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What We Talk About When We Talk About Science

Featuring Sara Walker

What’s the nature of the universe? What is life? And what do we talk about when we talk about science? We’re joined by Professor Sara Walker, an astrobiologist and theoretical physicist, with research interests in the origins of life, artificial life, and detection of life on other worlds, to see how we think about the world informs the rest of our being. Plus, Indonesia’s growing economy, US job satisfaction, and an update on mapping the human genome.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

[Audio Clip]

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always on this podcast by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast looking at the world through a lens of creative yet edgy optimism, a word that we’ve debated a lot at The Progress Network, given that people seem to have a negative connotation with the word optimism, probably because it suggests a pollyannish rose-tinted view of the future that we neither subscribe to nor share, but we do think it is vital to look at the world through a lens of what are we doing? What problems are we solving? What’s the world that we’re living in? And what’s the future we want to create? One of the things we don’t focus on as much as we probably should is hard science. We focus a lot on public debates, on different parts of the world, on geopolitics, on social issues. We don’t focus on hard science as much. So we decide to have a conversation today with someone who is a brilliant articulator of extremely vast, complicated concepts in astrophysics and other things, but is also herself a serious practitioner of the very hard science that we’re talking about. So bridging the gap a little, or at least we hope to be bridging the gap.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So we’re gonna be speaking with Professor Sara Walker, who’s an astrobiologist and a theoretical physicist. If you don’t know what an astrobiologist is, not to worry, we’re gonna talk about it in the conversation. She’s based at Arizona State University where she does research into the origins of life, artificial life, and whether there is life to be found on other worlds.

ZK: So Sara Walker or Professor Walker to your friends, thank you so much for joining us today. I remember when I was at Oxford once, I just wanted to get that in there that I was at Oxford, we were at a meal, and I think it was a bunch of physicists were like having a meal next to us.

Sara Walker (SW): Yeah.

ZK: And I mean, we knew they were physicists I think ’cause they were referring to some work they were doing. And then they quickly launched into a very animated, passionate discussion about one of Shakespeare’s plays. Like what did it mean, and what did they think about it. And I remember thinking about that time, like, this is really unfair because I can’t toggle at dinner from a meaningful discussion about Shakespeare’s plays to some debate about astrophysics. It’s a one-way street. It’s not a two-way street.

SW: I actually disagree. I just think it’s a matter of what way you wanna jump in. So one of the things I’ve been really interested in is actually the history of physics and where the ideas come from. And I think a lot of physicists actually don’t understand how much of our understanding of reality is historically dependent.

So one example I like to give is just the history of timekeeping devices. And when we invented certain laws of physics was in step with kind of our understanding culturally of time at the time. So in ancient civilizations, we kept time with the elements like sand clocks and using the position of the sun. And then we invented mechanistic clocks. And by inventing a mechanical device that could track seconds, then we could track planetary motion. And then Newton was able to come up with the laws of physics as we know them now, like the law of gravitation based on these really accurate maps of planetary motion. And then the mathematics that Kepler came to describe it. So there’s all this history embedded in it. And so it would just be a good stumbling block to ask a physicist what color— cultural conceptions are informing the way that they think about the historical contingency. There’s like a million examples like that though.

EV: I love this way to talk about science because sort of concept of science is dependent on us, right? Although we think that science kind of exists in its own thing outside of us. That’s the point, right?

SW: Yeah. That’s the point. It doesn’t exist outside of us. So I think there’s this sort of dogma and part of the ego of physics is this idea that it’s completely independent of us and it’s actually objective. But I think all of the ideas in physics have emerged in certain cultural contexts and they’re very historically dependent on what society was thinking about at a given point in time. So I think this is one place where humanities and science can intersect in a rather deep way, is to really understand how our biases and how we think and our cultural norms and everything else inform the sort of constructions that we have about what we think is fundamental.

ZK: First of all, it’s great to hear you talk that way. I do think there is an exclusionary kind of— well, one, there is just a legitimate amount of pure intensive math and knowledge that kind of goes into some of these things,-

SW: Yeah.

ZK: -that does create a kind of barrier to the “layman”. But there’s also this— you know, within universities and within culture, there’s like the expertise of science and then there’s everything else. And it is definitely true. We’ve now been doing this podcast for a while and we’ve had remark— I mean, I don’t know, maybe we had two or three people who kind really fit the science bill. And even in The Progress Network itself, it is way overrepresented either by kind of journalists who are generalists, even if they’re science journalists and there are no science journalists, I think, in our roster. And yet during the pandemic, right, everything was about follow the science, follow the science, except for the fact that most laypeople and most people who aren’t scientists don’t even know what the science is or wouldn’t know how to read it.

