Skip to main content

Caleb Scharf – Four Way Interview

Caleb Scharf is Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University in New York. He is the winner of the 2011 Chambliss Astronomical Writing Award from the American Astronomical Society, and the Guardian has cited his Life, Unbounded blog at Scientific American as one of the “hottest science blogs,”. His extensive research career has covered cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and exoplanetary science, and he currently leads efforts to understand the nature of exoplanets and the environments suitable for life in the universe. He has also served as consultant for New Scientist, Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others. His book Gravity’s Engines explores the influence of black holes on the universe.
Why science? 
So many evolving reasons. Curiosity, obsessiveness, and a love of stories. The more science I work on the more I see it through the lens of storytelling, and it’s hard to do better than the story of our universe. I can appreciate simplicity and elegance, but as I get older I appreciate more and more the multi-textured, layered, chaotic, and unbelievably interwoven nature of reality. It really is just amazing.
I like the perspective gained from science. It appeals to my core sense of humour that we’re these microscopic specks of cosmic filth assembled into thinking objects, and we’re gawping at the immensity of it all, and actually managing to make a small amount of sense out of it. That’s incredible, and for me is a fundamental part of our humanity.
Why this book? 
Black holes are one of the craziest and most unexpected stories in science. I wanted to cut through the haze of misty eyed rumination about their exotic physics and explain just how real and important they actually are. Every week we’re hearing about new black hole discoveries – and these tell us that super-sized versions inhabit most galaxies and have been co-joined with the nature of galaxies and stars for the past 13 billion years. Because matter falling into holes can generate colossal amounts of energy – easily more than nuclear fusion, it can profoundly influence the cosmic environment. Instead of being off-limits and hidden away, these gateways to quantum gravity help make the universe what it is today.
What’s next?
I’m working on a book called The Copernicus Complex, that comes out in 2014. I’m really excited about this. It’s all about the quest for our cosmic significance, or perhaps insignificance! Like most of my writing it drills down deep into the science, but is also about telling a great tale. I also think that there are a number of original and intriguing ideas in the book, stemming from the latest research in microbiology, exoplanets, cosmology, and even statistical inference. Hopefully it will get people talking!
What’s exciting you at the moment?
I’m always going to say the abundance of exoplanets and the search for life in the universe, but I’m also agog at what’s happening with lab-bench science right now. Incredible things are taking place in optics, quantum physics, and microbiology. I feel that we may be on the verge of a genuine shift in our understanding of the fundamentals of the microscopic world, and I can’t help but wonder how that will lead to new ways to probe the cosmos.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under

Regeneration - Paul Hawken **

This is a really big book. I don't mean big in the sense of important, but physically enormous for what it is - it's roughly the size of a children's annual, though a lot thicker. Interestingly, the format appears to be a Paul Hawken speciality - he did it with his previous title, Drawdown ,  though that was far less glossy. Paul Hawken's aim is to put forward a solution to climate change driven from humans rather than from the science. The tag line on the back of the book reads 'The climate crisis is not at science problem. It is a human problem.' And that itself is a problem. It's not that climate change isn't a human problem, but rather that it's both a human problem and a science problem - requiring human and science-based solutions. But the approach taken in this book is anything but scientific. It's a bit like saying the Covid-19 pandemic is a human problem, not a science problem. The pandemic is indeed a human problem, but if we'd tr