Making Better Episode 13—Dean Amber Miller
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader
Francis: And I’m Francis DiDonato
Chris: And this is Episode 13 of Making Better Podcast, featuring USC-Dornsife Dean Amber Miller!
Francis: Amber Miller is a fascinating person. She has amazing ideas when it comes to new directions for how academia can function in society, but she’s also a cosmologist with over 100 scientific papers published so far.
Chris: We had a wide-ranging conversation, with topics from what role academia can play in society all the way to things like gravitational waves and some of the newest concepts in cosmology.
Francis: Why is there only one Big Bang, why couldn’t there be multiple ones? So, you’ll find out the answer to that..
Chris: Let’s go on to the interview…
Chris: Dean Amber Miller, welcome to Making Better!
Amber: Thank you for having me.
Francis: Great to have you.
Chris: Dean Miller, can you tell us about yourself, your background, and how you got to be where you are?
Amber: I grew up in the Malibu Mountains, sort of in the middle of nowhere. My parents were hippies, I spent a ton of time outdoors—I think that led to a certain level of curiosity and inquisitiveness, but also some self-sufficiency and love of the outdoors, love of animals. I went to Santa Monica high school, which was very far away, it was about an hour commute each direction, and that made me kind of an independent person. I spent a lot of time by myself, heading back and forth in the commute and trying to figure out what to do after school, between after school and my evening school-type activities. People often ask me, you know, what were the formative elements of childhood, and I think probably being left alone and being given a lot of independence made me re-think what was possible in a lot of ways. I think being different as a kid, growing up with hippie parents in a place where there was a lot of kids that were very, very similar to each other in a small town in Malibu made me comfortable being a little different. And I think having parents who didn’t tell me, you should be a doctor or you should be a lawyer, you should be an engineer, and just letting me figure out for myself what I wanted to do, gave me the freedom to be a musician when I was kid—I spent all my time playing music, pretty much—but then when I went off to college, it was really wide open. I could do anything I wanted. I studied a little bit of psychology right at the beginning and quickly got bored with that, although I have always been interested in the way people function, but I had a boring Psychology class, probably more than anything about the subject itself. In a really fascinating class, a little seminar course I took on black holes, it just worked my whole brain and made me think in a different way and I thought, man, college is the time when you can explore anything, and I can read about all kinds of things later on; but if I don’t study astrophysics right now, I’ll never learn it. So I just dove in and did it. That put me on that path for quite a while—although I was always interested in many different things at the same time.
Francis: Was it unusual for a woman to be engaged in that at that time?
Amber: You know it’s funny, I think that’s something about that independence—I never thought about that, to be completely honest. My friends have never been the people who are necessarily in my classes, or later on, my colleagues at work. I always had very close girl friends, but it never really was a thing for me that there weren’t very many other women studying astrophysics. I’ve always had a little bit of a schizophrenic perspective on being a scientist and being an academic. I remember when I left graduate school, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a professor. I was sure I wanted to do something interesting, and I was sure that I wanted to make an impact, but I wasn’t really sure how, exactly. And I’ve always been very interested in policy and politics, and I thought about going to—I can’t remember if I was looking at a Congressional fellowship or a White House fellowship at the time, and I remember I had gotten a NASA/Hubbell fellowship, which was kind of the best thing you could get in my field, and mentioned to my advisor that I was thinking about maybe going to D.C. and doing this other thing, and—I love my advisor, and he gave me good advice at the time, but what he said was, “that’s the craziest thing I ever heard! You don’t want to do that, you’ll never get a tenure-track job.” And he was right, it was the right thing to do, but it was kind of sad because I really did want to go off and do the policy thing at the same time that I wanted to go off and be an academic. I think that’s another thing that many of us struggle with, you know, the academic path to get to be a tenured faculty member at an elite institution is really a pretty, you got to stay pretty focused, which doesn’t reward people who are doing many things at the same time. So I did go on that very focused path, I took the Hubbell fellowship, I went to the University of Chicago, I worked on another set of cosmology projects, and—luckily, because I could not stand Chicago, it was too cold and too dark for me—luckily I got the job as a junior faculty member at Columbia only 6 months after I’d been there, or a I probably would have gone crazy in Chicago. I did stay there for one more year, but I needed to be near the ocean and I needed to be somewhere where the time zone made it so it wasn’t dark, ever, at 3:30. That was kind of my [inaud]. So