I was asked to become a member of the Golden Door Spa’s “Speaker Series” and gave a talk one evening a few months ago. The talk seems to have gone viral, at least by the standards of the Speakers Series!
Here is a transcript of my talk with Kathy Van Ness, the CEO of the Golden Door. I hope you enjoy it.
Kathy: So we’re at the Golden Door my name is Kathy Van Ness and I’m very excited tonight to be with Brian Keating a interview I look forward to for some time to be able to do and this is Astrology Week and we’re going to be talking about looking back at the time of the Big Bang and what you see and we’re going to be asking some really interesting questions about his work and what that means in the theory of the beginning of the what I assume to be earth right…
Brian: The Universe.
Kathy: Of the universe and even bigger.
Brian: That’s right!
Kathy: So Brian Keating is an astrophysicist at UCSD Center for Astrophysics and space sciences. He’s one of the leading leaders of collaboration responsible for building a telescope. An Observatory called polar bear, perfect name. That allows physicist for the first time to measure the gravitational waves that emanated from the universe during the first moment of its creation. Bryan also co-leads a separate collaboration that detected large clumps of galaxies. I have goose bumps about this, I think it’s really interesting, a way of using the CMB not even going to go there as a backlight to reveal structure in the universe. So the first question is, Brian, you created a telescope that captured traces left over by cosmic inflation it happened thirteen point eight billion years ago what was the process how does it feel?
Brian: Well, thanks very much. It’s great to be here. What I liken this to – what I do, is a form of archaeology; so just like Indiana Jones gets to look for things that travel through time what I’m looking for is stuff that travel through time too. Except I don’t get to look for a Dinosaur bone that’s been traveling through time and space I am looking for things that only come to us in the form of light! So I call myself a Light Archaeologists. So we are looking for ancient photons…ancient beings of light that really are the earliest pictures of the universe. I called the first ultrasound of the infant universe. So what we want to do is… I’ve always want to study the biggest thing that you could study about science. And that’s what my passion is.
Kathy: So when you were a little boy you just…So how did you get here?
Brian: Yeah. I was saying over dinner that when I was 10 years old, my mother was my
first scientific funding agency. She bought me a telescope. There was this really cute girl that lives down the street …Ah no, that’s a joke. I was always wondering, what was that bright star next to the moon and I said it’s got to have a name. And this is before the internet …twenty thirty years ago, before the internet and I had to wait till Sunday afternoon came and I got the New York Times Sunday magazine section I can look up what was that? Well, it wasn’t a star. It was another planet. It was the planet Jupiter and it just blew my mind that I could see another world with my eyes and then even more amazing was to see the moons of Jupiter which inspired Galileo, my hero, scientifically and see those very moons that he saw it quadruple the number of moons that I saw in my entire life in one instance and it just took my breath away.
Kathy: Oh my gosh! You’re discovery captures the question that have been asked time over time of what was this vast explosion. Can you explain for us …because this is an astrology week and we’re all fascinated by the planets, explain the actual moment of the Big Bang that created the universe?
Brian: So I would say if I could go back in time to any moment it would be back to the beginning of time. But what’s amazing to think about the, more than we learn about the very origin of the universe the genesis of the universe if you will the less we really can comprehend about it because at that very instant, time itself was created, so time did not exist before this instance when the universe came into existence. So unless some other phenomenon, unless there is multiple copies of our universe… which maybe we can discuss… there may be just as there are multiple planets….
Kathy: That might be another night, that’s next astrology week
Brian: That’ll be multi universe week. So just as there are multiple copies of the planets that have could be just like the earth there might be other copies of our universe just like our universe and so that’s the question that drives us to this day. So can we comprehend what took place at the very instant of time, possibly not, unless there was a universe that existed before ours.
Kathy: So I don’t actual follow that question. Can you actually describe which you answer but I’m asking again the first moment of the big bang or the last moments?
Brian: So the first moments of the big bang after time equals zero. So if you asked what was the universe like we understand the universe not at that first zero seconds, but we do understand it one second after the Big Bang; which sounds pretty good especially when you think that the universe came into existence 13.798 billion years ago, 798 million years ago. Plus 13 billion so if we think about that, and we know everything that happened back to one second.
Kathy: So what was at that one second?
