Things I Do (Or At Least Think About)
Much of what I do fits comfortably under the categories of research, blogging, or writing books (The Big Picture, The Particle at the End of the Universe, From Eternity to Here, Spacetime and Geometry). Here are some other things I dabble in when I have the time.
Naturalism, Science, Religion
I am an atheist, although I prefer “naturalist” because it seems like a more constructive and forward-looking term. Furthermore, I believe that conventional Western religious beliefs are straightforwardly incompatible with what science has taught us about the universe. And I think it matters — religion is an important force both socially and philosophically, and getting these things right is important to how we live our lives. But I also think it’s possible (and advisable) to speak respectfully to people with whom we disagree, and I’ve attempted to live up to that ideal myself.
I have two longer articles on the subject: “Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists,” based on a talk I gave at a conference on “God and Physical Cosmology,” and “Does the Universe Need God?,” prepared for the upcoming Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. I participated in a debate sponsored by the Skeptics Society, pitting Michael Shermer and myself against Dinesh D’Souza and Ian Hutchinson. I was also part of a panel discussion on the Discovery Channel a special in which Stephen Hawking proclaimed the death of God. In 2004 I co-taught (with Shadi Bartsch) a course on the history of atheism at the University of Chicago.
In October 2012 I organized a small workshop, “Moving Naturalism Forward,” which brought together philosophers, biologists, physicists, and others to talk about ongoing challenges. Complete videos of the proceedings are now available.
Philosophy and Literature
I have a longstanding interest in philosophy, dating from my undergrad days when I got a philosophy minor. I haven’t done any “serious” work in philosophy, but I hope to someday. In the meantime I’ve been lucky enough to mingle with philosophers fairly often, and to give talks at several philosophy conferences. My research interests in physics overlap strongly with issues in philosophy of science, especially foundations of statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. But I’m also interested in metaphysics and ontology (especially issues of causation and emergence), not to mention ethics and moral philosophy. I did an interview about science and philosophy at 3:AM magazine. And hare some informal thoughts on various topics: physics and ethics, why there is something rather than nothing, contingency, ought vs. is, free will, Zizek, determinism, moral realism, and downward causation.
I’m also very interested in fiction and literature, and have occasionally used my credentials as a scientist to worm my way into meetings on those topics. Here’s a short paper I wrote on science as a source of metaphors. I’ve given a few talks at theater companies to accompany plays with scientific themes.
Media and Outreach
I’m a big believer that science is something everyone can follow and enjoy, and that scientists should make some effort to share what we discover about the universe. That feeling is a major motivation behind the blog, the books and courses, and the various videos. I’ve had the pleasure of appearing on a number of radio and TV shows, including The Colbert Report, NOVA’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole, and NPR’s Science Friday. Sometimes I appear on the DVD extras for a movie or TV show, such as the LOST University package that was part of the Blu-Ray for Season Five of LOST.
In 2003, 2004, and again in 2007 I went on dinosaur expeditions to Wyoming with Project Exploration. I found an edmontosaurus, or at least part of one. Every paleontological outfit needs a team cosmologist.
Science and Entertainment
Since moving to LA, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as an informal science consultant for a number of film and TV projects, in part through the efforts of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. TV shows I’ve been involved with include Bones, The Big Bang Theory, and Fringe; movies include TRON: Legacy, Thor, and Angels and Demons. Plus there have been a number of consults for projects that are still in development, with directors and writers such as Ridley Scott, Joseph Kosinski, Michael Mann, Ian Brennan, Timur Bekmambetov, and Gavin O’Connor. In 2011 I served on the Sloan Prize jury at the Sundance Film Festival. I strongly believe that scientists and Hollywood can work together to both improve the portrayal of science and tell better stories. This article in Popular Mechanics tells of the glamorous life of the science consultant, and this interview with SEE talks a bit about my experiences.