I moved to New York to take this junior faculty position, and again, I tried to stay pretty focused, although New York is a very distracting place and there are so many things to do, and I really—and I don’t just mean socially, I already started getting kind of preoccupied by this idea that I really didn’t just want to focus on the single question in the world that was really most interesting to me, which was where did the universe come from. That felt like very much my own, single question, but I also really wanted to find a way to have an impact on things that affect everybody today. I was thinking about the environment, and thinking about the energy economy, and thinking about what scientists could do in all kinds of other ways. So up through tenure, I was not doing a lot of other things because I knew that I had to stay focused, but once I got tenure I felt like I was liberated a little bit to focus on other things. Not the the exclusion of my physics, but in addition to, and that’s when I joined the Council on Foreign Relations, and t hat opened up a whole other world of things that, again, impacted my thinking in terms of what could academics do, how can academic talent be pulled out of the academy and used to make a practical impact on the world, while also—as someone who understands more than anybody the real importance of fundamental research. I am not at all somebody who thinks that, if you’re working on something that doesn’t have a practical application, it’s not valuable. My entire research career has been working on things that have absolutely zero practical application, all about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But I’ve always had kind of these both sides, saying knowledge for the sake of knowledge is critically important and interesting, but I also want to do something that has more practical and transparent impact today.
Francis: What was it like for you, with all that history you had after physics, when the images from the Hubbell started coming through deep space?
Amber: I think maybe the level of awe is not what the general public experiences—I found them beautiful and fascinating, but maybe a little bit, I was perhaps less awestruck than I think some people might have been.
Francis: Is that because it was already known and there just wasn’t images for it?
Amber: I’m not sure that I would say “it” was already known—some things were known, some things were not know. Seeing particular images of them, it’s still spectacular and beautiful, but it maybe is not as shocking or new as it is to some people.
Chris: Getting back to your bio, you had decided to study astrophysics. Is that your undergraduate degree?
Amber: Yeah, so I did undergraduate degrees in—actually it was physics, and then I picked up a second major in astrophysics and then I went to Princeton to get a PhD in physics, but I studied cosmology at the time. There’s kind of a cultural difference between whether you get a PhD in physics or in astronomy/astrophysics, and I was always really more on the physics side. But physics was always a tool for me, so that I could study what I was really interested, which wasn’t even really astrophysics, it was always cosmology.
Francis: Why cosmology?
Amber: I think it was really about the question, where do we all come from? What is the origin of everything that we see around us? I think it’s really that most fundamental question that humans have grappled with for all time, and the idea that one could get at it through this physical mathematical, experimental kind of framework was just fascinating to me.
Francis: Thinking about those first few seconds, why one big bang? If there’s one, why couldn’t there be a bunch of them happening all over the place?
Amber: There could be. I think that’s one of the big questions. I mean, when you say “all over the place,” for a universe to be created requires a certain set of physical conditions. But that doesn’t mean that it has to have happened only once.
Francis: So, is there any evidence to that? Or is it all theoretical at this point?
Amber: It’s theoretical at this point. I mean, I think what we have evidence for is that the universe in which we live, this universe that has three spacial dimensions and one temporal dimension, we know roughly for how long this universe has been around. We know that this universe started very, very hot and very dense and much, much, much smaller than it is now. We know that there was some sort of creation event that happened at the time that we would define as time T equals zero; and we know a lot about what has happened from the very first moments of that creation event until what the universe looks like today. What we don’t know is the mechanism that made that creation event happen, and that’s why we try to study the detailed physics of the universe, looking further and further and further back in time. Now, the kind of research that I’m involved in now is trying to understand what the conditions were when the universe was much, much, much, much less than one second old. And the idea there is that if you can understand the mathematics and the physics of the universe at that point in time, you get the best clue you can possibly get as to what it was that formed the potentially underlying higher dimensional spacetime, or what it was that actually set off that event. I mean, if you can really understand that, then you have a better picture of whether or not there might be multiple such events.
Francis: Are there any theories right now that you particularly align yourself with, and what that was?