Brian: So that’s the question. We don’t know that. We don’t know what happen right before that ….our knowledge hands off is one second. It’s like you’re doing ancestry. You doing the family tree and you get back to that ancestor and you can’t go beyond that. But we’re greedy. We want to go beyond that. But you can’t do that with light, with visible light or with microwave light. So we invented, I invented this gravitational wave detector using a telescope to look possibly back not just one second or not just one millisecond or nanosecond, one trillion of a trillion trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. That’s what we want to look back to, an incredible caldron in the ceiling particles and energy fields.
Kathy: So, you can actually see this?
Brian: We, if we can detect the signal with these telescopes that we’re building and deploying all over the planet literally all over the world, we will be able to glimpse the conditions of what the universe’s infancy was like, that first trillionth of a second in that happened? What was the particle like? What was the energy level like? What was gravity like? We don’t understand anything about that now. So I liken it to…yeah to this ultimate quest to take the ultra ultrasonic image of the embryonic universe. We just don’t have the capability until we build these telescopes
Kathy: During a presentation about the mysterious universe, which it clearly is, you mentioned there’s a startling possibility that our ‘Cosmos might just be the most insignificant speck of what is now called the multiverse’
Brian: The multiverse. That’s right yeah
Kathy: Can you explain?
Brian: So yeah. So the multiverse is a, is a controversial extension of a well understood aspect of physics, which is that, if you have this explosive origin of the universe called The Big Bang it might not be possible to shut it off. It’s not like you’ve run out of gas in the universe tops creating. It may be that the universe is continuously created in different parts that we can no longer see. As it’s so far away from us; but given enough time we may be able to see those regions of the universe and with our telescopes we may be able to see not only those other universes that the conditions of our own universe at a very early time. So the multiverse is really a simple extension, of what Galileo did four hundred and fifty years ago. He saw moons going around Jupiter and he knew there were moons, so he said the earth is not the center of it all as the Catholic Church and others held for thousands of years. Einstein believed that even left much later. Not that the Earth was the center of the universe, but that the universe is infinite and static. But Galileo showed incontrovertibly that we are not the center of the solar system. So if we’re at the center of the solar system, we’re not the center of our galaxy, our galaxy is not the center of our universe, why not let it be least concede that there could be other universes?
Kathy: So I am going to ask this question a couple times cuz I’m so curious. You have this telescope…
Brian: That’s right
Kathy: That’s in the middle of the hottest desert. I guess the first question would be was the desert atmospherically a better place than another’s and what was that reason?
Brian: Right so people always say why did you go there? My wife always asked why do I got out Chile or the South Pole, why can’t I stay in the Golden Door.
Kathy: We have some space, it’s about ten acres right?
Brian: Delicious dark matter dessert. So what I would say is that even though San Diego is a desert there’s still an awful lot of humidity here. It rains here right, in Chile it never rains. It doesn’t rain at 17,500 feet. Course there’s not much oxygen there either and you have to carry oxygen tanks on your back like a scuba diver in order that you don’t pass out half the time. So you have to go to this great links because as everyone who has a microwave oven knows, I know there’s no microwave here at golden door. But if you have a microwave oven, what happens is that microwave heat is being conveyed to water inside the food. There’s actually water inside the food. Which is why you can heat up a coffee inside of a ceramic mug but you can touch them up but you can’t touch the coffee. It would hurt you. Right, so water absorbs heat so you want to go somewhere extremely dry, the driest desert on earth is not the Sahara it’s the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Kathy: Wow! So have you actually been there yourself?
Brian: I have been there
Kathy: Have you actually looked through this telescope?
Brian: Yes, you don’t look through these Telescopes.
Kathy: There’s the question.
Brian: Once you get beyond a certain level of astronomy, they don’t let the astronomers put their eyes up to these Telescopes nor can we see the information that this telescope detects. This telescope detects what these very fanciful detectors that look very different than the human eyeball detects. These are detectors that we make that are cool down almost to the limit of cooling and these detectors can sense things that our senses don’t have. We don’t have a sixth sense to see microwaves and radio waves but these pieces of technology that my young graduate students built, they allow us to see the invisible and that’s what we do. So we don’t look through the telescope, computers look through the telescope and then we analyze the data that the computers bring up.
Kathy: Right. So you said the telescope’s help reveal the origin and composition of the universe?
