Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning
Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning
Steinn Sigurðsson: Black Holes, causality and exoplanets

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Steinn Sigurðsson: Black Holes, causality and exoplanets
An astrophysicist explains what he does and what he knows

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On this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib talks to Penn State astrophysicist, Steinn Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson was a one-time colleague at the ScienceBlogs website in the twenty-aughts with Razib, where he ran the astrophysics-themed Dynamic of the Cats blog. At its peak, ScienceBlogs had nearly 100 writers who commented on topics as diverse as agriculture, Creationism and cosmology. Originally from Iceland, Sigurdsson’s professional accomplishments have been wide-ranging, from serving as scientific director of arXiv to directing an institute focused on exobiology. Razib first asks him about the history of arXiv, which goes back over 30 years. It was the preprint server that blazed the bath for bioRxiv in biology, medRxiv in medicine and PsyArXiv in psychology. Razib asked Sigurdsson if preprint servers lead to open science, and if they will do away with peer preview. Do they affect the winner-take-all dynamics that apply to scientific publications? Razib and Sigurdsson also discuss the threat and promise of papers generated with AI methods like “large language models” pioneered by Google and popularized by OpenAI, and that have finally caught up to human-level fluency within the last 9 months with ChatGPT.

Then Razib queries Sigurdsson on numerous astrophysical topics. Is the universe going to expand forever? (Probably, and that expansion is speeding up.) Do we understand most of the matter and energy in the universe? (No.) Sigurdsson also discusses in detail the fact that now in 2023 we have confirmed black holes empirically in a manner that couldn’t have been imagined a generation ago. Additionally, Razib has to confront the possibility that physics might abandon causality, and even open the door to magic, within the twisted maze of their equations in order to make sense of the universe. Finally, they discuss the probability of other life in the universe if our solar system is representative, the probability of intelligent life, how many planets there are in the universe and the possibility of Dyson (or Musk?) spheres in our solar system in the future.

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