SW: Right. Well, I actually don’t like the follow the science because it suggests that science is a monolith rather than a dialogue. So in some sense, in that situation, science could offer a set of best practices from certain perspectives. So a social scientist might make recommendations based on social constraints and the way people behave in societies. And then somebody that studies disease might offer different advice. And then the question is, as a society, how do we actually come together and emerge the science with these other facets? And I think this is where discussion of scientific ideas become really muddled when they become public discourse because people usually want somebody to be a representative of an idea, like an archetype of that idea. And then the way society debates itself is to have archetypes that are fighting with each other. And then people think-

ZK: Right.

SW: -a person has to be right or the other, rather than thinking that actually, the way that societies achieve consensus understanding or societies as sort of a higher-level construct actually discuss things is by having those kind of— So I guess what I’m saying is I think we confuse what science is with these sort of archetypes of what science needs to be to have public discourse.

ZK: And you’re totally right, by the way, about this, the need for someone representing, particularly when it becomes a public debate, right? Whether it’s about nuclear power or climate science or COVID, you get overrepresented by scientists who are more comfortable in that public sphere saying things in a black and white fashion.

SW: Yeah.

ZK: Look, I know there’s a lot of pre-interviews. You’ve probably had them too. And I would venture to say that some of those pre-interviews probably didn’t go so well ’cause if you’re the person saying, well, it’s a little more this and it’s a little more that, often a producer at CNN or one of the— I’m just picking on them or picking them out. That’s not what they want, right? They don’t want the, yeah, well—

SW: Sound bite. This is also super interesting in the current discussion of AI and what’s happening with large language models and have we achieved artificial general intelligence. ‘Cause the loudest voices in the room are the doomsayers that like AGI is eminent and it’s gonna destroy us all, because that’s a really simple package message for people to understand of something that they don’t understand. And there’s all these really fascinating nuances about how these systems are interacting with human culture and society and even how we should perceive our own intelligence in light of them that are just not— it’s just too nuanced for that kind of level of discussion, like global civilization having a discussion is very different than you and I sitting here and getting to unpack these concepts. So I think it’s important to make those distinctions. And I think it’s important for people to understand that none of these things are really— there’s no such thing as a non-nuanced opinion.

EV: There are no simple answers. But I think people ask for simple answers a lot, right? Like, going back to the pandemic for a second, I remember I was in a group chat with people and they were complaining about the journalism at the time being like, well, they said one thing last week and they are saying something else now. And I’m like, well, yeah, the journalism is updating because the science is updating, and that’s natural. That’s what should be happening. It should be changing as we go. If it weren’t changing as we go, that would be a little bit suspicious. But I feel like for some reason, that understanding doesn’t kind of reach people en masse. I’m not sure why.

SW: So this is actually really interesting ’cause I wonder if this is a problem to fix ’cause everyone thinks that this is a huge problem and we need to fix it. And I agree to an extent, but I can also think from the counterpoint that what we’re— if you think in evolutionary biology, we talk about these sort of hierarchies of different living systems. So cells in your body have to cooperate to make you as a multi-cellular organism. And individuals have to cooperate to make a functioning society. And I think processes that happen at the societal level don’t have to— they don’t have to make sense necessarily to individuals in a rational way.

And there’s even all kinds of— Arrow’s impossibility theorem about the impossibility of having ranked-choice voters actually come to a consensus decision or something is like— or not ranked choice, but I sort of heard the details of that. But anyway, there’s examples of this where you can explicitly demonstrate that societies might have different kinds of ways of thinking than individuals do. And I think the problem is when we’re talking about these things, we’re always trying to contextualize what we see in group discussion in the way we think individually. And I think that’s just the wrong framing.

EV: Oh, that’s fascinating. I’ve never heard that before. And I really like that because I feel like I’m constantly trying to conflate the two because I feel like if I can understand the way this is— I don’t know, it just feels like the way to fix problems. So what would be a better way to go about?

SW: Well, it’s very funny ’cause people think that conflict, like social conflict, all these people that are like archetypes on Twitter and battling each other is a bad thing. And I’m just like, oh, this is good. Society’s trying to solve this problem and figure out what we think about it. So it’s almost like you have mental debates inside your own head, but imagine that just in terms of like now people are the individual things of this larger structure that’s trying to actually figure itself out. And I don’t think any of us as individuals can really have a perception of what human societies are doing as collectives.