Kathy: Let me quote you “exquisite precision”, can you elaborate?
Brian: So it use to be like when I was just starting out in graduate school say twenty-five years ago. It used to be that we didn’t know if the universe was ten billion years old or twenty billion years old. Now that might be flattering you meet somebody you say you look like you could be twenty years older than 40 years old, right, I’d be flattered by that, but we now know the age of the universe; to the same precision as if I look at somebody in the audience who is this a fifty years old and I say you were born on this day at this hour in this minute. That’s how precisely we know the composition, the properties of the universe and this is really a magical time in human history and we can understand things this exquisitely and don’t forget, all the information we had to wait 13 billion years for it to come to us.
Brian: So, we don’t go out and do an experiment and twiddle phenomenon. We have to wait for light and heat the travel across billions of light-years to get to us.
Kathy: So that’s an interesting sort of following questions. So as the telescope is peering into this universe, the data is obviously, data that is technically older data, cause it is taking all this time to get here.
Brian: That is exactly right. So when you look at the sun, don’t do it please I’m a professional astronomer don’t look at the sun. But when you’re seeing the sun, it has taken light eight minutes to get from the sun to the earth. So for all you know on a sunny day you could be looking at this beautiful sunrise sunset and that sun could have disappeared; eight minutes ago, seven minutes ago and you wouldn’t find out about it for 8.3 minutes and then all of a sudden all hell would break loose. Hope that doesn’t happen, you better pay your bills before that happen; you pay your taxes. But at the same thing that’s a consequence of Einstein’s famous theory of relativity which is that nothing goes faster than light but light travels at a finite speed of 286,000 miles/ sec. So that if you translate that into something a little bit more reasonable that means one foot it takes light only a billionth of a second to travel this far. So that means every foot something is away from you, you’re seeing it when it was one nanosecond younger, which at which point when I’m giving a talk to older audiences young people in the front row start moving back because they look younger to me. But I wish I could patent as an anti-aging solution
Kathy: Sort of like the age old question too. You’ve waited a long time to get this data?
Kathy: How far, can the telescopes, peer into the university?
Brian: It can go back to the very beginning. So with this type of telescope if you if you arrange it and analyze the data properly there’s nothing that stops us from going back, not to beginning of time zero but to a trillions of a trillion of a trillion for the second one that’s after 36 zeros. Just an incredibly finite infinitesimal amount of time, at which point we know that space has quantization; or quantum mechanics we’ve heard of that. But maybe time is quantum. Maybe time we see time as a river in all cultures and languages, time division as a continuum as a river. Buddhism and other religions but what if time is quantized and we just perceive it as moving continuously but it’s actually making quantum jumps; and in between each jump a finite number of things can happen. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it.
Kathy: It’s mind blowing. It’s fascinating. You must like your job
Brian: I do. I love it actually. I say you know
Kathy: It’s a nice job. I like my job
Brian: It takes me underground but I would do it for free.
Kathy: Exactly. Don’t you just love to be paid to look at all these?
Brian: I get paid to look at what I love.
Kathy: You actually get to see things besides numbers on a computer?
Brian: Oh absolutely. I get to work with hardware, meteorites. There is a meteorite four point three billion years old you can touch it. Do you want to touch it?
Kathy: I want to touch it. Do you want to touch it? I want to touch it.
Brian: People think about diamonds.
Kathy: Oh my God!
Brian: You know we have a pearl expert here?
Kathy: Yeah we do.
Brian: This is my gem.
Kathy: How did you get it?
Brian: I bought this. I acquired it in the ancient technique of exchanging money for it.
Kathy: You must…
Brian: But look at the structure
Kathy: I want my guests to be able to tell
Brian: I will pass it around. It has beautiful crystalline structures.
Kathy: Oh! It’s like steel.
Brian: Which can only be form at 0 gravity…
Kathy: How did you that?
Brian: So I bought it. You can these meteoroids. I can sell you it for the right price. So this object can only form zero gravity and at it’s the age of our solar system which is 4.3 billion years old. You’re holding the oldest history of our entire solar system. This is star stuff. This is what the universe is made of.
Kathy: How many years again?
Brian: This is 4.3 billion years old
Kathy: 4.3 billion years old. Let’s pass this around.
Brian: Pass it around.