Amber: No. I mean, look, they’re all very, very highly mathematical and I’m an experimentalist, so my work is building from the ground up the kind of instrumentation that is needed to be able to make measurements to distinguish between different ideas. And if you’re not in this business, you’d say, well OK, but don’t you have a theory that you really like? And I guess from my standpoint, it isn’t really a question of one sounds better, or you like one better. There is a mathematical truth out there, and we will someday uncover it, and the goal is to try to get there. I don’t have a favorite potential truth. I mean, I guess what I can say is that for the non-expert, I think the way that is easiest in my mind to think about what almost certainly happened is something called the phase transition. And the phase transition that people are most familiar with is when ice turns into water and water turns into steam—it’s the same substance, but it’s going from one phase to another. If you think about the creation of our universe, one image I like to give people is that if you imagine a creature that doesn’t have any concept of up or down, it only understands a flat world, and it doesn’t have any concept of liquids or gases. For it to live, for it to understand a world, it needs something solid and it needs a solid, flat surface. So if you put that little creature at the surface of a lake, and the water in the lake is on the one side, and the air is on the other—there’s no universe for that creature to live in, because there is no flat, solid surface, there’s nothing there, so that creature has no universe. But then you cool the water in the lake, and all of a sudden—from the perspective of this creature—out of nowhere comes a universe to live in, that just appears in seemingly everywhere at the same time, because all of a sudden you have a layer of ice on the surface of this lake. There’s been a phase transition that has created a universe from no universe. And from the perspective of the creature that can only understand that type of universe, it came from nowhere. But from us, looking at it with an omniscient view, you know that there was something there before, that transitioned and phased to create this flat surface. I think it’s going to be something like that. There are mathematical theories that give phase transition, that creates the type of universe that we see.
Chris: These are fairly complex topics that we’ve just been discussing. How do you see communicating this to the general public?
Amber: You know, I think that there are people who do that a whole lot better than I do. I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in the relationship between academia and the public is that that the concepts that academics are working have gotten more and more specialized, and more and more complex. Academics have had to spend more and more time getting deeper and deeper and deeper into ideas, and t hey have not typically gotten a huge amount of training in how to communicate these ideas to the outside world. And in fact, there’s often a disincentive to learn how to do that, because people who spend a lot of time doing that often get hassled by their colleagues or looked down upon by their colleagues as people who are no longer serious about their science, because they’re spending so much time thinking about how to communicate it to the public. And it’s a two-way street, you see the public responding to academics trying to communicate by making dismissive comments about them being eggheads up in ivory towers, or working on things that are irrelevant and not practical in today’s world; and so I think there’s kind of a retrenchment, also on the academic side, to say well if people don’t appreciate what we’re doing, then why should we go out of our way to make an effort to help people understand what we’re doing? And people on the outside saying, well, if academics can’t explain what they’re doing, why should we care? And I think that we need to do a number of different things. I think that we need to do a much better job of training our academics to be communicators. We need to do a much better job of making sure, within the university context, that that kind of communication is rewarded and appreciated and not looked down up on or punished. And I think the public needs to slow down a little bit and be willing to get out of their Twitter-spheres for long enough to spend time thinking and talking about complex ideas. And I think that there’s some work for everybody to do.
Francis: My early research was at Rockefeller University, and it was firmly rooted in basic science. And it seemed like, at the time, studying what we, I guess at that time was just referred to as nuclear proteins and that sort of thing, it was something that we should know about. But it opened up what ultimately became the field of epigenetics. And when you think about what a huge impact epigenetics has had—back then, we were just sort of stabbing in the dark, and trying to characterize proteins that we knew had to have some kind of important function.
Amber: I think this is so important, and something that so many people don’t understand. You know, it is so much easier to understand a breakthrough cancer treatment than it is to understand the study of a basic protein that might be a fundamental thing that you need to be able to produce that treatment. Or, a really basic concept in chemistry that creates a way of thinking about a new drug, and it’s so much easier to appreciate the end state than it is, you know, the beginning of that pipeline, that I think the beginning of the pipeline often gets lost and sometimes you even hear people say, oh, it’s not science that generates innovation, it’s innovation that generates innovation—which makes me crazy, because it’s just so blatantly not true. Today’s technology companies and biotech companies are building on decades and decades of scientific innovation that have taken place and built this incredible knowledge base from which they can function, and that pipeline is important and it’s great that the end result is things that people understand, but we also have to find a way to give people a little bit more insight into the critical importance of the earlier stages of that pipeline. Because if we don’t, those earlier stages will dry up, and it will be a little while before we become, as a society, critically aware of the impact of those having dried up. But in the end, it’s not going to be a good thing.