ZK: So let’s talk for a minute a little more about some of the work you’re doing just ’cause even though we’re sort of talking about the way we talk about science, you also do a lot of really interesting work. First of all, astrobiologist, does that mean— see this is where the utter layman in me comes out, meaning is there a radically different biology of astrobiology? Is it non-carbon biology? Is it just biology [inaudible]—

SW: There may be no biology anywhere else, but yeah, it’s supposed to be the study of life as a universal phenomenon is the way I would think about it. But it’s a relatively new field. So even when I was a graduate student, I never heard of astrobiology before and I only heard about it ’cause my PhD advisor was like, do you wanna work on the origin of life? There’s this thing called astrobiology. And I was like, what is that?

EV: Yeah, public discourse is still in the what is that? I mean, so along this though, I have been waiting my whole life to ask someone actually with expertise, like, what is life? But I saw Lex Fridman ask you that question. You were like, that’s the wrong question. So I’m not gonna make Lex Fridman’s mistake. I’m gonna reframe the question as how do you understand the problem of life, which is taking from your verbiage?

SW: That’s a great question.

EV: I took it from you so I cannot take credit for that.

SW: Yeah. I think from my perspective, there’s a variety of phenomena that we want to call “life”. And the question of explaining those phenomena and why they exist to me is the question of answering what is life and also the origin of life. So I’m super biased by my training in physics to think a certain way, but I’m very interested in deep abstract properties that give broad explanatory power. So what that means is basically can explain a lot of stuff. But in the process, those kind of ideas usually don’t look like the things that we feel like we interact with.

So example is like gravity is currently best explained by the curvature of space and time. And obviously, I’m sitting in a gravitational potential, well, supposedly, but what does that mean to my everyday experience? So when I’m thinking about the problem of life and actually thinking about that from this perspective of a physics that would allow us to understand how this thing we call life emerges in the universe and where else we might find it, I’m thinking at that kind of very deep abstract level that would give us some kind of mathematical laws that explain the entire swath of things we might wanna call life.

EV: Which I would assume there’s nothing that exists right now that explains that. I mean, what do we know? What do we not know? How close are we to establishing such theories?

SW: The problem is that most people have been asking this what is life question. And the reason that I said that’s not the question to ask is because we already kind of know when you go down the road of asking what is life and you do it based on some kind of description or definition, like it’s an evolving system or it’s self-replicating, or it metabolizes, there’s always this sort of gray area and nothing fits clean, but we haven’t had a sense where we feel like we have the definition nailed and everything in this box is life and everything outside this box is not life, which suggests that maybe that categorization that we have is not right and there’s something else going on. And so what I sometimes will call the art of theoretical physics is trying to actually just look at a set of phenomena and try to figure out what is the thing to describe about this set that actually is the sort of deep property that I would think is the feature.

And from my perspective, I think life is the only thing that we’ve observed in the universe that builds up complexity and builds structures like you and I. We obviously understand that evolution plays a prominent role in that, but we don’t have a fundamental physics that really unifies this idea of complexity being built up over time with how we think in physics, which is very much about like elementary particles and simple objects and gravitational fields and not this combinatorial universe of all possible objects and why is it that you and I are sitting here right now having this conversation instead of a potentially astronomically large set of other possible things that could have been happening on this planet.

ZK: On theoretical physics side of the equation, so here’s one thing to posit. I’m sure you get this all the time probably from students who are curious, and that’s probably about what my level is about some of these things, which is—

EV: Beginner’s mind, Zachary.

SW: Yeah.

ZK: Beginner’s mind. Keep an open mind. So a lot of what we write about pre-history, so pre-recorded history, is based on remarkably few bits of material data points and a massive amount of trying to connect the dots and find patterns and tell a coherent story, a story which may be largely directionally correct, but is also possibly just completely and utterly fictitious and wrong just because there’s so little we actually can know in any kind of concrete way.

I mean, I joke about this. I built a house in Connecticut and because of the way one small part of it was classified by code, it had to have massive amounts of rebar and structural stuff. So there’s this one wall in the house, or right outside the house, that can withstand a Category 5 hurricane. So the entire thing could just be completely knocked down and 150 or 500 years later, somebody could be looking through it and there’ll be this perfectly contained wall. And I just imagine someone going through it going, I wonder what the wall was for? What do you think the wall right in the middle was— and coming up with a story that bore nothing, no relationship, right? ‘Cause the codes are gone, everything else.

So I kind of wonder about origins of the universe, big bang theories trying to extrapolate from even whatever the Hubble is telling us about distant universes whose light is reaching us, what, 2,000 years late. I mean, how much of this do you feel you know, or how much of it is a fascinating puzzle to try to make coherence about? Like where are you on that spectrum?