Kathy: Throw it.
Brian: No, no, no. I wouldn’t do it. It’s actually heavier than it looks.
Kathy: It’s actually quite heavy.
Brian: And this is something that’s quite light.
Kathy: What’s this?
Brian: This is a piece of Antarctica so this continent is unlike any other continent.
Kathy: This is like lava.
Brian: This is lava exactly so pass that around too.
Kathy: So the polar bear, I want to ask you different question. I hope you find this as fascinating as I do. This is just fascinating. The polar bear is something of a time machine.
Kathy: I think there is a movie right. It’s coming back out right like time. The Time movie there was a big honoring of it coming back. The polar bear is something of a time machine that you created. Explain the concept of how you see time reversing and what does this actually like.
Brian: So people, yeah they think about time reversing and how you could possibly travel through time. What Einstein showed is that we’re all travelling through time, we’re all travelling through time at the speed of light if you will. But because we’re made of material we can’t go the same speed of light we have to go much slower but relative to our vintage point. We could see phenomena that appeared to be slowing down in time so that a second to you Einstein used to say a second on a hot stove feels like an eternity and 5 minutes with a beautiful girl it feel like second and that’s true I can attest to that being married to a beautiful woman. So it is true that time is relative but not just human perception and that’s the thing. People say everything is relative but it has a very different meaning to a Phycisist and it’s very precise and very concrete. But the thing is that this 100 years ago be considered magic and now we think of it and interact with every day. It’s reality.
Kathy: I know. Explain the difference between Polar bear and bicep.
Brian: Yeah so there are 2 telescopes that I’m a part of and none of these are done just by me. They’re done in collaboration with mostly young people, graduate students, young men and women who are getting their PhD degrees with me in my laboratory or at Berkley or Caltech, the places that I collaborate with. So the technology differs between the Polar bear telescope which is the world’s highest cosmological telescope in Chile at 17,500 feet above sea level and Bicep is a telescope at the South Pole. One is a very large telescope, 12 1/2 feet in diameter, enormous telescope, hundreds of thousands of pounds in total a mass. And then the Bicep telescope is relatively big but it’s only about a foot and 1/2 across in diameter. And it’s called the refracting telescope and it’s actually fitting. It’s very similar to this type of telescope which I’ll pass around. This is a Galileon telescope. This is exact same kind of telescope that Galileo first used. He didn’t invent it but he first used it to look at the moon and the moons of Jupiter. So we can pass this around too if you like. So this is the type of telescope that’s at the South Pole. This is like Bicep and the reflecting telescope with the mirror like a giant shaving mirror, that telescope as it magnifies so does polar bear.
Kathy: But to make this even more interesting then there is the Hubble space telescope that claims they can pair back and look at galaxies moving and moving towards us and moving away.
Brian: That’s right.
Kathy: So for us Novices those are 3 sets of telescopes. In an understandable answer what are the 3 of them looking at?
Brian: So the differences are like the differences between an X-ray, an MRI and a photograph So if you see a photograph that’s one with visible light and you’re able to make out things into normal things but it’s only able to see the surface. An X-Ray can see through something in two dimensions so it can take all your bones and project it onto a flat but an MRI uses radio waves and so it can see three dimensional that’s why you can see into the body and see where there is a problem hopefully minor problem. So you can see inside of it. So with radio waves you can see the debt of something. And so if you like we’re looking at the debt, we’re doing tomography; we’re looking through the past history of the universe. Hubble sees things on the sky and it looks like it’s only a 2 dimensional image like of a galaxy or a cluster. But just as you can do different diagnostics with an X-ray versus an MRI, versus a visible photograph so too these three different types of telescopes reveal different science. And we astronomers tailor the technology to the science that we’re targeting. So you have to know a little bit about what you’re looking for.
Kathy: So when you look into the galaxies do you see things that we should know that have changed?
Brian: Yes I can’t speak about the alien autopsy.
Kathy: What’s this conversation that there’s water on Mars now?
Brian: Yeah so people are very interested in water on Mars. I had my theories about why people are interested in water on Mars. First of all I think people like to think about what would happen after Earth. So where could we go if we god forbid did something to the earth. Right so that’s one thing and so you’d like to think of maybe going to another planet and Mars is the only habitable planet we think in the Solar System that has temperature about the same temperature as the Earth within reason and potentially could have water in ice form and we could use that water to make hydrogen and oxygen which when combine together explode to produce rocket fuel. So once you get to Mars then you can build rocket fuel and then from Mars you can explore the rest of the Solar System.
