In Putting Ourselves Back in the Equation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov.), Musser reports on the work of physicists trying to explain human consciousness.
How long before science arrives at a “robust theory of consciousness”?
Here’s the thing about a theory of consciousness: there are different levels of it. There’s the essential principle that will address things like the so-called “hard problem of consciousness,” or the gap between the material world and the mind. It almost feels like we’re there, and that’s what’s so tantalizing and frustrating. But explaining consciousness is also going to require a unique way of thinking. It’s going to require some new conceptual input of the sort that AI might help us with, either directly or as part of the experimentation. By creating the AI, maybe we’ll have to enlarge our thinking in ways that will lead to that understanding of consciousness.
How did you approach crossing disciplines to write this book?
I’m a science journalist, a dabbler. I studied for a PhD in planetary science but the fields of neuroscience and AI were new to me, and so before starting this book I said I needed to get more involved. I’m still getting my head around precisely how neural networks work and I’m confused by brain anatomy and so forth, so I’m still very much a student of that.
How do you go about making abstract philosophical and scientific discussions captivating?
I try to be complete at the level that I’m talking at and not leave loose ends, or appeal to black boxes with answers like “that’s what the math says,” which you see in a lot of popular writing, especially on physics. Those answers are very unsatisfying to a reader. Also, I try to change up the pace by throwing in a joke, introducing a human story, or simply switching topics. I think variety helps.
What was it like interviewing some of the brightest minds in science?
I met such wonderful scientists, scholars, philosophers, and engineers. Sometimes we’d just hang out or go to breakfast. I’m a curious person and probably come across as an overeager student who asks lots of questions. Normally, I try to meet with everyone in person, though the pandemic really altered my reporting strategy. I had whole trips to Australia and Canada that didn’t work out, so I had to conduct those interviews over Zoom.
Are you a sci-fi fan? What are some of your favorites?
Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco, about what it’s like to encounter the truly alien, was one of the reasons I got into science. The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, with its idea that the laws of physics are basically detritus left over after eons of battles in the universe among different civilizations, is another. And Ted Chiang’s short stories. I think if I were teaching introductory quantum mechanics, I would assign a couple. They’re that good.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the author had received his PhD in planetary science.