Francis: And I would encourage the American public to be a little bit more demanding on the return in their investment, because if you think about how much of what ultimately becomes patents and medicine, rests on NIH funding—Americans are really paying for the development of these drugs as much as anyone else.
Amber: Yeah, they are. I think it’s just, it’s very hard for people to understand the research that’s coming out. I mean, you hear these crazy political statements, people saying “I can’t believe I’m paying for studies about shrimp on treadmills!” and these kinds of statements that are just—clearly don’t understand what the research is about, and that’s not helpful because ultimately that NIH funding is generating that knowledge base. But it’s such a black box to most people that it’s hard for them to make sense of. So great, that knowledge base, what does it do for you, where does it go? And where it goes is all of this incredible breakthroughs you’re seeing in the biomedical world, but it’s easy to just credit those as though the knowledge base wasn’t needed to get there, because people just don’t understand. And it’s not the fault of the consumer or the citizen who doesn’t understand, because it’s an incredibly complex thing to communicate. And I think we need to find a way to do better than that.
Chris: What is the role of the university in communicating to the general public, and how do the Humanities play a role in that?
Amber: We can unpack this for an hour. I think there’s—you know, it’s an incredibly complicated role. I think that there are many, many different roles. One role is in educating an entire generation of undergraduates and graduate students who will go out in the world and put those things into action so that people can see it. Another role is to do a better job of explaining what it is that our researchers are doing every day, and it isn’t just communication, but there’s also a role to be played in actually getting the expertise that’s locked up behind the ivory tower out, so that people can access it. And I would draw a distinction between that and communication, because communicating, to me, is—in my laboratory, we’re doing all this great stuff to try and understand the early universe, and we need to do a better job of explaining to people what we’re doing so they can appreciate it and experience it and see the wonder of it. But getting the expertise out so that people can access it is different in the sense that, we may here in Los Angeles, where we are, we may be trying to build an entirely new energy infrastructure. We’re trying to meet LA’s new sustainability goals—how do we get the academics, who are right here at USC, involved in that project? And that’s something we’ve been thinking very deeply about.
Francis: It’s a real shift in the role of universities overall, and I know you had mentioned something in a previous talk that you had given regarding the new social contract. Does it relate to that?
Amber: Yeah. So what we’re trying to do is, we’re trying to find the new way to tap that academic expertise. When you think about it, right now the way most of this expertise gets out is, academics write papers, they write books, they write articles, they publish their findings and then someone in the policy sphere will look up an academic paper or make a phone call or read a white paper, but there’s a long time lag there, and there’s a mismatch between the kinds of problems that the academics are working on in their own time, focused on their own research, and the kinds of questions policymakers might need the answer to right now. And you don’t want to grab the academics and say, you can’t ask your own questions, you have to be focused on what the policymakers want, because that means that they are not doing that fundamental research that you need to build the base of knowledge. You don’t want to do that, but at the same time, here are people sitting right here in your city who have the answers to questions, and I can’t tell you how many times, both here in Los Angeles and also when I was in New York, when I would talk to people who were outside of the academy and they’d say, whether it was at a company or someone in the city or the county, saying “oh you know we’re working on this thing, and we have this researcher who’s looking this up,” and we would talk a little bit about what they were trying to get at, and it was just obvious to me that we have a faculty member who could tell you more than that researcher could find online in a week, in 20 minutes. So how you connect up that faculty member who has that expertise, who would be willing to spend 20 minutes talking to somebody and sharing that expertise, but they don’t know who to call, they don’t know how to access that person. So we are trying to create a new, really a mundane infrastructure, that something that creates an office, a connecting point, almost like a consultancy where people can come to get those kinds of questions answered. And it can be anything from a five minute conversation to a six or nine month or even a year-long research project where the university then becomes the research arm for the city, for the county, for the nonprofit community, for the business community. And it doesn’t have to take a huge amount of people’s time, it can be something they can do on the side instead of serving on a committee or instead of teaching one course for that semester, and that way you get, you can tap that incredible bank of expertise without sacrificing the researcher’s ability to do their primary production of knowledge type research that they’re doing in what I would think of as their “day job.”
Francis: It almost sounds like there’s a failure in the project management of society.