SW: Yeah. So my personal take on this is we predict the past as much as we do the future. It’s just the evidence is a little bit different. So the past is distributed differentially in the present than the future is, right? But even in cosmology, actually, you have this concept of pre-history. We have a concept in cosmology of the past hypothesis, which is kind of consistent with all current observational evidence, but it’s about the initial state of the universe, which we don’t know and we never will know, but the hypothesis is it was what’s called a low entropy state. So it was very ordered. And part of the reason for that is we expect systems to become more disordered over time so we need an ordered initial state as an explanation for the way the universe is now in current physics. But it’s a hypothesis based on our theories of the world and observational data that we have.

So a theory for me is it’s a broad set of explanations that are consistent with the observations but give you the expanded ability to see a horizon beyond what you observe now. And that’s what theoretical physics does really well because it does it in such a way that you can predict a very deep feature of that structure. But I think that’s pretty much what we do in any field where we’re trying to extrapolate beyond what’s immediately apparent to us, is we try to look for patterns and then we try to say, well, this would be consistent with these patterns that we see. And I think the past is constructed in exactly the same way. And we do lose information about the past because things disappear over time. And so sometimes I actually even question if there’s a unique history because people think the future is undetermined and there’s not maybe a specific future. Standard physics doesn’t say that, but I actually think that’s probably accurate. And I think that’s one of the things that a physics of life would have to reenvision, is that the future is open in some sense and determined by what exists now, not necessarily going all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe ’cause we also have to predict that. And then if you think that, then to be symmetric, the past might also be undetermined in some sense.

EV: This is the type of thing where you’re waiting for someone really high to wander by and you realize like, no, we’re super sober right now and this is super serious science.

SW: Some people are talking about stuff they talk about when they’re high, and I’m like, this is just what I think about all the time. No drugs required [laughs].

EV: It’s amazing. I mean, obviously, when it comes to science being developed by the things that are observable now, there’s gotta be a lot of humility there because there are so many things that we haven’t observed that we know that we haven’t observed. So how many things are there that we don’t even know that we haven’t observed, right?

SW: I think we can’t see most of reality.

ZK: I mean, it’s that question, like, do we even know what we don’t know? Right?

SW: Yeah. Yeah.

ZK: And the answer is often no. We think we have some idea of what we don’t know. We have an advent horizon that we’re kind of aware, at least we think we’re aware of.

SW: Right. Yeah. So I think it’s super interesting ’cause some people— human imagination is pretty big. We can imagine a lot of possible things existing, and sometimes we confuse the space of that imagination with everything that could exist. So we feel like we can imagine this space of all possible things that could exist and I can even make that statement. But I think everything we can imagine is still just a local feature of where we are because our imagination itself is a physical feature of what we are. So it’s telling us something about that locality, but you can’t imagine beyond what you can imagine because it’s actually not part of your local physics and where you exist in the universe, which is kind of crazy.

EV: I was gonna ask you to play a fun game where I asked you to explain some of your tweets. I think one of them is what you just said, which is we don’t model anything in the external world, with quotes, “external”. When you build a simulation in your mind, you’re already looking at a piece of the world stored in you, which reminded me so much— there’s this one school of thought in Tibetan Buddhism called the Mind-only school, which— okay, they’re saying something a little bit different. They’re saying that the world only exists within your mind, but embedded in there is that— the relationship between you and the world and your existence of the two and your creation of the two are constantly together, right?

SW: Yeah. I think we have a tendency to make a distinction between the subjective and the objective. And I think part of the challenge, in particular with understanding life generally as a physics, is that you have to blur the boundary between those two. So the outside world is the inside world, and what does that actually look like? And what I mean by that is if— so physics so far has mostly described the universe from the outside in some sense ’cause we write down laws of physics and we write down initial conditions, so we might know something or we can hypothesize about the initial state of the universe and we know the laws of gravitation, we can explain the behavior of the universe overall time. But when you’re a system inside the universe trying to describe it, I think the physics actually looks quite different in the sense that you can also think of that law of physics not actually being outside the universe.

And I think I kind of alluded this at the beginning, thinking about the history of physics when we’re having this conversation about like what could somebody that’s not a physicist say to a physicist? Well, you’re looking at a physicist from the [inaudible] and a physicist from the outside is the physical systems that invented laws of physics, right? So laws of physics themselves are a product of something that’s happened on our planet over billions of years. Life first emerged. It evolved multicellularity. Multicellularity eventually emerged animals. Animals evolved into humans. Humans invented culture. And human culture invented something called science. And science invented laws of physics. And now we use those to describe the properties of where we happen to be sitting in whatever reality we’re existing. And I think trying to understand it from that more intrinsic perspective of understanding ourselves in the universe and looking at it that way is much more productive for these [inaudible] questions, but it gets really hard because you start blurring these boundaries.

