Trottier Symposium to grapple with big questions

Trottier Symposium to grapple with big questions McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 11, 2007 - Volume 39 Number 09
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 39: 2006-2007 > January 11, 2007 > Trottier Symposium to grapple with big questions

Trottier Symposium to grapple with big questions

Have you ever pondered the fact that if the universe were not just so, we wouldn't be here to ponder it?

This seemingly innocuous question actually throws us into the great philosophical morass at the heart of one of the greatest debates in physics, the fight over the anthropic principle. Oxford University Press's Dictionary of Physics defines it as "the principle that the observable universe has to be as it is, rather than any other way, otherwise we would not be able to observe it." This may seem self-evident, but it has important, far-reaching implications.

The anthropic principle will be the theme of the second annual Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium, "A Cosmic Coincidence: Why is the universe just right for life?" to be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Leacock Building, room 132. The event is open to everyone, although seating is limited. With four of the world's most renowned physicists to discuss the principle, its meaning, use, misuse and consequences, the symposium aims to answer some of the big questions about the universe. The panelists are: Leonard Susskind of Stanford University, widely regarded as the father of modern string theory; Nobel laureate David Gross, Director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara; Paul Davies, Director of Beyond: Institute for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University; and George Efstathiou, Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. McGill physics Professor Victoria Kaspi will moderate the discussion.

The anthropic principle is so hotly debated because it forces us to reconsider the long-standing goal of understanding nature's properties on a quantitative basis. Over the last century, the goal of physics has been to determine one unifying theory, the so-called "theory of everything," that could serve as a scientific basis for the universe's fundamental principles. All constants of nature, like gravity, could be shown to be derived from first principles, in other words, that they're the natural outcomes of master equations.

The leading candidate for the theory of everything — called superstring theory — has, rather than settling, mathematically, the cosmological constant, yielded an altogether different view of reality. Instead of making specific predictions about the properties of the universe, it posits, among other things, that our universe is but a tiny part of a much grander reality. That means that our fundamental laws would not be those of a neighboring universe, rendering moot the quest for constants.

As Susskind recently explained in the magazine Science, "If the universe is not everywhere the same, then the properties of nature that physics has tried to specify would differ form place to place."

This barely scratches the surface of the arguments one can expect to hear at the symposium, which was funded by Lorne Trottier. Trottier, a McGill engineering graduate and Montreal entrepreneur, has donated $22 million to McGill in recent years for construction of the Trottier Building and two Canada Research Chairs in Science and Engineering, funded the symposium as the realization of his vision of "a public forum to inform, inspire debate and raise public awareness on contemporary issues confronting society." It will be an opportunity to experience the early makings of what may amount to a scientific revolution, which could drastically affect how we understand physics, philosophy, cosmology, and even theology.

In the run-up to the event, segments of Davies' critically acclaimed science television productions "The Big Questions" and "More Big Questions" will be screened in Redpath Museum's auditorium Museum at 4 p.m. on Jan. 19 as part of the Freaky Fridays series. Davies and Susskind will also be on hand for a book signing at the McGill University Bookstore on Jan. 26, from 5 to 7 p.m.

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