Amber: Yeah, I mean you can think of it that way. I do think that we have so many different silos, and we function OK because we have so many people who are doing—we don’t have to be maximally efficient. But I think when it comes to certain critical path things that society is dealing with, and I would put energy and the environment very much in that space, we need to solve this problem together as a society, we are out of time. To let that kind of random walk relationship between things get published in the academy, things that get commercialized to policy teams working in government, and to let the ideas sort of percolate out of the academic enterprise, to be able to be helpful, is not going to be good enough to save coral reefs and biodiversity and to prevent a lot of suffering, human suffering, on the global scale. So it feels to me like when you’re looking at something like that, you really have to activate all the talent you have in the most efficient possible way. And I’ve really been thinking about how does the university do our part in not just producing knowledge and generating the next generation of students, but really thinking about how do you directly get that expertise into the hands of the policymakers or into the hands of people working in a new company trying to get a new alternative energy project up and running. How do we create some shortcuts, because we’ve got to make this work.
Chris: You spoke of the value of a liberal arts education. Where does the English major fit in to all of this?
Amber: They fit in all over the place. Really, I think the term “liberal arts” needs a shake-up. You know, in much of our society both the term “liberal” and the term “art” have become bad words. But if you really look at it, you know, “liberal” comes from the latin word meaning “freedom,” and that was derived from the Sanscrit word that means “one climbs,” or “grows.” And “arts” comes from the Latin word that means “skill” or “craft.” So you could really think of a Liberal Arts education as an education through which you gain the skills to grow, to climb. It is not about reading old, stale texts, it’s about understanding the world, it’s about understanding humanity, understanding our culture, understanding our communities. It’s about understanding science, it’s about developing some quantitative skills to be able to do those back-of-the-envelope calculations in your everyday experience that allow you to guess whether something makes sense or not that you read in the paper. It is the kind of education that produces leaders, people who have the flexibility of mind to be able to come into a new situation and assess who the people are in the situation, what the boundaries are, what’s going on, who’s thinking what, what are some of the new ideas that can be brought to bear to solve a problem. How do you think about the problem from the standpoint of the humans involved, from the standpoint of what the problem is about. Is there a problem that has to do with a science question? What’s going on in the problem you’re dealing with? And that is important every single place you go. It’s something you need to be able to communicate, you need to be able to negotiate, all of those skills are things that you develop through what we now call the Liberal Arts education. And I really think of this as the difference between people who have the skills to function, sort of somewhere mid-way in the organization, and people who have the skills to build their own organization, to be somebody who can be a CEO or a President or a leader or someone who comes up with that new idea that changes the game. And that doesn’t matter if you are an English major or a chemistry major or an anthropology major. You are getting those skills if you are in an outstanding Liberal Arts program, no matter what your major is.
Chris: You also spoke about the value of inclusion in academia. This is something that comes up in the disability community, of which everybody on our team is a member—how do you deal with including students with disabilities at your campus?
Amber: There is an enormous amount of attention being paid right now to what we refer to as “diversity equity and inclusion”—and that’s not just students, that’s students, staff, that’s faculty. And the primary thing that we’re all thinking about, as we are getting involved in lists and lists of many things, is that it has been demonstrated time and again that outcomes are better and people are happier when you have inclusive and diverse groups of people involved, and that is true whether you are sitting around in a seminar, whether you are working on a project in the field, whether you are trying to create a leadership team. No matter what you’re doing, we have seen again and again that different perspectives and a sense of safety—and that’s where the inclusion piece comes in—a sense of safety and community that comes from people really feeling that they belong, no matter who they are, generates better outcomes and better ideas. Not to mention that it is the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, but, I think as a university is a place that has really grabbed that bull with both horns and is really trying to figure out how to do it right.
Chris: You also spoke a bit about empathy—do you think that a university can teach empathy, or is empathy something to do with mirror neurons and brain development, and is something hard-wired?