ZK: Right. I mean, that then leads to these philosophical speculations of are there any laws of physics distinct from human observation, right? That’s the whole—

SW: Yeah.

ZK: Philosophers have been dealing with that question. Obviously, Einstein did too, in terms of quantum, right?

SW: Yeah.

ZK: Is the perspective of the observer a distorting factor into the phenomenon or a separate factor-

SW: Yes.

ZK: -parallel to the phenomenon? Obviously not a question that we know the answer to, but at least we’ve begun to posit the fact that our eye, our observational eye, may be a much more substantial factor than whatever it is we’re observing, which does segue a little bit with your question about life, right? If there was forms of life that are not within our spectrum of understandable possibilities, would we even be able to register it as such, right?

SW: Yeah. Aliens could be weirder than we could imagine [laughs].

ZK: Right. And therefore could indeed be among us without us recognizing that. These are the philosophical questions. I wondered if you had a thought, ’cause you just mentioned this, one thing that’s separate from the AI mania, which seems to have seized Silicon Valley in particular, but culture in general, one thing that’s been kind of prevalent in the past decade or so, I guess, has been this whole simulation theory idea, that we’re living in a simulation.

SW: Yeah.

ZK: And there’s been some really cool writing about this. Some philosophers have talked about this. ‘Cause just as thought experiment of like, how do we know what we know?

SW: Right.

ZK: It’s an interesting one. ‘Cause you’ve talked about this. I wonder what your thoughts are. Is this just kind of a weird subset of overly wealthy people speculating about the nature of reality, or is there something there?

SW: I think there’s something there in everything that becomes sort of culturally relevant ’cause it’s kind of like what’s on our collective psyche, but I don’t think what’s there is what people say is there. So I think we had a really important revolution in our understanding of how the world works and how we can control it in the last century with the invention of modern computation. And I think we don’t really understand fundamentally what it is to simulate things. We don’t understand what information is as a fundamental category of nature. And I think people are just kind of confused about what that is. And so it’s easy to say all of reality could be a simulation, but it doesn’t actually give you any explanatory power beyond saying all of reality is governed by laws of physics because the laws of physics actually have the same problem as a simulation argument does, which is reality is governed by a mathematical description that requires something external to it to basically program the universe by setting a law and setting an initial condition.

So I think it’s interesting because people reinvent the same sorts of concepts with new language, but by doing that, they actually point at some of the holes in the old concepts. The simulation argument itself is interesting ’cause it points to the fact that our current conception of the universe in some sense could have an external designer. And we’ve replaced that external designer now, which used to be called God, with a computer programmer, which is a very Silicon Valley kind of thing to wanna do. So I think there’s some ego there [laughs]. But then that kind of casts some light on this whole question that we’ve had for centuries about where did the laws of physics come from? And in Newton’s conception of theoretical physics, he didn’t have a problem with inventing a field of inquiry, which we call now modern theoretical physics, that relies on external agents to set the thing in motion because he believed in a Christian God.

So I think this sort of reinvention of some of these ideas in new spaces actually points out where the science is actually not that different from having a theological belief. And then the question is, is it possible to move beyond that and get a deeper explanation that allows us to open new windows? And I think where this becomes interesting to me is not to say the universe is a simulation, which means the universe doesn’t exist, but to ask that question in a more constructive way, which is to say, what is it for a simulation to be physical, like, to have physical reality? What is it for words to be objects, like physical objects? Or what is it for things that are abstract to actually have causal power in the world?

And this for me is actually the same question that’s fundamentally about what life is because all life has been doing over the last few billion years is building up more information processing systems and layers of what we might call “software” in a computer system, but just layers of abstraction that seem to be allowing new possibility space to open. And computers evolved out of that process, right? Again, it goes to the fact that computers were invented by humans. So then I think it raises new, interesting questions we’re asking about what physical reality is, but it’s trivializing that question to just say reality is a simulation because I think it supposes that we understand what a simulation is, and I don’t think we do.

EV: So you’re constantly taking the step back, like going back, what’s the original question as it were here?

SW: I like inverting things. It’s just the way my brain works. So if somebody wants to make an argument, I like to take the same exact structure and try to invert it and think about it from the other side. And it’s so funny how often this happens that you can find logically consistent things that have a completely different spin and explanation on them for the same sets of arguments.

EV: You said something really briefly about aliens that was, again, both fun and useful, that they might be weirder than we think, meaning they might live among us, meaning here on earth or way out there and maybe we’ve already seen them, but we didn’t realize it.

