Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself - In Discussion With Sean Carroll

“Everybody dies. Life is not a substance, like water or rock; it’s a process, like fire or a wave crashing on the shore. It’s a process that begins, lasts for a while, and ultimately ends.  Long or short, our moments are brief against the expanse of eternity.” 

This, as Sean Carroll will tell us, is a key part of “The Big Picture.”  The fact that everyone dies may seem obvious to even the most casual student of the school of life; however, there is much more to this story.   How did it all start?   How can consciousness be explained? How do we as humans construct meaning in the cosmos?  What is the nature of the wider universe?

On Saturday, April 29, 2017 a full house at Christ Church Cathedral gathered to listen to  theoretical physicist Sean Carroll talk about the story of the universe and suggest scientific frameworks for contemplating the meaning of life.  He began his talk with the tongue in cheek admission that despite the title of his book he was not quite able to tell us the meaning of life and how the universe began.

Having set a light hearted and accessible tone for his talk, Carroll went on to provide the audience with an intellectual tour of some of the theories of physics which can be used to attempt to explain the key forces at play in the universe and why we experience the arrow of time as moving forward.  He touched on the big bang theory, quantum field theory and the differences between entropy and complexity.

One of the threads woven through Carroll’s lecture was the recognition that scientific knowledge is never perfect.  He argued that despite this limitation science offers unparalleled tools for observing evidence and considering the big picture.  By taking the audience down a scientific path we journeyed to a place of awe at the vastness and complexity of the universe.  Life is not a miracle, Carroll says, but it is elegant and complex.  Near the end of his talk he shared an image from the  Hubble Telescope which allows us to peer deep into space.  The image drove home the fact that humans are indeed minute in the vast cosmos.  

Our lives are short. As Carroll eloquently states in his book “a person is a diminutive, ephemeral thing” — and yet, humans used their imaginations to conceive of the Hubble Telescope.  In human terms we can imagine, we can care, we can have something to show for our lives as entropy increases around us and our moment in time passes.  Ultimately, Carroll invites us to a conversation and provides his audience with a deeper understanding of physics and the good news that in the big picture the finitude of life lends poignancy to the human condition.