Amber: I am not a neuroscientist, so I would hate to take that one on from a scientific standpoint. But I will say, from an experience standpoint, I think empathy comes from understanding and exposure. And I think that the more time we spend with people who are not like us, in whatever dimension we think about, the more we realize that they are like us, and the more empathy that that breeds. And, you know, I think about that not just with humans, but I grew up with animals everywhere and I always had dogs, and you know some animals are more obviously this way than others. Dogs are a great example; you cannot grow up with a dog and believe that dogs don’t have feelings, or that they don’t get their feelings hurt, or they can’t be sad. You know, people say you shouldn’t ascribe human emotions to animals; but they’re not just human emotions, and when you spend a lot of time with animals, it’s so obvious that animals feel many of the same things that humans feel. I mean, there are dogs that are amazing, but so are so many other animals that we don’t day to day contact with, and I think for me personally, having spent so much time with animals as a kid, makes it impossible for it not to be very personally painful to me when I hear about the biodiversity loss in this world. I see a picture of a polar bear dying because there’s no ice for it to climb up on and no food for it to eat, and I—it makes me think of my dog when I was a kid, and the look in my dog’s eyes when the dog was sad, and I think that experience creates empathy. If it’s that true with animals, it’s even all the more true with people, it’s impossible to spend time with people who you would initially on the surface think are very different from you, but then when you’re spending time with them you realize that there’s so many more similarities than differences. And when you think about what does academia do for that, well academia is all about understanding communities and cultures and humanity, and the more you understand about that, the more it de-mystifies who all of these people are in the world, and I think it’s pretty difficult not to have that lead to development of a more empathetic perspective.
Francis: We as a society I think have different ideas about how much that matters, because on the one hand you’ll have, say, the free-market economy where it is sort of like a survival of the fittest model, and it extends into how people see each other. And the other level you have, when we talk about inclusion, is sort of more like the weakest link is the one that matters, and that we really should be caring about each other, and I think when you have empathy that’s really easy because you feel bad when other people are suffering. But I think one of the things that happens in our society is that we have kind of this spectrum of empathy that gets masked by political words like “libertarian” or “Republican/Democrat” but in reality it’s more how people are relating to each other. And there’s big differences in term of people who have that “rugged Individualism” that America is supposed to be famous for versus people who really want to kind of pull together and save this planet from destruction and save those animals, that kind of thing. You know, that filters into the kind of economy we have overall. I remember when I was thinking about the first time I heard the term “service economy”—I just shuddered, I was like “Ugh!” That sounds terrible! You’re going to take all these people with all this amazing potential who—and you’re going to throw them in a service job? Can’t we do better that that? I’m kind of rambling a little right now, but I feel like it’s all related to that empathy question.
Amber: Yeah, I mean I think our society has a very serious problem right now, in our lack of capacity to talk to each other in many, many different ways. I think what we’re doing is, we’re trenching into our own identity groups more and more and more. And one of the things that I’ve been involved in since coming to USC was the creation of a new center that we call the Center for the Political Future, and it’s run by Bob Shrum, who’s a very well-established Democratic strategist, and Mike Harvey, who’s a very well-established Republican strategist. And the things they disagree on are vast, but the things they agree on are that civil dialog and an insistence on intellectual arguments rather than personal attacks, or trying to debate ideas is critical. And they also agree that there are facts, and that in order to have a rational debate, you have to be able to accept the facts on the ground, you don’t just get to make up whatever starting point you feel like as the baseline for your debate. This has been a really great project for me, because I’ve gotten to spend time with both of them, and I am really thinking about what the Center can do. Recently we just hosted our first conference, we called the Climate Forward conference, which is a collaboration between the Center for the Political Future and our Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies. The idea was not to have another debate about is climate change happening and what is the science of climate and what’s likely to happen, but really to say, allright, we know climate change is happening, that is scientifically established. Let’s talk about what it is that we can do about it, let’s bring in people from a whole range of different perspectives, academics and journalists and people in the political world, politicians from both sides of the aisle, and talk about what are the different approaches. And to really make sure that we’re engaging people from the wide range of political backgrounds, and trying to get us into one conversation about what it is that can be done. And I think we need to do a whole lot more of that, because again, I think people, if you get somebody who is very liberal and someone who’s very conservative in the room, right now they’re living in different worlds and they are focused on completely different worldviews. But if you start talking to them about their kids, and you start talking to them about their experience and the things that they care about, and getting them engaged with each other, again, there’s more similarity than difference when it comes right down to it, as human beings. And we all care about a future for our kids that is safe, and we all want air to breathe that is clean, and we all want water that is clean—there are many things that we can agree on, and it’s a matter of trying to figure out how do we get to those things we can agree on. How do we convince everybody that the scientific facts are what they are, and then say OK, now what? We can be working on this on a huge range of different issues, and that’s something that we really want to get more and more and more involved in at USC [*] where I am.