SW: I mean, well, it depends on what level. So I could mean in either of those ways, but in some ways, if you think— in some sense, the exercise of understanding alien life for me has become deconstructing everything we know about physical reality in terms of the laws of physics we know and trying to build up a physics that would describe the phenomena that we call life. And that sounds like kind of an odd exercise, but every time we’ve had a major revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics, it’s never been because somebody carried an old theory over into a new area of understanding. So we didn’t take Newton’s laws of motion and apply them to quantum physics. Exactly why we invented quantum physics, is because our old paradigms didn’t work. And I think we see that with trying to understand life in mind. The reason these problems are hard is because our old paradigms don’t work. And so in some sense, you have to reconstruct it from scratch.

And so the reason I’m bringing that up is depending on what that reconstruction looks like, the alien could be beyond weirder that like there’s a different chemistry on a different planet. It could be to the extent that in an entire universe, there’s only one form of life because they’re so non-interacting in terms of their possibility space, that alien is really like, it exists in a different possibility space. That’s wildly philosophical and conjectural, but I think opening the possibility that even when we say the word alien, we can’t even imagine what an alien is, is a useful framing to really put us in the right space of where we are and how creative we have to be to think about this problem.

And I think it’s super interesting ’cause I was just having a conversation with someone this week about— well, I had a workshop on plant intelligence last week and like, are plants smart? And that seems like kind of a weird question to ask, but plants evolve. They do all kinds of really interesting things, but they’re very alien to us because I mean, what would be the experience of a plant? It’s like impossible to imagine. So in some sense, when we think about alienness, we can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a plant [laughs]. Like all of our alien concepts are very anthropocentric and very animal-focused. So this is just another example. I think that one’s getting a little hard and speculative to think concretely about, but I think it’s a good illustration of this kind of issue of the space and the use of the word and how we think about it.

ZK: There was that great— I don’t exactly know when it was written, sort of mid-20th century book called Flatland.

SW: Yes.

ZK: I mean, for those who don’t know, it tried to conceive of entities existing in different dimensionalities. So one dimensional, two dimensional, three dimensional, four dimensional, and that basically there were multiple aspects of each of those experiences that were just totally incomprehensible to each of the other dimensionalities.

SW: Yeah. I mean, if I wanted to get really nerdy and physicsy, I could say that— because I think life is fundamentally related to the physics of time. There are some theories in cosmology and things where space emerges from time. But if you think time is more fundamental and life is related to that, this issue, the dimensionality and where aliens could exist becomes very Flatlandish because space is actually built out of how they exist in time. And so it gets totally weird.

ZK: The weirdness too also segues with— I mean, there’s a reason why there’s been an odd, not necessarily culturally prominent, but odd convergence between some kind of eastern mystical esoterica, some of the Buddhist, Hindu, and physicists, right? And views of the world in the circularity of the world, the non-linearity of time, the degree to which things may be expanding endlessly and therefore where we exist within that expansive universe may just be a small part of it, and completely different languages, right? In the sense of a dharmic text or a sutra in Buddhism is a completely different language than the mathematical languages of physicists, but they end up describing oddly parallel realities.

SW: Yeah. I always love that. But also, you kind of think they should because presumably, we live in the same reality. We’re just using different languages to describe it. So I think a deep insight is a deep insight, and I don’t think it’s unique to theoretical physicists to have these kind of insights into how reality works. I just think we have a way of formalizing it that allows using that information in new ways.

And I give the example of— this is a wildly speculative comment, but like, what’s the difference between magic and science, right? Like magic is something an individual person can do. Science is something that you can teach it and everyone can use that information to do something. And this is why science actually is more powerful than colloquial knowledge, because it becomes knowledge of societies. And I think this is actually a really important function of science. It’s not just about making predictions and understanding the world. It’s actually about the transferability of that information in a way that allows you to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

And my go-to example is the fact that we’re launching satellites into space is a direct consequence of the fact that Newton wrote down the laws of gravitation 300 years ago. And so you might imagine it was possible and you might have one person building a rocket or something, but unless they have the fundamental principles of how that works and they can share it with other people in a mathematical language, which is a precisely shareable kind of language, then it doesn’t become useful to societies at that level of long-term evolution.

EV: Yeah, which is interesting, right? In the religion versus science conversation because religion, or spiritual insight, whatever you wanna call it, would fall under that same exact definition, right? With—

SW: Yeah. [Inaudible] personal thing, right? And then why I like science so much is I feel like it’s shareable deep insights.

EV: Yeah.

ZK: We are approaching our temporal time limit-

SW: Excellent.

ZK: -for the podcast. Clearly, the conversation is gonna continue endlessly. I say that our conversations always end and we should continue. This one, we could just say it’s gonna continue, just no one will be able to hear it.

