Lectures for a New Year: 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (The Theory of Everything)

Time for some fairly deep physics -- strap yourselves in! For many decades, notions of a "theory of everything" have floated around scientific circles: can the universe be explained by a "unified theory," in other words a theory that unifies the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics? Each of these theories works well in their realms (the very big and the very small), but trying to tie them together doesn't work easily. String theory is one of several possible ways to do this -- but there are others, and they all lack much in the way of testable proof. Some scientists continue to think that a unified theory is impossible.

On March 7, 2011, a six-member panel of scientists joined Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss that elusive "theory of everything." For about an hour and a half, this distinguished group tears it up:

Dr. Katherine Freese, professor of physics at the University of Michigan

Dr. Jim Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland-College Park

Dr. Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College

Dr. Marcello Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College

Dr. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University

Dr. Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Topics: a report from Brian Greene on string theory (ten years after the first such panel), a discussion of the core problem(s) at hand, chirality, data is always just a year away, balloons, Flatland, gravitons, Adinkra symbols, and many other topics. To paraphrase what reader James said earlier this week in suggesting this discussion, the most bizarre and engaging part of this talk is when Dr. Gates raises the possibility that we all may indeed live in some form of The Matrix and are ourselves basically just mathematical/computer code. Want to know what's up with that? Watch.

For: science/physics nerds. The talk is aimed at the layman, though it may seem fairly technical to non-nerds.

Representative Quote: "Science is not about what's true or what might be true, science is about what people with originally diverse viewpoints can be forced to believe by the weight of public evidence." -Lee Smolin

Viewing tip: the introductions are nice, and they explain each panelist's background (two are high school dropouts!), but they are eminently skippable. If you want to get right into the discussion, skip ahead to about 17:00.

Further Reading

Several of these panelists, and NDT himself, have written great books. I'd recommend Brian Greene's books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.


I haven't found a transcript of this discussion, and the auto-captions are awful. If you locate a good transcript, please point it out in the comments.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we'll check it out! Many thanks to reader James for suggesting this one.

A Step-by-Step Journey Through Your Body's Digestive System

We at Mental Floss write a lot about poop, but not as often about how our bodies produce the stuff in the first place. Humans eat between two and six pounds of food per day—and as TED-Ed’s latest video explains, this grub passes through an elaborate network of channels, organs, tissues, and nerves that’s commonly known as the human digestive system.

The digestive system is the unsung hero of our torso. Its 10 organs—which include the esophagus, liver, intestines, and stomach—contain over 20 specialized cell types, and the gastrointestinal track alone has an internal surface area of between 320 and 430 square feet. But the digestive process doesn’t begin and end with the esophagus—it starts in our mouths.

The body produces just over six cups of saliva per day, a process that begins when we start salivating over a tasty morsel. This clear substance contains starch-busting enzymes, which break the food we eat into a moist lump (a bolus) that will eventually become the stuff that comes out our other ends. In all, this journey lasts between 30 and 40 hours—and you can follow it step by step by watching TED-Ed’s video below.

Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700

Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]


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