Many people feared the LHC would produce a planet-devouring black hole.
Scientists took it very seriously, and they ruled out this possibility not only theoretically, but also by looking at collisions of cosmic rays that create this same type of energy. We live in a world where there are many risks, and it's high time we start taking seriously which ones we should be worried about. Physicists showed this particular one is not a risk.
You offer a forthright discussion about religion and its compatibility with science. Why did you decide to broach that subject?
I almost had to in a book titled Knocking on Heaven's Door. But there is real confusion about what it means to be right and wrong—the difference between what spiritual beliefs are and what science is. I felt that if I was going to explain science, it was important to explain those distinctions. I wanted to take seriously the different views of the universe that people have, but to say there really are differences.
You wrote: "The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible."
When I say they are incompatible, I mean something very specific: A spiritual belief based on something that isn't based on actual material or cause and effect—the ways we understand scientifically—is just different than science. It's a very specific statement.
When you speak to public audiences, which popular misconception about physics strikes you the most?
You're trying to get me in trouble! It's probably the over-application of quantum mechanics. People think it explains things that it can't. There are a lot of mysteries about quantum mechanics, but they mostly arise in very detailed measurements in controlled settings.
You describe the LHC's giant detectors as works of art. Is probing the nature of the universe just as much an aesthetic endeavor as a scientific one?
Art and science do appeal to some of the same creative instincts. There's an appreciation of something larger than ourselves, which I think both art and science address. However, you can have a beautiful idea in science, and it can be just wrong—not because it's mathematically inconsistent, but because it's not realized in the world.
You wrote the text for an opera, "Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes," which premiered in 2009 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. How did that arise?
The composer [Hector Parra] wrote to me to ask if I wanted to get involved. It was an interesting opportunity to explore an art-science intersection in a new way. Art often reflects on the ideas of the times. So I really liked working with artists who appreciate that and who incorporate science into a new thing—but not just in a way that copies it. There were major creative challenges, such as how you represent higher dimensions on a stage.
The opera had a two-person cast, a minimalist stage design with abstract projections, and a score that was digitally altered in places. Sitting in the audience must have been quite an experience for you.
I work on pencil and paper or on a computer, so actually having fantastic singers singing my words, accompanied by musicians and a gorgeous set, was just something to see. The parts that went back and forth between the extra-dimensional world and our world were really great. Hector thought [my research] would give him insights into ways to make different types of music, and indeed it did. I think I was asked to put in more physics than I would have ideally, and ultimately the music was very abstract. However, it was great music, and there were moments that were truly beautiful.
You make playful musical references in your book's title and text, from the Police and Suzanne Vega to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Are you a big popular music fan?
I have this uncanny ability where words stick in my head, so I hear a song and a lot of times it just happens automatically that I use the lyrics later. It may not be the original intention of the words, but they sometimes fit nicely what I'm trying to say.
What's next for you in science?
I've been exploring ideas that relate dark matter to ordinary matter. There is this amazing fact that the energy carried by dark matter in the universe is about six times the energy carried by ordinary matter. The question is, why is that? [The ratio] could have been completely different. So I'm looking at ways the two types of matter might be related, which would explain the coincidence.