I enjoy teaching, and have won a couple of teaching prizes: the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award from MIT, and a Spherical Cow award from students at the University of Chicago. I don’t do any regular teaching as part of my job here at Caltech, although in a moment of weakness I agreed to teach Physics 125c, the third quarter of an advanced-undergraduate course in quantum mechanics. The course focused on the general theme of “subsystems and entanglement”: open-system dynamics, measurement, foundations, and quantum information. Handwritten lecture notes are available at the course web page.
I have recorded three lecture courses for The Great Courses:
- Dark Matter, Dark Energy: The Dark Side of the Universe
- Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time
- The Higgs Boson and Beyond
Naturally you should run out and purchase them right away.
All of the below descriptions refer to courses I taught at the University of Chicago.
During Spring 2006 I taught Physics 371, the graduate-level introduction to cosmology, which I also taught in Autumn 2001. Since GR is not a prerequisite and time was short, the course focused more on particle cosmology than on structure formation and the CMB.
In Winter 2005 I taught Physics 364, the graduate course in general relativity, just as I did in 2001 and 2003. That was the first time I was able to force students to buy my own textbook. The book grew out of a graduate course I taught long ago at MIT, the record of which is contained in the Lecture Notes on General Relativity.
In Spring 2002 and 2004 I taught Physics 264, “Spacetime and Black Holes.” It is a course on general relativity for undergraduates, and I used a mixture of textbooks. Hartle’s book is aimed at undergrads and provides a treasure trove of physical insight, but upon reflection I think it delays the good stuff about tensors and Einstein’s equation for far too long. Undergrads can take the real stuff!
I taught Physics 363, the graduate course in particle physics, in 2000 and 2002. Most insightful comment from student evaluations: “Professor Carroll sometimes hides the ugly truth in order to make things seem comprehensible.”
In Winter 2004 I taught a Big Problems course, Moments in Atheism, with Shadi Bartsch (Classics). It was a College course for third- and fourth-year undergraduates, although others sneaked in without getting hurt.
In Fall 2002 and 2004 Stuart Gazes and I taught Physics 300, a seminar for first-year graduate students on “The Teaching and Learning of Physics”.
I’ve organized a number of conferences, workshops, and symposia.
- Organizer, 13th Pacific Coast Gravity Meeting (Santa Barbara, 1997).
- Session Organizer, Cosmic Genesis and Fundamental Physics (Sonoma, 1999).
- Scientific Organizing Committee, GR16 (Durban, 2001).
- Working Group Co-Convenor (Astro/Cosmo/Particle Physics), Snowmass 2001: The Future of Particle Physics.
- Organizer, EFI Mini-Symposium: String Theory and Experiment, University of Chicago (October 2001).
- Local Organizing Committee, CfCP Workshop on Cosmological Probes of Dark Energy (Chicago, 2001).
- Local Organizing Committee (Co-Chair), Cosmo-02 International Workshop on Particle Physics and the Early Universe (Chicago, September 2002).
- Co-Director, Short Course on Origin of Structure in the Universe, Center for Cosmological Physics (Chicago, September 2003).
- Program Co-Organizer, Kavli ITP Program on Superstring Cosmology (Santa Barbara, Fall 2003).
- Program Committee, Moriond Conference on Exploring the Universe (La Thuile, Italy, 2004).
- Scientific Organizing Committee, GR17 (Dublin, July 2004).
- Organizer, AAAS Symposium on Understanding Dark Energy (Washington, D.C., 2005)
- Organizer, APS April Meeting Symposium on Cosmological Constraints on Gravitation and Fundamental Physics (Tampa, 2005)
- Organizing Committee, Symposium on Why So Few Women in Science? (University of Chicago, 2005)
- Organizer, AAAS Symposium on The Arrow of Time, 2010
- Organizing Committee, Challenges for Early Universe Cosmology (Perimeter Institute, 2011)
- Organizing Committee, Foundational Questions Institute Conference, Setting Time Aright (Bergen/Copenhagen, 2011)
- Organizer, Moving Naturalism Forward workshop (Stockbridge, MA, 2012)