The Guardian Books podcast is a go to source for in depth and skilled author interviews. Richard Lea’s discussion with Sean Carroll on his latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, is a perfect example of the edifying banter we can plug into and actually make our smartphones smart.
Carroll, research professor specializing in dark energy and general relativity at the California Institute of Technology, has done a fantastic job distilling hard-core science into language that make deep ideas accessible to most. For example, Carroll compares the difference between statements of scientific facts versus the values we like to peg our morals on. In the case of facts, you are either right or wrong–the universe is either expanding or it is not. We don’t have the same metric for our values. There is no criteria to judge the correctness of what we believe is meaningful or not.
Carroll explains that on average the human heart beats three billion times in a lifetime. That is a big number, but not that big he cautions. We feel our heart beating, slowly but surely towards an end. So short of some overarching transcendent axiom our personal choices to attach value, meaning, and a purpose to our world are important. In fact they are all we have. “This is not a dress rehearsal,” he says, the implication being that we had better make good decisions. As if we needed more pressure.
Wondering why we are here and what it means is a good thing in Carroll’s mind. Of course, this requires going beyond the focus of how to survive and flourish in our material lives. Human life, says Carroll, is at its best when examining bigger, more profound existential questions. When we do that science comes into contact with art and literature and the other ways we have of making sense of the world. For those that need a primer on the big why, it seems that The Big Picture might be just what the shrink ordered.