Chris: But how do you communicate with people who absolutely deny science? I mean, they say, you know, climate change can only happen if God wants it to, or the earth is only 6,000 years old, and people out there are like that and they’re voting.
Amber: Yeah, that’s right. And not every conversation can include every person. But I think that you can have conversations that include much broader ranges of people than are currently involved. You know, for example, people getting really focused on their own specific identity—if that identity gets too narrow, then coalitions fall apart. There are going to be people with whom you just disagree in so many different ways that there’s no point in having the conversation. But that’s not most of us, and I think that we can do a lot better at bringing together much larger groups of people in a rational set of conversations. And maybe not everybody is involved in every single one, but we can do a lot better than we’re doing now, I think.
Francis: And it’s urgent that we figure this out.
Amber: And not just energy and the environment. There’s immigration, there’s global health, and then when you get to maybe slightly one level down but still critically important, there’s cybersecurity, there are so many issues that we have got to figure out. And I think having people live in their silos and not really understand how to work together is just not good enough.
Francis: It sounds that collaboration, building bridges between disciplines, that sort of thing is, there’s a huge need for that and you’re answering that at your school…
Amber: Yeah, we’re trying. Interdisciplinary research is pretty well established at this point. I mean, I don’t have to push very hard, our faculty do that all by themselves. And I do try to facilitate that as much as possible, and try to make sure that we have the facilities we need to make that possible, and trying to break down barriers between our school and other schools. But I think the real challenge—maybe think of it as a moonshot kind of thing that we’re trying do that’s really different—is to try to think about how do you make the walls of the academy, particularly on the research side, not the education side, not that those aren’t important, but broadly the education side is already doing this a lot, but trying to make those boundaries more porous between the academy and the community. Part of this came up for me because when I was in New York, I ended up working for the New York Police Department counterterrorism division. And if you would think about this from the outside, there is absolutely no reason that I could have, or anyone I know could have imagined, how a cosmologist would end up working in counterterrorism. What happened was, I had been interested in many things, I became a member of Council on Foreign Relations, I was there at an event and I met the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, and he and I ended up in a conversation and—I don’t even remember, I can’t remember how it came up, but he asked me if I would consider coming down and being their chief science advisor. And I had no idea what that would mean, and I’m not sure he totally had an idea at the beginning either, I don’t know, but I went down and we talked about it. And it turned out what they were doing was, they were trying to build essentially a ring around the city to prevent dangerous materials, devices, from getting in. And as the largest counterterrorism division in the nation, the New York Police Department got all the fun toys—they got the new radiation sensors and chemical weapons sensors and biological weapon sensors and new software, and all kinds of stuff from vendors and from national labs. And they had to figure out how do these new devices and pieces of equipment work, and how would they best be deployed. And in my laboratory, we were trying to build very large, very complicated telescopes that we would deploy either in remote locations in the middle of the [adaconda?] desert in Chile or up at 100,000 feet over Antarctica on a balloon platform—and they had to work. And so my team, what I would spend a lot of my day every day doing in the laboratory would be working with my graduate students and my undergraduates and my post-docs and saying, OK, we need to figure out how this camera works, how this sensor works, what does this lens do; so they would go off and they’d produce tests to figure out how this thing worked, and then we would all come back together as a group and everyone would report on their data, and we’d figure out how to deploy or not deploy these various constituent pieces. And it wasn’t that my research in cosmology per se had any application at all to counterterrorism, but the techniques we used, trying to figure out how these complicated new pieces of equipment that just came right out of the national labs or other research lab worked, was exactly wha tthe NYPD needed. And so I would do exactly the same thing, sending teams of their police out to do these kinds of tests, and then come back and we’d sit in the room and we’d look at the data, and it was exactly the same thing. It really got me thinking that, you know, if a cosmologist can be tapped to do that kind of stuff, anybody can be, because I was doing the most fundamental research of anybody, probably, at the university, and it was great fun for me—I learned a ton. I learned not only about something about counterterrorism, but how an entirely different industry functioned, and how those people think, and it was great and it was not a huge time commitment and it didn’t slow me down in my university efforts or my research career, but it was really interesting. And so it gave me a new perspective on how to think about the kind of talent that you can get out is not just the research that’s being built in the laboratory itself, it’s not just the chemical that turns into the chemotherapy treatment, but it’s the techniques, it’s the ideas, it’s the way of thinking, it’s the underlying expertise. And you have this pool of experts that you can draw from who have day jobs, so you don’t have to pay them all day—you can just pull them out and get them involved in something for a little while as needed. So we’re really trying to get that right now at USC, and if we get it right, what I would love for this to end up doing in the long run is providing a model for every other university to be able to do that. And then you’re not just talking about hundreds or thousands of faculty, you’re talking about tens of thousands of faculty who could be tapped to help with all kinds of problems. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning right now.