SW: There’s a possibility space in which it did continue, but it’s not the reality we live in, so it’s not gonna—

EV: [Laughs].

ZK: So that may be an anti-climactic note, but I love the way you think. I think you are immensely creative and always provocative in the best sense of the word. And I encourage everyone to follow your work and you and everything you do. So we’re gonna leave it at that note. Thanks, Sara.

SW: Thank you. It was really fun.

EV: Thanks, Sara.

EV: So I kind of feel like I just had a conversation where the level of the conversation was a step above where I was able to go. I don’t know if the listeners felt that way as well, but I wasn’t kidding when I said I felt like I was waiting for that guy smoking a joint to walk by being like, yeah, man, universe and time. So it’s a fun exercise for those of us that aren’t really used to thinking about that on a daily basis to meet people that do and to hear how their minds work and where the theories are going.

ZK: I mean, it certainly is true that particularly in the theoretical physics realm, there’s an awful lot of philosophical conjecture. And yes, the architecture of it is intensely mathematical. And so it’s not like you and I could create the same architecture of argument that a theoretical physicist does. But once you get beyond that, a lot of what they’re talking about is these kind of huge questions of like, what’s the origin of life, and what’s the nature of life, and what’s the nature of the universe, and why are we here, and when’s it gonna begin, and when’s it gonna end, and how did it begin. And those are essentially the eternal questions that human beings have been asking about. It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of scientists who are asking those big questions. They’re not just grappling with very specific problems.

EV: Yeah. And I also really loved her answer and the point that she made about how a lot of the stuff with physics ends up sounding very resonant with— me, coming from the Buddhist world, I think about Buddhist text and Buddhist thought, because if you talk to Buddhist, there’s lots of like, yes— that shows that Buddhism is correct or you get the second response of no, we can’t have Buddhism be relying on science. But I never quite heard a scientist kind of put them on the same level like that, the way that she said a deep insight is a deep insight. I find that pretty rare to hear from the scientific community. So that was neat.

ZK: Yes. And once again, very cool person, very cool conversation. We probably should focus a little more on science. We did this a little bit with public health, but clearly we could be doing it more with some of the sciences as well.

EV: Yes.

ZK: What’s some of the news of the week that we ought to be paying attention to that we haven’t?

EV: So let’s talk about Indonesia. Indonesia’s on the cusp of moving into low middle income territory, which sounds really dry. The exciting part about that is that part of that success means that they’ve eradicated nearly all extreme poverty, which is defined as living on less than $1.90 per day in 2011 dollars, to be very precise.

Audio Clip: Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country with a population of almost 274 million people. Despite being the world’s fourth most populated country and spanning one-eighth of the planet, Indonesia maintains a modest profile on the international economic stage. However, this is now changing as the country’s rapid expansion in infrastructure, industries, education, and other aspects, is taking it to new highs in the world economic rankings.

EV: In 2022, they got the percent of Indonesians living in extreme poverty down to 1.5%, and it was 19% in 2002. They’ve also had pretty good progress when it comes to poverty, so this is a step up from extreme poverty, it’s defined as living on $3.20 per day, and that is now 16%, which was an astonishing 61% in 2002. So Indonesia is coming up despite the fact that Jakarta is sinking.

ZK: Well, and they moved the capital from Jakarta. They built a whole new capital.

EV: Or they’re trying to, I think, they’re trying their best.

ZK: Oh, they haven’t— it has not— it is an incomplete city, is that the current status?

EV: It’s incomplete. And I think that there’s some concerns about rushing construction, but they are attempting to move the capital since Jakarta is sinking at a rate of 1 foot per year. That’s a fact courtesy of The New York Times.

ZK: Wow. I’m impressed. I mean, I’m impressed that you knew that. I’m not impressed that Jakarta is sinking by 1 foot a year. And Indonesia is clearly a place that we don’t talk about enough. There’s no sarcasm in that comment, by the way. It’s got 280 million people. It’s the largest Muslim country in the world, or Muslim majority country in the world. And it’s vast. I mean, it’s 17,000 islands. I think from one island to the other is like farther than New York to San Francisco by far. And it’s a country that we basically overlook, right? It rarely comes up in global conversations, and yet it remains one of the more interesting kind of underexamined places in the world.

EV: We have a news item that does have to do with the US. Job satisfaction hit a 36-year high in 2022. So 62.3% of US workers said that they were satisfied with their jobs. This is data from an organization called The Conference Board.

ZK: The Conference Board is a pretty reputable organization according to them and others.

EV: [Laughs] according to them. I don’t know about others. The workers that were among the happiest are the ones who are hybrid and the ones who took part in the great resignation, so people who switched jobs during the pandemic.

