I haven’t made it in part of my intuitive view of the world yet, so there might be loopholes
to that theorem.
I’m not sure about that.
Part of me thinks that there should be different experimental predictions if there are hidden
variables, but I’m not sure.
But otherwise, it’s just quantum mechanics all the way down.
And so there’s this cottage industry in science journalism of writing breathless articles
that say, you know, quantum mechanics shown to be more astonishing than ever before thought.
And really, it’s the same quantum mechanics we’ve been doing since 1926.
Whereas with the emergent space time stuff, we know a lot less about what the theory is.
It’s in a very primitive state.
We don’t even really have a safely written down, respectable, honest theory yet.
So there could very well be experimental predictions we just don’t know about yet.
That is one of the things that we’re trying to figure out.
Yeah, for emergent space time, you need really big stuff, right?
Well, or really fast stuff, or really energetic stuff.
We don’t know.
That’s the thing.
You know, so there could be violations of the speed of light if you have emergent space
Not going faster than the speed of light, but the speed of light could be different
for light of different wavelengths, right?
That would be a dramatic violation of physics as we know it, but it could be possible.
I mean, it’s not an absolute prediction.
That’s the problem.
The theories are just not well developed enough yet to say.
Is there anything that quantum mechanics can teach us about human nature or the human mind?
If you think about sort of consciousness and these kinds of topics, is there…
It’s certainly excessively used, as you point out.
The word quantum is used for everything besides quantum mechanics.
But in more seriousness, is there something that goes to the human level and can help
us understand our mind?
Not really is the short answer, you know.
Minds are pretty classical.
I don’t think.
We don’t know this for sure, but I don’t think that phenomena like entanglement are crucial
to how the human mind works.
What about consciousness?
So you mentioned, I think early on in the conversation, you said it would be unlikely,
but incredible if sort of the observer is somehow a fundamental part.
So observer, not to romanticize the notion, but seems interlinked to the idea of consciousness.
So if consciousness, as the panpsychists believe, is fundamental to the universe, is that possible?
Is that weight…
I mean, every…
Just like Joe Rogan likes to say, it’s entirely possible.
But is it on a spectrum of crazy out there?
How the statistically speaking, how often do you ponder the possibility that consciousness
is fundamental or the observer is fundamental to…
Personally don’t at all.
There are people who do.
I’m a thorough physicalist when it comes to consciousness.
I do not think that there are any separate mental states or mental properties.
I think they’re all emergent, just like space time is and space time is hard enough to understand.
So the fact that we don’t yet understand consciousness is not at all surprising to me.
You, as we mentioned, have an amazing podcast called Mindscape.
It’s as I said, one of my favorite podcasts sort of both for your explanation of physics,
which a lot of people love, and when you venture out into things that are beyond your expertise,
but it’s just a really smart person exploring even questions like morality, for example.
It’s very interesting.
I think you did a solo episode and so on.
I mean, there’s a lot of really interesting conversations that you have.
What are some from memory, amazing conversations that pop to mind that you’ve had?
What did you learn from them?
Something that maybe changed your mind or just inspired you or just what did this whole
experience of having conversations, what stands out to you?
It’s an unfair question.
That’s all right.
You know, it’s often the ones I feel like the ones I do on physics and closely related
science or even philosophy ones are like, I know this stuff and I’m helping people learn
But I learn more from the ones that have nothing to do with physics or philosophy, right?
So talking to Wynton Marsalis about jazz or talking to a Master Sommelier about wine,
talking to Will Wilkinson about partisan polarization and the urban rural divide, talking to psychologists
like Carol Tavris about cognitive dissonance and how those things work.
Scott Derrickson who is the director of the movie Dr. Strange, I had a wonderful conversation
with him where we went through the mechanics of making a blockbuster superhero movie, right?
And he’s also not a naturalist, he’s an evangelical Christian so we talked about the nature of
I want to have a couple more, you know, discussions with highly educated theists who know the
theology really well but I haven’t quite arranged those yet.
I would love to hear that.
I mean that’s, how comfortable are you venturing into questions of religion?
Oh, I’m totally comfortable doing it.
You know, I did talk with Alan Lightman who is also an atheist but he, you know, he is
trying to rescue the sort of spiritual side of things for atheism and I did talk to very
vocal atheists like Alex Rosenberg so I need to talk to some, I’ve talked to some religious
believers but I need to talk to more.
