Report from Colbert

Reporting back from a hotel in midtown Manhattan, having made it through the Colbert Report basically unscathed. In fact the experience was great from beginning to end. Update: here is the clip.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Sean Carroll
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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Monday morning I talked on the phone with Emily Lazar, a researcher for the show. I was really impressed right from the start: it was clear that she wanted to make it easy for me to get across some substantive message, within the relatively confining parameters of what is basically a comedy show. From start to finish everyone I dealt with was a consummate pro.

We got picked up at our hotel in a car that brought us to the Colbert studio, and hustled inside under relatively high security — people whispering into lapel microphones that we had arrived and were headed to the green room. Very exciting. The green room was actually green, which is apparently unusual. I got pep talks from a couple of the staff people, who encouraged me to keep things as simple as possible. They made an interesting point about scientists: they make the perfect foils for Stephen’s character, since they actually rely on facts rather than opinions.


Stephen himself dropped by to say hi, and to explain the philosophy of his character — I suppose there still are people out there who could be guests on the show who haven’t ever actually watched it. Namely, he’s a complete idiot, and it’s my job to educate him. But it’s not my job to be funny — that’s his bailiwick. The guests are encouraged to be friendly and sincere, but not pretend to be comedians.

We got to sit in the audience as the early segments were taped, which were hilarious. I feel bad that my own interview is going to be the low point of the show, laughs-wise. But I went out on cue, and fortunately I wasn’t at all jittery — too much going on to have time to get nervous, I suppose.

I had some planned responses for what I thought were the most obvious questions. Of which, he asked zero. Right off the bat Colbert managed to catch me off guard by asking a much more subtle question than I had anticipated — isn’t the early universe actually very disorderly? That would be true if you ignored gravity, but a big part of my message is that you can’t ignore gravity! The problem was, I had promised myself that I wouldn’t use the word “entropy,” resisting the temptation to lapse into jargon. But he had immediately pinpointed an example where the association of “low entropy” with “orderly” wasn’t a perfect fit. So I had to go back on my pledge and bring up entropy, although I didn’t exactly give a careful definition.

As everyone warned me, the whole interview went by in an absolute flash, although it really lasts about five minutes. There was a fun moment when we agreed that “Wrong Turn Into Yesterday” would make a great title for a progressive-rock album. Overall, I think I could have done a better job at explaining the underlying science, but at least I hope I successfully conveyed the spirit of the endeavor. We’ll have to see how it comes across on TV.

I shouldn’t end without including some good words about the bag of swag. Not only does every guest get a goodie bag that includes a bottle of excellent tequila, it also includes a $100 gift certificate for Donors Choose. How awesome is that?

And as we left the studio, there were some young audience members lurking around hoping for a glimpse of the great man himself. They had to settle for me, but they sheepishly asked if I would pose for a picture with them. Not yet having perfected my diva act, I happily complied. I hope they take away some great memories of the night.

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69 Responses to Report from Colbert

  1. CW says:

    Nice job, Sean. I could tell that you were trying to avoid using jargon, like entropy, but it wasn’t distracting. You explained things very nicely. And I’m halfway through your book and really enjoying it! Thanks!

  2. Joel Fox says:

    Saw your segment on Colbert and want to know more.
    Just added your book to my Amazon wish list and look forward to reading.

    Googled your site and enjoyed your behind the scenes view of The Colbert Show, as I’m sure I’ll enjoy “From Eternity to Here.”

  3. Meng Bomin says:

    Who is this “we” you speak of? Did you have company or have you started to go Unabomber on us?

  4. HP says:

    Wait, wait, wait. Excellent tequila?

    añejo, reposado, o plata?

    The world wants to know.

  5. JohnFrum says:

    Just saw the interview. Nicce job. I searched for “Wrong turn into yesterday” to see if there was in fact and album by that name. Sadly I don’t think there is. This blog was the only hit.

  6. “Wrong turn into Yesterday” Has will be the greatest album of the 23rd century. It was great. I really look forward to remembering it. I just wish I have found a source of MP3s of it, as I will sell it at a pawn shop last week, and have missed it ever since my third wife will divorce me.

    Joseph Picard
    Sci-fi author of Lifehack and Watching Yute

    PS: Just watched the interview. Good stuff.

  7. JohnFrum says:

    Sean, this is something I’ve always wondered about this show. Sometimes the guest gets up right away when it’s over and this looks bad on camera. Cobert tries to engage the guest to keep them seated but it doesn’t always work. Did they ask you to stay seated for a moment as the camera pulls back to break?