Kathy: Do you love this really right, what a thought. During your day as being an astronomer what is it a day like in the life of an astronomer?
Brian: Many astronomers or also Professors. So I’m a Professor which means that I have the world’s hardest 3 hour a week job because when I teach I have 3 hours a week of teaching and then I meet with students. But really Professors spend a lot of their time unfortunately to do a lot of mundane things. We have to look for opportunities to raise money for our research and because the government budget being what it is it’s not so high so we spend a lot of time raising money for our employees. I have 8 PhD students ranging in the age from 22 to 29 and each one of those I have to support and they have a salary etc and they’re getting their PhD. So I have to find research projects for them to do. I have to cultivate their abilities to write and give presentations. I teach and then it’s very rare I get a chance to be with them in the laboratory anymore and then so the satisfaction I get is vicarious. So I get to learn about them, what they’re doing and influence their directions when they’re still young. I would say look when you’re a big Professor you’re going miss these times when you had the freedom paid by somebody else (me) to go explore your dreams and learn about what is it like to explore the universe.
Kathy: Do you find that young talent today that’s something that they’re interested in, is that a career?
Brian: Yeah it’s interesting. So a lot of competition right now is not from other universities, Harvard, places like that. It’s from Google and Facebook and they want to hire my smartest people. Actually my proudest thing is when selling that works for me gets a very high quality job. No matter what they want to do. So my competitions are these internet companies.
Kathy: Is that right?
Brian: But I’m very proud to say that I’ve had students turned down working for Tesla and working for Facebook and places like that to work on these ultimate questions. Facebook will be there in 5 years but when you get older you may not have the time or the ability to get a PhD anymore and life gets in the way. We make plans and it doesn’t always work out that way.
Kathy: So do you think in our generation it will come to some of these answers?
Brian: Yes I think for sure we will know what exactly the first microsecond of the universe was like. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to learn what that was like whether it conforms to our expectations is a whole other matter. Whether nature is kind enough to arrange herself in a way that we can comprehend it that is not knowable but we will eventually know. In my lifetime we will know answers to these extremely big questions about the very Earth. But what’s beautiful about science is that there’s more than one mystery, that one mystery answered allows you to answer 10 or ask 10 other questions and that’s what’s beautiful to me is that I’ll never be unemployed I hope.
Kathy: But do you feel that in answering that question most of the answers are in a mathematical state I’m assuming will it actually be in a pictorial state so we as normal people can actually see this event and it obviously takes graphic artist to put it. Will it be enough information to put it in a way that we can go oh my gosh!! that’s what really happens?
Brian: So we had some discoveries that were on the front page one of my employees made for his PhD thesis, was on the front cover of the New York Times a year and a half ago. So these are mesmerizing images. You don’t look at them and say oh I understand that the angular powers but yeah like I do. I mean when I look at a painting I see something different than historian sees. But, that doesn’t make it less beautiful to me and I think people can appreciate. It’s not just pure numbers are boring, not that numbers are boring but it’s not dry. When you look at it you can see there’s a beauty because there’s a richness in it. There’s an organizing factor to it that excites the human mind and mesmerizes.
Kathy: So there’s a lot of conversation about the future of robotic space exploration. What do you think about that?
Brian: Yeah there’s a book by Brian Green. It’s actually a children’s book so I encourage people that have children that don’t maybe have read his books but don’t fully understand it. It’s called Hecures at the Edge of Time I think. I have a 4 year old son who worships…
Kathy: He must love having you as a dad.
Brian: Oh yeah he say’s you’re the second smartest Brian I know. Brian Green’s book he loves it. So this book is about a young boy named Hecures and he is flying on a mission who is born on a space craft travelling to the nearer star system in theory and along the way he gets a spoiler alert. There’s no spoiler alert here. But as he gets close to a black hole something happens. And when I read it to him he was really in thrilled because he started to ask will this boy die on the space ship. Robots are colonizing our Solar System but they are no people on it and I think that that’s smart we should send a lot of robots out there. But people like Elon Musk said I want to die on Mars not like crashing to Mars, to die but to live out the rest of his life on Mars and he’s working towards it. I have no doubt that there will be commercial space travel. If you just look back 100 years ago when the Wright brothers made their airplane if you ask them are they going to be air bust 380s travelling between San Diego and London with 350 people on it at 650 miles an hour.