How have you changed through having all these conversations?
You know, part of the motivation was I had a long stack of books that I hadn’t read and
I couldn’t find time to read them and I figured if I interviewed their authors, forced me
to read them, right, and that has totally worked by the way.
Now I’m annoyed that people write such long books.
I think I’m still very much learning how to be a good interviewer.
I think that’s a skill that, you know, I think I have good questions but, you know, there’s
the give and take that is still I think I can be better at.
Like I want to offer something to the conversation but not too much, right?
I’ve had conversations where I barely talked at all and I have conversations where I talked
half the time and I think there’s a happy medium in between there.
So I think I remember listening to, without mentioning names, some of your conversations
where I wish you would have disagreed more.
As a listener, it’s more fun sometimes.
Well, that’s a very good question because, you know, everyone has an attitude toward
Like some people are really there to basically give their point of view and their guest is
supposed to, you know, respond accordingly.
I want to sort of get my view on the record but I don’t want to dwell on it when I’m talking
to someone like David Chalmers who I disagree with a lot.
You know, I want to say like, here’s why I disagree with you but, you know, we’re here
to listen to you.
Like I have an episode every week and you’re only on once a week, right?
So I have an upcoming podcast episode with Philip Goff who is a much more dedicated pan
psychist and so there we really get into it.
I think that I probably have disagreed with him more on that episode than I ever have
with another podcast guest but that’s what he wanted so it worked very well.
That kind of debate structure is beautiful when it’s done right.
Like when you’re, when you can detect that the intent is that you have fundamental respect
for the person.
That, and that’s, for some reason, it’s super fun to listen to when two really smart people
are just arguing and sometimes lose their shit a little bit if I may say so.
Well, there’s a fine line because I have zero interest in bringing, I mean, like, I mean,
maybe you implied this, I have zero interest in bringing on people for whom I don’t have
any intellectual respect.
Like I constantly get requests like, you know, bring on a flat earther or whatever and really
slap them down or a creationist, like I have zero interest.
I’m happy to bring on, you know, a religious person, a believer, but I want someone who’s
smart and can act in good faith and can talk, not a charlatan or a lunatic, right?
So I will only, I will happily bring on people with whom I disagree, but only people from
whom I think the audience can learn something interesting.
So let me ask, the idea of charlatan is an interesting idea.
You might be more educated on this topic than me, but there’s, there’s folks, for example,
who argue various aspects of evolution sort of try to approach and say that evolution
sort of our current theory of evolution has many holes in it, has many flaws.
And they argue that I think like Cambridge, Cambrian explosion, which is like a huge added
variability of species, doesn’t make sense under our current description of evolution
and theory of evolution sort of, if you had to, were to have the conversation with people
like that, how do you know that they’re the difference in outside the box thinkers and
people who are fundamentally unscientific and even bordering on charlatans?
That’s a great question.
And you know, the further you get away from my expertise, the harder it is for me to really
judge exactly those things.
And, you know, yeah, I don’t have a satisfying answer for that one because I think the example
you use of someone who, you know, believes in the basic structure of natural selection,
but thinks that, you know, this particular thing cannot be understood in the terms of
our current understanding of Darwinism.
That’s a perfect edge case where it’s hard to tell, right?
And I would have, I would try to talk to people who I do respect and who do know things and
I would have to, you know, given that I’m a physicist, I know that physicists will sometimes
be too dismissive of alternative points of view.
I have to take into account that biologists can also be too dismissive of alternative points
So, yeah, that’s a tricky one.
Have you gotten heat yet?
I get heat all the time.
Like there’s always something, I mean, it’s hilarious because I do have, I try very hard
not to like have the same topic several times in a row.
I did have like two climate change episodes, but they were from very different perspectives,
but I like to mix it up.
That’s the whole, that’s why I’m having fun.
And every time I do an episode, someone says, oh, the person you should really get on to
talk about exactly that is this other person.
I’m like, well, I don’t, but I did that now.
I don’t want to do that anymore.
Well, I hope you keep doing it.
You’re inspiring millions of people, your books, your podcasts.
Sean, it’s an honor to talk to you.
Thank you so much.
Thank you very much, Lex.