  8. Earl says:

    Cool. Look forward to seeing it.

    I’m not that surprised that you were asked about the early universe actually being highly order! I’m about a third of the way through “From Eternity to Here”, and being a full-time physicist haven’t really struggled with understanding most of the technicalities. That is, with the exception of a low entropy initial condition. Even though I was previously familiar with the idea, after reading about in the book I started thinking it over….. it is quite counter-intuitive! We have a hot early universe, so hot that matter hasn’t even settled down to be a liquid or even a gas. Basic physics teaches us that disorder (entropy) is greater for gases than solids. That reasoning would lead us to infer that the early universe is actually high-entropy.

    Obviously, this simplistic (high-entropy) interpretation of the early universe’s entropy isn’t right, and it has been a pleasure reading FEtH and re-evaluating some of my simplistic intuitions about entropy and the early universe. What I hadn’t thought about much before was the importance of the clumpiness of the current universe, is much more disordered than the smoothly dense early universe. This seems like the key point!? I guess the underlying intuition that is being violated by this picture is that, interpreting disorder in terms of macrostates and microstates, we have to think about planets as microscopic objects!

  9. Martin says:

    I don’t know how else to explain it besides Sean appearance, but the term “General Relativity” is trending Yahoo at the 7th spot. Rock on, Sean!

  10. Josh says:

    I enjoyed your interview. I thought you did a great job of communicating some ideas in layman’s terms. Your book looks really interesting, I look forward to the head scratching moments that surely will accompany its reading.

    All the best.

  11. Sean says:

    John Frum– Yes, they reminded me several times not to stand up at the end. Not everyone manages to remember, apparently.

  12. Jon says:

    Mr. Carroll,

    Just finished watching your interview on Colbert, and for what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to reading your book and paper titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists.


  13. Betul says:

    I really enjoyed the interview, Sean. I especially liked how you took the ‘cake’ example and actually used it to explain your theory. Good response!

  14. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    “Sorry, Video’s are not currently available in your country.”

    So much for the reach of the web.

  15. Clifford says:

    Sean, I am hoping you could clarify your remarks from the segment here, viz. How is it that batter has the lower entropy than the cake and analogously the seemingly randomness of ionized gas has lower entropy than our present solar system? Or perhaps Colbert provided a bad analogy in that one applies energy to the batter to increase order where maybe no additional energy is applied to our closed universe?

  16. marc says:

    I’d love to watch the video, but it stops for about 30 seconds every 20 seconds or so, and there seems to be no way to download it first and then watch it….maybe in a few days.

  17. buffalodavid says:

    My DVR came through and the show was waiting for me when I got home. I was a little surprised that he didn’t use “your” question. “Didn’t God Just do it?” I’m still waiting for you to do a walk on for “The Big Bang Theory”

  18. Metre says:

    We can now bestow the title of “Celebrity Scientist” upon you.

  19. Justin Beals says:

    Great work Dr. Carroll. Congrats on the spot and it’s good to see this form of science in the mainstream cultural discussion.

  20. Leslie Haber says:

    I thought it went very well. The point you made with the wrong turn into yesterday was much better than the joke that followed it.

    I have read the book, and I thought you explained it quite well, given the time frame.

  21. Tod R. Lauer says:

    Dear Sean,

    First rate job with what you were trying to get across, and you blended with Colbert perfectly. Not being able to remember the future, I tried to answer the questions in my mind, before your replies, and was impressed with your deftness in not stepping in it. The “Cake” question showed how sharp Colbert really is, and this might have been an easy place to go off the rails, but you nicely replied that total entropy was what was important (without using such technical language). Now on to Letterman…

  22. Mandeep says:

    Sean- great going, you acquitted yourself quite finely there. one thing that impressed me is that Stephen is *clearly* confused and going WTF at several points, and Colbert is a *smart* cookie, so he gets the gist of things, most of the time, even with scientists i feel. so i found his reaction there to be rather rare. but because some of the things you explain *do* require more than just a couple of min for the layman to understand, there was no way he could get it all, so he just took what he could, made a coupla jokes, knowing he was clearly outclassed in the arena of understanding the Universe, and asked some good q’s. hope it gets you more books sold, and a few more hits here at CV, too!

  23. Dave Koehler says:

    Well done, Sean! Not bad for someone who went through Pennsbury Schools. 😉

  24. hackenkaus says:

    Sean, you have clearly put on weight since last I saw you. It’s starting to make you look a bit middle aged and jowely. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I know many people let themselves go after getting married, but if you really want to go Hollywood then you’ve got some work to do.