Kathy: Have you been to his facility in Los Angeles? I’m sure you must have.
Brian: Yes I’ve been there.
Kathy: Oh my gosh!! It’s like in the middle of nowhere.
Kathy: I mean nowhere an they’re rockets been built, huge rockets in the mile of Los Angeles, in the giant factory. There are real rockets and giant rooms with computers and people looking into space on all these computers and it’s like I think it’s a movie set.
Brian: Yeah it really is.
Kathy: You walk down the hall ways and there’s these people working 24 hours a day on rockets, big ones like way bigger than this room.
Brian: These are like Tony Star.
Kathy: Exactly where I am he’s like Tony Star, it feels like that.
Brian: It’s really happening.
Kathy: It’s really there, a giant huge buildings with rockets. Oh my gosh!! So do you see robotic technology taking over working on the ground as much as it would be in space?
Brian: Yes so already these incredibly advanced sensors. So if you look at these detectors they’re made with precision of a million of a meter precision, a thousand times smaller than a human hair. There’s no person that can make these detectors, there’s no human being. I don’t care how long they’ve been here and relaxed for but if you had one cup of coffee in your whole life you cannot do what a robot can do. So there are good things that robots can do. They can vacuum floors, but they can’t come up with a theory. They can’t come up with the vision and the creativity to create, not yet. But what’s interesting to think about is my colleagues at UCSD have thought about…When will it be that a computer can start to think about itself and that will start to be a game changer. Most people don’t think about themselves but when a computer does it could be very interesting and some people have tried to do two things. Stephen Hawking and Musk is involved with this too wanting us to be very careful about doing contacting alien civilizations or broadcasting that we’re here. They may already know that we’re here but we shouldn’t be going out there and saying we are here, come because they’re saying that’s like advertising what’s on the menu for lunch right. It could be.
Kathy: Oh my goodness.
Brian: So we don’t want to do that and maybe we don’t want robots to get too powerful but that’s kind of far out of what I do. But I do have thoughts about it.
Kathy: So Brian what’s next for you?
Brian: So we’re working on a couple of different things. One is a mission in space. So we want to send up two different types of satellites and these are working with kids at UCSD some of whom are trying to be the first University team to launch a rocket above the definition of space which is roughly 60 miles above the surface. So we’re working on a tiny little satellite and then we’re looking on a huge satellite to build to study these imprints of the infinite Universe. And once we do, once we see it we’re going to be able to go extremely deeply and perhaps investigate things that no one’s really thought to ask yet. My students, they’re really brilliant and once they have this data it allows them to then ask questions which I couldn’t have asked and then to answer those questions and they’re part of the scientific tradition.
Kathy: Wow!! Well at the end of all our interviews which I think this has been fascinating I can do this for days because I just think there’s so much knowledge out there to try to understand. We always ask our guest to provide a Golden nugget for our guests before you go. And so this is going to be an interesting one for you as an Astrophysicist. What would be your Golden nugget for our guest tonight?
Brian: Okay well I hadn’t thought about that but I’ll say the thing that is most interesting to me and as Einstein said the most interesting about the universe is that it’s comprehensible. That’s the most incomprehensible thing about it. To me I always like to say because people ask me about God and spirituality and how does that fit in as a scientist and I like to think that spirituality and science shouldn’t be oil and water but there should be a dialogue and not a monologue. And so to the people that are religious I say learn about Science don’t be contented just take things on faith because you may find that your faith is enhanced by having a deeper appreciation for the laws. The beauty of the laws can translate into a deeper faith I believe and Scientist shouldn’t be so quick to cast dispersion on Religion. As it is Astrology Week here I always have to admit that Astrology is really the Genesis of Cosmology which is my study of the early Universe. So we shouldn’t be quick to discourage it. Not necessarily that we should embrace spirituality to necessarily become a better Scientist but there shouldn’t be a hostility. And so I think they should encourage dialogue because that’s the best way to convince people. So I usually say that each side in the spirituality scientific debate should be open minded.