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Frequently Asked Questions About the Universe By Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson ’97 (Riverhead Books, 2021)
Frequently Asked Questions About the Universe by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson ’97 (Riverhead Books, 2021)

Daniel Whiteson and Jorge Cham love questions just as much as — or maybe more than — answers. In their previous book, “We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe,” Whiteson, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of California, Irvine, and Cham, a cartoonist with a Ph.D. in robotics from Stanford University, tackle some of the universe’s greatest mysteries — which they also explore in their podcast, “Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe.”   

In their new book, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Universe,” they apply their curiosity to the existential musings that keep many of us up at night: Where did the universe come from? Is an afterlife possible? Do we live in a computer simulation? And why haven’t aliens visited us … or have they? We caught up with Whiteson recently and lobbed him a few questions of our own.

You mention that while a great many mysteries remain, things in the understanding-the-universe department seem to be going in the right direction. What do you think have been the greatest revelations in recent years?

One of the most mind-blowing moments in recent years is the discovery, from studying supernovae, that the universe is not just expanding, but that some not-understood mechanism is accelerating that expansion and requires 70% of all of the energy of the universe. I love this because it was so unexpected, and it makes me hope similar revelations are in the future.

Asking questions about the universe is part of what makes us human, and as you point out, there’s power in asking them, even if the mystery can’t be fully unraveled (yet). Can you say more about why questions matter even if they can’t be answered? 

Science questions matter because they have objective answers, even if they are currently out of our reach. Asking those questions and looking for answers is a way of saying that the universe makes sense and that we hope we can make sense of it.

What’s your favorite question and/or answer in the book? What’s the most surprising?

I really enjoyed thinking about whether science can predict the choices you will make and what that means about free will. It’s a question that’s very important philosophically and morally, but the answer sits just past the edge of our knowledge of quantum mechanics and chaos.

Is time travel possible? 

I think if it would ever be possible, it would always be possible.

What about teleportation?

Yes! This is something we can do today for particles and might be able to do
for people in the future, if you’re willing to be scanned, destroyed and recreated.

Readers can catch episodes of the podcast “Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe” on iHeartRadio via their favorite podcast platform.