Audio Clip: Workers are now the most content since the conference board started tracking job contentment in 1987. Now, fueling the increase, a tight labor market and flexible work arrangements. Measures that saw the greatest uptick, work-life balance and improvements in workload and the performance review process. Perks and pay improved with people reporting being happier with health plans, wages, and bonuses, and the potential for future growth. Across the more than two dozen metrics measured, hybrid workers were the most satisfied compared to fully remote or fully onsite workers. In fact, all sectors saw an increase in satisfaction.

ZK: People who have the optionality of doing some of their work at home and not commuting as much.

EV: So take that, Elon Musk.

ZK: Exactly. It’ll be interesting to see if that satisfaction goes down as they’re required to go back to the office, whether or not that worker satisfaction will go down. But another kind of counterintuitive story in that I think most people think or feel that satisfaction would be very low, particularly given how negative most Americans, by most surveys, are about the “economy” overall.

EV: Yeah. I think it might be tying into one of those things too, where people, just generally, not even having to do with job satisfaction, are negative about outside circumstances and positive about their own personal circumstances. So in that way, it’s not surprising, but I think that most people probably do assume that people are just toiling away miserable. So it’s nice to hear that it’s in fact the opposite.

So to follow up from that very science-based combo, our next story is a science one. Zachary, you’ve mentioned that sometimes TPN doesn’t do as much science as we could. So have a update about mapping the human genome. 20 years ago, we mapped the entire human genome for the first time, but it was primarily based on the DNA of one mixed race man from Buffalo, New York. [Laughs] very random. Not sure— I wish [inaudible]—

ZK: Buffalo’s claim to fame. No offense to Buffalo.

EV: Yeah [laughs]. With some inputs from a few other individuals, but it’s mostly of European descent, which means that we’re just missing a lot of the information that we should have. So now there is something called the pan-genome, which incorporates near complete genetic sequences from 47 men and women of diverse origins. The reason why this is important has less to do with sort of like DEI stuff and more to do with the part of the human genome that is associated with diseases. It’s a very small part. It’s like 0.4%, but that changes based on people’s origins. So if we wanna make advances for personalized medicine, for discovering the links between certain things in our genes and then a disease that will crop up later in life, it’s really imperative that we have samples from a wide base of people. So now we have it.

ZK: And the cost of mapping 20 years ago, incredibly arduous. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised for these companies. The Human Genome Project required massive funding. And with computing power now, particularly now, with the speed and ease and cost of mapping genomes has changed things, maybe not as dramatically as the initial mapping, but in many ways, yes, like the ability to do this 47 now, it’ll be 4,000 tomorrow, it’ll be 4 million soon enough, whether that’s personalized medicine or just increasingly greater insight into what it is we’re even talking about when we talk about our genetic makeup, our ability to do that dwarfs what was done 20 years ago.

EV: Yeah. It’s incredibly fast progress. And it’s something that, because it doesn’t have that tangible now effect, it’s really hard to feel excited about sometimes, like you just want the product right now, right? But eventually, it will come, and then we can point to all these times that we pointed out the steps along the way.

ZK: Absolutely. Well, thank you again, Emma, for another great conversation. We look at these news items and we also highlight many, many, many more each week in our newsletter, What Could Go Right?, which Emma writes with support of others and encourage all of you to get that newsletter, you can sign up for it, it’s free, at The Progress Network site or click on Twitter, et al. It also gets distributed through LinkedIn. So many ways to get it, many more stories than the ones that we cherry pick for our episode. And thank you all for listening. Thank you, Emma, for hosting. And we will be back with you next week.

EV: Thank you. Zachary.

What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Introducing: What Could Go Right?

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

Negative news can be overwhelming, but it's important to question whether it accurately reflects our world. Join "What Could Go Right?" to hear positive stories from various experts and challenge the negative narrative. Let's strive for a more balanced view of what's happening today.

Whether you need a change of perspective or change of heart, check out "What Could Go Right?" from The Progress Network, with Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas.

Progress Check: Season 5 Recap

Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas

Are our fears about the future grounded in facts on the ground today? Will conflict and war wax or wane this century? And what global progress can we look to as examples of unexpected good occurring? Today, for our season finale, Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas reflect on lessons gleaned from this season's episodes.

Lessons From Former Presidents

Featuring Jared Cohen

Are we defined by our jobs? What happens to ex-presidents after they leave office? And how does that apply to the current political landscape as we head into the 2024 election? Today, we're joined by Jared Cohen, author of the book 'Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House,' to explore how these leaders transition, redefine their identities, and sometimes find higher callings post-presidency.