Francis: One of the things we like to ask our guests is, are you optimistic about the future and why?
Amber: It depends on the day. I have my moments. You know, in general I’m an optimist. I think that problems are solvable, I think that if you roll up your sleeves and you put together the right team, you can get things done. And when I look at the biggest problems facing our world today, I think yes, they are grave and they are serious and they are urgent, but humans are creative and we have the capacity to pull together and get it done. I just hope that enough of us are willing to roll up our sleeves and do that, and work together and try to overcome some of the political divisiveness and tribal sense of being on opposite sides of an issue, and be able to say what matters the future of humanity and the future of the planet, and we’re going to get this one right.
Francis: Is there any final thoughts about what’s new in either cosmology or astrophysics that you find really exciting at the moment, in laymen’s terms?
Amber: Well, I mean, I think everybody’s [*] is of the first image of the black hole, that’s probably the biggest astrophysics thing that’s hit the news lately.
Chris: Is that a bigger deal than the discovery of gravitational waves?
Amber: No, absolutely not. I just mentioned it because it’s much more recent. I think the discovery of gravitational waves is probably, it’s the most spectacular discovery in years.
Francis: Well, for those people out there that pretty much get their cosmology and astrophysics from Star Trek, would you like to explain what that is? Gravitational waves?
Amber: Gravitational waves are a whole other way of carrying energy. So, we think about the way we see the universe in every way that we’ve ever seen it up until gravitational waves were discovered, has always been through electromagnetic radiation. So everything that we see, every image we see with our eyes, is light—radio waves are light, X-rays are light, gamma rays are light, microwaves are light—everything we know, every ability that we’ve had to see and probe the universe around us has always been in the electromagnetic spectrum. The significance of the discovery of gravitational waves is that this is an entirely new way of carrying information and carrying energy, and gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space. And they’re basically, if you think about space as being like a rubber sheet, and you imagine dropping a pebble in the middle of that sheet, and the ripples that move out, the physical movement of that sheet itself is the analog of what a gravitational wave is doing in space. And what’s so remarkable about that, from the standpoint of astrophysics, is, since the discovery of the telescope we have had only one set of eyes on the entire universe, and the discovery of gravitational waves is as though we just got, now, ears. And now we have a whole other sense that we can use. You know, you think about the impact of the telescope—we discovered not only our own solar system, not only our own galaxy, we discovered that we live in this incredibly vast universe and we’ve discovered so many things about what is in that universe. And now, with gravitational waves, it just opens up this entirely new way of starting to understand the universe in which we live. The complexity, of course, is that gravitational waves are incredibly difficult to detect, so it’s going to take many years before we’re able to refine that new capability so that we get all of the richness out of it. But conceptually, it’s just incredibly exciting for that reason.
Francis: Would it help to learn about dark matter?
Amber: Maybe. I don’t know. My guess is probably not, because I think the leading theory for what dark matter is, is that it’s some sort of a particle that does not interact electromagnetically or does only very faintly. But I don’t know, I suppose it’s possible.
Chris: And with that, we’ll ask you the same question we ask everyone at the end of an interview, and that is, is there anything you would especially like to plug or promote, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Amber: No, not really. I mean, i think the thing that I’ve been trying to get people thinking about is what we’ve spent some time talking about, which is how can we work together, and how can we bolster each other’s ideas and help each other be better. And what we’re really trying to do at USC Dornsife is to build this new academy in the public square initiative, where we help teach our academics how to do more of that and we engage the community and invite the community to come and work with us to try to figure out how to work better together. But we’re not really ready for the tidal wave of people to come and dive in quite yet, ‘cause we’re still building the models, so I wouldn’t plug “call us tomorrow,” but do keep an eye out for what we’re doing, and I hope it’s going to have as much impact as we would like it to.
This has been fun.
Chris: Thanks so much for coming on Making Better.
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